Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Don't Put Jesus Away

          Our house is very quiet now after the busyness that comes with 15 precious family members coming to celebrate Christmas with us.  How quickly the time flies by!  It seems like only yesterday that I unpacked all the decorations and my manger set.  Now it is time to start putting it away again.  However, I never want it to be just a routine I have to go through each year.  Have you ever wondered how many people look at it that way?  They get out their decorations without ever stopping to consider why they are celebrating or whom they are celebrating.  It is just something they do out of habit, and they may even look at church attendance in that light.  Certainly, most churches are filled to the brim on Christmas Eve and on Easter, but then, those same places of worship see fewer of those folks in the ensuing weeks.  Why is that?  Is it because they take Jesus out of His box once in a while and then put Him back in it like putting away the manger set?  Some people believe they only have to attend church once in a while, and somehow that inoculates them against sin and pleases God for a while before they have to do it again.  This is not a new approach.  Relying on church attendance and rule keeping to please God was a fre
quent tactic of the Pharisees.
     In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees concerning his disciples who had not properly washed their hands before eating.  Jesus is quick to reply in Mark 7: 6-7:  "And He said to them, 'Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"  What Jesus pointed out here is that the Pharisees were very good at keeping rules...especially their own rules designed to keep them from breaking the Ten Commandments.  However, they went through the motions.  Their hearts were not in what they did; rather they wanted to impress others with their religious activities.
     Matthew's Gospel account further explains the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in chapter 23.  Jesus called them out for not practicing what they preach (vs. 3-4).  They would lay upon others the heavy burdens of the Law, but they, themselves, found ways around them.  Jesus rightly said in verse 5a:  "They do all their deeds to be seen by others..."  This was their primary motivation.  Throughout this chapter, Jesus pointed to the hollowness of their faith, and this is precisely why the Pharisees wanted to destroy Him.  He saw through their empty actions done more for show than for God's glory.
     As followers of Jesus Christ, this should cause us to do some serious evaluation of our own walk with the Lord before the dawn of the New Year.  We need to ask ourselves if we are just going through the motions to look good to others or are we sincere in our efforts to live for the Lord?  Are we spending quality time in prayer asking for God's wisdom, guidance and forgiveness for our sins?  Do we have a plan for reading the Bible, and are we faithful in following it?  This is not meant to be a checklist for us to merely mark off each day.  Instead, it is meant to be a guideline for evaluation.
     Going through the motions is exactly what the Pharisees were good at doing.  Yet Jesus said that their hearts were far from Him.   They are like the people that unpack the decorations, go to church out of  habit or tradition, and then, when Christmas is over, they wrap up their manger set and put Jesus away again.  Christians are meant to walk with the Lord each day living for Him and bringing glory to His name.  We will be known by our fruits not by empty deeds.
     As we pack up our Christmas decorations, lets not pack away our faith in Christ, but let us seek to stir it up daily that what Jesus said about the Pharisees may not be true of us:  "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness.  So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness"  (Matthew 23:27-28).  May we live, instead, for His glory each day!  Selah!

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Standard of Truth

     Recently, a discussion took place where the question of a certain "Christian" author came up.  This writer has been a pastor who has since left the church in pursuit of a T.V. career and whose writing is nothing less than controversial in terms of his position on issues that touch Christian doctrine.  Have his critics been too harsh in their examination of his work?  Perhaps.  However, whenever we put ourselves out there in the marketplace of ideas, we are open to scrutiny.  It comes with the territory of leadership, and being a pastor makes
words and actions even more critical.  James (3:1) shares these words of caution:  "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."  So how are we to look at the many books, teachers, pastors and blogs out there today?  
     First, we must have a frame of reference.  We cannot compare what someone has written or spoken unless we have a standard by which to evaluate it.  For the Christian, our foundation is no less than the Word of God in its entirety.  It is the truth written for our instruction.  As 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us:  "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness...."  Because God is the author who is immutable (unchanging), holy, and righteous, we can trust what is written in the pages of the Bible.  The Reformers found this to be the center of their complaint against Rome.  They held that this is the only rule for life and faith not Papal authority or tradition.  Therefore, we need to weigh anything we read, hear or see according to the truths contained in God's Word.
     In His high priestly prayer for the disciples, Jesus said in John 17:17:  "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth."  Jesus came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill it.  With this in mind, we can rest knowing that we have the best resource at our fingertips.  Unfortunately, many believers fail to dig into the Word of God on a regular basis.  This leaves them vulnerable to every "wind of doctrine" that comes along including the ideas of "popular" authors or speakers.  We have been warned repeatedly to be on guard, and we have the example of the Bereans in the book of Acts 17:11 which says:  "Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so."  Even though it was the Apostle Paul, himself, and Silas that came preaching to them, they still took the time and effort to check Scripture to see if what they were saying was correct.  This is an important example of how we need to take our faith seriously so as not to be misled.
     At this time in our history, there are many ideas swirling around in our culture:  homosexual marriage, the emergent church, goddess worship, and other "New Age" concepts.  How will we be able to keep our balance unless we are grounded in the Bible?  We need to know what we believe and why we believe it.  As Acts 20:27 reminds us, we must be able to know and share the "whole counsel of God" as revealed in both the Old and New Testament.
     Our weakness in this time is the tendency to be drawn by celebrity preachers, mega churches, contemporary styles that eclipse the true meaning of worship, and feel good books/messages.  Let us, therefore, be proactive and take the time to examine books, sermons, and activities to make certain they line up with God's Word.  If they do not, we must put them aside in favor of the Bible.  May God help us to be faithful!  Selah!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In the Holiday Rush

     This is a busy time of year for all of us especially if we have family coming to join us for the holidays.  In our haste, we often times can say or do things which might not have a positive impact on another person.  For example, last year at this time, our family read through a list of text messages where autocorrect had totally changed the meaning of a text message sent in a hurry.  Obviously the person sending the message did not check it out before hitting send.  We laughed so hard at some of the examples because it has happened to most of us one time or another.  Then, on the other side of the coin are messages that are derogatory in nature which accidentally get sent to the person who is being criticized.  Not only is it embarrassing, but it is also very hurtful.  Whether done in haste or done out of carelessness, we can certainly find ourselves in a bind.
     In the Book of James, we read these words of wisdom (James 3:9-10):  "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not be so."  This passage refers to the problem we all have with our tongues.  Long before Smart phones, texting and email, people communicated verbally, and not all their words are kind.  That is the problem with having a sin nature.  As James describes the tongue, he calls it a fire in verse six and refers to as a world of evil.  If this were not enough, the Apostle goes on to say that the tongue is set on fire by hell itself.  Those are strong words, but they ring true.  There are very few of us who have not let something fly out of our mouths at least once or twice that we wish we could have recaptured before it hit the ears of the person we were speaking to.  However, once spoken, words can not be taken back.
Our sweet granddaughter Everleigh and
her cute little tongue!
     Jesus also spoke to the issue of our mouth and the words we speak when He said this in Luke 6:45:  "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks."  Quite often, our mouth testifies against us to show us and others what is in our heart.  As believers in Christ, we should feel convicted when we let a careless word fly from our lips.  In fact, Jesus also told us in Matthew 12:36-37:  "36"But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37"For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
     When we stop and think about it, who has not made an unkind remark, a cutting comment, a sarcastic joke or some other verbal bomb that has left devastation in its wake?  This is how relationships and marriages are destroyed by the little things that are said which tear down one another.  However, there is a remedy for this.  Unlike smart phones that have the unpredictable autocorrect, Christians have the Holy Spirit living and dwelling within us.  He is able to guide and guard us in our speech with one another.  Our job is to listen to Him and ask for Him to give us the right words at the right time said in the right manner.  The Spirit can teach us what to say (Luke 12:12), but we must be willing to listen to Him and not respond to others out of anger or emotion.
     In those times when we do mess up and speak hurtful words, our remedy is to confess it to God and seek His forgiveness and then, ask forgiveness from the one we have offended.  For myself, I love the prayer of David in the Psalms when he wrote:  "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer."  If we strive to please and bless the Lord, we will not only guard our lips but we will also seek not to speak in haste.  Yes, autocorrect can be a shortcoming for the smart phone, but we need not walk in a careless manner when it comes to our tongues.  James reminds us again of how we should approach communication (James 1:19):  "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;..."  If we live this way, we have nothing to fear on the day of judgment. Selah!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Picture of Praise in the Womb

    Reading a recent article on Webmd.com, author Denise Mann along with Laura Martin, M.D. pointed out that babies in the womb can hear voices, loud sounds and begin to learn by age 10 weeks.  What an amazing discovery and yet, the Bible tells us a story of the interaction between two as yet unborn children.
     In Luke's Gospel account. he tells the story of Mary's visit  to her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist.  Upon her greeting, the child that Elizabeth carried jumped within her  womb:  "In those days, Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country to a town in Judah and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb...( Elizabeth speaks these words to Mary) 'For behold when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped with joy.'" (Luke 1:38-40;44).  Even in the womb, John the Baptist knew his Savior and Lord.   Yet, our current culture of "death" often refers to babies in the womb as a clump of cells or a fetus in an effort to depersonalize this tiny life which God has created.  By doing this, society devalues human life making it easier to kill a baby in the womb.  Nevertheless, God clearly points out through the pages of His inspired Word that even unborn babies are capable of so much more interaction than some care to admit.
     There are several other places in God's Word where He declares the purpose of those who serve Him before they are born.  The book of Isaiah proclaims in Chapter 49:1: "Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name."  Isaiah spoke this about the long awaited Messiah.   Not to be overlooked, the prophet Jeremiah recorded these words (chapter 1:4-5):  "Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'"  Isn't it amazing how the God of all creation has a plan for each life He calls into being even in the womb?
     When we look at Psalm 139, we again see how God knows us as He knits us together in verses 14-16:  "I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well.  My frame was not hidden from You when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in Your book was written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them."  From beginning to end, our lives matter to God.  Yet the enemy still seeks to destroy life today even as he attempted to take the life of Jesus when He was a small child.  Satan used Herod as an instrument to strike the Messiah by having the king put to the sword all two year old males in Bethlehem.  Today, we use abortion to strike at God's creation before a child is born.
     What we must remember each day is that God has a plan for each one of us just as He did for John the Baptist and His Son Jesus Christ.  Even in the womb, these tiny lives recognized that calling as Elizabeth stated in Luke's Gospel.  We also have a unique purpose which we find when we come to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  By examining the Word, prayer and fellowship, we come to grow in the Lord and find His direction for our lives.  It is a journey we should embrace with joy.
     No life is unimportant from the special needs child to the elderly adult suffering with dementia.  God gives life and when He chooses, He calls a person home.  It is not our prerogative to make this decision.  Therefore, let us rejoice in the life which we have glorifying God daily and enjoying Him forever.  May our view of the sanctity of human life be changed as we remember Elizabeth's baby jumping at the sound of Mary's voice.  John the Baptist knew Jesus Christ even in the womb!  Selah!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

One Thing Hasn't Changed

     A friend and I were discussing how times have changed since we were growing up.  Back in earlier times, life was much simpler.  There was no Internet to distract us nor were there cell phones.  We were lucky if we had the chance to have a few minutes on our standard land line.  In addition, it seemed as if moral foundations were deeper,  More people attended church and had a greater respect for authority than today.  However, this problem of change is not something new.
     There was a time in Israel's history when the people faithfully followed the Lord and obeyed His commands.  They built God a great Temple, but after the death of David, the kingdom was torn in two.  Many of the kings were wicked and led the people to worship idols; so God dealt with their disobedience by allowing the Kingdom of Judah to be taken into captivity.  The Prophet Isaiah
delivered God's words of judgement to the people.  Chapter five covers six woes to an unresponsive "chosen" people of God.  In verse 20, he speaks to what happens to a nation when they leave the foundation of God's truth:  "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."  What a timely message for us as well!
     Many of us have seen the downward spiral of our country.  Its been going on for years, and we have seen people call evil things good and good things evil.  Lack of accountability, the worship of pleasure and the lust for power have become the central focus for many.  Isaiah might well have been preaching to us because nothing has changed.  Why is that?  Let me suggest that it is due to the sin nature found in man.  We are all born into sin and dead in our trespasses.  In fact, the Bible says we are children of the devil.  I John 3:10 says:  "By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother."  
     As we look around us, should we be surprised that people would rather believe a lie than face the truth?  Until the Lord regenerates the heart and calls us to Himself, the cycle continues.  Unfortunately, many in our day and age are quick to blame the environment someone grows up in for their lawless behavior, but the heart of the matter is that there is something wrong with the heart.
     While we desire, as believers, to see morality once again restored, it cannot happen until hearts are changed.  We can pass all the laws we want, we can demonstrate in the street, but only God can set souls free.  The Good News is that the Lord has commissioned us to go out into this world and share our faith so that men and women can be restored through the blood of Jesus Christ.  No longer will they call evil good and good evil.  Their eyes will be opened to the truth, and they will put aside fantasy and embrace the truth found in the Bible.
     Yes, times have radically changed in terms of instant communication and travel, but one thing has never changed - man's need for a Savior.  Without the clear vision that only Christ can give, we all walk in darkness.  We cannot go back to the time which is past but we can boldly step out in faith and share what God has done for us in Christ today.  May we never grow weary in well doing for the glory of God and the sake of His kingdom.  Now is the day of salvation.  Selah!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

When Grief Strikes Suddenly

     Yesterday, I was saddened to learn that another couple we love dearly in our fellowship has joined the club of grandparents who have lost a grandchild.  No one wants to be in that club, but life in this fallen world brings sudden loss into our lives.  Certainly most parents expect to die before their children.  However, it is an even greater shock when grandparents outlive their grandchild.  We know that feeling all too well.
     In the case of our friends, their grandson was only 26.  He went for a bike ride, but his life was cut short as a result of an accident.  It was sudden and shocking.  How do you wrap your thoughts around something like that?  In human ability it is impossible, but with Christ, all things are possible.  He alone is the anchor and foundation of our faith.
Jesus is the light in the midst of
     What we often forget during times of trials and heartache is that the Lord weeps with us.  Perhaps the most comforting verse in all scripture is found in John 11:35:  "Jesus wept".  Our Savior who was fully human and fully divine, "God in the flesh" expressed sorrow at the loss of his friend Lazarus.  He knows how we hurt when tragedy strikes.  Another passage that demonstrates the Lord's understanding of our plight comes from Isaiah 53:3-4:  "3He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted."  Because the Lord fully identifies with us, He, more than anyone else, can understand the sorrows that come from living in this world.  Not only does He understand us, but He also came to carry our grief and sorrow if we allow Him to.  He is the Redeemer that brings joy out of sorrow and beauty out of ashes.
     Next month, it will be a year since we said our good-byes to our beloved Branson who was only six when he entered the presence of the Lord.  I wish I could say I understood the Lord's purpose in taking him when He did but I do not.  I may never comprehend it until I am in the Lord's presence myself.  I just know that I serve a God who is loving, faithful and will never leave nor forsake me or our family.  Without the assurance of salvation and knowing I will see our grandson again, I would be a hopeless person indeed.
     Perhaps nothing comforts the heart more than the hymn, "It is Well With my Soul" written by Horatio Spafford in 1873.  His story behind the hymn is dramatic.  He lost his first son to Scarlet Fever in 1870.  Then, in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed his business holdings.  He planned a trip to Europe for the family but at the last minute, he was delayed by business and sent his four daughters on ahead.  Sadly, as the ship was crossing the ocean, a collision with another ship occurred and the four girls were lost at sea.  When Spafford traveled to comfort his grieving wife,  he penned the words to this popular hymn.  Through his tears and heartaches, He was able to overcome by God's great grace.  Here are the words to this wonderful hymn:                                                              
"When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul."
     My prayer for my dear friends is that they will be able to say along with our family:  "It is Well With my Soul"  May God comfort them and all who are grieving knowing that He will accomplish His purpose in our lives!