Fear God, Fear Nothing Else
We are told in Scripture to fear God. We are assured that when we fear Him
we need not fear anyone or anything else. He can take care of us. His love,
power and wisdom are perfect. Nothing that befalls us can surprise Him or
overwhelm Him. In the midst of earth's calamities and our trials, He is present
to deliver and uphold.
How easily we forget this. When trouble comes we feel orphaned and reach for panic buttons. Fear rises in our hearts and spreads paralysis through our lives.
Wherever I go, I meet and talk with fear-infected people. They are afraid of whatever they perceive to be threatening and uncontrollable. People fear nuclear energy, global warfare, ruthless criminals, diminishing natural resources, unemployment, illness, aging, death, computers, communism, antichrist--you name it, someone fears it. Life holds so much that ignites fear.
The Psalmist said, "When I am afraid, I put my trust in thee" (56:3, RSV). Those who trust God discover resources of strength and peace that steady the nerves, calm the mind, and brace the heart. His grace brings insight and confidence that enable us to cope with menacing situations. We change what we can, endure what we can't, and refuse to be enslaved by either. At the outer limits of our understanding we can still trust in His love.
Jesus frequently said to His disciples, "Fear not." Did they ever feel like responding, "That's easy for You to say!" He gave them the best reason for being unafraid: "I am with you." Nothing catches Him unprepared or unequipped. His presence is our security.
This doesn't mean that bad things can't happen to us. A cursory reading of Scripture and history knocks that notion in the head! But when trouble, or even tragedy, strikes, we will not panic or collapse. God is our strength, peace and joy.
The Psalmist said, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear"(46:1-2, RSV). Trouble comes, but He abides. His presence is our defense and our victory.
For Preachers Only
A dozen of us, all pastors, were seated around a dinner table. We had
finished the meal and were discussing this question: "When should a pastor begin
to prepare next Sunday's sermons?" There were almost as many answers as there
were preachers present.
One fellow said, "Visit your people all week. Then you'll know what their needs are, and Saturday night you can get your Bible and commentaries and prepare a message on target with those needs." But what if relatives or sickness visit you on Saturday night? And do human needs vary that much from week to week?
An old preacher, blue eyes flashing, slapped the table and exclaimed, "I'll tell you when to begin next Sunday's sermons. Bright and early Monday morning, while you're still red-hot from Sunday night!" Excuse me! I can't remember ever feeling red-hot on Mondays. On Mondays I have a kind of nonalcoholic consecrated hangover.
I'm sure each fellow came out of the discussion where he went in, convinced that his own method was best.
On a couple things, however, all were agreed. Sermons should be carefully prepared, and preaching should connect with life.
God, the Bible and the people should command such respect that we who preach will invest the needed time, energy and resources to think through what we are going to preach, and why, and how. We have no right to quench God's Spirit, ignore the Bible's light and waste the people's time by "winging it" in the pulpit. Truth thought through, prayed over and lived out should be the staple of sermons.
Connecting to life, some reason, is simply a matter of answering the people's questions. Preachers are often castigated for answering questions no one is asking. But minds darkened by sin can no more provide right questions than right answers. The Bible corrects wrong questions as well as it gives right answers.
The preacher's task is never easy and never ended. He or she needs all the help people can give and God will grant.
God Heals Today
The church's outdoor bulletin board carried this sign: "Thursday night's
healing service is canceled because of the pastor's illness."
That's life. Sometimes healing occurs, sometimes it doesn't. When it does we praise the Lord; when it doesn't we blame ourselves.
There are promises of healing in the Bible. The "biggie" is James 5:14-15, which assures us that the prayer of faith will save the sick--"the Lord will raise him up." Jesus frequently healed the sick, and no case was too hard for the Great Physician. Hebrews affirms that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (13:8, RSV), which is an implied promise of healing. Nevertheless, healing does not always occur. Obviously, the reason is sometimes covered sin or prevailing doubt. Some insist that these are always the reasons, but that imposes a judgment upon the sick we are forbidden to make. The reason may be hidden within the impenetrable wisdom of God, who has allowed some of the most faithful Christians to suffer unhealed injuries and illnesses. Furthermore, the mortality rate on faith healers is still 100 per cent. Sooner or later they get sick and die. To my knowledge none of them has ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire. One eminent miracle-monger died unhealed of acute alcoholism, according to the coroner's report. Another shows obvious signs of mental imbalance, embarrassing to many of his followers.
Such cases aside, healings do take place, and we should not hesitate to pray for the sick to be healed. The love and power of God are undiminished and boundless. What He wills He can do and none can stay His hand.
Meanwhile, we will remember that one ailment may be healed but sooner or later another will get us. Our grand hope is not repeated healings but eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. All healing is temporary, and the resurrection will be required to perfect our bodies permanently. As one who has received healing touches, I say, "Amen."
God Is Everywhere
Naphtali of Ropshitz was a famous Hasidic leader. When he was a child, a
visitor in his home said, "Naphtali, tell me where God can be found and I will
give you a golden coin." The lad replied, "I'll give you two golden coins if you
can tell me where He cannot be found."
Wise lad! God is everywhere, in everything, in everyone. Not in the same way, of course. Not for the same reason, of course. Not with the same effect, of course. Nevertheless, He is here, there, and everywhere. There is no escape from God. There is no defense against God. Whatever you do, wherever you go, there God is--confronting you, claiming you, calling you.
The Psalmist confessed that he could not flee from the presence of the Lord--not by ascending to heaven, not by descending to hell, not by moving to the uttermost parts of the sea. He could not escape God in the darkness or in the light. Wherever he turned, there was God, as present and ambient as the air surrounding him.
Jonah ran from God--right into God! God was with him in the belly of the great fish as surely as in his native land. God cannot be located--He inhabits eternity, He inhabits space, He inhabits time. He inhabits mankind, and therefore you and me. We can no more get away from God than from our own selves, our own skins, our own thoughts, our own breaths.
In his writings Carlyle has an intriguing passage which describes the futile efforts of a man to escape his shadow. Twist and turn, dodge and dart as he will, it is always there. We could more easily escape our shadows on a sunlit day than we can escape the presence of God.
There is no where God cannot be found. He is present as friend or foe. He is present as comfort or affliction. He is present as peace or misery. He is present as Savior or Judge. How He is present depends upon our relationship to Him, and we choose that relationship.
We cannot evade Him, we cannot escape Him. If we are wise, therefore, we will hear His word, trust His love, obey His commands, and receive His mercy. Then will our joy be deep each time we think, "God is with me!"
Where you are right now, there is God. You can truly say, "God is everywhere, and here more than anywhere." That truth should make you think, feel and act.
James Longstreet, a Confederate general, has been described as "a habitual
critic of everyone but himself." The Church has always had a supply of
Longstreets, willing to command others but unwilling to shoulder blame when
things go wrong.
God commands us to love others as we love ourselves, and what God commands He enables. When we do love others as ourselves, we will be as reluctant to criticize them as we are to criticize ourselves.
Every preacher knows, both in his head and in his heart, that the message he preaches to others should be applied first of all to himself. He lives under the judgment and grace of God's word as surely as do his people.
The habitual critic of others is really advertising his own unresolved inner conflicts. Because he is not at peace with himself, he is belligerent toward others. Unable to accept himself, he cannot accept others. Discovering within himself unbearable flaws and traits, he looks away and projects them onto others.
Habitual criticism is a devastating thing, both to the targets of that barrage and to the critic himself. Any misguided misanthrope can succeed at making himself--and everyone forced to keep his company--miserable. I say "forced" because no one would voluntarily hang around with a habitual critic--with the possible exception of another such person, in which case they would mutually reinforce each other's meanness.
I've known habitual critics to come in pairs, even married pairs. How disgruntled, unhappy, and lonely they are--about as welcome to others as the seven year itch.
A deep cleansing from self-centeredness, an infilling with the Spirit whose fruit is love, is the only known cure for the habitual critic. Thank God the cure is available, and thank God it is frequently applied, transforming the grouch into a lover of people who bears patiently with failures and foibles of others. Get yourself fixed up and it's amazing how quickly other people seem to have improved!
Hanging On, Winning Out
At the battle of Second Manassas, during America's Civil War, the South
Carolina brigade under the command of Maxey Gregg fought as stubbornly as men
can. Gregg sent this report to his superior officer: "Our ammunition is
exhausted, but rocks are very plentiful, and we will hold our position with them
until we can get ammunition." And they did.
Sometimes men prevail, not because they have the edge in numbers or
weaponry, but just because they will not give up.
I've lived long enough to see men succeed within the Church for that very reason. Where more gifted and experienced preachers labored in vain and left in defeat, men of quiet, stubborn faith came to face the same hardships, encounter the same obstacles, contend with the same people, and won through to victory. Such battles are never easily won. Tears, sweat and blood become ingredients of triumph. The devil scraps viciously, and always enlists a number of people under his banner. Wounds are deep, casualties are many and the victor will bear scars forever, but the cause is worth all the sacrifice. Obstinate courage and faith will achieve victory where sensational means have ended in dispirited surrender.
Gregg's commander, A. P. Hill, was stirred by the Gamecocks' resolute stand. Galloping to their line, he cried, "Good for you, boys! Give them the rocks and the bayonets, and hold your position, and I will soon have ammunition and reinforcements for you!" And he did.
Is the battle hot, bloody and desperate where you are fighting for Christ's kingdom? Hold on! Your cross-scarred Commander knows what you are suffering. He will come with fresh ammunition and reinforcements. In the midst of impossibility you will raise a shot-torn flag in triumph. "He who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22, RSV).
Do your best with what you have. Hold on and win out. The battle belongs to those with obstinate faith.
Helping One Another
Across the years I’ve met all kinds of people, but there are some I have
I have never met a person that God doesn’t love. I’ve never met a person that Jesus cannot save. I’ve never met a person from whom I couldn’t learn. I’ve never met a person that didn’t deserve my help.
Across the years I’ve been in all kinds of churches, but there are some I haven’t been in. I haven’t been in a perfect church. Every church is made up of persons-in-process, and not comprised of finished saints. The little chorus, “He’s still working on me, To make me what I ought to be,” is one all of us can honestly sing.
Jesus taught us not to judge one another. Paul said he wouldn’t even judge himself. Our knowledge of others and even of ourselves is too incomplete to assure perfect judgment. We need to leave judgment to Him who knows the deepest and truest things about us and loves us anyhow.
We are all challenged by Scripture to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.” We do not all grow at the same rate. Some, like me, are slow learners and our spiritual progress is at snail’s pace. Others grow rapidly. For that reason we will all be somewhat different, and those differences can become a temptation to sit in judgment when we should kneel in intercession.
What I need to offer others is not a closed fist but an outstretched hand. Sometimes it’s stretched out to help them when life has dealt them a knockdown punch. Sometimes it’s stretched out to let them help me when I am the one knocked down or having a hard climb. Always we need each other.
“Follow me,” Paul said to the church. But he also said, “Pray for me.” He spoke of being “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” I thank God for all the brothers and sisters in Christ who have encouraged and supported me across the years of my journey. I needed them, and still do, for I am not wise enough, brave enough or strong enough to make it unassisted. God’s grace is channeled to me through their words and deeds, and I pray that I may also be channel of that grace to others.
Our Irritations Are Not God's Curse
When A. P. Hill was a young officer in the U. S. army, he was posted to
Florida's frontier, the Everglades. His concept of an officer's life involved
glamour and glory. Instead, he found himself "building bridges, cutting roads,
grubbing roots and fighting mosquitoes." According to his biographer, James
Robertson Jr., Hill complained that "God's curse" was upon him.
Even within the Church we sometimes feel that certain situations reflect the divine displeasure. We wonder why God imposes this particular punishment upon us. While serving as a magazine editor, there were times when I sought release from the assignment. When prayer went unanswered I wondered if God was angry with me. I wanted to return to college teaching or pastoral ministry, but He refused to give me a green light.
But why should the Lord consult our preferences and desires? He descended from glory into misery, sharing our human situation through the miracle of incarnation. He experienced history's cruelest injustice at His trial and execution, where He was treated like some vile criminal. His posts of duty bore such names as Gethsemane and Golgotha.
One who loved us that much will not treat us unkindly. He will not pamper His disciples, enabling them to avoid losses and crosses and bosses, but He will certainly sustain and bless them as they perform the duties imposed by His will. He has yet to ask anyone to do anything more disagreeable and costly than what He endured on our behalf.
If our wills are crossed and our preferences are ignored, this doesn't mean that "God's curse" is upon us. There is needed and useful work--kingdom work--to be done wherever He stations us, and the reward of fidelity to the task will over-compensate all negative or hurtful factors in the situation. Grubbing palmetto roots and swatting voracious mosquitoes are things I know about, for I was raised in south Florida. Like being an editor, these are easier than the cross that Christ embraced without self-pity. Always, after communing with Him, I was willing to accept my assignment without further complaint.
Just Keep Following
I am easily susceptible to ailments that affect the respiratory tract.
Asthma and allergies plague me frequently. Pneumonia is an annual hazard. As for
the common cold--I can catch a cold while reading ads for cold remedies. All
these problems are minor, inconvenient but not serious. They rarely interrupt my
work and never stop it. Temporary suspensions of activity have occurred due to
hospital stays and surgeries, but these have been few in number and brief in
In other words, I have been exceptionally fortunate. Should I complain I would be ungrateful, more deserving of reprimand than of sympathy. Compared to what some of my friends have suffered, and still are suffering, I've had so little trouble that I almost feel guilty.
Why do some endure so much pain and sorrow, while others walk along sunnier paths? Only God knows, and as some have added, "He ain't telling." When Jesus foretold Peter's death on a coming cross, Peter spotted John nearby and said, "What about him?" "Misery loves company," says an old adage! Jesus replied--and I paraphrase--"That’s none of your business. You follow Me." One of life's hardest lessons, but crucial to learn, is this: God doesn't treat all His children alike. He loves us all, and His wisdom and justice are perfect, but He allows some to suffer deeper hurts for longer times than do others. "Theirs not to reason why."
We have one business in life, to follow Jesus Christ. If He leads you over rougher, darker, lonelier trails than your friends are traveling, or leads them through harder places than He does you, trust His loving lordship and follow on. The only answer you will get to "Why?" is the one Peter got--"What is that to you? Just follow Me."
Tradition informs us that Roman politicians crucified Peter, but John died of old age surrounded by friends. Only God knows why, and He keeps His secret. Trust Him. Your trail will end in triumph. The coming glory is greater than the present misery.
Keep Plugging Away
The only thing more challenging to a writer than a blank sheet of paper is a
blank state of mind. When they coincide you just stare at the paper. If you are
a religious person you may become desperate enough to pray. If you have a
deadline to meet you may be in danger of losing your religion, at least
temporarily. Yes, I do speak from experience.
To fill a page with words is no great challenge. To cover it with words that are worth reading, or, even better, worth remembering and repeating--that is the real challenge. I recall a magazine cartoon from years ago in which an upscale wife says to her fancy-dressed husband, "Do you mind if I say something memorable?" How seldom writers say anything memorable can be tested in conversations: How often do you hear anyone say, "As so-and-so said"?
Sometimes a person writes something that will outlive the pen wielder. Do you think Paul ever thought a small collection of his letters would become a part of Holy Scripture, to be read and discussed and even practiced hundreds of years after they were written?
And now I have come to the point I wanted to make--that when you live and work in the will of God you get more done than you will ever know--at least until the final judgment. Occasionally you may learn of some good that resulted from your words or work. I have on infrequent occasions bumped into persons who will say, "Years ago I heard you preach and that message brought me to Christ." Or, "I read your article (or book) and it turned my life around." That seems to be the Lord's way of encouraging me to keep on faithfully doing my work, which to me often seems to be unfruitful to the point of uselessness.
Faithfulness is the criterion by which the Lord judges His servants. Numbers are secondary to the principle of fidelity to opportunity. Isaiah was told to "go" and speak to his people even though the immediate results of his prophetic ministry would be a charred stump and not an evergreen forest. His faithfulness, however, has resulted in a ministry that has spanned centuries of time and inspired millions of people.
We are not competent judges of others or even of ourselves. Depend on it--if you are living and working in the will of God you are doing more good than you know. Never quit. Never give up. Give your best to the most mundane of tasks. Here's a great word from the Lord, channeled through a hard-to-understand writer: "Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
The holiday season that closes one year and opens another is always a
festive time. For the people of God it should also be a reflective time, as we
look back upon the year closing and forward into the year opening.
The look back is a long one, for Christmas returns us, in songs and sermons, by cards and crèches, to the birth of Jesus two-thousand years ago. Indeed, for those who regard His birth as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies and covenants, reflection goes clear back to the genesis of human history.
The look forward, which is prompted by New Year's Day, is more speculative than reflective, since none of us can know all that lies ahead. To borrow words from Scripture, we "look forward to the day of God" that closes human history. "We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:12, 13). How far into the future that day lies is known only to God our Father. Much that will happen before that day arrives is mercifully hidden from our view. We just "take it as it comes" and trust that God is faithfully working out His promises.
Reflection and speculation must give way to action. We are not called to be dreamers merely, but dreamers and doers. We have been given a mission to accomplish. This transitional season, so crammed with immediate actions that jam everyone's schedule, must not be allowed to distract us from that mission. We are in the world for the sake of the world, not to be spared but to be spent for the glory of God. Our task continues to be a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led witness to Christ, that others may come to know Him as Savior and Friend. We need to move people's thinking from the cradle of Jesus to His cross, to His emptied grave, and to His pledged return. By what we say and by how we live we must call attention to His continuing saving action in the world.
Let us, in the midst of all the commerce of these days, renew our commitment to our ongoing mission. The look behind and the look ahead remind us that each individual believer is part of a movement that is divine in origin, global in scope, and eternal in consequence. Isolated we may seem as nothing, but connected and cooperating we are links in the chain of God's purpose for the ages. We are part of something too great to be wrapped in fancy paper, to be toasted with sparkling beverage, or to be regretted with antacids and aspirins. Jesus is moving through history with transforming grace and power, and ours is the priceless privilege of sharing that mission as beneficiaries and agents.
One of the most frequently quoted passages of Scripture is this
statement from the "wisdom literature" of the Old Testament: Train a child in
the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs
Perhaps no other proverb has caused such crises of faith for parents as this one. I've had them come to me in tears, saying, "Pastor, we really tried to bring up our children to know the Bible and to serve the Lord, but they have rebelled, they don't go to church, they don't accept the moral values of Christian faith, and though we have wept and prayed over them for years they are farther than ever from God. Why doesn't this promise hold true?"
This is a proverb; it is not a promise. A promise is a word from God spoken to you as an announcement of His intention, and His intention will be translated into action. A proverb is a statement that is generally true, but not always or automatically true. Some children, despite the best of training, live and die in rejection of truth. They turn from God and play God over their own lives. They convince themselves that "really living" is an expression of their own wills, their own desires, their own beliefs and their own conclusions.
God does not coerce anyone, including our children, to serve Him. He has conferred upon us the freedom to choose our moral pathways. We can instruct, exhort, warn and pray, but our children can and must make their own choice to walk with God or to walk away from Him.
To influence their right choice, Children require moral training. Grace, and not nature, inclines people to good. Sin has so infected and weakened human nature that whatever good we do springs from the grace of God given to us before we even know what grace means. Apart from His gift of grace we could only do evil and we would do it continually and even violently, destroying every meaningful relationship in life. The heart of man is corrupt, out of joint with God and bent toward evil. Evil is the natural expression of human nature. Good is a supernatural expression, occurring when grace countermands evil.
"The way" in which a child should go is defined by God, not by society. He makes that way clear to us in the Bible. The Bible, when properly understood, supplies all the moral guidance we need for lives that please God. Believing and practicing the Bible will bring us into right relationships to God, to persons and to things. We may never understand all that we read, we may never resolve all the mysteries we encounter, but the light of Scripture will be clear enough to keep us close to God and bring us home to heaven.
Moral and spiritual training involves imitation and repetition. Children learn, first of all, by imitation. What they see parents do they try to do. What they hear parents say they try to say. Our first responsibility in training our children is to live as safe models for them to imitate. To be what we desire them to become is an ethical priority. Our lives as their instructors are the most powerful reinforcement--or contradiction--of what we seek to teach children.
Children learn also by repetition. Moral Instruction must be given over and over until the child knows it, and even tires of it. As adults we often speak of behavior patterns that were "drilled into us" as children. In those early years of learning we sometimes wearied of hearing those moral behaviors commended and commanded. We grew so weary of hearing what we should be and do that we occasionally rebelled against the repetition. There are few things in life that we learn by hearing them once. Repetition affirms the priority and urgency of what parents are teaching.Jesus is an excellent example of good training. It is written of Him, "he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil" (Acts10:38). His gracious and unselfish life testified both to the power of God and to the training of Mary and Joseph.
Jesus is also the goal of good training. We teach our children in strong hope that they will come to love, serve and emulate Him as their own Lord and Savior. To be like Him is the will of God for every believer. To be like Him is the ultimate purpose of all the Bible teaches.
We can say, finally, to our children, "Learn, live and love as did Jesus, for the grand purpose of life is to be like Him." He is "the way" all should go. That way must be chosen by us, however. It cannot be forced upon us.
No BonesNew Yorker. A cartoon got my attention. A woman was looking down at her husband
Flying across Western states I was glancing through an Eastern magazine, the
who was looking up from his newspaper. She was saying, "I have something to say
to you, Walter. Would you mind terribly if I made no bones about it?"
In our society, where diplomacy and evasion are common skills, frankness is rare. If one cannot be candid without cruelty, the rarity should be prized. Perhaps, though, as much or more harm has been done by beating around the bush as by hitting the nail on the head. Direct, plain speech should be welcomed. It enables a person to know who really cares and wants to help.
I say should be welcomed, but directness often finds the door closed and the welcome mat removed. Egos are fragile, and many prefer flattery and evasion to truth on target. A Yugoslavian proverb advises, "Speak the truth but leave at once."
A messenger from Elisha to Jehu was given that very advice. The messenger anointed Jehu, saying, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I have anointed you king over the people of Israel...And the dogs shall eat Jezebel..." Mission accomplished, and knowing Jezebel would be outraged, "he opened the door and fled" (2 Kings 9:1-10, NASB).
On one occasion Jesus spoke, as usual, the blunt truth. Some listeners were enraged and "picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid himself" (John 8:59). In this case, religious leaders, men posing as guardians and teachers of truth, were the resentful opponents of candor. Truth frankly told can get your scalp lifted among the righteous as surely as among the wicked.
Thomas Wolfe wrote, "Telling the truth is a pretty hard thing." For many, receiving it is even harder.
"Thy word is truth," said Jesus to the Father. God's word deceives no one, flatters no one and slanders no one. We should speak as God does, not as men do. Let us have the truth, "no bones about it."
As a young monarch, Queen Victoria had William Melbourne as her Prime
Minister. He seldom attended church and she rebuked him for his shallow
commitment to religion. In self-defense he declared, "I am a quietist."
Historian Robert James says, "this honest self-description had significant
application to his political attitudes." Melbourne's advice to Victoria was,
"Try to do no good, and then you'll get into no scrapes."
Those who express no discontent with the status quo are seldom harassed and persecuted. "Don't rock the boat." "Don't make waves." Those slogans may be prudent advice for the self-sparing, but moral, social and political reforms which relieve oppression and enlarge liberty have never occurred without painful and disruptive action. Those who initiate and continue such action are bound to get into scrapes.
No sensible person believes that all change is good. "If it works, don't fix it," is a wise rule. The unchanged, however, is often bad. A better rule would be, "Even if it works, improve it." To allow evil to persist unchallenged, or good to wither unrenewed, is worse than cowardly--it is downright evil.
Jesus Christ was no quietist. Controversy swirled about Him with gathering force, becoming a hurricane of trouble. He refused to silence a public demonstration in His honor, though He knew the political movers and shakers of His community were angered to the point of lusting for His blood. His blistering critique of His nation's life brought Him to the cross--as He knew it would. He would not flinch from that fate, not because He was suicidal, but because He could clinch His truth and redeem His people in no other way.
Carnal belligerence deserves no defense. But if God burdens us to cry out against evil, we can be quietists only at the peril of our souls. We must attempt some good, whatever scrapes result. Playing it safe is a philosophy and practice unworthy of the Christ who gave His life rather than surrender lost people to their deserved doom.
Nicodemus was devout. He attended the synagogue each Sabbath. He studied
Scripture, he faithfully prayed, and he scrupulously tithed. His outward life
was as pure as Ivory Soap. As a member of the Sanhedrin he was a "mover and
shaker" in Israel, part of the power-elite.
All of this, on which men set great store, had become a facade. His heart was empty and his life was disappointing. Somehow, he had missed what he needed most--the reality of personal communion with a forgiving and renewing God. Driven by this inner hunger he came to Jesus by night. With piercing insight, Jesus said, "You must be born again." He held before weary Nicodemus the possibility of new life for an old man.
Twice Nicodemus responded with the plaintive question, "How?" Jesus answered the first "how" by talking about the power of the Holy Spirit--as mysterious, elusive, and real as the blowing wind. Our Lord replied to the second "how" by talking about the lifting up of the Son of man.
At Calvary the Son of man was lifted up, dying to atone for the sins of mankind. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured forth, a power turned loose in the world to effect the conversion of human life to God.
Through Calvary and Pentecost, provision has been made to save from all sin, and for all time, all those who trust in Christ. God has done all that must be done to make pardon, renewal and cleansing possible for sinners. Have you unmet spiritual needs? You are not waiting on God; He is waiting on you. God is ready to save. He is waiting only for the submission and trust of your heart.
I preached the possibility of full and free salvation now. A man seated on the first row of chairs literally leaped for the altar, going to his knees in fervent prayer, and soon rising to his feet in joyous testimony. "For 12 years," he said, "I have hungered for this cleansing and filling. When I realized God had already fulfilled the conditions for my deliverance, my heart cried, Now!"
"Now is the day of salvation."
Onward And Upward
"The tragedy of so many," wrote William Barclay, "is static Christianity."
Jesus' call, "Follow me," implies movement--a journey toward a goal. For good
reason the early disciples of Jesus referred to Christianity as "the Way." "I am
the way," said Jesus, and His disciples were "followers of the Way."
To be in the Church for years without growing in grace and in knowledge of Christ is tragic. Such stunted Christians will not sustain their own lives, much less channel life to others.
Growth is never automatic. We must avail ourselves of those means of grace and growth that God has provided. These include public worship, private prayer, Bible study and social service.
The growth rate of individual Christians will vary for a number of reasons. Two persons starting out at the same time to follow Christ may not mature together. Learning abilities vary spiritually just as they do mentally. Neither will one person's growth rate remain fixed. Spiritual growth, like physical growth, may occur in spurts. The point you have reached and the pace you maintain are not most important. What matters most is the direction in which you are headed and the fact that you continue to move forward.
Of course, growth rate and present maturity level are not wholly insignificant. Paul chides the Corinthians for perpetuating spiritual childhood. They were babes drinking milk when they should have been adults eating meat. Growth had been retarded by carnality. They needed cleansing, for while purity and maturity are not the same, purity hastens maturity.
Dynamic, growing Christians, like dynamic, growing churches, possess an attraction unshared by "static Christianity." People are not drawn to dead religion, or to religion barely alive. What is real, in motion, and being fulfilled catches their interest.
Spiritual growth is never complete in this world. No one has arrived. We should use every means of growth and resist stagnation. Christ is "the way," not a parking lot.
People Can Be Donkeys
An old preacher with flowing white hair and beard walked into the camp of
some Confederate soldiers during America's Civil War. One of the soldiers
hooted, "Here is Father Abraham."
Without blinking the preacher responded, "Young man, you are mistaken. I am Saul, the son of Kish, searching for his father's asses, and I have found them."
Saul, "a handsome young man" who stood a head taller than anyone else in Israel, was hunting lost asses when he met Samuel, the prophet, who anointed the surprised young man to be Israel's first king.
A man may be king in his head who is not king in his heart. Saul quit hunting donkeys and became one when he arrogantly disobeyed the word of God in favor of his own desires. With a heavy heart Samuel imposed a sentence of judgment: "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king" (1 Samuel 15:23, NKJB).
Life boomerangs. What you throw into life comes back to you again. Jeremiah brought a message to Israel similar to that of Samuel to Saul: "People will call them rejected silver, because the Lord has rejected them" (6:30, NKJB). The refining message of the prophet was refused, and now those who rejected God's word would become refuse silver.
Jesus promised, "Whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God," and He warned, "But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God" (Luke 12:8-9, NKJB). When will we learn that our response to God's word determines our future? Here is a cause-effect chain that none can escape. As we treat God here, so He will treat us hereafter.
Sillier than straying donkeys are people who suppose they can reject the word of God with impunity. That word determines character, behavior, and destiny. Fortunately, that word is now rounding up strays. Get in the herd that bears the brand of divine mercy!
Persons In Community--The Image of God
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them
rule over...all the earth..." So God created man in his own image, in the image
of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
"Us" in Genesis 1:26 is God, who is a community of persons thinking and speaking as One. "Them" is man-in-community, man as male and female who in their lives together reflect the image of God.
The image of God is reflected by man as "them"--not by man as "him." Human creatures were made to live as persons-in-community, not as persons-in-isolation. This communal existence is "likeness" to God, for God exists as a community of persons, as Father, Son and Spirit. Man reflects in historical existence what God has always been in eternal existence, a one who is them. Man reflects from the beginning what God has been without beginning or ending--a community of persons who are essentially one.
God has always been Father. The Father has never been without the Son, but begets him eternally. God has always been Son. The Son has never been without the Father, but is eternally begotten. God has always been Spirit. The Spirit has never been without the Father and the Son, but has proceeded from them eternally. God is a community of persons, not a committee of individuals. God did not become a community; rather, He exists eternally as a community. The relationships are God. God is the relationships.
This is the God who is One. This is the God whose name, not names, is "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." This is the God who "is love." The Spirit is the Father's love for the Son and the Son's love for the Father. That love is the creative and animating force that gives life to all creatures. That love empowers man--who is "them," who is persons-in-community--to love God and to love one another. That love is the creative and animating force that gives life to the church as a community of faith, not as a collection of believers; as the bride of Christ, not as a harem for Christ.
Driving through Arkansas I spotted a sign that read PEST OF THE
MONTH--FLEAS. The sign stood before an exterminator's place of business.
Pest of the month--that was a new one to me. I've heard of book of the month, gift of the month, fruit of the month, flower of the month, and employee of the month, but never pest of the month.
A couple miles down the road another sign read, FLEA MARKET. Aha, I thought, they are in cahoots. One sells the pests, the other kills them. The seller keeps the killer from running out of work. The killer prevents surpluses that would drive the price down. If you kept an old dog around you could raise your own fleas and bypass the market.
What did you say, Doris? Oh! That's what flea markets sell! Well, flea market is sure a funny name for that kind of business. I suppose you'll be telling me next that old bottles jump over chipped plates at a flea circus. Let's get back to my subject--pest of the month. I was on my way to preach a series of sermons, and I got to thinking about some of the pests that afflict congregations. Maybe we could "honor" them by designating a month for each. Better yet, we could exterminate them--not by killing them off, of course, but by persuading them to change their habits. Here is a suggested list of
- January...the Gum Popper
- February...the Note Passer
- March...the Whispering Giggler
- April...the Wrist Watch Ogler
- May...the Choir Loft Sleeper
- June...the Aisle Treader
- July...the Water Fountain Frequenter
- August...the Paper Plane Maker
- September...the Kid Walloper
- October...the Pew Walker
- November...the Hymn Book Defacer
- December...the Longwinded Pulpit Pounder
All joking aside, folks, the improved church manners of a few would make worship
services a greater blessing for the many. The Golden Rule would reform a lot of
worshipers (?) if we could get them to practice it. Some folks behave worse in
God's house than they would in a friend's.
Don't be a pest in the house of God!
Dominion was given to "them" and not to "him." God said, "Let them rule over all the earth," not "let him rule over all the earth." Adam was not placed over Eve and Eve was not placed under Adam. Man's tyrannical dominance of woman is the consequence of his sinful arrogance, not of God's original arrangement. The church, ideally, should reflect God's creative intention and not man's chaotic distortion of that intention. However, the church does not measure up to the ideal, and any priority given to men in ruling and teaching is a socio-political exigency, not a spiritual necessity. Scripture does not present males as naturally wiser or better than females. It presents male and female together as one in the image of God.
Praise the Lord!
There are no words adequate for the praise of our Savior, whether those words
are spoken singly or in combinations. The heart can feel more intensely than the
mouth can speak. Because of what the heart feels, however, the mouth must speak,
however inadequate its vocabulary.
We are told in Scripture that God "inhabits" the praises of His people. I cannot provide Him the magnificent palace He deserves, but that doesn't excuse me from offering the hospitality of a modest cottage. He for whom the grandest castle is too small does not despise the humblest bungalow. My praises, however feebly expressed, are "comely" to Him. The God who stoops to dwell in a contrite heart is pleased also to inhabit the sincere, though straitened, praises of that heart.
God certainly deserves praise. But does He desire it? If so, does His reception of constant praise indicate some sort of divine ego-trip? No. Just as the uncontainable God chose to dwell in Israel's temple for the sake of His people, so He inhabits our praise, not to satisfy His need but ours. We need to praise Him, not to flatter His vanity but to fulfill our humanity. God is certainly "jealous" but He is not vain.
Unless we praise Him, who is our Maker and Redeemer, we become vain, proud, unthankful, and idolatrous. Those who do not praise the Lord have themselves as gods and fancy themselves as saviors. Praise is commanded, not because God is tyrannical but to prevent us from becoming so. Only a proper recognition of who the Lord is keeps us from a distorted and destructive assessment of ourselves.
Praise is irrepressible to hearts redeemed by the grace of God. When we reflect on who He is and what He does, we cannot but offer praise to Him. The psalmist said, "The dead praise not the Lord." When we have been born again, when we are no longer dead in sins, praise is inevitable. Praise to God is the instinct and impulse of the Christian. It is artesian and unquenchable. "Bless the Lord, O my soul"!