ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION OF OURSELVES

I love being around two and three year old children when they are at the stage of asking a thousand questions a day. You can see their little minds at work, trying to take in as much information and understand as many things as is possible for them. Sadly, most of them won’t maintain that hunger for learning for long. As life moves on, we too often settle in with what we know and strive to build our whole world around the few things we can grasp. Far too often, many of the things we are certain about on which we build our lives are actually wrong and leads us to make horrible choices.

Two instances in Scripture come to mind in relation to this point. The first from the Old Testament book of Job. Job was a great, godly man who had prospered well and was admired all over the land. But of far greater significance is the fact God admired Job. When the angels came to visit God and give a report of what they had been doing, Satan came along. God asked him where he had been and he reported that he had been up and down and all around on the earth. Then God asked him if he had considered his servant Job. Satan declared that Job didn’t serve God for nothing. He challenged his integrity by saying that if God would stop protecting him and having a wall around him so that he couldn’t get to him, Job would curse God to his face. God accepted Satan’s wager and allowed him to attack Job, but not his body. In one day Job lost all his cattle, his sheep, his camels but by far the worst thing was that all ten of Job’s children were together in one house when a tornado struck the house and all of them were killed immediately. Job’s reaction was to rip his garments, fall before God in worship saying, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

When the angels came back to give their report to God, Satan was with them again and God asked him again about Job and noted how he had reacted to Satan’s attack with strong faith and had not denied him like Satan declared he would. But Satan wasn’t ready to admit his wrong judgment. He again challenged God declaring that, “Skin for skin. All a person has will he give in exchange for his life. Let me attack his body and he will curse you to your face.” God accepted the wager again. He allowed Satan to attack his body but not take his life. Satan struck him with boils from the top of his head to the sole of his feet. There was not anyway to find comfort. He sat in a pile of ashes, with a broken piece of pottery scraping the sores on his body. His wife seeing his agony asked him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Why don’t you curse God and die?”

Job’s three closest friends heard of his plight and came to visit and comfort him. For the first week they were great. They sat with him, saying nothing but feeling with his agony. But when Job cried out in agony, complaining of how God was mistreating him, his friends felt it was their place to defend God and attack Job. They were certain that God blesses us when we are doing right and he curses us when we are doing wrong. Since Job was suffering horribly, he must have committed some horrendous sin that God was punishing him for. No matter how many times Job defended himself, declaring he wasn’t guilty any sin that brought this on, they couldn’t accept it but just became stronger in their condemnation of him. Strangely, Job believed the same way they did, but he knew he hadn’t done anything to cause such suffering so his whole thinking was off. What is amazing is the friends even come up with sins they felt he must have committed that caused the problem. Later, Elihu will even declare that the ten children were doing something very wrong that led to them all being killed in the tornado. They’re mistaken views of God’s blessings and punishment led to their sinning horribly against their friend, Job.

The other case is in the New Testament in John 9 when Jesus and the disciples met a man who had been born blind and the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answered them that “Neither this man or his parents sinned.” Instead of pointing at him or his parents for blame, he said that they needed to do the works of God and he spit on the ground, made mud and rubbed it on the man’s eyes and told him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam and he would be able to see. Sure enough the man went and washed and came back seeing.

Notice in both situations the friends and the disciples of Jesus wanted to focus on who was to blame. Who is guilty? In both cases they were totally wrong. To begin with Job was also wrong. He kept asking “Why me?” He knew he hadn’t done wrong so why was God bringing these things on him. When God did respond to Job, he never even hinted at the answer to that question. Instead he challenged Job to trust him.

We all both go through things in life and see things in the lives of others that can easily lead us to ask, “Who sinned?” Or, “What did they do wrong that led to this?” but when we ask that question, we are asking the wrong thing. Whether it is for us or our judgment of what is to be done for another, the right question is, “What now?” Assigning blame, finding fault and pointing fingers has been a hobby of people as long as time has gone on. It never bring about good. So, Let’s just STOP IT! No more shouting about whose fault it is, let’s look at the problems and ask “What now?” What can we do to help the hurting one? What can we do when we are the one who is hurting to start in a better direction and actually grow through the hurt and disappointment.

Remember both Job and the blind man came through their ordeal being hugely blessed by God.

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DON’T TELL ANYONE

Can you imagine a church that is doing great things to help people who are hurting or struggling in life telling the ones they help not to tell anyone about what has been done for them? Can you imagine a preacher telling a person he visited or helped not to tell anyone how he helped or encouraged them? We seem to have it drilled into us that if something is happening that is good we need to spread the word about it. If we have a great children’s ministry, then by all means shout the news to the whole world. If our youth ministry is really helping young people grow and develop in faith, surely we should advertise how well it is doing to the world so others can be brought in as well. You can just pick any area of work and our attitude is if it is good we should tell everyone about it.

Strangely, Jesus didn’t do that. Over and over again, as you read through the gospel accounts you see Jesus healing someone of some horrible disease and then telling them to not tell anyone about it. It goes against our thinking so much that some people have actually thought that Jesus was using reverse psychology knowing that if he told them not to tell it they would go out and tell all the more what had happened to them. I think the reason we do that is because it just doesn’t make sense to us that he would tell people not to tell others what has happened to them.

Take one example from Luke 5:12-16. “While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus, reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said, ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’ Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

Leprosy was worse than Covid-19. The law was that a person with leprosy was to stay away from anyone who didn’t have the disease. They had to do much more than wear masks and keep social distancing. Imagine having a disease that drove you from home, family, friends and even from the places of worship. You were required if anyone came close to you to yell, “Unclean, unclean!” Perhaps the reason the man fell with his face to the ground was to keep from being offensive to Jesus or to the people around him. But he couldn’t keep from pleading with Jesus that if was willing he could cure his whole body and drive the leprosy away. I can’t imaging how shocked he must have been when Jesus reached out and touched him. After all, one with leprosy was “untouchable”. Jesus didn’t allow fear of catching an awful disease from caring for the hurting person enough to touch him. I wonder how many people in our own time feel like they are untouchable and would give anything in the world to have someone reach out to touch them. But Jesus did more than touch him. He declared, “I am willing. Be clean!” I would love to have seen the man’s expression when Jesus touched him and said, “Be clean.” I would bet the shock on his face was massive.

Let me tell you, there is now and has always been a disease that is far worse, far more deadly and far more contagious than leprosy or Covid-19. It is the disease of SIN. And, here is the thing that should stand out to all of us. We all have it. It not only covers our body, it is in our heart and mind. It affects our soul and it will lead to the ultimate death of hell itself if we don’t find the cure for it. Jesus is willing and able to not only heal the leper, he is willing and able to touch you and me and to drive the sin away, washing us in his blood and making us as clean and pure as a newborn baby.

Imagine the man looking at his skin and seeing the raw flesh healthy again. The white areas look normal. The rotting flesh is now healthy. What would you do in such a situation? Likely you would begin shouting to anyone you saw what had happened, that you were clean, healed and Jesus did it. But Jesus wasn’t through with the man. He gave him two commands. First, don’t tell anyone. Second, go to the priest and follow the law on what is to be done when you are healed from leprosy. I sure understand why he would tell him to go to the priest and follow the law on the matter. It would be what opened the door for him to go home and live among his family and people again. But why Lord, do you want him not to tell anyone?

Most likely because Jesus knew that while it was important to heal those who were sick, that wasn’t his main purpose for coming into this world. His primary mission was about preaching the gospel to the world, training disciples and apostles for the work they would do after his death on the cross. But if the message got out that he was a healer of all kinds of sicknesses and diseases, people would be coming in huge crowds to be healed. A secondary mission would become so massive that the primary mission of preaching and teaching the gospel, making and training disciples, would be lost on the wayside. So, he pleaded over and over again for those whom he healed to remain quiet about it. But, they never did. Their excitement for what had been done for them overwhelmed them and they had to tell someone. Plus they knew tons of others who had the same illness they had and longed for them to have this healing as well. Sure enough the result was that crowds came to hear him and to be healed. Notice what happened with Jesus as a result. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” He tended to go into the small towns and villages sharing the message where the word hadn’t spread so much. Excited people telling what great things had happened to them resulted in Jesus having to stay away from crowded areas to be able to fulfill his mission and have time with the Father in prayer.

I wonder how often today God’s people get pulled away from the primary work God has called us to do by the spread of the message that we are doing some great work in an area that may not ever lead to one hearing the good news of Jesus. It is extremely difficult for us to be in the place of praise for good works we are doing and still have Jesus as the one being glorified for HIs life and ministry. Jesus loved to heal the sick. But his greatest interest was in bringing them to faith in him so they could be healed from the disease of sin. Our mission as the church is to do good and help the needy. But the primary function of the church is to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel of Christ. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned.”

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WHO ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?

There were lots of people who were devoted to Jesus during those last days of his ministry on this earth. Many had been blind before Jesus came but now they could see. Many had been lepers and locked away from the crowds of people, but now their skin is as clean and healthy as a new babies’ skin. Many had been unable to walk but now they could run, leap and walk without pain. Many had been deaf, who could now hear. But deeper than that, many had been enslaved to the devil, so much so that his demons possessed them, but now the demons have been cast out and they can freely decide who they will live their lives for. Many are now devoted disciples who were in hopeless situations before they met Jesus and he spoke to them the words of life. But it wasn’t some crowd that rushed out to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid, after his crucifixion. But, thank God, there were a handful of women, whose lives Jesus had changed completely, who arose early on Sunday morning to make their way to the tomb. They were going to anoint his body for a proper burial. The one leading this group of women was a woman named Mary Magdalene. Jesus had cast demons out of her and turned her whole life around. When others ran away, she stood with a few at the foot of the cross to observe his death and to hear his seven cries from the cross. Now, Sabbath had passed. She and her little band of women were on their way to the tomb and talking among themselves they wondered, “Who can we get to move the stone for us?” There was a heavy stone rolled against the entrance to the tomb after the body was placed inside. It was typically scotched with stones until time to be rolled into place and it then fell into a groove that made it extremely difficult for anyone to move it away from the entrance to the tomb. The women were sure they couldn’t move the stone.

What a shock when they arrived and saw the stone was rolled away from the entrance. Mary ran to tell Simon Peter and John what they had found. Peter and John both ran to the tomb, but John was younger and probably in better shape, outran Peter. John stood outside the tomb and bent over to look inside at the strips of linen lying there but he didn’t go inside. Peter arrived and went straight into the tomb. You get the feeling he didn’t slow down much as he ran right on into the tomb to get a close look at the inside. John then went inside as well. The strips of linen were lying there as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. John looked around and believed even though he still didn’t understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

Which one would best illustrate what you would have done if you had been there. Would you have been like the other disciples and stayed in town thinking how useless to go to the tomb since he was dead now? Would you have been more like Mary who came early to anoint the body and when you saw the stone rolled away, ran to tell someone else what you saw? Would you have been like John to run to the tomb and then stood outside to peek into the space to see what was there? Would you have been like Peter and just ran right on in without missing a beat? Different people have different personalities and react to all kinds of situations in very different ways. It is hard to know which you would have been. Most of us would likely know better if we asked someone else who knows us well and knows our personality which we would have done. It is interesting to me that it was John who stood outside gazing into the tomb who came to real faith when he stepped inside and looked around.

Notice that Mary continued to stand outside the tomb when the others had all gone away. She was crying and bent over to gaze into the tomb. She had to have been amazed to see two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” Notice, she still had no thought that Jesus might have been raised from the dead. Instead she said, “They have taken my Lord, away, and I don’t know where they have put him.” We naturally come up with explanations for things we don’t understand. So, her explanation was that someone had stolen the body of Jesus. She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but didn’t realize it was him. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Suddenly she looked closely to see it was Jesus standing beside her. She cried in Aramaic, “Rabboni” (which means “Teacher”). Obviously at this point she threw her arms around Jesus and was clinging to him like she would never turn him loose again. He said to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Jesus spent the next month and a half with the disciples getting them ready to take on the mission of spreading the gospel to the entire world. His decree was, “As the Father has sent me into the world, I am sending you.” There were things about his resurrected body that were just like the old one since he still had the scars from the nails and the spear in his side . But there were many things different. This body was able to walk through the doors without opening them, even when they were locked. He could travel from one place to another in a moment’s time. When he told Mary not to cling to him it wasn’t because there was something mysterious about his body that she couldn’t hold on to. He was saying that she didn’t need to cling to him, since it would be a little while before he left this world to go back to the Father in glory.

Jesus is raised from the dead. He conquered death. He has power over death so that one of these days, He will return to this world in all the power of God, along with all his holy angels. There will be a shout, the trumpet of God will sound and suddenly, the dead in Christ will be raised to meet him in the air and forever be with the Lord. Those who live for him and are still alive at the time will be changed in a moment’s time and transformed so they too will be raised to be with the Lord forever more. The rest of the dead will also be raised at that point, but not to salvation, not to eternal life, not to the glory of heaven, but to eternal ruin in hell.

Jesus’ tomb is still empty. He reigns instead at the right hand of God in glory. Don’t you think it is time for you too to look into the empty tomb and believe? All the power of hell can’t hold Jesus in the tomb and neither can it hold you. Jesus became the first fruits of those who sleep. What a day, glorious day, that will be, when Jesus the resurrected Lord and Savior comes again.

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WE DON’T LOSE HEART

With the NCAA basketball tournament underway for this year, it is a tremendous time to focus on not losing heart. One of the greatest life lessons to learn is probably learned best in sports. It is so often the case that at the beginning of a game when the talent is high and the expectations are in the clouds, everyone is full of energy. They feel as though they could play all night long and still have strength left to plan the next round. But, it is pretty common as the game wears on and each team has made multiple runs for the lead in the game, to see the energy level beginning to fade. Hope seems to be draining like water from a leaky bucket. The actions of one team or the other become routine rather than inspired. The heart is dying and the end of the game can’t get here soon enough. Often, the other team is still charging up and down the court as though they haven’t lost any energy since the beginning. Their heart is still fully into the game. If you are pulling for the team that has lost heart, you know that something must change quickly or your team has no hope to win the game. It is normally at such a time that the coach calls a time out and does everything in their power to restore the hearts of his team into the game. Different coaches use all kinds of different means of trying to restore heart to their players. Some scream at the players and hope to resurrect their fire by shaming their team. Others strive to rebuild the fire with faith in the players. The coach reminds them that he believes in them and knows they can summon the reserves of energy that are left and make a final run for the game.

In so many ways, this illustrates life. In the game of life it is easy to have those runs when everything seems to fall into place and even the shots that at other times would have felt impossible fall into the basket. But there are also those times when you feel like you have used every ounce of energy you had in reserve and the tank is empty. You continue to take one step after another but you left your heart several steps behind and the sense of hopelessness is invading your mind more and more. Nothing is more difficult or discouraging in life than to face whatever is coming without our hearts in it. Let’s face it, you can lose heart in every aspect of life.

You often see the loss of heart in marriages that were once thriving. The couple that married with so much hope, joy, and love that you thought they were destined for a life full of meaning and purpose forever. But years pass. The twinkle in the eyes dims. The sense of excitement just to see the partner and to be together at the end or beginning of the day has died down. Now the love life feels routine. How can a couple keep from losing heart in their marriage? How can parents who start down the road of parenting with so much excitement about what this bundle of Joy will mean in their lives turn into parents who lose all heart as their children grow up and aren’t at all what they always dreamed they would be?

Who hasn’t taken a new job at some point with tons of enthusiasm about what it will be like, only to look back after a few years and think that it hasn’t turned out to be anything like what we dreamed of it being? How can a person keep from losing heart in life? Focus with me on two statements from the pen of the apostle Paul on how not to lose heart in life. Both these statements are found in 2 Corinthians 4.

The first is found in 2 Corinthians 4:1. “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Notice the beginning of the sentence ties it to what he had been saying back in chapter three. Since he begins with “therefore” it is vital we look back to see what the basis is of the point made. Back in chapter three, Paul had described how God had given us the New Covenant and had made him a competent minister of the New Covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (Verse 6). Unlike the Old Covenant that produces death this new covenant gives us life and when we behold as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, in the New Covenant, we are being transformed into the very same image, from glory to glory, by the Spirit of God. Having this ministry of the New Covenant to share with others, Paul declared, kept him from losing heart in life.

It shouts the message to us that having a sense of mission or purpose that is so great that it molds our whole lives and the lives of others to follow the teaching keeps us from becoming discouraged and losing heart in life. We may serve God in a multitude of ways in life. But the truth is, God calls each of us to a work of ministry in his body. There are many list of ministries one might have in Romans 12; I Corinthians 12 and I Peter 4. Each describes how we have different spiritual gifts from the Lord and are to use them as our ministry for him. Just knowing I have a job or ministry or calling from God on how to serve him in the world keeps us from losing heart in life. His mission for us is life-changing. We become means of His for blessing the world for good.

The other text is found in verses 16-18 of 2 Corinthians 4. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” There may not be a more disheartening time in life than when we grow older and all the things we have been good at, seem to be beyond our reach now. Our body begins to grow old, decay and so many of the things we used to do capably, become out of reach for us. It is easy when we feel we aren’t needed or useful in the world anymore to lose heart in life and want to give up. Having a sense of mission or purpose gives us heart. But even when we aren’t able to do the things we once did, God tells us we don’t need to lose heart, because we having something waiting for us in the future that far surpasses any blessing we have in this life. As the body decay’s the inward person is being renewed day by day. We won’t find that fountain of youth for the body in this life. But, I want to tell you that for the soul or inward man, we can find that fountain any time we are ready to look for it.

Haven’t you met some older people in life that never seemed to get old in their mind or thinking? The body became feeble but their mind and heart seemed to stay young, alert and alive every day. If you search for their secret you will find they have a since of purpose, ministry and mission. And you will find they look forward to the future with glee since they know that this life isn’t all there is. Instead there is a life beyond the grave that is far, far better than anything we have ever known down here. When this tent is dissolved or destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, waiting for us in glory and it excites us to anticipate an eternal home in heaven.

Don’t lose heart! Something better lies ahead!

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STANDING FOR JUSTICE

What comes to your mind when you think of the word “justice”? It is certainly a word that gets thrown around a ton in our day. it is pretty common to see groups of people marching in the streets of some city with signs that cry out for justice. But it is just as obvious that different people have very different things in mind when they talk about justice. The word itself does carry some different meanings. It can mean to be fair. It is often used in the Bible interchangeably with the word, “Righteous”. So the idea of being just may mean to do what is right and what we know is right or it may mean to treat others fairly. God called on the nation of Israel in their treatment of foreigners who lived among them to treat them with justice, remembering that they too had been strangers in another land. Think of Isaiah 1:16-18 as a good example of justice. “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good; see justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins are like scales, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Did you notice in God’s plea to the people to seek justice he tied it to correcting oppression, bringing justice to the fatherless, and pleading the cause of the widow? It sounds in many ways like James 1:27 when we are told that pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” So, justice, before God involves compassion, caring, and serving those who are oppressed or hurting in the world.

Compare this with another picture of justice from the lips of Jesus. In Matthew 23:23-24, he was talking to the religious leaders of that day. He had pronounced on them several “Woe’s” for their lifestyle. As one of the woes, He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” I suspect that these religious leaders felt it was a matter of justice for them to be so dedicated about their giving to God and the temple that they paid a tenth of even the herbs they grew in their garden. In their mind, such giving was of supreme importance and made the people of God able to care for those in need. But what was really going on with them is that their religious duties such as tithing had taken the place of godly living among the people. Their putting money in the treasury had become the substitute for them getting their own hands dirty by helping the fatherless, the widows.

Notice the things tied with justice here in Matthew 23 along with Micah 6:6-8. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” Notice many other translations have to “Love mercy.” Justice will lead to fair, right behavior. It leads to compassion and mercy for those who are oppressed or struggling in life. it is tied to faithfulness to God. Think of the fact, “The just shall live by faith.”

God is certainly our standard in matters of justice as well as everything else. He does what is right all the time. God’s justice leads to the punishment of evil and evil-doers. It will result in people going to eternal hell who reject the way of God and faith in Him. But God’s justice never contradicts or even fails to go along with His grace, mercy, and love. God is just, but he is ready to forgive and give us a fresh start in life no matter how much we fail him. Remember the story in John 8 of the religious leaders in Jerusalem coming to Jesus early one morning, dragging a woman they had caught in the act of adultery. They threw this woman before the Lord demanding what they felt was justice. They declared that Moses in his law required that one caught in adultery be stoned to death. So, their question to Jesus was, “What do you say?” The question is in present tense meaning they asked it over and over again. Jesus certainly could have stood and asked them where the man was, who had been caught in adultery with her, but he didn’t. Instead, he stooped to write on the ground. Imagine as they kept shouting, “What do you say?” Finally, he stands tall and looks directly at them, and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw his stone.” Suddenly the conscience of the leaders hit home. From the oldest to the youngest they began dropping their rocks and walking away until it was just Jesus and the woman. He looked at her and said, “Where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one Lord.” Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Did Jesus give justice to the woman? Did he offer justice to the crowd shouting for her death? Were they wanting justice when they brought her to the Lord? Our thoughts of justice tend to run straight down the road of doing what is right and fair, usually softened by our own prejudices. But, God’s sense of justice always runs alongside mercy and faith. In Luke 10:23 it was also tied to love. We need to be people who stand for justice, but let’s be careful that our viewpoint isn’t from the standpoint of being judge and jury but from the standpoint of being a fellow traveler in life who struggles with sin the same as the other person does. When I remember how awesome God’s grace is to forgive my sins, it should lead me to be ready to offer such mercy and forgiveness to others quickly.

In Matthew 18 Jesus taught us to confront a believer who sinned and try to bring them back to salvation. He pointed out that we should be ready to forgive over and over again. When Peter sought a limit he asked if we were to forgive up to seven times and Jesus responded, not seven times but seventy times seven. He told a story to illustrate his point. A ruler had a man who owed him a huge amount of money, way up in the multi-millions of dollars. When the loan became due the man couldn’t pay it but pleaded for more time. The ruler forgave the whole debt and gave the man a fresh start. But he went out and found a man who owed him a very small amount compared to what he owed his master. He grabbed the man and demanded he pay him back. The man pleaded for mercy and time but he was unwilling to give more time and had the man and his family thrown into jail. The fellow servants of the man who had acted this way came to tell the ruler what had happened. They pointed out how the ruler forgave him the huge debt but he refused to forgive a small debt to a fellow servant. The ruler was angry and called the man in and delivered him to the tormenters because he had failed to offer the same mercy to a fellow servant the master gave him. The point is that God forgives us the massive debt we can never repay. How dare we refuse to forgive other people who have done so little against us compared with our sin against God?

Walk in justice, but make certain it is justice like God gives to us.

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DISCOVERING THE CULTURE

Think about the church you are a part of and the culture of that church. I’ve never visited a church that the people there didn’t think of themselves as a friendly church. I’ve asked members of tons of different churches through the years, “How would you describe the church here?” Almost, without fail people will say about the church they are describing is that we are a very friendly church. Sometimes, I’ve gone ahead to ask, “Exactly what do you mean by that?” Usually, I get very puzzled looks with that question and a wide variety of answers. Most of the time if you keep digging for an answer to what we mean by saying the church is friendly, you will get to the point that they are very friendly to each other and treat each other very well, and are nice to anyone who visits if they have a close relationship with some other members. I’ve never known of a church that described itself as unfriendly. Have you? Yet how many times have you visited a church and felt isolated, and that you were not really welcome?

Imagine going to a church where you know no one. You simply look up the address of the church and the times of their worship and show up. Several times we’ve done so, and several times we’ve had friends or family members with us who were not of the same religious persuasion. Sometimes when we made such visits we were simply ignored and treated as though we didn’t really belong there. If anyone spoke at all you had to engage them rather than them making any effort to make you feel welcome. At other times people have been so friendly and welcoming that we would talk about how accepting they were and that it must be a joy to be a member there.

Every church is different and they all react to visitors in different ways. What if you could create the ideal church that demonstrated such friendliness that you felt welcome, at home, and accepted even before you got inside the doors? What would it take to have such an environment? Let’s face it, a church is nothing but an accumulation of people and the culture of the church is whatever the heart and spirit are of the people who worship there. When you read the different letters to churches in the New Testament it is obvious that they are all very different from any of the other churches talked about. Think of the seven churches of Asia that are mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. These are all congregations from the same area of the world. They were all from the same background. They were all part of the same country and the same government. The reality is they were not very far apart. Only a few miles separated some from others. Yet, when you read these two chapters about these seven churches, it stands out that they were dealing with very different situations, problems, and opportunities. None of the seven letters were interchangeable. The problems, opportunities, and blessings in each church was totally different from the same things in the church in the next town.

I don’t suppose that should be surprising since you find a totally different culture in visiting different homes and families in the same village and in the same family. I’ve been surprised on both sides of this point. I’ve been amazed in visiting in the homes of two sisters or two brothers in different parts of the country. You might have known one brother or sister in one state and enjoyed their hospitality and the word got out you were going to a particular area in a very different state and that person comes to you to say their sister lives in the place you are visiting and they are going to tell them you are going to be there and to invite you over. You go to the person’s home to visit in the different place. I’ve had the experience of feeling just like I was back in the other place visiting with the sister they were so much alike. But I’ve had the experience of feeling like these two people can’t possibly be related. They are so totally different from each other that you think to yourself, “How in the world can these two people be related?”

I think it is the same with churches. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing the same Father, the same older brother in Jesus and the same Holy Spirit to indwell us and guide us. Yet two churches doing the same things in worship and teaching the same gospel message can be so different from each other that you can’t believe there is any relationship. I try always to remind myself that there is something good about this whole thing. Since people are very different from each other, it takes a different environment for people who are different from each other to feel accepted, loved and a part of the family.

One thing is certain if we are disciples of Jesus, and we are truly following Him in daily life, we ought to become more like him all the time. Jesus’ favorite command was “Follow me”. He declared to Andrew and Peter, James and John, “Come after me and I will make you become fishers of men.” If we are following him, we become more like him and the result is we become all the more interested in leading others to become his disciples as well. Paul would say, “Follow me as I also follow Christ.” That, I believe, should describe the very nature or culture of every church. We should all be trying to become more like Jesus and be constantly leading others to become more like him as well. We should be disciples who are sold out to the cause of making other disciples. Notice, this doesn’t make us look like one another. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all close followers of Jesus but they were very different from each other. Yet they all looked more and more like Jesus all the time and were completely given to the plan of leading others to follow Him as well.

When I’m back home in Alabama it is pretty common for me to see someone who says, “You look more like your dad every time I see you.” I hope and pray I am looking more like Jesus every day as well. God, please help me to be that disciple who is always helping someone else become Jesus’ disciple as well. If that is my vision, it will lead to friendliness both in our home and in the church where we worship God.

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WHO ARE YOU LISTENING TO?

Advise is a wonderful thing if I choose wise advisers. But if I choose foolish, immature or selfish advisors, I am likely to make very bad decisions and make choices that I will regret for years to come. It is interesting to me that in the first chapter of Proverbs, Solomon advises his son to be careful in choosing his advisors. He warned him that if he chose the young men around him as his advisors they will likely lead him into sin and mistreatment of other people. We aren’t told which son of Solomon it is that he is speaking to in Proverbs. But in I Kings 12 Solomon had died and his son Rehoboam is ordained as the new king over the Israel. Solomon had prospered as king of Israel, like no other. He spread the borders of the nation wider than at any other time and the kingdom was filled with wealth. But when Solomon died the people came to talk with Rehoboam his son and to plead with him to make their load a little lighter. The tax burden and the service to the king had become unbearable. They pleaded with the new king to lighten their load and promised that they would be loyal to him in every aspect of their lives.

Rehoboam sought advise on how to react to the request from the people. He first went to the older advisors who had served his father and asked them how they advised him to react to this request. They encouraged him to lighten the load on the people. Lower their tax burden. Make their burden easier to carry and they said, if you will do that, these people will be true to you and follow your lead all their lives. They advised him to listen to them and show them his love, compassion and devotion to them as his people.

After seeking their advise, he turned to the younger men he had grown up with to ask them for advise on the same thing. He said to them, that the people have come asking me to lighten their load and the tax burden upon them and that they would be loyal to him as their king if he would. He told them how the older advisers to his dad had advised him to listen to them and follow their plea and it would have great results in the loyalty of the people. But these young men advised him to go back to the people and tell them that if they thought his dad had made it hard on them, just wait to see how hard he makes their lives. They said, to tell them that his little finger would be heavier on them that his dad’s thighs had been. They told him to go back and tell them that if they were beaten badly by their dad, just wait until he beats them with scorpions.

Imagine being in this man’s place and becoming king in the place of your father who had reigned over Israel for forty years and through most of that time and been highly successful as their king. But as the years had gone by, he had turned from God to the devil and followed the influence of his foreign wives to worship the idol gods they introduced him to. Rehoboam was 41 when he became the king. He was old enough to know some things and to choose good advise. If you were in his place and taking on such a role from your father, who would you listen to? Let’s face it, we are only as wise in our decisions as the advise we choose to listen to? If I choose to listen to ungodly advisors who point me toward revenge and hurting others, I will destroy the relationships that matter in life. Later Solomon would write the proverb, “He that walks with wise people will be wise, but a companion of fools will be destroyed.”

I wonder what would have happened in Israel if Rehoboam had listened to the advise of the older people instead of his young friends. I know it was in God’s plan for him to act crazy and follow the wrong advise that led to the division of the nation. But if it had simply been a human thing, the reality is that it would likely have saved the nation for him to listen to the older people and show respect for the people and their hurts. The truth is, in every part of life, who we listen to and whose advise we follow determines our success or failure. No one lives in a vacuum. We are all influenced by the advise of others. But whose advise we follow will determine what becomes of us and of those we love.

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HE INQUIRED OF THE LORD

When was the last time you inquired of the Lord? I’ve been reading the story of David’s life in I and 2 Samuel the last few days and something stood out to me this time. Over and over again the text will say, “And David inquired of the Lord.” Now it never stops with that statement. Every time it is followed by, “And the Lord said” and it will give whatever the instruction was from the Lord on the given topic. Many times it had to do with going up against the enemy, usually the Philistines to fight but not every time. Sometimes it was tied to having the priest to come with the ephod and inquiring for God’s will on some specific matter. But, with David and his relationship with God, there was always a clear answer on what he should do. Although there aren’t any other people that it was said of so often that they inquired of the Lord, it was certainly not unique to David.

Think of the apostles and other disciples who met in the upper room after Jesus ascended back to the Father and before the Holy Spirit was sent upon them for the launching of Christ’s kingdom. They were looking for a replacement for Judas as one of the apostles. They had pretty stiff qualifications for anyone who could take on such a work. They had to have been a follower of Jesus throughout his ministry on this earth. It was someone who had been with them from the baptism of John until now. Two men met the qualifications but they only needed one man so they put the names of these two men, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus and Matthias. “And they prayed and said, ‘You Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place. And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”

Casting lots was a little like throwing dice. Can you imagine the elders gathering the congregation together when they are choosing to add a new elder or three or maybe even better, when they are about to select a new preacher for the congregation and praying to God about the selection, then saying we will throw the dice and follow what they show as the answer from God? How are we to know God’s answer when we inquire of Him what his will is for us or for the church or for our family? Should we follow Gideon’s example and put out a fleece saying to the Lord to make the fleece wet tomorrow morning and the ground around it dry and then just to make it all certain, change it around the next day to making the ground wet and the fleece dry? I’ve known a few times when people tried the fleece method in seeking to know God’s will. But I’ve also known some times when following the fleece idea led to disastrous decisions. So, how do we know God’s answer when we inquire of Him?

Perhaps it is by the feelings we are given as we pray for a correct answer. But, what do we learn from that feeling if there are several praying for the answer to the same question and they get very different feelings from each other? Or, what if the feeling we get leads to other followers of the Lord, being deeply injured over our decision? What if the feeling we all get would lead to us doing something that goes directly against some clear teaching from God’s word. I’ve known of several cases when a group of people felt they were being led by God to do something that would deeply hurt the church. For example, many times I’ve known preachers who felt for certain God was leading them to start a different congregation and lead a large number of the present members to go out and start somewhere else, usually doing vast amounts of harm to the church they were leaving. My fear in this is that we get something in our minds that we think is best and begin praying, inquiring from the Lord on the right way and sure enough our feelings are that God is sanctioning the very things I wanted to do, to begin with. In such cases, it is far more likely we have imposed our will on God than that we have heard the voice of God telling us the right way to go.

Think of the time when Paul was going back to Jerusalem to deliver the gift from the predominately Gentile churches to the poor among the saints in the Jerusalem church. He was sure it was God’s plan for him to go and take the gift. He asked the church in Rome to pray for him in the effort that the church would receive it and he would then be able to travel to Rome and on to Spain preaching the gospel. But as he traveled God sent a prophet to him named Agabus who took Paul’s belt and bound himself with it and said, that God had revealed to him that the man who owned that belt would be arrested in Jerusalem, and chains and imprisonment awaited him. Surely God was giving him clear direction not to go on to Jerusalem. Surely he could just send the gift by the others with him and not risk his own life. But Paul was so certain that he was doing what God wanted that even the prophet coming twice on the way to warn him and the Christians around him pleading with him in tears not to go, made no impact on what he was sure was the right thing to do. Paul had indeed inquired of the Lord and he surely believed God had answered him on what to do. Not even prophets sent from God could change his mind in the least.

It makes me think of a passage in I John 3:24-4:3. “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” God’s Spirit leads and guides us in the right way. But it is vital that we constantly check to make certain the spirit that is guiding is the Holy Spirit of God.

I wish it were the case that every time I inquire of God to learn what the next steps ought to be, that I received a clear answer telling me what to do and what not to do. But it doesn’t always work that way I wish it would. I suspect there are many times when God is leading in a direction that I can’t see clearly. I do know it is important to hear His will instead of supposing that my will is His will. I also suspect that many times I’m wanting answers about the future when God is telling me to live one day at a time and stop worrying about tomorrow. I never want to stop inquiring. I pray for clarity on the answers from the Lord.

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LIFE ON A SNOWY DAY

Looking outside, snow covers everything. It’s cold and a great time to remember lots of snowy days through the years. Sitting, looking and thinking my mind runs back through the years and snowy days that invade my thoughts. I remember the time in high school, I think it was in the 12th grade when we had a big snow in Alabama. I know it was during the days when I was dating Linda and I think it was soon after her sister, Talulah had died in childbirth, I wanted to see her and at least, walk in the snow with her. Somehow I convinced Dad to allow me to drive to Vernon, in the snow and see her. I remember the snow beginning to fall again so I went to my sister, Dorothy’s house and spent the night there with Mike, my nephew. I do remember walking in the snow with Linda and playing a little, but it was hard for her mind to go far from the events and hurt from her sister’s death.

I remember when Linda and I were at Freed-Hardeman one year there was a big snow. We were living in Pocahontas, where I was preaching on Sunday’s and driving back and forth to Henderson, Tennessee each day. It came a big snow and we were stuck at home with school closed for the day. We had a small dog at the time and I can see us running and playing in the snow with that dog. Too many years have passed for me to remember its name.

There were lots of snows in North Little Rock, during the years when our daughters were growing up and I remember when we lived on Rolling Hills and having a great time playing in the snow, sliding down the hill and trudging our way back up again. After years had passed I also remember a great snow when our grandchildren were getting old enough to play in the yard and on the street in the snow. Home made sleds always seemed to work better than the ones we had purchased in the store somewhere along the line.

Now, many more years have passed. Today, it is more a matter of grandchildren sending pictures of them playing in the snow with the great grandchildren and we are able to enjoy the sight without feeling the cold or risking a fall. Life changes. Thank God, in the midst of life’s changes we are blessed with memories and allow us to relive wonderful times and see again the snowman that brought us more laughter than would have ever have been thought of as a work of art.

Seeing the snow reminded me of the very few times in the Bible that snow is mentioned. One of these times is a passage that has always intrigued me. It is in 2 Samuel 23:20-23 in a segment near the death of David. It is telling about the heroics of his mighty men. “And Benaiah the son of Jehoida was a valiant man of Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds. He struck down two ariels of Moab. He also went down and struck down a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen. And he struck down an Egyptian, a handsome man. The Egyptian had a spear in his hand, but Benaiah went down to him with a staff and snatched the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand and killed him with his own spear. These things did Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and won a name beside the three mighty men. He was renowned among the thirty, but he did not attain to the three. And David set him over his bodyguard.”

The writer didn’t take up much space telling of the powerful feats of Benaiah. Isn’t it amazing that he would tell of the many powerful things about him and his honors but note that he didn’t reach the height of the three? It certainly shouts the message to us that we can do some wonderful things in life and still not attain the height of some others. The pictures of his heroics though stand out. Can’t you visualize this warrior going down into a pit to fight a lion on a snowy day and killing it? I can’t really imagine fighting a lion on any day. I certainly can’t imagine going down into a pit to take on a lion. And the addition of the weather conditions at the time being a snowy day makes it all the more interesting. I wonder if he slid as he was going down into the pit. Had the lion attacked some of the animals that belonged to him or his family? How did he know that the lion was in the pit, to begin with? All we really know is that he was a mighty man of valor and David respected him enough to put him in charge of his bodyguards. Beyond the snowy day, picture the one of the Egyptian with a spear in his hand standing there and Benaiah going to him with only a staff in his hand, grabbing the spear from the man’s hand and killing him with his own spear is pretty amazing as well. Benaiah is certainly a good person to remember on a snowy day.

Another snow day mentioned in Scripture that is worth remembering is in Isaiah 1:18. “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.” Just the picture of our sins being red like crimson, means they are bright colored and obvious both to us, to others and to God. When our sins stand tall in front of us they often fill us with grief and pain at the very thought that we could have done such awful things. Often it is only some time after a wrong has been done that we can actually bring ourselves to see it in all it’s ugliness. Soon after any sin, our tendency is to make excuses for the wrong or to try to convince ourselves and everyone else that it really wasn’t all that bad. But as time goes by we begin to see the wrong for all the pain and hurt that it actually cause. But, no matter how awful the sin, God will forgive it when we turn to him and wash it so completely away that we become as white as snow. As I look out the window at the brightness of the white snow on the ground, I’m amazed that God so fully forgives that there isn’t even a hint of the stain left anymore.

David used the same comparison as he talked about God’s forgiveness of his sin with Bethsheba after God had sent Nathan the prophet to confront him with his sin. Nathan had told a story of a rich man with all kinds of sheep in his pasture having a poor neighbor who had only one lamb that he loved like his own child. The rich man had company so he took the poor neighbor’s sheep, killed it and cooked it for his company. David was furious and cried out, “This man will surely die.” Nathan said, “You are the man.” God reminded David how, as king he was the wealthy man whom God had given many wives and would have given more if he had asked. But he instead stole the wife of Uriah the Hittite and had sex with her, then killed him to hide his sin. But notice as David writes Psalms 51 about that sin and what he felt afterward, he said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” David painted the picture of his guilt and the brightest of tones. But he pictured God’s forgiveness as being even brighter and fuller. God so cleansed him of his guilt that he was now whiter than snow.

How often have you tried to get a stain out of something that you wanted to be able to wear again but had stained it pretty badly? Sometimes, no matter how much Spray and Wash you put on it, the stain still won’t go away. But God cleanses with the precious blood of Jesus and there is no stain that it won’t totally remove so that there isn’t even a hint of the stain left.

Lookout at the snow one more time. Think about your guilt being so totally removed you are whiter than the snow on the ground. But I must turn to God for that forgiveness. He has the cleansing power but I must believe in him enough to put myself into the wash.

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WHAT’S WRONG WITH A LITTLE FEAR?

It is absolutely amazing how often we read in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of Jesus commanding the disciples to not be afraid and convicting them of having small faith because of the fears that haunted them day after day. Jesus point to the disciples was that they should put their trust in Jesus and know that He has promised to be with us and help us in all circumstances. Think of a few of the things tied to his commands not to be afraid but to put their faith in Him.

In Matthew 8: 23-27 Jesus was in the boat with the disciples sailing across the Sea of Galilee when a great storm arose on the sea. Their boat was being swamped by the waves, but Jesus was asleep. They woke him shouting, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith? Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” They were amazed asking, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Imagine being in a similar situation. Perhaps you are in the middle of a storm, the sound of a tornado in the background is tormenting. How do you think you would react? It’s pretty easy to say, “Well, I’m not afraid of storms.” But if we find ourselves in the middle of such a storm all our brave words tend to leave us and fear overwhelms us. But, as we get our equilibrium back, if we are people of faith in the Lord, we should remember who we belong to and who has promised to be with us and take care of us in the worst of situations. Our faith should conquer our fears!

In chapter ten of Matthew Jesus sent out the disciples on the limited commission. They were to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel preach to them that the kingdom of God has come near. Jesus warned them he was sending them out like sheep in the midst of wolves. He told them to “beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” Can you imagine being in such a situation? What would it be like to be called before authorities and beaten for our faith in Jesus? Can you imagine the anxiety or fear that would overwhelm you in such a time? But Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t fear in such moments but trust him to give us the very words we need to say and the courage to say them.

Just a few verses later in Matthew 10 Jesus picks up that same theme again. Beginning in verse 26 he said, “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell! Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Verses 26-31). What is so amazing to me in this section of verses is that he just keeps challenging them not to fear the things of this life or the problems we may face. He even challenged us not to be afraid of dying.

Why do you suppose Jesus was so intent on getting these disciples, to the stage where they weren’t ruled by their fears? He was certainly calling on them to do some dangerous things that would ultimately lead to many of them being put to death. Yet he longed for their faith in him to be strong enough that it conquered the fears of life.

It seems to me that we live in a time when fears of all kinds overwhelm us. Those who are devoted to Christ aren’t much different from the people of the world in this whole matter of fears. We are haunted by fears of the Covid-19 virus. We are fearful for our country and what may happen next, no matter which side of the political arena we live in. Fear of China, Russia or some other country taking over the world concerns us. We fear depression, and not having the money to take care of ourselves. We fear the future and what lies ahead. We fear for our children and our grandchildren and what they will face in their future.

It seems to me that we too often find ourselves in the same situation that the army of Israel faced when Saul led them out against the Philistines and Goliath the giant came out each day tormenting Saul and his soldiers. He challenged them and their god to send one man out to face him. Whoever won the battle their country would rule over the country represented by the one who lost the battle. Finally, God arranged for David, a shepherd boy, the son of Jesse to visit his brothers who were in the army and take them some food. He arrived just in time to hear Goliath come out and shout his challenge to the Israelite army. He saw their trembling fear and asked what brought them such fear. David went to Saul and volunteered to face the giant. Saul was glad to have a volunteer since his fears were far too great to face him in the battle. He tried to give David his armor to wear. David chose to take the familiar slingshot he had used to protect the sheep. On the way to meet Goliath, he picked up five smooth stones and faced the giant. Did he trust the stones or sling? No! He trusted God and God delivered the giant into his hands.

The great question we all must raise is will we live by faith or by fear? We can’t do both.

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