Foreword:

Ever wonder what God might have to say to YOU today? Here are things to ponder, and things to receive into your heart. If you have a question, put it in the comments. I respond as much as I can.

A note for all my readers: I've been experimenting with YouTube videos for Bible teaching for a while, and I'm working through Revelation here. My YouTube videos are currently short studies in Matthew, and at present I'm posting videos on Revelation as well. Both appear on the blog, which is turning into a Vlog. I encourage you to subscribe to my YouTube channel for better coverage.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The “Why of Good Friday

"Nevertheless..." A Moment of Meditation on Jesus' choice to die for you.

Many of the contemporary books seem to focus on something at least partly false--that Jesus was killed, murdered by wicked men, that God ordained this, and He had little choice. Much is made of the fact that the Father put in motion the machinery that led to His death. However, that's only partly true: Jesus made quite clear that HE chose the path, that He AND the Father consulted together, and that He was NOT a pawn in the hands of God.

Here are some passages:

John 10:18: No man takes [My life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

Philippians 2:6-8: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not something to hold on to--His equality with God, But made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. 

Yes, it was the Father's will--this is clear from dozens of passages--but it was the Son's choice. Even at the very end, just before His death, Jesus said, "Don't you know that I could call to My Father and He would send more than 12 legions of angels?" One of the old songs says, "He could have called 10,000 angels to destroy the world and set Him free--but He died alone for you and me." (it's paraphrased from Matthew 26:53)

He CHOSE to die--because without His death, we could not have His life. 



Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Christians in a "Hostile Environment."

There's a lot of talk today about "Hostile Treatment" of Christians in the US. It is truly different than it used to be for us, so I thought a bit of perspective might be useful (this is a long post).

"Back in the day," as they say, America (meaning the United States) was very much more Christian in orientation. That's true. There were books like the "McGuffie Readers," which contained a huge amount of Christian doctrine, and books like Matthew Henry's Commentary were sold on subscription. Bible salesmen traveled from door to door, and were frequently welcomed, while one of the popular pastimes (besides the circus) was the tent revival. 
Fast forward to today, where the discussions are about gay rights, transgender bathrooms and Sharia Law, and it seems like the world has gone mad. 
It has. However, that doesn't change a fundamental part of the equation in Christianity. Christianity was actually DESIGNED to flourish in a hostile environment. 

Consider the following quote from Tertullian (2nd Century AD). Note the constant mentions of the sufferings of Christians. This was the birthtime of Christianity. It's long, but worth reading. I have additional comments at the end, so keep reading.

INTRODUCTION

Tertullian was born in Carthage (modern Tunis) at about the time of Polycarp’s death and probably trained as a lawyer (Polycarp was  the Apostle John's disciple). He converted from his pagan background and devoted himself to writing impassioned books — more than 30 in total — in defense of the true faith. He attacked the pagan religions of the Roman Empire, and challenged heretical versions of Christianity.
He was one of the generation of “apologists,” second-century theologians who wrote for a hostile readership in an attempt to challenge pagan misunderstanding and prejudice, showing that Christianity was reasonable and respectable, not a shameful secret society.
This text is from his most famous writing, Defense, alternatively translated Apology – but don’t be misled, there isn’t defensive or apologetic sentence in it! Its aim is to argue the case for Christianity, correct people’s misconceptions about it, and undermine their confidence in the superiority of paganism. He also challenges the Roman policy of killing Christians who will not apostatize (renounce their faith). He was the first theologian of the western church, and the first to write in Latin. His writings not only made an impression on the pagan world but helped to boost the church’s self-confidence.
The paragraph numbers in the text refer to sections selected from the original.



SOURCE MATERIAL

4. Having demonstrated this unjust public hatred against us, I will now make my stand and show our blamelessness. I not only refute the charges that are laid against us, but I turn them back on our accusers, showing that while Christians are free from these crimes, they are widespread among the accusers – as well they know.
7. We are accused as of being monsters of wickedness observing a sacred rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it. Then after the feast, we are supposed to practice incest, the dogs who rule us turning out the lights so that our impious lusts might have the cover of shameless darkness. This is what is constantly laid to our charge, and yet you never try to uncover the truth. Well, if you believe it, bring the matter to the light of day; if you will not look into it, then do not believe it. We insist that there is no reality at all in these accusations that you dare not find out the truth of….
We are assaulted and betrayed every day. Our meetings are often attacked. But who ever heard a child crying out there? Who ever gave evidence to the judge of our gory deeds? Have those who discovered such atrocities concealed them or been bribed? If we are so secretive, how did you find out what we do? Not from our own guilty lips, obviously, so it must be from strangers. But how would they find out? All religious initiations keep the profane away – let alone such ones as you suppose ours are. Every one knows what rumor is like. One of your owns proverbs says “Of all evils, rumor flies the fastest.” Why is rumor such an evil thing? Is it because it is fast? Is it because it carries information? Or is it because it is utterly false? [Tertullian argues that pagan rites themselves are often corrupt and that the Christian scriptures are superior in age and divinity, and he protests Christian loyalty to the Emperor.]
39. Having refuted the charges laid against us, let me now show what we really are. We are a body knit together by one faith, one discipline and one hope. We meet together as a congregation, uniting together to offer prayer to God. We pray for the emperors and all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for peace and for the delay of the final end. We read our holy scriptures to nourish our faith, hope, steadfastness and good habits. We hear exhortations and rebukes. We take such judging very seriously – as befits those who believe they are in the sight of God – especially seriously when anyone sins so grievously we have to cut them off from our prayer, our congregation and all sacred things. Our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by money, but by their established character. There is no buying and selling in the things of God. Though we have a fund, but not because people can buy religion. Once a month, anyone who wants to makes a small donation – but only he who is able and willing; there is no compulsion. It is not spent on feasts, but to support and bury poor people, to provide for orphans, the elderly old persons, victims of shipwreck and those in prison for their faith.
44. No one considers how great a loss it is to the Empire, what an injury to the state, when people as virtuous as we are put to death in such numbers, and so many of the truly good suffer the ultimate penalty. Here we call your own acts to witness, you who are daily presiding at the trials of prisoners, and passing sentence upon crimes. In your long lists of those accused of many and various atrocities, has any assassin, any thief, anyone guilty of sacrilege, or seduction, or stealing bathers’ clothes, ever been named as a Christian too? Or when Christians are brought before you purely on the charge of being Christians, do you ever find them to be guilty of such crimes? It is always with your folk [i.e. pagans] that the prison is steaming, the mines are sighing, the wild beasts are fed: it is from you that the organizers of the gladiatorial circus always get their herds of criminals to feed up for the occasion. You will find no Christian there, unless they are there simply because they are Christians.
45. We and we alone are without crime. And there is nothing strange about that, because it is an absolute necessity for us. We have a perfect knowledge of what goodness is, being taught by a perfect Master, God himself. And faithfully we do His will, being commanded by a Judge we dare not despise. Your ideas of virtue, on the other hand, come from mere human opinion, and you are commanded by human authority. This means that your understanding of morality is deficient: it is incomplete and lacks the authority to produce a life of real virtue. Human knowledge of what is good is easily deceived, and human authority is easily despised. So, which is the better rule, to say, “You shall not kill,” or to teach “Do not even be angry?” Which is more perfect, to forbid adultery, or to restrain from even a single lustful look? Which indicates the higher mind, prohibiting evil-doing or evil-speaking? Which is more thorough, not allowing an injury, or not even letting an injury done to you to be repaid? [Matt 5:21-48] No doubt about it, we, who receive our reward under the judgment of an all-seeing God, and who look forward to eternal punishment from Him for sin, we alone make a real effort to lead a blameless life, inspired by our greater knowledge, the impossibility of concealing anything, the severity of the threatened torment (not merely long but everlasting) and our fear of the Judge whom all should fear and by which fear they are judged – I mean not the Proconsul, but God.
49. All you can do to us depends upon our own pleasure. Being a Christian is obviously a matter of my own choice, so you can only condemn me for Christianity if I choose to be condemned. Do whatever you can to me on that score, and you do it at my will, not in your own power. The people’s rejoicing in our persecution is therefore utterly groundless. When they delight in our suffering, they are merely sharing in our joy, because we would far rather be condemned than betray God. Those who hate us should regret rather than rejoice in our condemnation, as we have obtained the very thing we choose.
50. “In that case,” you say, “why do you complain about being persecuted? You should be grateful to us for giving you the sufferings you want.” Well, it is quite true that it is our desire to suffer, but in the same way that a soldier longs for war. Of course, no one suffers willingly, since suffering involves fear and danger. But we are like those who object to the conflict, but fight with all our strength, and when victorious rejoice in the battle, because they reap from it glory and spoil. It is our battle to be summoned to your courts and, in fear of execution, to fight there for the truth. But the battle is won when the goal of the struggle is reached. This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of eternal life. But, you say, we are vanquished. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we seize the victory in the very moment that we are overcome. Bound to a stake, we are burned on a heap of wood. This is the attitude in which we conquer, it is our victory robe, it is our triumphal entry. This attitude does not please those whom we overcome. Because of it, we are counted a desperate, reckless race. But the very desperation and recklessness you object to in us, you exalt among yourselves as a standard of virtue in the cause of glory and of fame. Mucius of his own will left his right hand on the altar. What sublimity of mind! Empedocles gave his whole body at Catana to the fires of Etna. What resolution! The founder of Carthage gave herself away in second marriage to the funeral pile. What a noble witness of her chastity! …
Zeno the Eleatic, when he was asked by Dionysius what the good of philosophy is, answered that it teaches contempt of death and so was handed over to the tyrant’s whip without flinching, and sealed his opinion with his death. We all know how the Spartan lash, applied with the utmost cruelty under the very eyes of encouraging friends, confers honor on the young men who endure it in proportion to the blood which they shed. For such human glory, you count it neither reckless folly, nor desperate obstinacy to despise death and all kinds of savage treatment. You will endure this for your home country, for the Empire, for friendship, but not for God! You cast statues in honor of such people, you put inscriptions upon their images and carve epitaphs on their tombs, so that their names may never perish. So far as you can by your monuments, you grant your sons the resurrection of the dead. But anyone who expects the true resurrection from God and so suffers for God, is insane! Go zealously on, good presidents! You will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice us, kill us, torture us, condemn us and grind us to dust, as they demand. Your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. That is why God allows us to suffer. Did you not just recently condemn a Christian woman to be violated by men rather than thrown to the lions? In doing so, you showed that we consider a taint on our purity something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Your cruelty, however great, is more a temptation to us than a benefit to you. The more we are mown down by you, the more we grow. The blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers, such as Cicero and Seneca… exhort their readers to bear pain and death bravely, and yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, who teach not by word, but by deed. In fact, the teacher is this very obstinacy that you rail against: all who contemplate it want to find out what is at the bottom of it; all who find out embrace our doctrines; and all who have embraced them, desire to suffer in order to become part of the fullness of God’s grace, and obtain God’s complete forgiveness by giving in exchange for their blood. For that secures the remission of all offenses. And this is why it is that we give you thanks, on the very spot, for your sentences on us. As the divine and human are ever opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by the Highest.

There is a lot about the hostility of society toward Christians and Christianity. It's literally never been otherwise, except for a few short years in the United States between the time the first Pilgrims landed and sometime around the end of the '90's. During the time between the sexual revolution (60's) and the '90's, the United States had one of its greatest revivals in history, known as the Jesus Movement. However, that revival didn't penetrate the core of our society the way the revivals of earlier years had. At this same time, we had one of the great evangelists of our time (Billy Graham) ministering throughout the United States. He did a great deal for individuals, but he still did not truly penetrate society as did earlier revivals. 
This accounts in great measure for the problems we have now in our society. Combined with philosophical relativism, the social gospel, and seminaries that teach nothing, Christianity has many problems. To fully understand the forces that got us here, I recommend that everyone read Francis Schaeffer's works, which he wrote in the '70's. They are not hard to read, but they explain what happened in ways that would take me a couple books of my own. 
Here are some of Schaeffer's books. I've focused on the ones that help understanding of the reasons Christianity has fallen on such difficult times. He was European (Swiss) but what he writes applies here, too.
Escape From Reason:  https://www.amazon.com/Escape-Reason-Classics-Francis-Schaeffer/dp/0830834052
How Should We Then Live: https://www.amazon.com/Should-Then-Live-LAbri-Anniversary-ebook/dp/B00IFG0AD8/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1
The Church at the End of The 20th Century: https://www.amazon.com/Church-Twentieth-Century-Christian-paperbacks/dp/0340201363
Schaeffer had lots of excellent books, and they are all great.
In addition, every Christian who thinks he has it bad should read Foxe's Book of Christian Martyrs. This book details the persecutions Christians experienced from the beginning of the Christian Church up through the British persecutions. YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.
In the 20th Century, the following things have happened (and this is by no means all):
Terrible persecutions under the Communists (we can't know exact numbers. These are estimates, som good, some bad):
Soviet Union: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_Soviet_Union (12-20 MILLION)
Other places: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/ (these folk actually keep records);
The martyrdom of Christians in the 20 and 21st centuries is terrible. Not only have Christians been targeted for extermination in communist countries, they have also been targeted in various African nations, and in the entire Islamic world, depending on the particular ruling regime. India has been a terrible place in the past for religious persecution,
So when you discuss how awful persecution is in the United States, I take your point, but really??!! The US has been one of the LEAST hostile nations in the world for Christians throughout its existence.
The reason? We have a Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion (which sometimes doesn't work so well, I grant that). One of the wisest moves that the framers of the Constitution made was to place the "freedom of religion clause" in our Constitution. We are one of the few countries that has such a clause.
And now, a word...ISLAM is a "state religion." By its very nature, the union of religion and the state, it always seeks control over the state. This is why every Muslim from the Middle East has a philosophy completely different from ours. They think they are superior because of their religion, and they think that their state religion is the only one that deserves to be represented. If you doubt this, look at Saudi Arabia. When the US invaded Iraq, reports were rife that the Saudis did not want our soldiers to bring the Bible into their lands, because it was a "Muslim country." Consider carefully when you think about making Muslims partners. If they are truly religious men and women, it does not bode well.
In addition, and what I first began to write about, Christianity won't die. It can't die. the Lord has promised that "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church." Persecutions will not destroy us. Hostility will not make us give up. The message we need to hear is not, "Please! Stop persecuting us!" but "You will NOT make me give up!"
Martin Luther once said, "You cannot kill a Christian. All you can do is put him on his horse and give him a send-off to heaven."
For the Christian, death is only a transition. It's tough, but that's the way it is. Christians are the only people on earth who literally cannot die. See John 11:25...

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Waiting for the Lord's Return...

Here we have the final verses of Mark 13, Jesus' words about being ready for the time He comes.

28 "Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.
29 "Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door.
30 "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
31 "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
32 "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
33 "Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come.
34 "It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert.
35 "Therefore, be on the alert--for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning--
36 in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep.
37 "What I say to you I say to all, 'Be on the alert!'"

Of course, the most important words are the final ones in the chapter: "Be on the alert!" or, as the KJV has it, "Watch!"

I've been doing a video commentary on Revelation, which some of you have watched; I'm now to the end--two more videos to go--and I believe that that final verse of Mark 13 is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. We MUST be ready. So many things will happen so fast that we have to be very aware of world, national and local conditions. The Lord IS coming back.
So, first off:
Jesus gives three time reference points to help us understand several important factors about the end.

  • There will be warning: 28 "Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 "Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. In other words, we will know WHEN (only in outline) by the trends in the world. Just as summer is around the corner once the trees are all in leaf, we know that Jesus' return is also around the corner when we see the beginnings of things He's discussed in the rest of the chapter.
  • Once things begin, they will end quickly: 30 "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. "This generation" is the generation watching the "beginning" of the events Jesus describes. The book of Revelation concurs in this; the entire period of the Great Tribulation (from the end of Revelation 11 on) takes just 3-1/2 years. That's 3-1/2 years from the point the Antichrist sits in the Temple, displaying himself as "god," to his being cast into the Lake of Fire. The Antichrist comes to power as a result of the world's upheavals (see Revelation 6-10), which takes about 3-1/2 years, and then takes his full power. So the Antichrist's rise to power is meteoric, and his descent from power is the same--3-1/2 additional years from his murdering the two witnesses in Revelation 11 and his assumption of ultimate power, he is in the Lake of Fire.
  • Finally, there is no information about when all this will start. In fact, Jesus indicates that it might be a very long time from the time he gave the sermon: 31 "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. This is intended to give us the understanding that the process of His return could begin today, or it could wait for many years. We don't know. Conversely, he tells us that knowing "when"  is "hidden information:" 33 "Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. God has intentionally hidden this information. He has set this as one of His mysteries, which will remain unknown until the events begin to unfold. This fact is extremely important because every so often, somebody claims to have unraveled the secret, and gives us a "date." The Jehovah's Witnesses did this nearly 100 years ago; Harold Camping did it in 2011, and others have done so as well. In light of this, everyone should read what Jesus said: "NOBODY KNOWS THE DAY or THE HOUR..."  In fact, Mark 13:33 says, "Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. The word translated "Time" in that verse is a word that usually means "season," such as winter or summer. In other words, He's saying, that with the exception of seeing things actually begin, even trying to know the general time is an exercise in frustration and failure. He has intentionally hidden these things from us so that we will keep watching, rather than saying, "Oh, He's coming in 20 years. That gives me 18 years of partying, and 2 years to clean myself up." That's not the way it is. Start watching NOW.
All this leads to the following conclusion: the single most important thing you can do in your spiritual life is to "watch" or "be on the alert." Jesus put it like this: Luke 12:35 "Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit. 36 "Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. 37"Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them. 38 "Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 "But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 40 "You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect. (and you definitely should read the rest of the passage).

LISTEN to what Jesus says. Put aside things that keep you from watching for Him (I'm not talking about ordinary activities--Jesus actually tells us to keep up with those in another passage), focus on His return, and expect Him. These words from Jesus are both commands and warnings.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pet Peeve--Are you Godly??

I've probably watched / listened to or read a hundred sermons that say, "You should always be happy, healthy and prosperous if you're a Christian."
I often wonder how those people reconcile their so-called Christianity with reality, which includes Middle Eastern Christians getting slaughtered by the hundreds, or wholesale persecutions under Communism, to name just two.
Prosperity is not a guarantee for any of us. In the sense that Christians work harder, act according to God's will, and do their best to follow what might be called the "rules of success," yes, Christians do tend to do better. But they don't always do so, and they are not always blessed commensurate with their level of faith, or their hard work--nor do they always enjoy their lives and stay free of trouble. It doesn't take much of a trip through the Psalms to know this:

Psalm 6:1-7:
1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in Your anger, Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.
2 Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
3 My soul also is greatly troubled; But You, O LORD --- how long?
4 Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies' sake!
5 For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give You thanks?
6 I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears.
7 My eye wastes away because of grief; It grows old because of all my enemies.

Christians DO walk through the "Valley of the Shadow of Death," and they have to deal with it, just like everyone else.

Billy Graham once said that temptation, persecution and trouble come to Christians, just as they do to everyone, but that Christians can rely on the God who made them to be their "ever present help in times of trouble."

Lest you think that this is only an Old Testament concept, Here's a snapshot of Paul's life (he wrote about half the New Testament by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit):

2 Corinthians 2:3-5: 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.

And 2 Corinthians 11:
2 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.
23 Are they ministers of Christ? --- I speak as a fool --- I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often.
24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one.
25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep;
26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;
27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness ---
28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.
29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?
30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.
31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.

Each of these passages makes it very clear that the portion of Christians is not always happy. Yes, we have the joy of everlasting life, but sometimes it's buried so deep beneath our pain that it's tough to remember it.

Now, of course, I'm going to tell you that you should always remember the fact that you will live forever with God, but it can be very tough to do that when your pain overwhelms you. Yes, it's a good testimony that the Lord always keeps you happy and healthy, but it's not true. It's "fake Christianity," just like the "fake news" that everyone's talking about right now. In fact, not only is it fake Christianity, it proclaims a fake Jesus.
What would make anyone think that Jesus liked dying for us? It was the most difficult thing anyone's ever been asked to do--shoulder the burdens of a sinful world, past present and future, and He definitely felt it. He BEGGED the Father, "Let this cup (of suffering) pass from me..." the prophet tells us that "He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;" and He says about this terrible time (I know it's Old Testament--but I believe that this is a prophecy of Jesus),

(Isaiah 50) 6 I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. 7 For the Lord GOD will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.

In other words, the "no bad days" view of Christianity is a false teaching. No, we don't want bad days, but reality is different.

Now why do I say all this? To discourage you? Not at all. I mean the opposite. If the Psalmist says, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." you NEED to know the valley of the shadow of death is real for some. As Peter said, "Don't look at it as a strange thing when you suffer..." 

It is wrong when people say things like, "If you just had enough faith, you could (insert whatever you want here, such as, "be healed")..." well, sometimes that's true. Other times, your "faith" runs counter to the will of God. 
Jesus said, on the one hand, "If you have faith, you can say to this mountain, 'Move,' and it will, and nothing will be impossible for you."

However, He also said, "Father, if it is possible, let this cup (of suffering the death on the Cross) pass from Me...Nevertheless, not what I will, but THY will be done."

These two realities are always in tension. On the one hand, we have tremendous promises. On the other, there is suffering.  Both are real. Both happen to Christians. On the other hand, the future is completely bright, if today is dark. THAT is what has sustained the family of God during the hardest times. The future.

I want to end this post with a story. It's from my own life, so I saw it and know it to be true.
Back when I was a pastor, our church prayed specifically for two people who were dying. One was a quadriplegic. The other had cystic fibrosis. The entire church agreed to fast and pray for three days. The boy with cystic fibrosis lived (medical assistance here as well). The quadriplegic never did get well. Had it been MY choice, both would have gotten well. But it was not. 
Jesus put it like this: "The Son can do nothing of Himself, but whatever He sees the Father doing, He also does...for whatever things He does, the Son also does..." 
I have seen God do amazing things. I have also seen Him allow terrible suffering. It is ultimately HIS choice, for reasons we cannot know--at least for now.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Thinking about gifts...

Not spiritual gifts. Gifts of the sort you put into the offering plate, or the church's coffers. Jesus thought about this, too.
Here are HIS thoughts, from Mark 13:

41 And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums.
42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent.
43 Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, "Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury;
44 for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on."

We are always talking, in churches, about how to "help the poor," and how to "help the homeless;" this gives a completely different perspective. We don't know if this woman was homeless or not, but we do know she was going to bed without eating that night. Put yourself in Jesus' place. Assume you didn't know what He knew about this woman. You're watching. She puts a two half-cent pieces into the offering basket.  Next to her, a man in a suit puts in a $1,000 check. Which one do YOU honor? I can tell you, from long experience with the way wealthy people are treated in church. If you are like most ministers, you're thinking of next month's house payment, so the widow's "mite" doesn't mean much. But to God, the "mite" is mighty. Why? Because it represents devotion to God. God was more important to this woman than dinner. Now that puts giving into a very different framework than our typical, "Give and get blessed" sermon, or "Give because the church needs money." Or "Give because the Lord (yeah, right) needs money.
Giving is what we do, Jesus tells us, with our hearts, not with our fortunes. I like to have money. I think everyone does, and having enough money to live on is important to each of us. But sometimes, not EVERY time, it's good to consider what might happen if we gave like the widow. Not what might happen to the church, because that is definitely NOT Jesus' point. The point is what might happen to US. I'm thinking about that as I write this. I've done what the widow did a very few times, and it's really hard to do--give what you need for yourself, determining that God and His work are more important than what you want or need.
A couple of other thoughts:
1. This was a completely corrupt organization. Look what the Jewish leaders did to Jesus only a few days later. However, that didn't negate the widow's gift. She undoubtedly knew about the corruption. It was famous. Everyone knew. Still, she gave--because God had commanded it. God's command was more important to her than the temporary issues that could have made her hold back.
2. You are more than "what you have." The widow essentially had nothing. She might have been able to buy a few slices of dry bread with her money. Other than that, she had nothing. Yet her life was worth as much as the rich woman's next to her. Jesus said, in another place, "A man's life doesn't consist in the abundance of the things he possesses." This is Jesus' own illustration of that principle.
3. It's always wise to remember that Jesus thought quite differently from us, and a good idea to "get inside His head," to see what He thinks of US...of our behavior...of our gifts...of our attitudes. He wants us to know, and that's one reason more to study the four Gospels--to understand His thinking. Why? Because He thinks like the Father. Something else to remember.

Monday, January 23, 2017

New Year--2017

A few days ago, I was watching/listening to Dr. Charles Stanley (for those who don't know, First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, USA--outstanding preacher!). He was discussing the new year just ahead of us, and he preached on Joshua chapter 1--entering the Promised Land. As I thought about this for a few days (sometimes I do think), I realized that there's a counterpoint chapter to this one, in the book of Numbers, in the Old Testament, and it's contained in these events:

After leaving Egypt and receiving the Law (and the 10 Commandments) from the LORD, the Israelites are poised at the entrance to the promised land, the land of Canaan. God tells Moses, "Send 12 men to search the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and bring back a report." Numbers 13:1-2.
Canaan was inhabited, and the purpose of the search was to learn about the land, how many people were in it, what their fortifications were, who they would have to fight, and the food they could expect to get on the way as they entered their new home and conquered it. In modern language, they were going to secretly "scope it out." This story is rehashed, with some additional details, in Deuteronomy chapter 1.

So the men went out, and returned. They pointed out the wonderful fruits of the land, which they had brought back (they were carrying this huge cluster of grapes along with some pomegranates and figs, on a pole between two men); they said, "Yes, this land is indeed fruitful and beautiful, and it does flow with milk and honey, just as Moses and the LORD said,

......

BUUUT...

"There are strong people there--fortified cities, tough mountain men who occupy the hill country, and then there are the "Sons of Anak." Those guys are giant. We felt like grasshoppers looking up at them when we saw them."

Of course, everyone got excited. Somehow they hadn't expected to actually fight for the land. They must've thought it would be empty and ready for occupancy.  So they all started to complain and mutter and whine and talk about turning back to go to Egypt.

About this time, Caleb stood up and said. "HOLD ON! We WILL win! We gotta go NOW!"

Lots of other people, including 10 of the spies who went out, said, "NO WAY!" Those sons of Anak are huge!" (They were, too, Goliath of Gath, whom David killed, was NINE feet tall). So the spies said, "Look! This land eats up the people who live there. We have NO CHANCE!"

Caleb and Joshua and Moses and Aaron BEGGED the people to listen, but they wouldn't.
In fact, they decided to appoint another leader and go back to Egypt--about 250 miles away if you take the shortest route (as if that was possible. You can't go back. Not gonna happen.).

So the LORD punished them: 10 spies died immediately, and the rest of the Israelites spent forty years wandering about in the wilderness, until the entire generation that rejected God's plan for them was dead. So they got to live in the desert for those 40 years, rather than on the beach and in the mountains. Yuck.  All of them were dead, that is, except Joshua and Caleb. Joshua became the new leader of the Israelites after Moses died, and Caleb conquered the region of which all the rest of the spies were so afraid--but I'm getting ahead of myself.

So that's why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for so long. The question is, "What led to that? Where did the Israelites go wrong?"

The answer is found in the text of Numbers 13-14, and in Deuteronomy 1, AND in Joshua 1.
Here's what the passages say:

1. They did not believe God. God was really quite unhappy with the way the Israelites acted. They had, as He said, "seen His glory and His miracles which He performed in Egypt and in the wilderness," but rebelled against Him time after time, even after they said to Him, "all that the LORD has spoken we will do, and be obedient." So despite the fact that they had seen all these mighty miracles, they were unwilling to transfer what the LORD HAD done to what He WOULD do. This is an exceedingly common problem. Most people have to really work at believing God for the future, even if they have seen Him work miracles in the past. So the thought here for you and me would be, "Remember, Relive, Respond in faith." Even if God has not yet done anything "miraculous" for you, you can in fact trust Him. It's time to move on with your life. Go. Now.

2. They were cowards. True faith and courage are Siamese twins--the inseparable kind.  Here's what it says in Joshua 1:6: "Be strong and courageous..." in 1:7: "Only be strong and very courageous..." in 1:9: "Be strong and courageous." (courageous X3)
If God chooses to repeat Himself, He does it for a reason. Here that reason is that the original failure was a lack of courage to accept the commands God gave. As for you, now it's time for courage. Every new thing requires courage, and many of us have a large amount of self-doubt: "There are giants," we say, and "They are too big for us..." NO! No giant is really big if God is standing with you. When God is with you, you are allied with the One who said, "Is any thing too hard for the LORD?" (the answer, of course, is NO.). We all face a new year. We don't know what it will hold. We do know that God has said, "I will not fail you. I will never leave you. I will never forsake you." He will be with you. Always.

3. They refused to listen. When God said, "Go take the land," they said, "Let's send spies." (apparently the people originally asked Moses to do this, and Moses took the request to God, who said, "sure. Let the spies go look at the land, and then come back and do what I tell you." See Deuteronomy 1:22).  Once the spies came back, and told the Israelites what they had found, the Israelites were horrified, and wanted to give up right away (did you ever say, "I can't do that!" I have, much to my personal loss).  Moses said, "You were not willing to go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD..." in other words, God spoke, and the Israelites turned a deaf ear to what He said. Moses continues, "Do not be shocked (at the Canaanites and their fortifications), nor fear them. The Lord your GOD who goes before you WILL HIMSELF fight for you, just as He did in Egypt...and in the wilderness where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as a man carries his son...but for all this, you did not trust the LORD your God..." (see Deuteronomy 1:29-33).
This is why God emphasizes to Joshua the immense importance of what He says: "Be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you...do not turn from it to the right or to the left...(Joshua 1:7)... "This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, so that you may be careful to do ALL that is written in it, for THEN you will make your way prosperous, and THEN you will have success." Joshua 1:8).

So the Israelites had these three problems: They refused to believe, they refused to act, and they refused to listen. This was because they were faithless cowards who turned a deaf ear to God.

So how does this speak to us about the coming year?
There will definitely be challenges. There are challenges every year. We must not shrink from them. We must meet each challenge with faith and courage, listen to God, and do what He says. Pretty simple, really. It's just hard remembering these things when you are facing a challenge that you think is much bigger than you are. Nevertheless, you CAN do it, because if you worship and love God, HE IS WITH YOU.

This new year, and all the new years, are for courageous people of faith who listen to God. 

Did you fail last year?

OK...that was last year...Forget the things which are behind...reach forward to do the will of God this coming year. Don't let yourself get scared. Even if you're scared, do it anyway (THAT's courage). Believe God. He will be with you. All year. Not ONE day shall pass that God forsakes you. Not one hour. Not even one minute.
Remember, for us who believe, we are citizens of heaven. We CANNOT be destroyed. Act like it.