Sunday, December 10, 2017

 

Advent 2017: God's Love at Christmas: Love Manifested

During Advent Christians focus on the love of God. I wanted to take a slightly none traditional passage on this issue for my thoughts on God's Word of Love. So, this devotion looks at 1 John 4:7-12 and discusses the idea that Christians should be a people who love like God loves. We need to be aware of and to share the love that God has given to us in Christ. His gift of grace becomes visible to others when we live the love Christ has shown us. When we love others, we give a living example of the love Jesus showed in the cross. In this Christmas season, we need to be ambassadors of God's manifested love. We need God to love us and to love through us. In this passage, John gives us the character of love, the definition of love, and the result of love. If you have any questions or would like to add a comment or two, that would be great!

I Want to Know What Love Is
Love Manifested

1 John 4:7-12

Introduction
How many of you know the rock group Foreigner?
Yeah, I’m old, that is certain!
One of their hits was “I Want to Know What Love Is”. I liked the song, but the point I want to make is this—there are lots of people in our world who make the same statement.

People want to know love; they want to experience it, they want to see it--just look at movies and magazines today. Many of the materials give instructions on finding love. Some movies exemplify romantic love as the goal of human existence. In fact, I would dare say that love is a dominant theme in many movies and magazines. The problem is that the love exemplified in these “sources” rarely offers real satisfaction or any sense of fulfillment.

Love in the world often ends in hurt or disappointment. We've all experienced this in some way of another. A "love" that we thought would save us ends up hurting us, or a "love" we thought would complete us ends up ruining us, or a "love" we hoped would end our suffering actually produces more pain. These stories could unfortunately be multiplied more than we'd like to admit!

The problem is that many of those experiences were not real, unconditional love. These "loves" described above were in many cases simply counterfeits of the love that can indeed help us (even if it sometimes wrecks us first!). What does real love look like?

Our passage in 1 John 4 today addresses the issue of what love looks like.

Verses 7-12 offer us John’s view of love, and in them we find three points to consider:
1. The character of love
2. The definition of love
3. The result of love

As we unpack these three topics, we will see that for John “Love resembles Jesus” in his character, action, and empowerment.
1. The Character of Love
1 John 4:7-8—John likes to repeat himself. This is now the third time he has instructed his readers to “love one another.” In 1 John 2:7-11 and 3:11-12 John has already given this command, now he returns to his earlier message.

John seems to repeat himself in an effort to make sure the point gets across. Church tradition/history tells us that John's message as he grew older became simply “Little children, love one another”. When asked why he repeats this message, John reportedly replied: “It is the command of our Lord, and it is enough.”

“Love one another” in John’s mind flows naturally from the basic character of love. John defines the character of love as being tied to the character of God.

Notice that John says in v. 7 “love is from God”.

The kind of love John to which John is encouraging us is not a mere emotion or an expression of human concern. The love mentioned in 1 John usually refers to a divine source, a love of a heavenly origin (cf. 1 Corinthians 13).

We don’t learn this kind of love simply by attending seminars, reading books, or trying harder.  We learn to love one another in this way only as we draw closer to God through Christ.

Love’s true character is divine. Notice that in v. 8 John says, “God is love”. As John Stott reminds us: “"This is the most comprehensive and sublime of all the biblical affirmations of God's being."

We must not confuse this with the idea that “love is God”. We do not define God by our view of love. Rather, we define love by God’s nature (thank you, Ray Stedman, for this insight). God is the exemplar of love, he is the very definition of love. We know love if we know God.

God’s love includes his holiness—Psalm 138:2 (On Holiness see: Isaiah 6:3; 1 Peter 1:14-16). God’s character is just and loving—the two always go together as we will see more clearly in our next verses (H. A. Ironside).

So, John tells us we should love one another because of God’s nature or character. John adds that those who know God (i.e., know his character or know him intimately) will as a direct result love others. John’s argument is simple—if the life of God is present is us, then his love should be present as well. If we know that God’s love for us, then we should love others.

Passages that show Jesus as the example of God’s love: 2 Timothy 1:13: John 8:42: 1 John 2:5-7.

Real love resembles Jesus in his character. If it is real love, then it will look like Jesus. Of course, that insight reminds us that we still need some kind of definition of love. John offers us a definition in the next few verses.

2. The Definition of Love
1 John 4:9-10—Here John shifts from discussing the character of love to giving the supreme example of love—John now sets out to define love for his readers. His definition is centered on the central fact of Jesus' loving sacrifice for humanity. 
John describes the manifestation of God’s love and sums it up in one historical event—Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. John 3:16-19).
a. In this one event God revealed a love that has never since been surpassed (2 Cor. 4:6-7; 9:15)
b. This love sacrifices to make things right
c. This love empowers others to do the right things

Let’s unpack these ideas.

Love is sacrifice. John says that love was manifested (i.e., made known, made visible, made clear) by God’s act of sending his only Son Jesus into the world. The reference to Jesus as God’s “only begotten” refers to their unique relationship. Only Jesus is God’s “only begotten” Son—it refers to Jesus’ divine status. Nonetheless, Jesus was sent by his Father to accomplish a demonstration of true love. 
Please remember that this sending was not simply to tell the world what it needed to hear—(John 3:16-19)—rather God had another thing in mind. Jesus is sent to be the “propitiation” for our sins—1 John 2:1-2--(meaning to appease or to bring reconciliation). It has at its core the idea that two groups are estranged—one is angry at the other (Rom. 1:18-19). Jesus was sent to reconcile us to God.

God’s wrath was aimed at humanity because of sin. We were guilty and deserving of death (Romans 6:23). Instead of holding us guilty for our own sins, however, God decided to appease his own wrath by his own plan. Jesus took our place and received the just punishment of our sins (Isaiah 53:4-6). Jesus became the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Do you see in this act the coming together of God’s justice and love God’s justice demanded holiness and required an ultimate sacrifice for sin, while God’s love provided the only true means to atone for that sin (Ray Stedman). Love is sacrificial—it does what is necessary to set things right..

But God’s love is not simply sacrificial, it does not simply “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8)—rather it also gives us what is needed to live love ourselves. In other words, love empowers us to emulate Jesus. God’s love was manifested “in us”—this can mean either “on our behalf” or “in our midst”. The point is that God’s love is manifested in space and time. It is not simply theoretical—it is real—it is “in us”.

In v. 9 John says that God sent Jesus into the world so that we could “live through him”. Let that sink in—we who deserved death for our sins are being given life by the one who actually died for the sins of the world. The greatest sign of love is the bloody cross—there by God’s grace and love we lost our burden, our guilt, even our inability to live as God intended—in the cross our Lord died so that we might live through him. This is the reason we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That baby in swaddling clothes is born to bear our sin, to die on our behalf, to bring reconciliation and healing to those who are broken by sin.

God’s love is for our benefit—it enlivens us--it is empowering. That is the true definition of love—It sacrifices that others may gain.

How does our love for others measure up?

Love resembles Jesus in his sacrifice. The definition of love is sacrifice for the improvement of the beloved. The lover is willing to sacrifice to bless the beloved. And this sacrifice is not just the definition of love, it also reminds us that love results in something. The result of love is John's next topic.

3. The Result of Love
1 John 4:11-12—Now that he has shown the character and definition of love, John now offers a description of the result of love.

“If God so loved us” is reminiscent of the “so” in John 3:16. It probably refers to the manner in which God loved us. John seems to be saying, “If you have received love in this way, you should then love others like that.” In other words, the way we love should be sacrificial and for the benefit of others—that they may gain God. We should love with the result that others are drawn to God through Jesus.

This God kind of love also has a moral imperative to it—because God has done this, we “ought” to respond in a similar manner (1 John 2:4-11).

How and when did God love us?
a. God loved us when we were sinners (Romans 5:6-8). We cannot understand grace or the love of God until we understand the nature of sin. We will not understand the wonder of the atoning sacrifice until we grasp the horror of that which needed atoning.
b. God loved us by giving a means for us to be reconciled to him—he gave Jesus as our atoning sacrifice (Romans 3:25; 5:9-11). As already noted, Jesus died so that we could live.

God’s love should be our motivation to love others.

Verse 12 is incredible—here John states a well known doctrine—God is not visible to the human eye—we cannot see him. Yet John seems to claim that when we love one another, God becomes apparent. The verse claims that when we love with the love God has given us in Christ, then God abides in us and his love is “perfected” (i.e., made complete, accomplished, finished, brought to its goal) in us. Our relationships of love become the place where God and his love become visible to others. When we love others, we show them God.

Love resembles Jesus as we make him known by loving others. This Christmas season, let's give the gift that will keep love alive and growing--let's love others so that they may know God's love.

Application
This is a weighty thing—how are we to be “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20-21) when we are still fallen and prone to let God down?

How can we claim to know God when we cannot love those closest to us?

How do we respond to John’s exhortation in these verses?

First, we must recognize our need to experience and live in God’s great grace and love—knowing God through Jesus Christ is the starting point. Remember that John says that loving others comes from loving God. This week make it a point to spend extra time with God. Take 15 minutes a day to look up verses that speak of God’s love (start in 1 John 2, 3, and 4, but don’t neglect John’s Gospel—chapters 3, 5, 13-15)—learn of his love and ask him to empower you to emulate it.

Next, take some time to ask where you can share this love of God. Start with your brothers and sisters in Christ, but don’t neglect those outside of the household of the faith. Look for opportunities to tell others how God’s love has changed your life, just be sure to love them while you tell them. Here are some suggestions (thanks to Bruce Goettsche for these):

1. Seek for ways to get beyond feelings of competition.
2. Speak of other’s with honor instead of enjoying or gossiping about their shortcomings, struggles, or inconsistencies.
3. Rally to the side of those who are hurt or experiencing injustice—offer them a word of encouragement or stand with them in prayer.
4. Look for opportunities to help those who can’t help you back—give sacrificially into the life of one who may not pay you back..
5. Extend forgiveness to those who offend.
6. Be patient with someone who desperately needs it.
7. Be quick to show hospitality to others.
8. Be willing to pray for and with each other.
9. Share the story of Jesus and your salvation with someone.
10. Bake cookies for someone who is down and write them a note of encouragement.

Love resembles Jesus.
How are we doing?

Thanks for reading!

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

 

Advent 2017: The Hope of Messiah's Coming

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent, the time when Christians the world over begin the celebration of the Incarnation, when God became human and made his dwelling among us in the form of Jesus, the Messiah. The first Sunday of Advent is typically dedicated to the idea of "hope", and the focus is on the expectation of the completion of the rescue of humanity from sin and death. The focus is also placed upon the return of Jesus to complete the work of salvation by rescuing those who trust in him.

The expectation that God would intervene, even invade this earth, to provide a means of humanity being properly related to him finds expression in the Jewish hope for a Messiah and in the Christian belief that Jesus is that Messiah who has come and will one day soon return. Jesus' sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection are the means by which this rescue is effected for us in the present time, but the completion of the rescue will not be complete until Jesus returns to establish God's reign as intended from the beginning.

Some of the passages associated with this first Sunday of Advent include Isaiah 63:19-64:5 and 1 Corinthians 1:3-9. Here they are from the HCSB translation:
Isaiah 63:19 We have become like those You never ruled over, like those not called by Your name. 64:1 If only You would tear the heavens open and come down, so that mountains would quake at Your presence--2 as fire kindles the brushwood, and fire causes water to boil--to make Your name known to Your enemies, so that nations will tremble at Your presence! 3 When You did awesome deeds that we did not expect, You came down, and the mountains quaked at Your presence. 4 From ancient times no one has heard, no one has listened, no eye has seen any God except You, who acts on behalf of the one who waits for Him. 5 You welcome the one who joyfully does what is right; they remember You in Your ways. But we have sinned, and You were angry; we will remain in Your ways and be saved.  
 1 Corinthians 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I always thank my God for you because of God's grace given to you in Christ Jesus, 5 that by Him you were made rich in everything--in all speaking and all knowledge--6 as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you, 7 so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by Him you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Both of these passages remind us that God's invasion into creation in the form of the Incarnation not only began the rescue so desperately needed and expected, it also provided the means by which humanity could live in the manner God intended them. Some might call that the "magic" of Christmas or "the Christmas Spirit". Paul speaks of this in the Corinthian passage above as God's provision of spiritual gifts from Christ himself to aid us in accomplishing the present work here on earth as we await the return of Jesus to finish the rescue.

God invaded in the past as a babe, but he will return in a more dynamic way. This is what we celebrate in this season of Advent. The promise of Messiah's advent, the coming of God's Messiah to rescue humanity from sin, from darkness, and from oppression. The first coming set the standard as Jesus lived the life God desires of us all and then sent his Spirit to empower us to live as God intends. The second coming will set into concrete the kingdom way of life that God has for his people. The ideal will be realized in the future, but in the time between then and now God provides for us all that we need for life in his way.

That provision is revealed to us in that Child who was born to die and to rise and to redeem, and by these acts Jesus creates a kind of opportunity for humanity to imitate his humble service and sacrifice in everyday life until he returns again. The very atmosphere at Christmas can sometimes seem charged with the energy of Christ; an energy that helps humans act in ways that God intended. 

As we embrace the idea of God becoming human, as we recognize the humility of Jesus (who being God chose to humble himself to serve us all to the point of death), we find in these actions a pattern for life. We find that humility and service is our proper end, and we also find that as we serve others we introduce the possibility of "hope" for all humanity. In fact, sometimes the very spirit of Christmas can cause people to act better and with more grace. It reminds me of a poem by Edgar A. Guest. 

As we remember the promise of Jesus' return, we are hopefully incited to live in a way that he will find acceptable when he comes to establish his rule. In other words, the "Christmas Spirit" should become the everyday life of the follower of Christ who looks back to Jesus' sacrifice and forward to his return/reign. What does that life look like?

In the poem below Guest elaborates on how a person responds to the "Christmas Spirit" and how it can cause a change in a person's life.  The poem puts into my mind the image of a repentant Scrooge, fresh off his encounters with the ghost of Christmas, now engaging faithfully to live a less self-focused life.

I know that times have changed, and I realize that people do not always have "Christmas cheer" at this time of year.  Nonetheless, my prayer for all of us is that we become the people God intended us to be, especially now as we celebrate the Advents of our Lord Jesus.  May we live in such a way as to create "hope" in others. May our humble service lead to changed lives and a more hopeful future. May the Hope of Advent cause you to emulate the life of Jesus. I hope this poem blesses you!

Thanks for reading!

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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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