Monday, November 20, 2017

 

A burnt offering acceptable to God . . . What it means to burn

Today I was reading through some old posts, and I came across one from 10 years ago that caused me to stop and to think. I wrote this note as I was preparing to teach on the book of Hebrews at Liberty, and the thoughts below strike me as especially helpful during the season of Thanksgiving. As we consider this week all the good things we have received, let us also think of ways we can show our gratitude by giving back. Let us strive to be like Jesus and to serve humbly those around us. What do we need to put on the altar today to let God consume? Where do I need the fire of God in my life? I hope this repeat blesses you!

As I sit here in my comfortable home reading the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, I am listening to Caedmon's Call (the first album). I am struck by the honesty and character of the lyrics (of course, it doesn't hurt that Derek Webb wrote a bunch of the songs). Nonetheless, the interesting mixture of the admonitions of Hebrews with the alternative/folk feel of Caedmon's Call has put me in quite the introspective mood. Before I go any further, then, I want to quote for you the song "Coming Home," written by Aaron Tate and copyrighted by Cumbee Road Music in 1994. Here ya go!


You say you want a living sacrifice
Well here I am a burnt offering
Crawling off the altar
And back into the fire

And with my smoke-filled lungs
I cry out for freedom
While locking and chaining myself
To my rotting desires

And I hate the stench
But I swallow the key
And with it stuck in my throat
Can you hear me
Can you hear me

(Chorus)
I'm coming home. I'm coming home.
I'm coming home. I'm coming home.
But I'm still a long way off

I am shell shocked and I have walked
Through the trenches full of tears
With the mortars of memory
Exploding in my burning ears

You've stripped the trees of Lebanon
And now you're stripping me
Of the bark of false morality
The bite of selfish greed
Lord, can you hear me

(Chorus)
I'm coming home. I'm coming home.
I'm coming home. I'm coming home.
But I'm still a long way off

Will you run to me
Will you come to me
Will you meet me
Will you greet me
Will you drag me home
Cause I'm still a long way off

(Chorus)
I'm coming home. I'm coming home.
I'm coming home. I'm coming home.
But I'm still a long way off

I guess the reason that this song struck me today is the imagery of fire. Fire plays a big role in the letter to the Hebrews.

God is depicted as a burning fire.

There is a bit of discussion about the altar and sacrifices aflame.

Even Christ is depicted as a type of burnt offering offered on our behalf outside of the city--the same place where the author of Hebrews wants us to join Christ so that we can endure the abuse that he suffered.

Why? Because our God is a consuming fire.

What does fire consume? It consumes anything that is not like it. God will also consume those things in us that do not correspond to his character. That is why we are admonished to "Strive for peace with all people, and for the holiness without which no one will see God."

The song above reminds me of these things. We are on an altar whether we like it or not. We are either on the altar of God (allowing our non-God aspects to be burnt away and changed into his likeness), or we are on the altar of our own selfishness (burning away with our own deceit and sinful wishes). Like Aaron Tate points out, we crawl off the altar of God into the fire itself. We cry out for freedom while chaining ourselves to our own rotting and despicable desires.

We are on fire. We are burning.

What are we burning and why are we burning?

Many of us burn for all the wrong reasons--we are aflame with our own passions and desires, pursuing things that not only will not satisfy, but that will scar us forever if we continue to make ourselves a sacrifice to stuff. We look for stuff to fill the hole in the seat of our beings, we strive to come to wholeness through means that will not make us whole--we try to make ourselves something we are not, we try to obtain possessions that we do not need, we spend and are spent pursuing more stuff that not only clog our homes but clog our spiritual and physical veins and keep us from living our lives as God intended.

We can also burn for the right reasons--we can give ourselves over to a life of sacrifice or selfless living that puts the needs of others before our own desires and wishes. We may be aflame with a love that desires the best of God's blessings for our neighbors. We burn in God's presence so that we may lose anything that is not of God and gain Christ as "all that is really important." It is not an easy place to be, being consumed until only God is left. Nonetheless, such a place is necessary if we are to live a life abundant.

Let us come to God's consuming fire to be purified, to receive the delicious grace of God in Christ, to find all our rotting desires removed and transformed. If not, we are merely burning on our own waste.

Hebrews 10:31, 39
"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. . . . But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls."

Thanks for reading!

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

 

Where do we need Help? Romans 8:26-39

In July I had the privilege of preaching at Woodlawn Baptist Church. My text was Romans 8:26-39 (and Psalm 121), and my title was "Where do we need Help?" Below are the notes from that sermon.

Where do we need help? Romans 8:26-39 (Psalm 121)

Intro—Help. Anybody here ever need help? We all need it. Maybe we need help with our computers. Maybe we need help with security. Maybe we need help getting up (I’ve fallen . . . ). Maybe we just need help getting something off of a tall shelf, or getting groceries to the care, or taking care of the yard, or with our homework, or with a project. 

Songs about “help” are everywhere. The Beatles had two: “Help!” and “With a little help from my friends”. The Beach Boys wanted help from Rhonda. The Four Tops couldn’t help themselves. Elvis couldn’t help falling in love. Billy Swan said, “I can help.” And even Stevie Wonder crooned “Heaven Help Us All.” Where do we need help?

Help is a very scriptural idea. Adam needed help and received from God a helper suitable to him named Eve. The Jews cried out to God in their captivity in Egypt and received help in the form of Moses. God sent Joshua to help the Jews to conquer the promised land. The Judges helped the people against oppression. God sent David to help the people defeat their enemies. Job cried out for God’s help. The Psalms are full of such hope (read 46 and 121). The prophets encouraged the people to turn to God for help and to avoid relying on the support of others or horses and chariots or governments etc. Where do we need help?

Luke 1:54—Mary sees Jesus as the “help” of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is described as Helper in John 14-16. Our passage today from Paul’s letter to the Romans offers us some “help” as well. Read Romans 8:26-39.

“Nearly every sentence is a new way of stating the promise that God has not abandoned ‘us,’ and is in fact working--across the past, present, and future--on our behalf. (While the first person plural verbs originally referred to Paul and those he calls "brothers and sisters" in 8:12, succeeding generations of Christians have of course understood themselves, also, to be directly addressed by the words.) The text has three units, and any one of them could be the basis of a sermon. Together, they offer a look into the way God's love bursts forth into help for us over time.” Commentary on Romans

Here we see three areas God offers us help: 1) words, 2) witness, and 3) warfare. Where do we need help? 

We Need Help With Words/Prayer vv. 26-27—"In the same way the Spirit also joins to help in our weakness," Paul begins in Romans 8:26-27. The language of these first two verses has more in common with the earlier verses of chapter 8 than those that follow them. As the Spirit had helped us to cry, "Abba, Father," (Romans 8:16), so also the Spirit helps us pray when we do not know what to pray.

William Willimon tells the following story about a hospital visit to a man who was diagnosed with cancer:  

Willimon admits that he entered the hospital room with apprehension. His friend George had gotten a bad diagnosis the day before. Cancer. Things didn’t look good. 
“George, how’s it going?”
“Preacher, I am glad that you are here. I need some help.”
“What kind of help?”
“I can’t figure out what to pray for. I mean, do I pray for healing? Surely God knows that I want to be healed. But why should I be healed, and not everybody else in this hospital? What makes me so special? A lot of people my age get cancer. Why should I think that my cancer is any different from their’s and why should God give me some special dispensation?
“On the other hand, I really do want to be healed. If I am healed, think of all the good things I could do. I could continue the work that I’m doing in the church, the work for others. But maybe I’m just being self-deceptive. Just like a frightened kid, who’ll promise God anything. 
"And who am I not to be coming to God asking for all of this? I have a lousy prayer life, don't give God the time of day on most days. So here I've come like a blathering idiot, begging, wheeling and dealing, who am I to be making such prayers?"
Paul reminds us that we do not know how to pray, and he includes himself in that! The spiritual giant who wrote 13 of the NT books admits here that he is with us in not always knowing what to pray. Maybe he is referring to times when we are overwhelmed beyond words (like the man in the story above). 

James Dunn points out that Paul's syntax in verse 26 defines the problem differently than we sometimes think of it. The problem is not that we know what we need and merely lack the right words for requesting it. As Dunn puts it, we "do not know what to want," let alone how to ask for it. In the midst of this confusion, the Spirit intercedes, aligning prayer on our behalf to the will of God for us. The Spirit intercedes for us with unspoken groanings or groanings too deep for words. God helps us pray by praying for and through us with words we just can’t “get out”.

No matter how we read this section, we have to see it in the context of the rest of Romans 8. Paul reminds us in verses 21-23 that creation “groans” in anticipation of God revealing his work in his people. Creation groans in the pain of childbirth until God gives it freedom by finally and decisively making his children the free heirs of all his promises. In the meantime, the church remains puzzled about how to pray, thus the need for the Spirit's assistance. 

Paul challenges us to enter into deeper wrestling with the pain of the world. From the environmental to rundown communities to the devastation of humankind, all of God's creation groans in pain. We need help in our words, we need help praying. We need God’s help to groan with creation over its present state of decay. We need the Spirit’s help to groan with God over the present state of fallen humanity. We need Jesus’ help to groan with the church as it longs for God's ultimate redemption. We need help to pray as we ought.

Just think of it. According to Paul, God’s Spirit is praying through us! Prayer is one vehicle for spiritual maturity, yet prayer as a spiritual discipline remains grossly underused even though we have access to the greatest prayer teacher, the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, the best prayer instruction generally occurs in the midst of severe hardship and suffering that can leave us floundering and overwhelmed. It is then that the Spirit prays in and through us with groans that are too deep for words. We need the Spirit’s help to learn to pray—especially when words fail us. Where do we need the Spirit’s help with words today? Where are we incapable of finding the right words to even ask for God’s help? That is where we need help!

But prayer is usually a private thing, and we need help not only privately but publicly. Here Paul reminds us that God provides help with our witness.

We Need Help With Our Witness/Being Like Jesus vv. 28-30—this section contains a favorite verse for many people, but it also contains some theologically charged words that cause tons of discussion and controversy. Reading some of the discussions of these verses may make us cry out for help from theologians! 

At any rate, I want to focus on one main aspect here tucked away in these verses— In verses 28-30, Paul continues his discussion of salvation and our need for help. It is not just that we need the Spirit to help us by interceding for us in the present. The past tells the same story of God's intention for Christ to be "firstborn within a large family" (8:29), a family that includes us. God’s desire is to include a variety of people (not only Jews) in this plan. It is not an ethnic plan, it is a spiritual plan addressing a very spiritual need. 

Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, but their sin resulting in their fall created a problem for all humans. We still bear something of God’s image, but it is marred, blurred, or in some sense unclear. What Adam and Eve were supposed to be was damaged by their disobedience, and every human is affected by that fall. We need God’s help to be the people he intended us to be. We need Jesus to be the image of God as God originally intended. We need help!

Paul here points to God always having had something beyond wrath in mind for sinners and the decaying creation of which we are all a part. With Jesus’ help, we are brought into a family with brothers and sisters and obligations: we're to love one another and serve one another. Romans 8:29 seems to echo the creation story again when it speaks of recipients of God's call being "conformed to the image of his Son." 

Humans had been made "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27), so now God is working out the plan by which humans are recreated in that image which has been perfectly reflected in God's Son, Jesus. All the doctrinal words here may be summed up in the work of redemption brought about by the blood of Jesus. The goal towards which “all things work together” for God’s people is to make them like Jesus. Where do we need to be like Jesus? Do we need help in living a holy life? How are we doing in obeying God’s command? Do we need help to represent Jesus properly to the world around us? Paul reminds us that we have the Spirit’s help to be all that God intended. We have the help we need to be conformed to the image of Christ—we can serve in humility, we can live sacrificially, and we can be a help to point others to the One who can help them! And we need help to do it!

But witness is only one aspect of public life for Christ. As we pursue Christ-likeness we will find ourselves sometime facing hard times. When we face hardship, Paul reminds us that God provides help in our warfare.

We Need Help With Warfare/Persevering in trials vv. 31-39—Our passage ends with a divine hymn that boasts of God's incredible and invincible love. Nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul begins this section with some questions about the situation of Christians. In verses 31-34, Paul essentially claims that the people who put their faith in Christ have found their need for acceptance met. The need for belonging is met in the body of Christ. In fact, the answer to the questions Paul asks is “No one but Jesus!” Paul seems to be saying that what we need is found in the redeeming love of Christ, in his death and resurrection. By giving us Jesus, God has provided all we need, and Jesus (like the Spirit) even helps us in prayer. Paul reminds us that the world may be a scary place, but God has us in his hand and has provided a place of refuge and rest. We need help, and that help is found in Christ.

In biblical times, people feared many apparent "powers," including angels and astrology. Paul addresses some of these things in this hymn, but the specifics aren’t as important as the conclusion—we need help to win in spiritual warfare. God has provided us that help in Jesus. Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is the means by which we overcome the stuff the world throws at us. In fact, Paul says that nothing the world throws at us can separate us from God’s great grace. Paul says that we are "more than conquerors." 

Suffering is not something to be feared. Rather, as Gorman reminds us, "Believers do not ignore suffering because it has no effect on the true self, but rather they see in the suffering of Christ the full involvement of the self of God and of Christ in and for the world" (Cruciformity, 329). In other words, God and Christ are fully involved in suffering and involved in it "in and for the world."

What's more, because of God's faithfulness in raising Jesus from the dead, both the present experience of suffering and what we can expect of the future are transformed. We not only know God's solidarity with us now but also anticipate a time when even the worst that the powers of Sin and Death have to offer will be shown to be a "slight momentary affliction" (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17) when compared with the "glory about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). What do we need? Why are we afraid?

What stands in the way of us enjoying God's love? Paul offers a laundry list of challenges resident in his time. What challenges do we face in which we need God’s help? Are we allowing something to separate us from God's love today? If so, what is it? Fear of sex offenders in the neighborhood? Concern over violent crimes? Alarm over terrorism? The inability to control one's life and circumstances? Fear of the future? What might happen if we fully commit? What do we need? 

We need God’s help to recognize that NONE of these things can separate us from his great love. Many distractions attempt to sever our attention from God. Each distraction claims to be more powerful, important, or influential than God. But God’s love and God’s grace are ours in Christ. There is one word that describes the relationship between God's love for God's redeemed: inseparable. We need that kind of relationship!

Conclusion—Now what?

How do we respond to this word?

Pray—even when we don’t have words—pray. This week identify specific areas where we need the Spirit’s help, and then let him help. Groan before him. Groan for the state of the world. Groan for the lost who do not know the love of Christ. Groan for the state of the church and its lack of love. Groan for those areas where we are not yet free but long for liberty. Spend at least 5 minutes a day in God’s presence this week, and just groan for the needs around you.  

Witness—seek opportunities to share and to discuss the great kindness that God has shown us. Look for broken people and help them. Look for lost people and share the good news with them. Look for places where there is a need, and ask God to help you meet that need. Seek opportunity to be conformed to the image of Jesus!

Warfare—recognize that Satan wants to distract us from the goal of being like Jesus. Focus most importantly on the fact that no matter how hard Satan tries, he CANNOT separate us from God’s love. If we are God’s children, then we have God’s grace. Look for places that distract or that try to keep us from the focus on God’s invincible love. Address those issues specifically. Bring them into proper focus to see how small they are compared to Jesus.


Where do we need help? Do we need a little help from your friends? Do we need someone to help? This week, remember that God doesn’t help those who help themselves, rather God helps those who are broken and who ask for help. We need to humble ourselves and receive help. 

Thank you for reading! 

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

 

Rise Above Discouragement Jeremiah 20:1-13

Back in June, I was asked to preach at Forest Community Church, and I chose as my focus Jeremiah 20:1-13. As I prepared my sermon, I found several sources that deal with this difficult passage, and I wanted to acknowledge that what I say below comes from readings in several commentaries, books, and sermons. In other words, even though the delivery was my own, I recognize that a lot of the material below stands on a foundation laid by fellow Christians in their study and in their journey to follow God. I hope this sermon blesses you, and if it does please feel free to use these materials to encourage others to follow Christ in all that they do.

Introduction

Discouragement is part of life. Discouragement comes most often when you do right things but experience poor results. You work hard, but you don't make progress. You show up to practice every day, giving it your all, but you seem to keep on losing. You spend time with your child--going out of your way to parent the best you know how--but she nonetheless rebels.

Discouragement eats a hole in our hearts. It makes us want to quit, saying things we shouldn't say, shaking our fists at God. That's how Jeremiah felt. God called him to speak a harsh message to a rebellious people. Jeremiah obeyed. Yet on one occasion Jeremiah so angered an assistant to the high priest and chief security officer for the temple, Pashhur, that the man arrested Jeremiah, beat him, and threw him in jail, locking him in stocks so that his body was contorted, writhing in pain. Here was a man in deep distress. He endured physical, emotional, spiritual, and professional anguish. He walked into deep despair, all for doing God's will.

Jeremiah was released the next day, emerging with a sentence of his own. He gave Pashhur a new name: "Terror on Every Side." This name described the terror Babylon would inflict on Judah, specifically the fate Pashhur would suffer when God's judgment fell. He would die and be buried outside Israel, which was considered a judgment. But what difference would that make? He had been preaching lies in the name of God and encouraging idolatry in the temple. So, why not live in a land of lies and idols, and eventually be buried there?

Enough about Pashhur - it is Jeremiah's rise above discouragement on which we want to focus. In this last of his recorded laments, which is similar to Jesus' Gethsemane experience, we find the highs and lows of human emotions: grief and joy, despair and delight, perplexity and praise. Like Jesus, Jeremiah reminds us that even a faithful servant of God can become discouraged. Jeremiah lived above his feelings and fulfilled God's will.

We, too, can rise above discouragement. Here's how.

I. Be honest - tell God how you feel (v. 7)

Jeremiah was honest. He felt deceived by God. The word "deceived" means to be enticed or seduced. Obviously, God does not mislead or trick people, but Jeremiah felt that God had lured him into the ministry only to make him a laughingstock. He felt like a helpless youngster who had been seduced and overpowered by a deceptive lover. He felt ridiculed and offended. His voice was not making a difference. He was crying out for the people to repent, yet they continued toward destruction and judgment. Jeremiah's intense lament was private – for God alone, not public.

God wants us to talk to him, even when we are angry, upset, and frustrated. He wants us to tell the truth. A lot of dishonesty goes on in relationships, even with God.

People ask me: Is it wrong to be angry with God? First, we must remember that anger is an emotion, and oftentimes emotions are neither right nor wrong: they just are. What we do with our emotions is a separate issue. People are sometimes surprised by the answer I give them: "If you feel anger toward God you should tell him. God is big enough and strong enough to handle your hurt and anger. So tell him about.  He wants you to pour out your heart to him. He wants you to express what is in your heart."

Didn't Jesus pour out his heart to the Father in Gethsemane and on the cross? We should do the same. Hold nothing back when you pray. Tell the Lord exactly what's in your heart, especially the bad feelings. By pouring out these emotions we are freed from their hold, and we enter more deeply into the loving embrace of the Lord.

God does not want us stuck in anger or any other negative feelings we may have. This is why we should be honest with God in prayer. We should go before God as we are, not pretending to be someone we are not. If we are honest with God in prayer, we may feel a sense of deep freedom, and we may find ourselves having a deeper relationship with God and less discouragement.

To bottle up our anger - even anger toward God - does only harm, never good. To be dishonest--even in our prayers--clouds our relationship with God. God desires real people, honest and forthright, who pour out their hearts before him, bringing him all their motives and emotions. The truth is that God knows the depths of our hearts--our thoughts, our motives, our emotions--even before we speak them. So, if we fail to be honest with God then we are only deceiving ourselves. Honesty with God is liberating. But honesty is only one part of this story. If we are going to be honest with God, we should also expect him to be honest with us. And God honestly expects us to obey him. Another way to rise above discouragement is to obey what God has called you to do. 

II. Be obedient - keep doing what you've been called to do (v. 9)

Because of Pashhur's unjustified actions, Jeremiah was ready to let go of God and leave him out of all conversations. But he couldn't do that. He would not be at peace doing anything else. God's message was like a fire in his bones that he could not put out. He could not be quiet about it. Jeremiah did not preach because he had to say something, but because he had something to say. Not saying it would have destroyed him.

Do you know why most pastors keep at the task despite rejection and anger? Plain and simple, for some pastors the call of God upon their lives keeps them going. The story was told of some pastors who bemoaned the struggles of their vocation. One said: "Do you want to know what I tell everyone who comes to me asking if they should go into the ministry? I tell them, ‘If you can do something else, do it.'" Another pastor piped up, "You know why I don't do something else? Because I am called."

When you are called, it is difficult to ignore that call.

The call comes first from the heart - internal - as a result of the continued drawing from the Holy Spirit. This conviction is as deep within the innermost being of a person. Eventually, it becomes a solid foundation. It marks a person for life. In time the inward call of God is reflected outward, as the Christian community confirms it. No one can fulfill the difficult role of ministry adequately who has not been called and commissioned by Christ (internally) and the Church (externally).

Warren Wiersbe, former pastor and author, writes, "The work of ministry is too demanding and difficult for a man to enter it without a sense of divine calling. Men enter and then leave the ministry usually because they lack a sense of divine urgency. Nothing less than a definite call from God could ever give a man success in the ministry." (Howard F. Sugden and Warren W. Wiersbe, When Pastors Wonder How (Chicago: Moody, 1973), p. 9.

Four questions emerge to evaluate whether one has a call to ministry. Is there confirmation from God and by others? Are instructional shepherding and leadership abilities evident? Is there a longing to serve God with one's whole heart? Is there a lifestyle of integrity? Ministry is more about being that it is about doing.

When called, obey. Obedience is difficult and painful, yet I suppose disobedience results in more difficulty and pain. All Christians are called by God to follow Christ. We are all called to love God and to love others. This call can be difficult to live out, but if we are called we must also obey. Obedience can help us rise above discouragement. When discouraged, go back and get our obedience up to date. While we are checking our obedience, let's also remember the One who is with us. Let us be watchful to see God's hand in all of our situations. 

III. Be watchful - know that the Lord is with you (v. 11)

Jeremiah realized that he wasn't alone. "But the LORD is with me like a violent warrior" (Jer. 20:11). He was not on the losing side.  He was going to win because the Lord was with him like a mighty warrior. God would deal effectively, in his own way and time, with his enemies.

Often in our discouragement we look inward--to our problems, our frustrations, and our situation--when we need to look upward to a God who has not abandoned us. He is with us. He accompanies us. He is a present-tense God. 

Can we imagine the difference it would make in our outlook if we remained consciously aware that God is with us? Imagine going into a difficult board meeting knowing that God is beside you. Picture entering into a stressful presentation knowing that God walks with you. Envision confronting the status quo with the mighty arm of the Lord surrounding you.

Knowledge of God's presence can help us accomplish significant things despite our discouragement. It provides courage, valor, guts, strength, tenacity, and perseverance.

A. W. Tozer writes:

"The world is perishing for lack of the knowledge of God, and the church is famishing for want of his presence. The instant cure of most of our religious ills would be to enter the Presence in spiritual experience, to become suddenly aware that we are in God and that God is in us. This would lift us out of our pitiful narrowness and cause our hearts to be enlarged. This would burn away the impurities from our lives as the bugs and fungi were burned away by the fire that dwelt in the bush."

Living in the glow of God's presence will enable us to fight on despite discouragement. As we acknowledge God's presence in our difficulty, we should remember to come with an attitude of worship. Knowing God is there can help us rise above discouragement, and entering into a mindset of worship can fuel our souls with his peace and encouragement. 

IV. Be worshipful - praise God with your whole heart (v. 13)

Jeremiah's despair turned to joy, his defeated attitude turned to triumph, his dismay to courage. The key that unlocked the door to victory was praise. Jeremiah triumphantly proclaimed, "Sing to the Lord! Praise the Lord" (Jer. 20:13).

Praise is the one weapon in the Christian's arsenal against which Satan has no defense. When we praise God we acknowledge that he is in charge--he can do what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants.

Praise is more than just acknowledging God for the good that comes our way. Praise is accepting from God all that comes our way, both the good and the bad. The praise we offer when things don't go our way is far more precious to God than the praise we offer when all is well.

Praise does four things:

A. Praise recognizes a Provider

Praise takes our minds off our situation and focuses them on God. It reminds us that God has the right to rule and to reign in our lives how he sees fit. It acknowledges that God knows more about what he is doing than we do. It accepts that God can take all the bad stuff of life and make something beautiful out of it.

B. Praise acknowledges a plan

A few chapters later Jeremiah records God's words to Israel: "'For I know the plans I have for you' - this is the LORD's declaration – 'plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope" (29:11). God weaves a tapestry of our lives. We don't always see the finished product. Sometimes to get to the end we have our share of difficulties. When we realize God has a plan, we have two options: we can fight it, or we can embrace it.

C. Praise accepts the present

Praise is based on a total and joyful acceptance of the present as part of God's loving, perfect will for us. Praise is not based on what we think or hope will happen in the future. We praise God, not for what we expect will happen in our around us, but we praise him for who he is and where and how we are right now.

D. Praise releases the power

Prayer opens the door for God's power to move into our lives. But the prayer of praise releases more of God's power than any other form of petition. The Psalmist wrote, "But thou art holy, O thou that inhabits the praises of Israel" (Psalm 22:3 KJV). God actually dwells, inhabits, and resides in our praise. God's power and presence is near when we praise him.

When we praise God for the present situation as a part of God's plan, God's power is unleashed. This power cannot be brought about by a new attitude or a determined effort of self-will, but by God working in our lives.

Conclusion

Let me close with a legend that reveals the source of discouragement. Supposedly, the devil put his tools up for sale, marking each for public inspection with its appropriate sale price. Included were hatred, envy, jealousy, deceit, lying, and pride. Laid apart from these was a rather harmless looking but well-worn tool--discouragement--marked at an extremely high price. Why the costly price? The devil answered: "Because it is more useful to me than the others. I can pry open a person's heart with that when I cannot get near her with the other tools. Once inside, I can make her do whatever I choose. It is badly worn because I use it on almost everyone, since few people know it belongs to me."

Many people succumb to this infamous tool of Satan. Maybe some us feel its effect now. We can rise above discouragement. Will we:

Be honest - tell God how we feel?
Be obedient - keep doing what we have been called to do?
Be watchful - know that the Lord is with us?

Be worshipful - praise God with our whole heart?

Thanks for reading! 

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

 

Trials Build Character: A Sermon on Hebrews 2:9-18

A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of preaching at Brookneal Baptist Church. The text for my sermon was Hebrews 2:9-18. The title of my sermon was "Trials Build Character: Look to Jesus". I preached a similar sermon a few years ago entitled "When You are Afraid: Look to Jesus". Here is the link to the sermon I preached in August 6, 2017 at Brookneal Baptist Church. I hope it is a blessing to you! Thanks for listening!

Brookneal Baptist Church Sermon Hebrews 2:9-18

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Monday, July 31, 2017

 

Rich or Poor? Which is Best?

In the Beatitudes, Jesus states “Blessed are the poor” or “Blessed are the paupers.” He also states in the Gospels that it is difficult for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Have you ever wondered at the juxtaposition of those two thoughts? I know the traditional interpretation of both sayings, and I am aware of the devotional literature that surrounds them as well. What I want to consider for a few moments today is the abject difference between the two.

The poor are blessed, but the rich have a difficult time entering into God’s kingdom.

Why?

Most of us have been “poor” at some point in our lives. Oh, we may not have been as poor as the poorest of the world, but we had to do without due to our lack of means. Maybe our stomachs even growled and our heads hurt from hunger. Perhaps we even had to bypass the purchase of a particular item we desperately wanted or even needed. Yes, we have known some form of poverty.

Did we feel blessed? Really?

Did you feel “happy” during those times of poverty? In all likelihood, we looked forward with some measure of pleasure/joy to the day when we wouldn’t suffer such setbacks. We prayed and wished for a time when we would have abundance and would not have to “do without.” We didn’t feel blessed, we felt miserable.

Some of us today are rich, or at least, we aren’t poor any more. We can pretty much get what we want or need when we want or need it. We don’t have to “do without” unless we choose to do so. As an example, I recently signed a contract on a house that is much more than I have ever paid for a house. Homes in Lynchburg are costly (compared to homes in Waco, that is), and yet I can afford the note. I am no longer “poor”!

Do I feel far from the kingdom of God? Do I feel unhappy or a lack of blessing? Not really.

What could Jesus mean then? Was he just speaking rhetorically or do these words tell us something important?

I think it is Matthew who says “Blessed are the poor in spirit” as opposed to simply “Blessed are the poor.” I like what Oswald Chambers says in My Utmost for His Highest.

“The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount produces despair in the natural man—the very thing Jesus means it to do. As long as we have a self-righteous, conceited notion that we can carry out our Lord’s teaching, God will allow us to go on until we break our arrogance over some obstacle, then we are willing to come to him as paupers and receive from him. ‘Blessed are the paupers in spirit,’ that is the first principle in the kingdom of God. The bedrock in Jesus Christ’s kingdom is poverty, not possession; not decisions for Jesus Christ, but a sense of absolute futility—I cannot begin to do it. Then Jesus says—Blessed are you. That is the entrance, and it does take us a long while to believe we are poor! The knowledge of our own poverty brings us to the moral frontier where Jesus Christ works. . . . Jesus Christ never asks us to decide for him, but to yield to him—a very different thing.. . . If I know that I have no strength of will, no nobility of disposition, then Jesus says ‘Blessed are you, because it is through this poverty that I enter his kingdom. I cannot enter his kingdom as a good person, I can only enter it as a complete pauper.”

In other words, as long as I think of myself as offering some gift or blessing to God, I cannot receive his free gift or blessing. Unless I recognize the poverty of my own will and spirit, I cannot humbly receive what God has to offer. Like a little child, I must recognize my limitations in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Rich people like us think we can buy or earn what we need or want, God says that the kingdom of heaven is for those who realize that they cannot enter on their own abilities or initiatives. Thanks be to God for the grace to enter! Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift in Jesus Christ!

Thanks for reading!

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Monday, May 15, 2017

 

A Note about Legacies (in loving memory of Bobbie Percer, Jerry Falwell, and Ray Newcomb)

I first wrote the piece below in August 2009. That summer had been a summer of introspection and thought about life. By that time, two great influences in my life had gone to be with the Lord: My dad in August 2004, and Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. in May 2007. Since then, another man who shaped and influenced my spiritual life, Dr. A. Ray Newcomb, also passed into eternity to be with the Lord he loved so much. These men formed and fashioned me in many ways, but this post is not all about them. In fact, this post is simply in their honor. You see, 10 years ago Dr. Falwell passed into eternity. I only had about 3 years to serve with him, but the things he taught me (even before I ever set foot on Liberty Mountain) still have an influence in my life today. He was a man full of big dreams and a lot of love. As far as he was concerned, no one was beyond the reach of God's great gift of love and grace, no one was beyond Jesus. My dad was very similar. My dad loved on the folks other people simply turned away. I didn't realize how much alike these two men were until I met Dr. Falwell at Liberty. Dr. A. Ray Newcomb, the man under whose ministry I became a Christian and yielded to the call to ministry, was not only a man of the Word, he was also an evangelist and a man of prayer. Many of us may never know how many times he prayed us through difficult situations in life. Like Dr. Falwell and my father, Bro. Ray influenced lots of people for the kingdom of God.  At any rate, today marks 10 years since Dr. Falwell left us, and I wanted to reprint this old note to remind us all of the importance of legacies. Thanks, Dad, Doc, and Bro. Ray, for caring for us and leaving such a legacy! I hope we live up to it!

A little over a year ago, I wrote the post below after attending several key events in the lives of some important folks in my life. I want to reprint the article today for a very special reason. Today, August 11, 2009, would have been the 77th birthday of Dr. Jerry Falwell. He was a man of great influence and even greater dreams. His life and ministry cut a large path across this country and had an amazing effect on thousands (no, make that millions) of people. I used to listen to the Old Time Gospel Hour on the radio shortly after I became a Christian. I was even a Faith Partner in his ministry. I wanted to play football at Liberty, and although that never happened, I still felt as though Jerry Falwell was in some ways my pastor and teacher. I read his sermons, I joined his first Moral Majority, and I genuinely appreciated his life and  influence on me as a young man trying to figure out what God wanted me to do.

I watched Jerry Falwell's ministry from afar until August 2004. That month two very important things happened in my life: My father passed away, and I moved to Lynchburg, VA to begin a great adventure teaching at Liberty University. Dr. Falwell became a larger than life part of my adventure. I only had the privilege to meet the man face-to-face a few times, but each time he remembered me and details of my life. He revealed such a genuine concern for me and my family that I began to think of him (to some degree, at least) as my second father. I remember once as he walked through the seminary offices, I could hear his booming voice as he talked to folks. As he passed my office, I heard him say, "Wait, I need to stop by and say hello to Leo." He not only remembered my name, he wanted to come into my office to check on me. His leadership and his kindness still inspire me. Oh that every pastor or leader could be a little bit like Jerry Falwell!

I hope that I live up to his legacy and expectations. I miss him, and I wish he had remained with us. At any rate, here are my thoughts on legacy, presented on this day in honor of a man who profoundly influenced my life: Dr. Jerry Falwell.

Ecclesiastes 7:1 A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth.

Proverbs 22:1 A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, Favor is better than silver and gold.

Recently I have experienced several occasions that caused me to think seriously about the idea of legacy. Recently I attended Liberty's graduation, in which I watched several students and good friends walk across the stage to receive their degrees and launch into their ministries. Then, on May 15, I paused to remember the life of Dr. Jerry Falwell who passed away several years ago. May 17, 2009 saw the retirement of Dr. A. Ray Newcomb from 33 years of being a pastor at First Baptist Church, Millington, TN. Then May 21, 2009 witnessed the high school graduation of my nephew, Ethan Percer. All of these events reminded me of beginnings and endings, but more importantly they reminded me of the impact a legacy can have on people. In the next few paragraphs I'll try to explain.

I'm not sure how much we think of the impact of our lives. As I watched the high school students graduate with my nephew and the graduate students walk the stage in VA, I couldn't help but think about what I may hear about these people in the future. Some of them have already made an impact, some of them have a future impact to make. Most of them have no idea what the end of their lives will be, they only have dreams and hopes and (perhaps) plans. I remember holding my nephew shortly after he was born. Ethan seemed so tiny to be the first grandchild born to my parents, and as I held him in my arms, I prayed that God would grow him into a warrior, a man of God who is willing to help others and to serve God no matter the risk. I had forgotten that prayer, to be honest, until one day I heard a story about my nephew tutoring other students in school and going out of his way to help others when it wasn't necessarily a popular thing to do. He has laid a foundation for a legacy that will not fade. I received an e-mail from his high school principal that said, "I would be proud if all of my students were like Ethan." Ethan is building a legacy.

Some of the seminary students who walked across the stage recently have begun their legacy. Many of them left homes and nice jobs to pursue a degree at the seminary. They said "no" to "success" as the world measures it so that they would have the opportunity to labor for God. Some will labor in obscurity, some will never have "the largest Sunday School in America," some will never make the "big money," or write the most impressive "how to" book for other pastors. I know their lives, their hearts, and I know that their legacy will be greater than any can imagine. Does anyone remember "James the Less"? He was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus, but even church history and tradition have trouble determining who he was. Yet, he was one of the twelve, one of the original disciples, one of the eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Not as famous as James the son of Zebedee, this James nonetheless left enough of an imprint on history to be regarded as one of those individuals who "turned the world upside down" with his life and preaching. We no doubt graduated a lot of these individuals, folks we may have a hard time identifying who will nonetheless make a great impression on many they will bring to Christ or love in God's name. "Less" may describe the knowledge of them, but it will not define their impact on those to whom they minister. I bet there were people in the first century who didn't think of James as "the Less" because of what God did through him. Nonetheless, James built a legacy, and like him, many of these graduating seminary students are building a legacy.

That brings me to two pastors--one gone and another freshly retired. Dr. Jerry Falwell and Dr. Ray Newcomb may have taken decidedly different paths to ministry, but they have something in common--their lives and ministries encouraged and affected many who now try to follow in their footsteps. Both men gave multiple decades to one congregation (Dr. Falwell served at Thomas Road for over 50 years, Dr. Newcomb at First Baptist for over 30 years), and the dreams and plans they received from God have inspired many to pursue the purposes of God for the love of Christ. Both men played a role in helping me grow as a new Christian, in helping me understand the concept of "call," and in helping me define the ministry to which God appointed me. I do not know where I would be without the legacies of these two men. On his retirement, we had a celebration of the ministry of Bro. Ray. During the singing of "Thank You," the minister of music asked all of us who had become Christ followers under Bro. Ray's ministry to come forward and stand by the stage. It seemed like over half of the crowd came forward to testify that God used this man's life and ministry to bring them to Jesus! There were doctors, lawyers, postal employees, politicians, teachers, and even one seminary professor. I was fine until then, but that scene brought tears to my eyes. Bro. Ray was getting to see his impact in a very visible form. Here were dozens, even hundreds of people whose lives will never be the same simply because he obeyed God to serve at First Baptist Church in Millington. That number doesn't even count the lives that have been touched by those individuals as they went out to emulate their pastor. Bro. Ray and Dr. Falwell built great legacies.

Well, I've rambled a bit. I want to close with one more legacy to bring this full circle. As I watched my nephew graduate and as I participated in the celebration of my pastor's life and ministry, I couldn't help but think of one person who would have been so proud of both of them--my father. My dad, Bobbie Percer, Sr., passed away in August 2004. I have no doubt he would have loved this week--watching people honor his pastor and his grandson--oh, how proud he would have been. But my father's legacy is bigger than his joy at the accomplishments of others. You see, my dad left quite an impression. When my father passed away, my family and I drove to Millington from Waco, TX for the funeral. On Friday night before the funeral on Saturday, we had the traditional "viewing" when people would come to give their condolences to the family. I stood there greeting people in a line that stretched so far outside of the funeral home that the people were literally standing in the parking lot. I met folks I did not know, and they told me things I had not heard. One fellow told me how he came to Christ because my dad gave him shoes and a ride to church. This fellow's family was embarrassed to go to church because they did not have proper clothing. My dad not only clothed them, he gave them a ride to church. Another young man told me that he never would have graduated college if my father hadn't helped pay for his education. A young woman (with several children) told me of how my dad had helped her family and been instrumental in leading her husband and several children to the Lord. That incredibly long line of people marched through that funeral home and praised the life of this man, my father, in ways I could not even imagine. My dad was a great man. No, you'll never hear his name mentioned with luminaries like Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham, but man what a large footprint this one man left in a small town in west Tennessee! Lives were changed (including those in his family), and eternities were determined. He did not even recognize all that he had accomplished, but he continued to love and to serve others because he loved a great God. His legacy is intact because he followed the example of his Lord. Bobbie Percer Sr. was a hero to many, and he is a hero to me. If I can have half the influence on others that my father had, I'll be a happy man. Bobbie Percer Sr. left a legacy and a good name.

I watched all of these scenarios open before me recently, and it made me a bit introspective. What kind of legacy am I leaving? Where will my footprints lead others if they follow me? Who would attend a celebration of my life and what would they say? Would my love for Christ be obvious? Would my love for others be mentioned? God has blessed me to walk with giants (and some giants in training), and I have to admit that I am often overwhelmed by their collective witness. I am reminded of a conversation I had with Dr. William L. Lane. I admitted to him that I didn't think I could live up to his example of a godly life and scholarship, and he said to me, "Never covet another person's gift, and never despise your own." He went on to remind me that God had not called me to be identical to Dr. Lane or to anyone else. God had called me to use my unique gifts and abilities for his glory. I do not have to live up to the stories of these giants, I simply need to live the legacy God has given me. No matter how obscure or unrecognized or inconsequential a life may seem, if it is lived for God it will have a legacy. Love God, love people: that legacy will no doubt last. What kind of legacy are we leaving the next generation?

Thanks to all of the men and women who left their footprints in our hearts and lives!

Thank you, dear reader, for reading!

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Sunday, April 09, 2017

 

Repost: Easter--What did we really expect?

A couple of years ago I wrote the note below as I contemplated the week leading up to Easter Sunday. As I read the note earlier today, I thought it might be worth posting again. I hope it is a blessing to you!

The week before Easter is commonly called "Holy Week" by Christians. During this week we celebrate (is that the right word?) the last week of Jesus' life on earth. People will make pilgrimages to Israel and retrace Jesus' final steps, they will pause at the "rock of agony" and cry where Jesus cried out to God in Gethsemane, they will go to the pit where Jesus was interrogated, they will pause where Jesus supposedly stumbled under the load of his cross, they will visit and contemplate Golgotha, they will visit the empty tomb, and they will weep and cry and mourn.

Rightfully so . . . this was THE WEEK for which Jesus lived his entire human life, and it was a rough one for him. On Sunday before his crucifixion he entered Jerusalem with cheers ringing in his ears. The (usually fickle) populace embraced him for all the great miracles he performed, and they hailed his coming as though a conquering warrior had entered the city. Like paparazzi following a Hollywood star, they trailed behind this carpenter from Nazareth and looked for ways to become part of his entourage or to at least get a "piece of the action" as Jesus came to town.

Some of these same folks will probably yell "Crucify him!" in just a few days, by the way.

When Jesus offered them something tangible to grab, they wanted to be a team player, they wanted the fishes and loaves, the healings, the wonders, the mighty signs.

How soon their tune would change . . . how quickly they would turn on the one who was innocent of any sin except the failure to live up to THEIR expectations.

How like them we are today . . .

When things are going our way, we look to heaven and sing God's praises. We celebrate and sing and run to join the band as God rides triumphantly over all our "enemies." But as soon as Jesus fails to live up to OUR expectations, what do we do?

I know the spiritual answer--"though he slay me yet I will praise him."

Do we really? Will we? Will I?

I'm struck with how Jesus routinely challenged the popular expectations of the crowds who showed up hoping for another demonstration of heavenly power and flash. In John 12, just after the people have celebrated his "triumphal entry," Jesus tells them that the way to jump on his bandwagon is for his followers to hate their lives in this world. Just think how that must have sounded to the celebrants rejoicing in the coming of their conquering hero!

"You want to be a part of my movement, a part of my thing?" Jesus asks, "Then you will have to regard your life in this world as a dead man would. You have to become the least, the slave, the dead one, in order to get in on my movement."

Come and die.

What an invitation!

Of course, Jesus knew that in just six days he would literally fulfill that invitation. The innocent would die for the unquestionably guilty . . . and he would die horribly.

I can just imagine how this conversation must have put a damper on the celebration in Jerusalem. Jesus took a party and turned it into a wake. The next thing we know he is engaged in theological discussions with the people and with the Jewish leaders. He created a controversy that caused folks to take sides. All he had to do was accept the adulation and promise to "win the war that must be won," but Jesus decided to go against expectations again. He decided to allow God to get the glory through humility and death.

Hasn't this happened to us? Just when we think we have God's agenda all spelled out like it ought to be, He throws us a curve ball that reminds us we aren't in charge! We have a hard time "boxing Jesus" into a neat package.

What's the point then? The point is that we should reverse the procedure. Instead of putting expectations on God, we should look for HIS expectations for us. What has He required of us? What does He want? How should we respond to His voice?

The week of Easter we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the process maybe we should participate in a funeral of our own. Maybe we should let die our selfish expectations about how God "ought" to act towards us. Bury them, and let God resurrect them in His image.

As we contemplate the price of our salvation, let us willingly become slaves to the one who has paid such a price to purchase our freedom. Like Jesus, let our prayer be "Father glorify your name." Remember, if a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will yield much fruit. It is, however, pretty useless in a bag with other seeds. Let's allow God to plant us where he wants so that our service can produce fruit for his glory. Let's follow our crucified Lord by living cruciform lives.

What would the world look like if we did?

I'd really like to find out!

Thanks for reading!

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