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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A POWERFUL EXAMPLE OF FAITH

This is Black History month so it seems like a great time to focus on one of the great stories of a black man in the New Testament. His story is told in the last half of the eighth chapter of Acts. Philip the Evangelist had been preaching in Samaria where he had a tremendous revival and many people came to faith in Jesus. But the Holy Spirit called him to leave that well-populated area to go out into a deserted area to meet with a single person, a traveler on their way home from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship God. We don’t know this man’s name. We know his importance in the world. He served as treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia. We know that he was a eunuch which means he had been castrated at some point in his life, probably when he became an official for the Ethiopian government. We know that he was religious. It certainly took a lot of effort to travel all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem by means of a chariot. It would be a lengthy trip by car today on nice roads traveling at 70 miles per hour. He was a “God Fearer” which meant that he was a Gentile that worshiped the God of the Israelites, but who had not been circumcised to become a Jew. Since he was a eunuch he wouldn’t have been allowed to become a full member of the Jewish faith. But he certainly loved God and wanted to both worship him and learn more about how to both worship and serve him in his daily life. On his way home from Jerusalem he was still studying and striving to grasp the word of God. He had obtained a scroll of the Book of Isaiah and was reading from it as he traveled along. He obviously was a person of significant wealth to be able to purchase such a scroll, since most people wouldn’t have been able to afford such a purchase.

I suspect that most of the people who traveled down to Jerusalem to worship and spent the week listening to the reading of different manuscripts of the Old Testament Scriptures and carrying out the different rituals of the law, were not continuing to read from the Old Testament on their way home. Most likely the majority felt they had fulfilled their yearly obligation and now were able to get back to regular life. After all, how many of us leave worship each week even talking about what we studied or learned from the things that went on in worship or Bible study?

What is so amazing to me is that the Spirit told Philip to join himself to the chariot and he ran up beside the man in the chariot and noticed he was reading from the Manuscript of Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The fact he would ask such a question is impressive to me, but the answer from the Ethiopian official is even more impressive. Think about being asked that question as you are reading something in a public place. How would you respond if you were sitting on a airplane or in some public area and were reading from the Bible and someone came up to you and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” How would you respond? Most likely, I would say something, “Well, I think so. I read it a lot and think I am getting it for myself.” But this important, official who was likely used to people bowing to him and addressing him as “Sir” responded to a total stranger running up beside his chariot, asking him if he understood with an honest appeal. “How can I unless someone guides me?” He then invited Philip to join him in his chariot and to help him in his understanding.

He told Philip what he was reading and it was what we now know as Isaiah 53. It is one of the most powerful prophesies of Jesus coming into the world and giving his life as a sacrifice so that we can be saved. The Eunuch asked, “Who is he talking about, himself or someone else?” Philip started right there and preached to him Jesus. The truth is the Bible is so pointed toward Jesus that one can began anywhere and head straight to Jesus and he will be in good shape. What is even more impressive to me is that as Philip preached Jesus to him the Ethiopian official took it very personally. They came to a certain stream or body of water and he asked Philip, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” They stopped the chariot and both of them went down into the water and Philip baptized him there in this deserted area. Then they separated and the official went on his way rejoicing.

I wish we knew for certain what happened after this in his life. There is a tradition from the third century that he went home to Ethiopia and started a congregation of the Lord’s people and that later Philip the apostle came there and stayed until he was executed for his preaching of Christ. But the tradition is that they church in that part of the world grew and became one of the strongest in the world of that day.

What is certain is that he was an honest man, open to the truth of God’s word and of such an humble heart he was ready to admit his need for help and to accept the help of another person he didn’t know at all. I wish we knew his name. I hope to meet him in heaven and learn more of what happened when he got home to Ethiopia. His heart for God and listening to His word should be held up for all people of all times.

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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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