IT TURNED OUT

It is one of those phrases that most of us have heard a thousand times in our lives. Just think of the times someone has been telling you some story of things going on in their life or the lives of their children and when they reached a time to conclude the story they say, “At it turned out that there was some good behind it all.” Or it may have gone the other direction and they declared that “It turned out the one who acted so interested in how I was hurting was a crook trying to take me for a fool.

In Philippians 1:12-18 Paul was talking to the church in Philippi about the things he had faced as a prisoner for the gospel of Christ. He loved the church in Philippi and appreciated all the ways they had helped him in the furtherance of the gospel message. But, now they were deeply worried about him. H was their teacher, leader, friend and brother in Christ. He had not only taught them the good news of Jesus, he had shown them how to live as a Christian even when things aren’t going the way you would like for them to go. Paul knew they were worried about him and probably equally worried about themselves without the teaching and encouragement that Paul had always given them in their life of Jesus. I’ve tried to put myself into his place when he began thinking about these brethren and the close relationship he had with them. Likely the whole thought process started when he received the contribution he described in chapter four from them. Immediately after praying for them that they would abound more and more in love, knowledge and depth of insight, so that they would be able to discern what is best and be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, he said, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel of Christ.”

Try to imagine Paul sitting there between two Roman soldiers that guarded him day and night. He was in his own rented house but it was as a prisoner. He was quarantined to the hilt. He couldn’t make any missionary journey’s. He could go visit friends he loved. He couldn’t even visit the local synagogue to share with them the message of Christ. So, how in the world could it be something that was beneficial for the spread of the gospel. Who could possibly take Paul’s place as the teacher, preacher and apostle for Jesus? Certainly he had trained some very good men, like Timothy and Titus who would do the best they could. But they could hardly fill the shoes of this man who had carried the gospel to more places and more people than anyone else alive at the time. Now he is imprisoned. I wonder how long after he was first placed in jail in Jerusalem and then Caesarea and now in Rome, before he came to the realization that this would somehow work out for the spread of the gospel in a more powerful way? Most likely him time in chains had now reached about four years. It was really just the early days of his jail and prison time. But I doubt that even Paul could have seen good in the whole thing near the beginning of the time. Surely he longed for those days when he had freedom to go from one city to the next preaching Christ and working with people of all kinds of backgrounds to heal their sicknesses and help with their problems, that opened the door for the hearing of the gospel message.

Somewhere along the way he began to see some positive things that were coming from his chains. He noticed that some were gaining greater courage to preach and teach the gospel of Christ to others that never had such courage while he was available. His being in chains opened the door for some who had much less knowledge, less ability and less vision for the future to preach the gospel to the best of their ability. Some of those who were preaching Jesus now were good, godly servants of God who wanted to be a source of help and encouragement to Paul while teaching others the way they knew he wanted to do it. Thank God for these friends of his who wouldn’t allow his work to fold when he couldn’t do it any longer.

But there were others who didn’t have good motives, who didn’t like Paul at all, and who didn’t really agree with some of his teaching that are now going out to tell others about Jesus in an effort to add to his pain and distress. They were hoping that every time he heard of them sharing the good news with another person it would bring him agony. What they never counted on what his longing for the gospel message to get out to be so strong that he was thrilled to hear that even these with wrong motives were still sharing the good news of Jesus and it would lead to many being saved.

I’ve noticed lots of times when someone who had great ability to serve in some great way in the kingdom was no longer available either because of death, ill health or just moving on that God led others to step up and take on the work in very different ways than the one before them. But the message was still getting out and the job was still being done.

What an amazing lesson, that God in his providence can bring about wonderful blessings even from the things that seem so awful and hurtful to us! God help us to have that ability to see that things that seem so painful to us may actually work out for the good of His cause and may lead to people being saved that never would have been otherwise.

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LITTLE BY LITTLE

I don’t know about you, but I tend to want things to fall into place quickly. I like to have the situations where, as one door closes there are at least two others standing open from which I can choose to move ahead. But, life doesn’t always happen like I would like for it to. I was reading today in Exodus 23 when something jumped out for me to notice, that I’ve read many times before, but for some reason it had never meant much to me. God was talking with Moses about the Children of Israel entering the Promised Land, land that now was occupied by the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jubusites. God promised Moses He would send terror ahead of them and throw the nations they confronted into confusion. He promised to send the hornet ahead of you to drive out the people who lived there.

It is then that he made the statement that was moving to me. “But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:29-30). Notice, as God was planning what would happen He made no mention of them going in as a mighty army to destroy the people or there being a great conquest of the land. Instead, His plan was to send the Hornet into the land ahead of the Nation of Israel. This was sometime before the people rebelled against God and refused to enter the land as God commanded. They would, because of the rebellion have to wander in the wilderness for 40 years for a whole generation to die so their children could enter the Promised Land. I don’t know if their sin led God to change his mind about their entrance into Canaan or what happened. But, when Joshua led the Israelites into the land, God doesn’t mention the hornets going before them but has them to march around Jericho for seven days before the walls came crushing down and they conquered the city. From there it became a massive conquest of the land but they were never able to drive the enemies completely out of their new home.

What stands out is God’s plan was one that would take care of the land and would lead to them being over the land and working it for the good of the whole nation. I wonder how much His plan for their entering the Promised Land illustrates the way God works in our lives and in the life of His spiritual kingdom today. Jesus told us to pray for His kingdom to come, his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But his kingdom spread in the world wasn’t intended to be as a conquering army going out to destroy the enemies of His reign. Even when Jesus was giving the apostles instructions on how they were to proceed in spreading his kingdom in Acts 1:8 it was for them to WAIT in Jerusalem until they received power from on high. Then they were to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. It involved beginning where you are and having the circle to spread out just a little more all the time. In Jesus parables about the kingdom he gave two powerful illustrations of the spread of the kingdom. One was that the kingdom was like a grain of mustard seed that was the smallest of the seeds but when planted it grew large enough for the birds to make their nest in the branches. The other was that the kingdom was like a women who put her yeast into the flour until it spread through the whole batch. This first illustrates how the kingdom begins small and grows whether we are talking about in our personal lives, the life of a congregation of the Lord’s people or of the church as a whole. The other describes the nature of the growth of his kingdom. It spreads as influence quietly into the whole batch of flour. It isn’t like an army in conquest. It is more like the hornet driving the devil out, little by little.

In our spiritual life, we don’t go from new birth to maturity in short order. Instead we grow little by little as we take on the image of Jesus more and more in life. We should become stronger, closer to Jesus and more like him with every step. We don’t overcome sins and addictions in life over night. But as we yield to the Holy Spirit’s lead in us, little by little we overcome the pull of sin and Satan and grow to be the spiritually minded person God longs for us to be. Often, as we look at our growth for God, it seems to us that we are growing so slowly, surely something must be wrong. I suspect it would be good for all of us to do like we did with our children as they were growing up. We would put marks on the wall or doorway to show their growth from one year to the next. Imagine, keeping the spiritual marks in our life to demonstrate our growth toward Jesus. What are some things you might use as a measuring mark?

We could look at the fruit of the Spirit and see how we are developing in them. We could check to see how we are doing in overcoming bad habits that tend to pull us away from God. We could ask a spiritual mentor to help us see how we are growing in our faith and service to God. We could ask God to help us see ourselves as he sees us so we can tell how we are developing. However we judge the matter, growth should come little by little as we take on more and more the heart of Jesus.

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WHAT GOD MEANT

I wonder how many times in life when we feel tremendous frustration with what is happening, if we were somehow able to know what God was thinking and what His motives are in what is happening, we would be totally amazed. I was reading this morning in the last section of Genesis. It tells of the horrendous actions of Joseph’s brothers in their anger and frustration toward him, selling him to a band of traders who took him to Egypt and sold him as a slave. For the next fourteen years his life was filled with one tragedy after another. He was lied about, thrown into prison and in prison after doing a favor for a servant of Pharaoh was forgotten for two more years. Of course the time came when he was called to interpret Pharaohs dreams and was made into the Prime Minister of Egypt to prepare them for seven years of famine coming to the land. He was thirty when he became this leader in Egypt. There were seven years of plenty before the famine started. It was two years into the famine when Jacob, his father sent his brothers to Egypt to purchase food for the family. So, by this time, Joseph is 39. Events of all kinds would happen over the next year or so before he revealed himself to his brothers and had his whole family brought to Egypt to settle in the land of Goshen.

There was tremendous celebration when Jacob came to Egypt and God blessed him and his family there. Jacob lived in Egypt for seventeen years before he died and Joseph and his brothers carried him back to Canaan to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah. When the brothers all returned to Egypt, there was great worry on the part of Josephs brothers. They became very much afraid that now that Jacob was dead that Joseph would seek vengeance on them for what they had done forty years earlier in selling him as a slave. They came to bow before Joseph and gave him a made up letter from Jacob pleading for him to forgive his brothers for what they had done. It s a little like the student who writes their teacher a note as though it were from their parent pleading for mercy for their child.

Its at this point that one of the greatest statements of the Bible is found. it shouts a message to us about God and His work in our lives that goes far deeper than most of us would ever imagine. “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-21).

I wonder when Joseph realized that it was all part of God’s plan and that He was directing the events all through the years? Do you suppose he ever thought of such a thing during his days as a servant in Potiphar’s house? Would it have come to mind when everything was going great for his master and Potiphar put him over all his house? What about when his wife began to be drawn to Joseph and made advances toward him that he rejected and finally had to run away from? Would he have thought of such a thing when she lied about it and had him thrown into prison? Do you suppose he would ever have thought that God was working in the whole thing during those years in prison? I doubt the thought crossed his mind during those two years after he interpreted the servants dream and was forgotten. Truthfully, it is hard to imagine such a thought coming to him during the days of plenty when he was laying back goods for the day when the famine would come. Maybe he began to think of it during the days when his brothers came to get food and bowed before him without knowing who it was. But I suspect it didn’t become fully clear to him for some years after that.

It certainly shines out that God may well be working in things that go on in our lives when we have no idea that he is. He may be using things that seem absolutely horrible to us to prepare us for days ahead and opportunities He has before us. From our point of view it seems weird that God’s plan would take so long to be fulfilled and that it would lead through such difficult situations. But, if we are open to it, it is clear that God has always used challenging situations to prepare his people for opportunities ahead. Think of Moses being sent into the wilderness to take care of his father-in-laws sheep for forty years, preparing him to lead the Nation of Israel into the same desert area and stand on the same mountain to receive the Ten Commandment law.

it sincerely makes me wonder, how many of the circumstances that have taken place in my life that I complained about and felt hurt about, were really a part of God’s plan and that He was leading in a direction I couldn’t see.

It is worth remembering all the time that we are not in the place of God and that we seldom know where God may be leading or what tragedies lay ahead that he may be getting us ready to help his people deal with.

God, please help me to have the patience to wait and the wisdom to see your loving and guiding hand and to be ready to go where you want me to go and do whatever you call me to do. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.

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MAJOR LIFE CHANGES ARE CHALLENGING

Change is definitely a big part of life. As often as it happens it would seem that we would get used to it. But not all changes are equal. I’ve been preaching the gospel in a local church setting for 56 years now. For the last 27 of those years it has been with the church at Central in Little Rock. In all I’ve preached in the Little Rock area for 43 years. For a while now it seemed that every week I would have someone that I ran into that I hadn’t seen in a while that would ask, “Are you retired yet?” I must admit that the very question seemed offensive to me. I wondered why in the world anyone would think I would retire from a job I dearly loved and felt called by God to carry out. Even though my plans still aren’t anywhere close to retirement, the time is drawing very close when my work as the preacher at Central will end. At the end of March, if all goes as planned, I will preach my last sermon at Central as their preacher. The plan is for me to continue as part of the staff at Central doing many of the same things I’ve done through the years but not the preaching. When I was first informed that this was to be the plan of action, I began praying and asking God to show me the way forward. I’ve asked many times for an open door that would show me the way God would have me to go in the days ahead.

God has helped me in a lot of ways during this whole thing by sending good friends who have offered some excellent advise. Most of them said something to the effect that I needed to relax and wait to see what God would open for us as the preaching work at Central came to an end. A few have reminded me that I do have a few years on me and that I needed to accept things as they are and make the best of it. My longing is that I would be able to use the remaining years of my life on earth to build up the kingdom of God in any way possible.

Through the years, long before Covid and just the changes in the world as a whole, I preached in hundreds of revival type meetings and did workshops on things like “Grief Recovery”, “Leadership training” and “Church growth.” I don’t know if things of that nature might be available again when Covid actually comes to an end. I’ve thought a lot about the possibility of doing Interim Ministry for congregations that are between preachers and helping them to prepare for the days to come. But, with any of those things so much depends on what happens in the world and what is happening in the church.

I’ve never been one to open up much about my feelings or concerns in life. But I felt the need today to share with you where I am at the present. If you would, I would appreciate your prayers during these coming days. If you have thoughts that you think might be helpful please email me at “Leon@arcentralchurch.org.”

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A PERSONAL MISSION STATEMENT

What is your mission for 2021? Were you a fan of the show and the movies, “Mission Impossible?” I always loved that beginning when the star was offered a new mission. “Your mission, should you decide to accept it.” After that came a great plan of action that certainly seemed impossible. I always wondered what happened if he decided not to accept the mission. Would that mean he lost his job, his work, and his place with the government?

The truth is, if we don’t have a clear sense of mission then our likelihood of accomplishing much is extremely small. Even when I have a clear mission statement for my life, it is difficult to fulfill the mission and often feels like it is impossible. It is unquestionable that Jesus accomplished more in a short period of time than anyone who has ever lived on this earth. His ministry only lasted a little over three years, it didn’t involve writing any books, having a massive organization, or any political power. Yet no one ever lived who drew more attention and changed more lives for good than Jesus. One of many things that stand out in Jesus’ life and work was his clear sense of mission that seemed to always be in front of his eyes.

In Luke 19 Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and passed through Jericho. The crowds were gathered around him, but his attention turned to a small man, who was known in the area as a crook and who had made himself very wealthy as a tax collector, thus seen as a traitor to his nation. Zacchaeus was that tax collector. He had run ahead and climbed a tree to get a good view of Jesus. When Jesus reached the tree he challenged him to come down from the tree since he was going to his house for lunch today. Zacchaeus was thrilled but the crowd was horrified. Why in the world would Jesus choose to go to his house to eat when everyone knew the kind of man he was. But something amazing happened. Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Listen closely to Jesus’ response: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” If you had asked Jesus for his mission statement, this would have been it. It drove everything that he did. He was far more interested in reaching one lost person to bring them to a new life in him than in keeping those who already believed in him happy with his choices.

Back in Luke 15 Jesus explained to the religious leaders who were criticizing him for being friends with tax collectors and sinners that there was more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 just persons who need no repentance. His mission and the mission of God in heaven was so totally different from that of the religious leaders who criticized his work and friendships that they couldn’t comprehend what he was trying to do. Their whole picture of the Messiah was a distortion of what God had promised. They expected a Messiah who would lead a conquering army to destroy the Roman Empire. The thought of a savior who was from a very humble background, who drew to him people who weren’t well known or hadn’t had the religious training that was available, just didn’t add up to them.

But what about your personal mission statement? What is your dream for 2021 for you and your spiritual life? How does your personal sense of mission change your actions each day? What if every follower of Christ really took on the same mission of Jesus of seeking to save the lost? Imagine in your own life what it would mean if you really saw your personal mission as being one who shared your faith in Jesus with the people you are around. Imagine making friends with people that often feel rejected in the world to help them find faith and come to the Lord for salvation? What difference would it make if you made it your mission to lead your children and your family to not only come to faith in Christ themselves but to be ones who worked every day to lead those they knew to faith as well?

If you look at what that mission did in Jesus life, it led him to go about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil. It led him to friendships with all kinds of people, both the oppressed, the rejected, the foreigners, the poor, the hurting and those who had been totally obsessed with sin and Satan. It didn’t turn him into some fanatic that stood on the street corner yelling at people. It led him to have compassion on those who were hurting. It led him to give of his time, his energy and his abilities to help.

If we could all make that decision that this year my mission is to be a true disciple of Jesus and to help someone else become a disciple as well, it would change everything about our faith and service to God. Suddenly, instead of looking at church through selfish eyes of “what am I getting out of it?” I begin to think of myself as the ambassador for Jesus whose whole life centers on sharing my faith with someone else.

Think today of who you know that is living away from God and who needs Christ in their life. Begin now to think of ways you can be there for that person to help them find the greatest purpose, joy and fulfillment of their life. In doing so, you will find the greatest fulfillment in your own life as well. BE THE LIGHT TODAY.

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A NEW BEGINNING

The New Year is upon us. 2021 will be full of new opportunities to grow, to serve and to be a blessing to others. But, of course, it will also be full of new challenges that go right along with all the old ones we’ve been dealing with lately. There are tons of things that will not change as the new year begins. But I thank God for every event that takes place in life that reminds us of the ability we have to start over again. If you think about it, one of the greatest themes of Christianity is that one can have a fresh start, a clean slate and a new beginning. The very fact that our start as Christians is called a new birth should shout that message to us. Besides that Paul described our conversion as all things being made new in 2 Corinthians 5:17. The command in the Bible that has been called the hardest command ever given is also one that shouts you can start all over. That command is to repent of the sins in our lives. It is one of the most common commands ever given. Jesus even said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

What is really involved in repenting of our sins anyway and why would anyone regard it as the hardest of all commands? The word literally means to change one’s mind. It typically carries with it the notion that one is changing their mind from a wrong way of doing things to a right way. It isn’t ever a flippant kind of thing in the Bible. It carries with it the idea that one is turning around and heading in a new direction. When Paul was preaching to the people in Athens in Acts 17 he told how people generally had gone in the way of idolatry and declared that the times of such ignorance God had once overlooked, “But now he commands all people, everywhere to repent because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Repentance always involves our taking responsibility for our own actions or inactions. Instead of following that normal course of looking at every mistake we have made and seeing who we can blame for it, repentance demands that I own my own failures and accept all the blame for them. Sin of every kind involves submitting our lives to Satan and his control. When I repent of my sins, I’m taking the responsibility and determining that I will change my loyalty from Sin and Satan, to God and following His will. Repentance should be a normal, regular part of our lives.

Think for a few minutes about habits, attitudes or actions that have become a part of your life in this last year that aren’t good for you, for your family and certainly not for your relationship with God. What a tremendous time to make a list of all such wrongs and then burn the list. Repent before God of each wrong, confessing it to the Father and asking for both forgiveness and assistance from God in helping you live a whole different life in this coming year.

After doing that, take some time to make a list of a few very important things you will do differently during 2021. Consider things like daily Bible Study, reading through the Bible this year, being in a Bible study group, pray regularly, and making a prayer calendar in which you ask a different person to be a prayer partner for every day on the calendar. Then either you call them or they call you on that day and pray with each other. Make worship a regular part of your life this new year. Gathering with God’s people to worship, praise God, and build each other up are extremely important parts of Christian living. We need each other to help us live as we should before God. Think of some ways you can serve others this year that hasn’t been true of you in the past year. It could be simple things like calling, visiting, writing cards, or emails. It could be to make a sincere commitment to witness for Jesus to someone every week this year. It isn’t hard to be a witness for Jesus. It simply involves speaking up for Him in daily life. Offer to pray for people in their struggles. Tell them what God is doing in your life. Invite people to worship with you. Or share some verse of the Bible that has touched your life.

If I could offer one powerful suggestion that has been a tremendous blessing in our life it is to have a family devotional time every day or if you can’t every day, try three days a week. But have a time that fits your family when you read from the Bible together, talk about what you see in the reading that affects your life for God and perhaps read from a devotional book or one online that you have found. Sing together in praise to God and pray together as a family. If every Christian family practiced this one thing it would make a huge difference in the future of the church of the Lord. It will ground our children in the faith and prepare them to be witnesses for Him in school or in their activities daily.

In a time when so many grow up to give up on their faith and go in a totally different direction, it is extremely important for every Christian and especially Christian families to bring up their children in the training and discipline of the Lord. When our children see and hear us study, pray, sing and worship God it helps them to build their personal faith and relationship with God. Let’s truly make 2021 one of the greatest years for God’s people ever.

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WISE MEN SEEK JESUS

It seems appropriate to think about the wise men who saw the star in the east and followed, to get to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem as described in Matthew 2 since tonight the human explanation for what they saw is to be replayed for the first time in 800 years. The planets of Mars and Jupiter are to line up in such a way tonight to create an amazing sight in the sky. it really doesn’t seem reasonable that this is what the wise men saw since the whole reading seems to indicate this sign in the sky was something that had lasted for an extended time and reappeared for them after they visited Herod with questions about the birth of the Messiah. But it is inherent in mankind to try to find a human explanation for every miraculous sign given in the Bible. I find it amazing that God had Matthew the Jewish writer to tell of the wise men from the east seeking out Jesus while Luke the Greek would be the one chosen to tell the story of the angels appearing to Jewish shepherds in the field to announce the birth of Jesus.

Both these stories shout the message from the very beginning of Jesus’ life on the earth that he was to be a Savior for all people. The shepherds in the field were considered lower class people among the Jews. If they had been picking how the storyline went they would certainly have chosen Pharisees or members of the Sanhedrin or maybe even one of the priests to be the ones God brought to see the baby Jesus. Obviously, the timing of the two stories is very different. The shepherds came while Jesus is still in the manger in the stable with his mother and Joseph. When the wise men came to visit they were in a home. The fact that Herod demanded all the baby boys 2 years old and younger to be put to death when he sought to destroy him may well indicate that Jesus was between one and two years old by the time they made their visit.

These wise men were students of the stars. They sought God through the signs of life that they observed in the sky. When they went to Herod seeking for the one born king of the Jews they said, “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Herod had to seek help from the chief priests and teachers of the law to find out where the Messiah was to be born. They told of the prophecy from Micah 5:1-4 that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem. When the wise men left Herod who had asked them to come back and tell him what they found, they headed toward Bethlehem. “The star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:9-12).

What are the lessons that are important for us to learn from this familiar story? Why did God have Matthew to put this into his gospel account? First, it does shout the message that wise people pay attention to what is going on around them and certainly seeks the Savior of the world. Of all the things in life that people are searching for in our time, it is remarkable that so many fail to search for the one person who they most need to know If we can gain all the things of life and have the biggest house, the finest cars and have the largest salary, but still not know Jesus, our whole life will have been a horrible waste with a horrendous conclusion.

Second, wise people are willing to put themselves out to find Jesus and to worship Him. I don’t know how far they traveled following the star. But it took some effort to make the trip, to come to Jerusalem and seek out, Herod. It took time and effort to get to the child. But they gave the effort and found the baby that was born to be king.

Third, wise people are givers and not just receivers. They were looking for the one born to be king of Jews. But they brought gifts to give to the baby. They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts showed sacrifice, and effort to give and to worship the Lord of the Universe. How odd to bow before a baby and think of them as Savior, Lord, and King.

We can’t travel today following a star to see the baby, Jesus. But we seek him as our Lord and Savior, our king. We can bring gifts to him of ourselves and of what we have as an offering to Him. We can bow before Him at any time to offer ourselves as His fully committed servants. We can share with others what we have seen and learned about our Lord and Savior every day. We can remember Jesus lives and reigns today and loves us more than we can imagine.

May God bless you and your family this Christmas season.

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CONQUERING OUR FEARS

One of the most often commands from Jesus to his disciples was, “Don’t be afraid.” He challenged them after his resurrection to “Fear not little flock for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Several of the times he challenged them about not being afraid he also tied it to a lack of faith. It seemed clear to Jesus that strong faith and fear didn’t go together. He also illustrated for us the problem that fear brings into life when he told the story of the master going on a journey and calling his servants to give them talents of gold for them to use while he was away. When he returned from the journey after a long time, he called the three servants to give an accounting of their work while he was away. The one who had been given five talents of gold came with the good news that he had traded and gained five more talents of gold. The one who had been given two talents of gold came and reported that he had gained two talents more of gold. To both of these the master said, “Well-done! you are a good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge of many. Enter into the joys of your Lord.” But the man who had been given one talent of gold, which was still a huge amount of money, came with his one talent. He laid it before the master and declared, “Here is the talent of gold that you gave me. I knew you that you are a hard man. You reap where you haven’t sown any seed and you gather where you have planted anything. So, I was afraid and took the money you gave me and hid it in the earth. Now here is what you gave me.” I’m not sure what the man expected when he returned. But the master’s response was likely much stronger than he expected. “You wicked and lazy servant. Since you knew me, you should have taken the money and put it into a bank at then I would have at least received my own money with interest on my return. Take the talent of gold from him and give it to the one who has the ten and cast him into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Fear often has horrible consequences for us. It leads to worry and stress over things that should have been laid at the feet of the Lord for him to take care of. It often closes our mouth to sharing the message of the gospel that is so desperately needed in the world. Fear causes us to fail to speak up for what is right and to simply allow those who are working for the devil to have their way and even do harm to others without our interfering at all. Perhaps that is the reason that in Revelation 21:8 in picturing the final judgment he said, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, and the idolaters and all liars – they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

The thing that should mark us as God’s children in the world is the very opposite of living in fear. It is BOLDNESS. In Acts 4:28-30 the church gathered in Jerusalem after Peter and John had been arrested and brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin to testify about their healing of a man who had been cripple all his life by the name of Jesus Christ. When they were commanded not to preach or teach anymore in his name they stood strong and said,”We must obey God rather than men.” When they were released and went back to tell the church about what had happened, the church prayed to God about the whole affair. “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your hold servant Jesus.” Persecution was just getting under way against the followers of Jesus. Notice they didn’t plead for protection or safety but for boldness to speak his word clearly.

Later, when Paul asked the church in Ephesus to pray for him in chapter six and verses 18-20 he marched down very similar ground. “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”

It concerns me that it is rare today to hear anyone in public prayer pray about the preacher or the preaching of the word to others and even more rare to hear anyone pray for boldness on the part of those who do preach God’s word. We pray lots for the sick, the hurting and the people facing hard times. But boldness has dropped from our list. Safety has become the big thing. Even the plea for greater faith and trust in God in the times of stress has largely dropped out of sight.

What would it change in church, in daily life and in our world today, if faith, boldness and trust became big items at the top of our prayer lists? Would it change the hearts of those who preach and spend more time being concerned that they don’t hurt anyone’s feelings than whether or not the gospel is preached in its fullness? Would it change the teacher or the worker on the job who struggles with fear to ever speak up for God and to openly speak of one’s faith and commitment to Christ? Fear is killing our growth, our witness for Christ and our commitment to stand for what is right no matter who stands on the other side. “God please give us greater boldness as your people today and every day to follow.”

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FROM THE HEART

Do you ever get frustrated when you are trying to get through some point to a person, whether younger or older, who doesn’t understand an important point that you are trying to get them to understand? I often see it in the eyes of young people, or grandchildren when they are trying to explain something online or on the computer to a person who really has no grasp of the computer or how to use it. I get the feeling when reading through Romans 6 that Paul had some of those same feelings of frustration with the Christians in the first century. There were so many fundamental truths of Scripture that he had preached to them and tried to help them understand that, for some reason, just were not being grasped by many of those who heard or read his messages. Look at verses 15-18 and see if you don’t feel some of that frustration. “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and become slaves to righteousness.”

In my mind I see Paul as he sits down writing these words thinking to himself, “Why in the world is this so hard for them to get?” Yet, the whole point he makes is one that challenges us in our own time. It is pretty easy to hear a Christian excusing their wrong actions by saying, “We are under grace now, so it will be alright.” Any concept that leads to the thinking that grace simply covers over my sin and I can be right with God while living in ways that totally reject God’s authority, is deeply flawed. Paul’s words were, “By no means!” I imagine his face getting somewhat red as he declared, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves as obedient slaves to someone you are the slaves on the one you obey – whether sin that leads to death or obedience that leads to righteousness.” Rather than grace excusing my sin, it should motivate me to be more faithful and true to God. It should lead to a deeper commitment to be obedient to him. Our obedience to God leads to righteousness in our lives.

I suspect that some who read this passage in the first century and every century since have seen the concept of being slaves and that leads to obedience to God, as an invalid picture. Since we have freedom in Christ, how can we be slaves? But God does call us to such a deep commitment to him that we are ready to follow his lead and obey his commands in every part of our lives. But Paul’s continuing words on this point clarify something that can easily be missed. He thanks God that while they used to be slaves of sin that they have now become slaves of righteousness. But how does one make such a huge transition in life? It happens when we “Obey from the heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.”

Obedience to God isn’t that kind of resentful, begrudging kind of obedience that submits in actions but in their heart they continue to fuss about it for a long time. Do you remember times when your parents demanded some action on your part and you obeyed but was angry about it for a long time? God calls us to obey from the heart. With Christmas season approaching, think of how it feels when you receive a gift from your marriage partner, that leaves the impression they bought it but hated every minute of it? The gift doesn’t mean much if it feels like the giver gave resentfully and hated doing so. It means a ton more, when the partner lovingly, gives with all their heart. Our obedience to God is to be such that it is obvious to the Lord that our whole heart is in the gift. It is that attitude that I will do exactly what God tells me to do, wishing I could do more or better.

Notice also it is obeying the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. I wonder if he was thinking of when a person out of faith and repentance, commits their life to God by being baptized into him. Being buried in the water and raised to a new life in him carries with it tons of symbolism. It is truly a pattern of the teaching that puts to death the old way of life and buries that person to raise up a new man to live a brand new kind of life in him. Earlier in verses 3-4 he made the point that when we are buried with Christ in baptism and are raised with him to live a whole new kind of life in him. It is an entering into the death and burial of Jesus along with him. It shouts the need for revival, New life and a new start in Christ.

When we go through this obedience to God it involves dedicating ourselves to the Lord. He has our allegiance. We are set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

Far too often baptism is seen as just a step to be taken to get into the church or to demonstrate our faith. But it goes deeper than that. It is a heart moving the action to devote ourselves totally to Christ as his slaves. Righteousness becomes our goal all the time. Instead of looking for a way out or a way around some of the teaching God has given us, we are committed to following his will all the time in every situation. It isn’t reluctant slavery but one we volunteer for and we are committed to with all our being.

Many years ago a young man won the gold metal in pole-vaulting. After receiving the award he was asked how he jumped so high for the trophy. He answered, “I just throw my heart over the pole and the rest of me follows.” That is a great illustration of the commitment we make to Jesus our Lord.

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BEING EATEN ALIVE

One of the most vivid pictures I can imagine is of a person or pet being eaten alive by some wild animal. Just the imagination of the pain, suffering and terror of such a thing happening is mind boggling. But the real danger in life isn’t so much of being eaten alive physically as it is of being eaten alive mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It is easy to be eaten alive with fear, doubt, discouragement and depression. I’ve known plenty of people who were eaten alive with jealousy and others with such a sense of awe or devotion to some person or cause that they can’t see any negative in anything they have to do with.

I want to be eaten alive but with the right things. Remember a story that is told in the Gospel of John and near the end of the second chapter. Jesus was just beginning his ministry and he, his mother and the four disciples he had chosen so far all went to a wedding banquet in Cana in Galilee. Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine. Then he and the disciples went up to Jerusalem for the Passover. While there they went into the temple and Jesus saw how they had turned the temple of God, the place of worship, into a market place. He was enraged by what he saw and made a whip and began driving out the animals, turning over the tables and scattering the money that was being given by the money changers. He shouted, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” Mark’s account of this event adds the statement you have turned what was intended to be a house of prayer for all nations into a market. Perhaps the point was made because they were taking the area designated for the women and Gentiles and used it as the place to sell the animals for sacrifices and to exchange their money for the coinage accepted in the Temple. It made it near impossible for the people of all the nations to come to pray in such an environment.

There are two huge things that rise out of what happened that day. One is the disciples response. They watched Jesus in action and remembered Psalms 69:9 that says, “Zeal for God’s house has eaten me up.” Jesus response was to say to the people, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They of course thought he was talking about the physical temple they were in and so answered, “It has taken us 46 years to build this temple and you can tear it down and rebuild it in three days?” But he was really talking about the temple of his body and foretelling the fact that they would destroy his body on the cross and three days later he would be raised from the dead.

Focus with me on the statement made by the disciples. They recognized he was literally having the heart described in the Psalm, so that zeal for God’s house consumed him. He couldn’t stand the thought that these people would so desecrate the temple of God that they would take what was meant as a place for people of all nations to gather and pray and turn it into a place where it’s whole purpose was to make worship for the Jews easier. They didn’t have to go anywhere to get the animals or bring them from home. They could even exchange their money for the accepted coinage there. instead of thinking about how they might have a positive effect on the nations around them if they came together to pray in this place, it was totally about making it all convenient and easy for the Jews who gathered to worship God.

What they were doing set Jesus on fire. He gave no thought to what was proper or how others would perceive him. He just knew he had to act. Can you imagine how people would react where you go to church if we had such a moment in our churches? Imagine Jesus visiting our church and seeing the people gathering around the coffee station and visiting lots with each other while ignoring those whom they don’t know who are there because they feel the need to learn about God and how He might help them in life. Imagine Jesus grabbing the Starbucks pot and throwing it to the floor and shouting at the people this is supposed to be a place of prayer and worship for all people and you’ve turned it into a fellowship hall for fellow Christians. How would the people react? How would you react?

But the bigger question is, what is it in life that consumes you? What is so important to you that zeal for it eats you up? It is easy in life to become so neutralized to everything in the world that nothing really moves us very much. We may have watched so many commercials where people are eaten up with their political ideas and dreams that we think, “I’ll never get that hot and bothered about anything.” We become so cool and calm that we can’t really remember the last time when we really got upset about something. There ought to be things, situations, and challenges in life that so move and upset us that we must act. For Jesus, it was his devotion to God and to His house. Surely, we ought to have a passion for his church and his worship and work in this world to the degree that we must act at times when we see that mission being lost. We do tons of thinking these days about the church being what people want, what certain age groups want, or what would draw this group. But what should consume us is when we stop being concerned so much about what God wants and are too concerned with what some people want.

I suspect that some will read that whole thought and respond, “But Leon, how can we know what God wants the church to be?” Well, the Frist answer to that is pretty simple. We need to actually read the Bible and believe that what God tells us, He really means for us to follow. God hasn’t changed his mind since Covid arrived. Honest, open and humble study of the Bible will change the whole world. Second, we should pray for the wisdom that God gives us so we can see what He wants us to see. Third, pray for God’s guidance to show us His will.

In this process it is extremely important to remember that the Scriptures are inspired by God or God breathed and they are profitable for teaching, correcting, instructing and rebuking so that God’s person is totally furnished for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). It is based on that reality that Paul commanded Timothy to “Preach the word” whether people like it or not. God help us to be totally consumed with his house, his word and his will in everything.

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