Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Come to Me, all you who are weary ..."

You have probably heard the verses ... you may even know them by memory - Matthew 11:28-30:  "Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and my burden is light." These were our memory verses in our Sunday School lesson for this morning.  Jesus invites us to come to Him and find rest for our souls.  That sounds really good.  There is far too little rest in our world today - in ANY part of our lives ... physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually.  So what does "rest for your soul" mean?

People usually think Jesus is talking about finding calm and peace in an otherwise chaotic and overwhelming world.  As such, it is an invitation to come to Him and just ... rest.  But there is so much more here, and it is easily understood when you read these verses in their context.  Going back to verses 25-27, Jesus says, "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.  Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.  What "things" was Jesus talking about?  He was talking about the truth of His kingdom, of the good news that Jesus is the promised Savior.  And He was calling people to repent - to turn away from sin and to find forgiveness and life in Him.

So many heard Jesus' teaching and saw His miracles, but they still did not believe.  Like many today they claimed to believe in God, but their hearts were far from Him.  They are like the people described by the prophet, Isaiah, in Isaiah 29:13:  "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me."  So Jesus thanks the Father for revealing the truth of sin and judgment and forgiveness and salvation to some, while hiding it from others.  Some might think that unfair, but no one deserves mercy or grace.  Remember, "ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:10).

Who then, can be saved?  How can ANYONE come to know God and receive this good news?  Back to Matthew 11, verse 27:  "All things have been committed to Me by My Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him."  Unless Jesus reveals the truth to you or to me through His Spirit and His Word, we are eternally LOST.  We have no access to the Father.  We would be like so many who do not know the true God, who make up their own "gods" and even claim to be Christians, but don't know Jesus!  Remember Isaiah's words, "These people come near to me with their MOUTH and honor me with their LIPS, but their hearts are far from me."

No one - NO ONE, will find true rest ... rest from trying to live their lives for their own pleasure and purposes, trying to be happy, trying to get ahead, trying ... just trying and trying and trying and failing to find joy by finding REST!!  So now, Jesus says, "Come to ME, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest!"  How does Jesus give you rest?  By bringing you to the Father!  By helping you to FOCUS on the same thing Jesus did when He was here on the earth - pleasing His Father.  "Take MY yoke upon you and learn from Me," Jesus says.  Jesus lived to please the Father.  He knew that was the purpose of His life, and it will be the purpose of those who know Jesus.  "MY yoke is easy, and My burden is light," Jesus says.  Living to please God brings REST because through faith in Jesus you KNOW that He is with you, that your sins are forgiven, that you HAVE eternal life, and HE is ALL you need!!

Oh, how I pray that for you and for me!  REST ... you need it ... I need it, and Jesus invites you to come to Him and to find it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

"The closest thing to heaven on earth ..."

Whatever happened to Sundays?  I know I was extremely blessed to grow up in a small farming community in Iowa.  I didn't realize how blessed I was at the time.  Everyone I knew went to church on Sunday morning.  I'm sure there were those who didn't go; and I'm equally sure that not everyone went for the right reasons.  But there were no stores open on Sundays ... a restaurant or two in some places, but Sundays were for church and family for the most part.  Often Sunday nights were spent visiting friends or relatives or fellow church members.

Now, I understand that things are different in the world today.  There are just a lot more things to do.  But it's a choice, isn't it?  We don't HAVE to DO all those other things.  Are we more rested?  Are we happier?  Are we closer to God and to one another, in the church, in our families, in our neighborhoods?  Having all of these options, all of these things to do, has made us more self-centered, more focused on worldly, earthly things, more tired - exhausted, really.  And that doesn't count the money we spend doing all these things.

What have we lost?  What have we left behind?  God, the church, community ... along with joy, peace rest and calm.  You hear people asking the question, "Are we better off today than we were four years ago?"  I have another question for you:  "Are we better off today than we were FORTY years ago?"  Perhaps every generation has asked that question, but no generation has seen the rapid changes we have seen in the past fifteen to twenty years ... even the past five to ten years.  My mother used to say that the past was "the good old days."  I don't say that.  But I do believe that we are getting further and further and further from God's design and that the world is headed for judgment because of it.  That's not my idea - that's what GOD says.

The prophet, Daniel, was told to "seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.  Many will go here and there to increase knowledge" (Daniel 12:4).  Knowledge is multiplying today like at no time in the history of mankind, but knowledge without wisdom brings destruction.  "Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools."  Fools think they know better than God.  God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh.  Jesus said man wasn't made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man.  God gave the sabbath day to mankind to point to the rest we all need - rest from our labors and rest from sin.  God gave the sabbath day to point us to heaven!!

The closest thing we have to heaven on earth is the gathering of God's people together in worship!  That's what makes Sundays so special, and so necessary.  Not only is God glorified as we gather together, but the body is built up and encouraged.  I hear people say that they can do OK without gathering together on Sundays - that you can be a Christian without going to church.  My question is, "SHOULD you be a Christian and not make gathering with your brothers and sisters in Christ a priority?"  It's not, after all, what you and I think is best or what our "flesh" wants to do, it's what GOD says is best and what our spirits need and deep inside want.  We NEED each other, we need worship, we need ... REST.

A dear godly woman went to be with the Lord this week.  She was not alone.  Other believers entered the gates of glory this week, to find rest.  Others died, thinking they were entering rest, but found out otherwise.  For those who know Jesus, the words of the Psalmist must ring true:  "I rejoiced with those who said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the LORD'" (Psalm 122:1).  I hope I'll see you in church tomorrow - or that someone will see you in church tomorrow.  And I pray that you will find rest as you join with the saints in worship, knowing that this is the closest thing to heaven on earth."

Friday, September 28, 2012

"Is THIS life as God meant it to be lived?"

As I was looking at the list of those who have read my blog in the past week, there were ten countries listed, including the United States.  So if you are reading this from Russia or China or the United Kingdom or somewhere else, I pray that God will speak to you through His Word.  It is a privilege to be able to share these daily posts with you and I would love to hear your comments.  The body of Christ is a wonderful thing.  There is only one true religion and it is what is described in the Bible, the very Word of God.  In it God reveals where we came from and where we are going, and also why we are here.  The Church is the "ekklesia," the "called-out ones," who have been chosen and called by God to be His ambassadors in the world.  No one else can share the good news of the Gospel except those who have experienced the power of His Spirit and who have come to know Jesus, (the One who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven), as their Savior and Lord ...  only these can testify concerning the truth to those in the world.

And God has His people everywhere.  But not all those who claim to be Christians are.  Some who claim to be Christians and are part of the visible church do not trust in Jesus and do not proclaim His Word.  Instead, they come up with their own theories and theological schemes.  "To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace" (Hebrews 6:6).  Don't dislike the Church because there are some in the "church" who are not following Jesus.  God is at work in and through His people.  My concern is that in our culture here in the United States life has gotten too ... well, busy, hectic, chaotic, and therefore the Church is not fulfilling its calling to make God known and to proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord, to share the Gospel with those who haven't heard.

Jesus told His disciples to go and make more disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that God has called believers to be and to do.  This takes TIME, and it takes effort.  Increasingly, Americans in general don't have time or energy to be engaged in discipling others.  We barely have time to seek God ourselves, let alone help someone else to do so.  "Evangelism" is avoided like the plague, partly because people don't have time and mostly because people don't know what they would say if they got in a spiritual conversation with someone.  Yet, isn't this what Jesus wants His followers to do?

The early believers spent time together in worship, in their homes, in prayer and in serving one another.  Increasingly here in America people spend the bulk of their "free time" doing what they want to do (making their lives busier than they were already), and if they can squeeze in a little time for "body life" they'll do so, but otherwise, their faith and life are kept in a safe box, to be taken out on special occasions.  If it sounds like I'm being hard on American Christians, that's not my intention.  As a pastor for 35 years, these are my observations.  And my questions is this:  "Is THIS life as God meant it to be lived?"

I wonder how people in other parts of the world live.  I have had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia, Haiti, Guatemala, Italy ... and I have seen how some people in these countries live.  I have found that there are some who live with the same hectic schedule we have here in our country.  But I have also found that some have learned how to slow down and focus on the "important" things of life.  Of course, we have to come to an agreement of what is important and what is not?  Who should determine that?  Can any person determine for someone else what is important, what should have the priority in life, and what shouldn't?

God can, and He has.  The Word of God holds the key to God's priorities for those who are His children, who are disciples of Jesus.  Since it is God's desire that we should be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29), we should be living as Jesus did.  Jesus lived His life in relationship with the Father, which required time spent in prayer and fellowship.  And Jesus lived life as a servant, saying, "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).  THIS is life as God meant it to be lived.

Throughout the books of the New Testament God instructs His people in godly living, Christ-centered living, Holy Spirit-empowered living.  Even at the age of 12, Jesus told His parents that He needed to be about His Father's business.  As our Father's adopted children, WE need to be about our Father's business.  If we are too busy for fellowship with the body and serving others, both within the body and outside of the body, we're too busy.  If we struggle with giving up things WE want to do, and rarely think about what GOD wants us to do, what are we saying to the One who sacrificed Himself for us on the cross?

Frequently, I ask God to show me where I am falling short in living the life He has called me to live.  I fall short often!  His Spirit continues to teach me through His Word, and I try to pass on that knowledge to others, as I am doing in this blog.  I would encourage you to ask yourself this question often:  "Is this (the way I am living today) LIFE as God meant it to be?"  If not, then ask God to help you to restructure your schedule, to examine your priorities and to set your eyes and your heart on Jesus, who is able to help you make the necessary changes.  Here is something worth praying about.  And why wouldn't God hear you?  "Ask, and it shall be given to you.  Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and the door will be opened!"  God will help you to live your life, HIS life, as HE meant it to be lived!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"When God opens doors ..."

"And pray for us ... that God may open a door for our message so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ" (Colossians 4:3).  What IS the "mystery of Christ"?  "Christ in you, the hope of glory"  (Colossians 1:27).  God has revealed that through the power of His Spirit He brings the dead to life and lives within those who believe!!  HE is alive ... and we who believe are ALIVE ... forever!!  We live with Him now and WILL live with Him FOREVER!!!  JESUS is the Way, and the Truth and the Life and we come to the Father through faith in Him.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!!

It is for this reason that the true Church exists!  We pray for open doors to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to ALL people, whether they are across the street or around the world.  One year ago on Wednesday, September 26th, the congregation of Lighthouse Community Church, after months of prayer and study and sharing and discussing - and more praying, voted to become a non-denominational congregation.  It was and is our desire to take down denominational barriers.  Christ came to establish ONE Church and He will come again to gather His ONE Bride, the true Church.  This body is not any one denomination, or even several, but one people from every tribe, nation and tongue.  Those who confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, believing that He is true God and true man, that He paid the penalty for sin in His suffering and death on the cross, that He rose again and ascended into heaven and that He is coming again in power to establish His kingdom on the earth - those who trust in His finished work in their place - THESE are members of the one, true Church!!

Believing that God calls us to proclaim this message, we cannot compromise the truth that God has revealed in His Word.  So we stand on His Word and continue to hold to the historic confessions of the Reformation, believing that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone!!  God has chosen us to be obedient to His call and that is our heart's desire.  So one year ago on September 26th we voted to become non-denominational.  And yesterday, exactly one year later, we signed papers for property on which we hope, by God's grace, to erect a new facility in which to worship, to grow, to serve, to minister to our community, to send out those whom God calls to the corners of the world to proclaim the glorious message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  All this will be done in His time, as He provides.  Today, we rejoice in what God is doing among us!

It is humbling to serve the God who holds all things in His hands and to be His instruments.  So many today have forgotten what the Church is all about, why we are here and what we are to be doing.  God has shown Himself faithful to those who trust in Him.  As you serve the Lord Jesus Christ, do not doubt what God is able to do.  As the the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians he declares, "To Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us (Christ IN you, the hope of glory!), to HIM be glory IN THE CHURCH and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen" (Ephesians 3:20-21).  So let it be.

Pray for open doors for all who know and love Jesus.  Serve Him with passion and zeal.  May His kingdom come and His will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.  "Blessed be HIS Name!"

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"One day at a time, Lord ... "

"One day at a time, sweet Jesus ... that's all I'm asking from You ... "  My Dad liked the words of that song, especially in the last months of his life as he battled with cancer.  That was 18 years ago, but the words of the song come back to me every once in a while.  Actually, the words are based on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6.  Jesus says in verse 25:  "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear."  And in verse 32:  "Your heavenly Father knows that you need them" (certain earthly things like food, clothing and shelter).

So Jesus says in verses 33-34:  "Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own."

"On day at a time, sweet Jesus ... that's all I'm asking from You ..."  The writer of the song was expressing his trust in Jesus to give him strength for what he needed to face that particular day.  He wasn't looking any further, just one day at a time.  Some have taken that to mean that we should just live "by the seat of our pants," that we don't need to plan for the future because it's all up to God anyway.  But while it is true that the future is in God's hands and He's already there ahead of us, God also expects us to use the brains and wisdom He has given us by His Word and Spirit to "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness," looking ahead and discerning where God is leading and seeking to follow His guidance.

The problem comes when we look ahead too far and don't include God in our plans.  When that happens, we make our plans and then ask God to bless them.  When something happens that doesn't fit with our plan, we get in an uproar, even questioning God and asking, "Why?"  Jesus said, "Each day has enough trouble of its own."  That doesn't seem very optimistic, does it?  Thousands of people listen to pastors like Joel Osteen, pastor of a "mega-church" in Houston, Texas, because he is optimistic about everything.  He proclaims that your best days lie ahead and that God wants you to have only the best of all that the world has to offer.  Robert Schuller, former pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, proclaimed the "positive thinking" gospel for half a century.  And he was not the first.  Before him Norman Vincent Peale was the "founder" of positive thinking as he pastored the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City for many years.

Now, there's nothing wrong with positive thinking - if you know what God says about it.  Paul was certainly telling the believers how to think positively in Philippians 4:4-9.  He told them that they should not be anxious about anything, but rather, rejoicing in the Lord, praying and giving thanks, and then God's peace would be theirs - the peace that passes understanding!  He said, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things" (verse 8).  But that's not what the "positive thinkers" are talking about.  They want you to believe that by thinking about positive things only positive things will happen - only good things. God will give you whatever you set your heart on (even if it's not good for you!).  After all, He wants you to be happy.  God wants your life to be easy and every day filled with only positive, good things.  That's a lie.  It doesn't "work." And it doesn't take into account that God knows better than we do what is "good" for us and what will bring Him glory and praise.

Jesus said "each day has enough trouble of its own."  There are many believers all over the world for whom this has been a hard day.  It has had "its share of troubles."  When God blesses with a really great day, what does that look like?  For some it means that everything goes right, just the way they wanted it to go, just the way they planned it to go.  But what if that isn't a "great day" in God's sight?  What if a great day is a day when you face the troubles of life with faith and hope and peace and joy, and God used you as a witness for Him to others that His grace is sufficient, that His strength is what held you together and held you up?

You see, God's grace is like the manna in the wilderness.  God provided the Israelites all they needed for one day at a time.  If they tried to collect more so they wouldn't have to go out to collect any the next day, it turned rotten overnight.  God wanted them to come to Him every day for what they needed, and He promised to meet their need.  The same is true for our spiritual needs.  God gives us what we need one day at a time.  When you and I feel overwhelmed and it seems that I've run out of strength before the day is over, it is because I have "borrowed" some of tomorrow's problems.  God will give me strength for tomorrow's problems tomorrow.  He gives us enough grace and strength for today, and I know He will do the same tomorrow.  That's what it means to be one of His children and to know He loves you.

Paul writes in Romans 8:32:  "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all - how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things."  Everything I need, He will provide.  I'm glad He doesn't give me everything I WANT.  I'm glad every day isn't so easy that I can live it by my own strength and not seek Him.  It was when things were going well that the people of Israel drifted away, or turned away from God.  Somehow, they didn't think they needed Him that day.  The same can happen with you and me.

So the words of the song are a good reminder:  "One day at a time, sweet Jesus ... that' all I'm asking from you."  His grace is sufficient.  In Christ, I HAVE all I need, for I have the love of my Father in heaven and the empowering presence of His Spirit.  I hope you do, too.  If you don't, you can seek Him and find Him today ... just get on your knees and pray in the name of Jesus.  He'll hear you, and He'll answer!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"He hears us when we pray ..."

Does God hear us when we pray?  Do our prayers really matter?  If God is sovereign, if He is in control of all things, if He has a plan and knows all of the details before they happen, then do our prayers really matter?  The answer to that is, "YES!"  But how can that be?

This morning I received a call from my brother and fellow-pastor in Pakistan.  Because of all that is going on there they have had no electricity for some time.  He always shares several prayer requests when he calls me and today he asked me to pray specifically that the electricity would be turned back on by the government because people were not able to go to work or do anything.  So I prayed.  About 30 seconds after I hung up, the phone rang.  It was my brother in Pakistan.  He was laughing, overjoyed, and there was shouting in the background.  He shared that after we had prayed and said goodbye, the electricity went on!!  The people around him were weeping, overjoyed at God's answer to our prayer.

OK, did my prayer make the electricity go on in Pakistan?  Understand, the electricity was not off because something was not working, but because it was turned off by the government.  Did my prayer make a difference?  Notice, I didn't ask if I made the electricity go on, but rather, did my prayer make the electricity go on ... is prayer really that powerful?  The answer to that question is in God's Word.  One of the texts I used on Sunday was Deuteronomy 4:1-8.  In verse 7, Moses asks, "What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to Him?"  He was talking about Israel, God's chosen people.  God had made a covenant with them and had promised to hear them when they prayed.  What we need to understand, to believe, is that the same God has made a covenant with us through the "Seed of Abraham," JESUS!

Jesus told His disciples to "ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7).  In Luke 18 Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow who kept crying out to the judge for justice and he finally heard her and gave her what she wanted.  Luke writes in verse 1:  "Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up."  We are not the nation of Israel, but God says that through faith in Jesus Christ we are "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" (I Peter 2:9).  As God heard His people in the past when they prayed, so God hears US when we pray.  There are countless exhortations to pray throughout the letters to the churches in the New Testament.

So did the electricity really go on in Pakistan because I prayed?  Weren't there other people praying, too?  How can ONE prayer make a difference?  You and I keep trying to figure out God - and failing.  God says, "PRAY!"  And He promises to answer, in His time and in His way and for His glory.  Sometimes it will SEEM as though God didn't hear or didn't answer.  But God tells us in His Word that when we come to Him humbly seeking Him and giving thanks, He hears us.  He ALWAYS hears us.  And He tells us that our prayers matter, that they make a difference, that they move Him.  How can that be if He already knows the details of the future before they happen?  Our prayers make a difference because they are actually PART of God's plan!!!  It is the very Spirit of God that moves us to pray at the express time that we pray for the specific thing for which we pray.  God is at work in us, in our prayers and in our world in ways beyond what we can understand.  It is not for us to understand, it is for us to pray, to seek Him, to acknowledge His goodness and faithfulness ... and to ASK!!

I love I John 5:13-15:  "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life.  This is the confidence we have in approaching God:  that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.  And if we KNOW that He hears us - whatever we ask - we KNOW that we have what we asked of Him."  God tells us to ask and to give thanks for His love and faithfulness, to draw near to Him, believing His promises to be with us, to strengthen us, to help us in our times of need.  We have a faithful High Priest, Jesus, the Son of God, who prays with us and for us.  The Father hears us when we pray, so pray earnestly, pray humbly, pray often and pray persistently and specifically and see what God will do.  He may even move a government official in Pakistan to turn on the electricity.  That wasn't ME - it was God!!  It's always God ... but when He moves you to pray, pray believing and you may be surprised at what God will do!!

Monday, September 24, 2012

"A friendly warning ..."

Every Christian should know certain things.  The Bible is quite clear about life and its struggles.  Jesus said it in His Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:13-14:  "Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."  Of course, we know that Jesus is the gate (John 10:7,9), and through faith in Him we enter God's kingdom.  "By grace you have been saved, through faith" (Ephesians 2:8).

Deception, however, does not stop at the church door!  There were some in the church at Corinth who identified with the body, but who were living in such a way that their confession was in question.  So Paul wrote the following to them in his second letter, chapter 13, verse 5:  "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you - unless, of course, you fail the test."  What "test" was Paul talking about?  From what he had said to them in his previous letter and in II Corinthians, we could list several things:  arrogance, immorality, divisiveness, tolerance of false teaching, and others.  Jesus said, "By their fruits you will know them," and God gives us some things to look for.  In II Corinthians 13:10, Paul writes, " ... and our prayer is for your perfection."

The Christian life is one of striving, of seeking God and desiring to be like Jesus.  True believers know that they are weak in themselves.  That is actually the subject Paul is addressing in II Corinthians 13 - that it's OK to be weak.  In verse 4 he uses the example of Christ, who "was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by God's power."   Then he adds, "Likewise, we are weak in Him, yet by God's power we will live with Him to serve you."  Paul himself had learned that lesson through his "thorn in the flesh" (Chapter 12).  Three times he had prayed that God would take it away, but God had said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (vs. 9).

Here's one of the most important lessons to be learned in following Jesus Christ:  you can't do it!!  That's right, you can't do it ... by yourself.  You need Christ, you need His Word and you need His Spirit ... AND, you need other believers ... and they need you.  The true Church is called the "body of Christ" for a reason.  That's more than a cute illustration - it's FACT!  The writer of Hebrews lists a number of things we need to do as we confess Christ as Savior and Lord:  "draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith; ... hold unswervingly to the hope we profess; ... spur one another on toward love and good deeds; ... and do NOT give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but ... encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:22-25).

And we DO see "the Day approaching," don't we?  The change in our nation and in the world in the past 15-20 years, even the past 5-10 years, is astounding to those who have eyes to see.  It's not just me growing older that makes me realize that the world we live in today is not the same world I grew up in. Change is so rapid that no one can keep up with it.  There is no moral foundation upon which to stand. There is no moral compass to guide those who don't know Christ.  The percentage of those who claim to be Christians may be steady or even increasing, but the percentage of those who accept the Bible as the Word of God and who seek to live by it is declining rapidly.  More and more people are "failing the test" in the basics of what it means to follow Christ.

And here's the worst thing, when I or others try to issue a "friendly warning," it is met with rebuke, anger or even mocking.  In itself, that is not surprising.  Jesus said it would be so.  Paul warned it would be so.  Peter predicted it would be so.  But it does grieve the soul when you love someone and remind them of what God says about the importance and necessity of "body life," of living life together with other believers, and they don't receive your concern in love, or just ignore it.  I'm not talking about being a "busybody" and snooping into other people's business, but here's the thing:  when Cain asked God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" ... the answer was and is, "YES!"

We can all use a "friendly warning" once in a while.  I've received some from brothers and sisters in Christ that I respect and I trust that I have received them in love and examined my heart and life.  I encourage you to do the same.  When someone with whom you have a relationship in the body of Christ expresses their concern for you, receive it as from Christ.  Examine what they have said in the light of God's Word.  If their counsel is good, receive it in the spirit it was given; if it proves otherwise, thank them for caring enough to express their concern and share your heart with them.  Accountability is a good thing - it is a necessary part of being a member of the body of Christ.

"Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching"  (Hebrews 10:25).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Worship with God's people ... PRICELESS!"

We don't know a lot from Scripture about the worship of the people of Israel, but if the Psalms are any indication, it must have been amazing!  Perhaps we forget that we are worshiping the same God.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  Over and over again the Psalmist calls the people to worship.  Many of the Psalms are given to "The Director of Music."  That's right, they had Worship Leaders!!  And oh, how the people must have sung and praised the LORD, their God!!

In spite of all the "worship wars" of the past (and the present), Psalm 150 clearly settles the issue of worship style for those who have ears to hear:  "Praise the LORD.  Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty heavens.  Praise Him for His acts of power; praise Him for His surpassing greatness.  Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise Him with the harp and lyre, praise Him with tambourine and dancing, praise Him with the strings and flute, praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals.  Let everything that has breath praise the LORD."

In other words, use everything you have to praise the LORD, your God.  Praise Him with everything in you.  Praise Him with enthusiasm, with joy, with shouting and with clapping and with ... dancing??  Praise Him with trumpets, cymbals, strings and flutes and tambourine and harps.  Use it all to praise the LORD.  Lift up your voices and shout for joy.  Give Him PRAISE!!

THANK YOU, LORD, for this morning!!  A visitor to Lighthouse this morning commented, "I didn't know THIS existed in Allendale."  I thank God that Lighthouse is not the only body of believers in Allendale or in West Michigan.  But it does seem that God is doing something very special in our midst.  It has been an "interesting" year.  The reaction of the body at Lighthouse could have been much different than it has been.  Today there is excitement, enthusiasm and joy as we rejoice in God's faithfulness and look forward to the future in anticipation of what God will do in us and through us.

This morning we praised the Lord.  This morning we heard the testimony of a young girl as she confessed her faith in Jesus Christ and committed her life to Him.  This morning we prayed for people going through struggles.  We prayed for our brothers and sisters in Pakistan who are currently facing severe persecution.  We gave thanks for answered prayers and we lifted our voices as we sang, "Nothing Is Impossible!"  Because "You (God) Are Good ALL the Time," "It Is Well With My Soul!"  And, oh yes, "He loves us, OH, how He loves us." 

Do you wonder how many, or how few, people KNOW that God loves them?  How few people today have experienced God's love in Christ?  How many people today KNOW that their sins are forgiven and that they HAVE eternal life?  So many are being deceived or just do not know or care to know God because their hearts remain closed and in bondage to the spiritual death in which they exist.  As we worship, as we give thanks, as we praise Him ... as we trust Him and find Him always faithful, others languish in fear and despair and anxiety, unaware that they could find peace and hope and joy if only they would draw near to God through His Son Jesus Christ.

At the end of our worship today I read some verses from Paul's prayer for the believers in Ephesus in Ephesians 3:17-19:  "I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to KNOW this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."  To know the love of God in Christ is to know that life is worth living when it is lived for Him.  It is knowing God loves YOU, and then loving Him back.

I pray that YOU will know the glorious love of God and be moved to praise, to worship, to join with God's people often and to lift up your voice in praise to the LORD, the Creator of the universe!  While all of life is worship in the sense of living in God's presence and living for His glory, we will one day stand with angels as we praise our God.  Until then, we invite you to join us at Lighthouse as we PRAISE the LORD!!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"They hated me ... they will hate you!"

"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first" (John 15:18).

I wrote yesterday about what is going on in the world and about the prophecies in Ezekiel concerning the nations that will come against Israel in the future, prior to Jesus' return.  I will write more about that in future posts because the whole Bible points to the return of Jesus Christ as the culmination of God's plan to build His kingdom on the earth.  The closer we get to Christ's return, the more important that those who are truly His disciples know what God has revealed about those times because many will be deceived (II Thessalonians 2:8-12).

But today I want to urge you to think about the words of Jesus in John 15:18.  The words are hard, almost abrupt in a way that leaves you wondering if Jesus could have really said such a thing.  The Jesus you hear about today was kind and humble and tolerant and gracious and loving to everybody.  Why would He say such a thing?  It may be even more surprising when you look at the context of these words in John 15.  Jesus has just been talking about love and bearing fruit that will last.  That's a common theme today, isn't it?  Love, love, love!  You certainly find that message from Jesus.  "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in His love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete ..."  (John 15:9-11).  "This is my command," Jesus says in verse 17:  "Love each other."

He goes from that to this:  "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first!"  Why go from "Love each other,"  to "If the world hates you ..."?  Jesus was doing what so many today don't seem to be willing to do ... He was being REAL!!  There is a spiritual war going on that began in the halls of heaven when Satan rebelled against God and that came to earth when Satan tempted Eve and she and Adam disobeyed God.  Since that time, there has been and is a spiritual war going on in the heavenly realms and on the earth.  Too many in the church today want to pretend that we are living in peacetime.  They want to negotiate with the enemy of their souls, they want to rest on the sidelines, they want to believe that if we just love everybody, they'll love us back and everything will be OK.  That's not reality!!  Jesus said, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first!"

Jesus goes on to explain that in John 15:19:  "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you OUT OF the world."  I have explained to the congregation at Lighthouse that the word, "church," is not found in the Bible.  The Greek word translated "church" is "ekklesia," which means "called-out ones."  How does this affect your view of what the Church of Jesus Christ is all about?  Those who believe in Jesus Christ are DIFFERENT than those who do not believe in Him.  We are called to be "ambassadors" of His kingdom (II Corinthians 5:20).  We are "aliens and strangers on earth" (Hebrews 11:13).  Heaven is our home.  For us, "to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).

Do you believe that?  Is that how you understand what it means to be a "Christian," a "disciple of Jesus, the Christ"?  It's not easy!  It requires commitment and faith, relying on the grace and strength that God provides day by day, moment by moment.  I was reminded of that in a very real way when my brother in Christ, my friend, a pastor in Pakistan, called me yesterday to tell me that there is violence breaking out all over Pakistan and Christians are being attacked and killed, and their houses are being burned.  This very day, some people who have lost their home and who were attacked were planning to travel several hours to his home to find refuge with his church family.  At this time they live in a relatively "safe" area, a Christian colony.  But who knows what tomorrow will bring - there, or here.

In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).  And Paul wrote to his young friend, Timothy, "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus, will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived"  (II Timothy 3:12-13).

Are you being persecuted for your faith in Jesus Christ?  Maybe it means that some people make fun of you at school, or some people accuse you of being "holier than thou" just because you won't join them in certain behaviors.  Perhaps you don't get a job, or you lose a job, because you take a stand on ethics and integrity.  Or maybe those within the visible church think you are being unreasonable for standing up for the truth and authority of God's Word, rather than being tolerant of false teaching within the body of Christ.  Persecution comes in many forms.  As I pray for my brothers and sisters in Pakistan and other places around the world where their lives are literally in danger for the sake of the Gospel, I pray that God will give me the strength and courage to live as "a stranger and an alien on earth," knowing that our God is with me and He is able and willing to give us all we need to stand firm as we continue to witness to others, preaching Christ and Him crucified, offering God's love and forgiveness for all who repent, who turn from sin, and who confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

Jesus said, "Whoever acknowledges ME before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns ME before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven"  (Matthew 10:32-33).  So understand that not everyone will be your friend.  If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ you are a "called-out one," and you are not here to be friends with the world.  You are here to testify that "Our God reigns," and to call people out of darkness into His marvelous light.  You can't call people out of darkness if you, yourself, are walking in the darkness!  Be children of the light and as you walk in the light be ready to count the cost.  'If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated ME first." ...  JESUS

Friday, September 21, 2012

"The Coming Battle in the Middle East ..."

Ezekiel 38:1-5 describes a battle between the forces of evil and Israel.  The same people and nations are mentioned in Ezekiel 38:2-3, and Revelation 20:8:  "Gog and Magog."  The prophecy of Ezekiel was written several hundred years prior to John's revelation.  The people of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians and dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire around 722 B.C.  Now, as Ezekiel writes, the nation of Judah had been taken into captivity into Babylon (586 B.C.) because of God's judgment against them.  At the same time, God had promised that He would bring them back to the land after seventy years.  The Savior had to come from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10), and for that to happen, along with all the other prophecies concerning the coming King, Judah had to be back in the land God had promised to the descendants of Abraham more than 1500 years earlier.

The fulfillment of prophecy is unique to the Bible.  Those who have not studied God's word remain blissfully (or not so blissfully!) ignorant of what has happened before ... AND of what will eventually, quite probably SOON, come upon the earth.  The reality of God's judgment will come upon the whole earth in due time; until then, God tells those in whom His Spirit is at work truth about the present and the future that you can find nowhere else but in His Word.  Every day we watch things like the gas prices and the stock market and other things in our economy and fail to understand that all of these things are tied to events going on in the world.  If you listen to the news, you quickly discover that the whole world is inter-related in a way that it has never been before.  There is now a global economy.  What happens in one place affects everyone.  The same is true to an even deeper level in the spiritual realm.

I am currently preaching a series of sermons on the theme of God's kingdom.  From the beginning, God's purpose is to establish His reign, His kingdom on the earth.  If you read the end of THE Book, the Bible, you find the consummation, the completion of God's plan.  Evil is destroyed and God Himself comes to dwell with mankind (with all who have believed in Him and who by faith trusted not in their own goodness, but in the Savior, Jesus).  God, in all of His glory, will reign over the earth ON the earth - a new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17; II Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).  The knowledge of God will cover the earth.  All who have rejected the knowledge of the one, true God will perish in eternal judgment forever.  This is going to happen.  It is not a fantasy, it is not a probability, it is not a fairy tale.  God said it; it will be done.

But it's the HOW it will happen and what will lead up to it that people need to begin to see as we live in this world today.  Many people today believe we are swiftly drawing near to these events.  I would agree.  This is not a scare tactic or a ploy to get people interested in the church or a way to try to force people to take their spiritual lives seriously.  Books and videos and movies have become commonplace, talking about "end times" and "Armageddon" and the end of the earth as we know it.  How many people realize that the Bible gives rather specific details about what is to come on the earth - and most of it centers around Israel.

There is a lot of debate about whether the existence of Israel as a nation has anything to do with prophecy.  There are those who believe that the Church has replaced Israel in God's plans and that all of the mentions of the restoration of Israel in the future, made by the prophets, referred to the Church, Jews and Gentiles brought together as God's chosen people.  I don't have time in this post to get into all of the biblical proof that this is not the case, but it is clear from Scripture that God's plan for Israel, the Jewish people, plays a central role in the events leading up to the return of Jesus Christ to earth.  So let me get back to Ezekiel for a moment.

Ezekiel 38:1-5 mentions Magog, Gog, Messhech, Tubal, Persia, Cush and Put.  These are the nations who will come against Israel.  While some have tried to identify leaders like Alexander the Great and others, who led armies against Israel in the centuries following Ezekiel's writings, there is no clear and obvious connection that can be made to Ezekiel's prophecies.  God's Word is accurate  in every detail.  Ezekiel mentions these characters again in Chapter 39, a chapter that ends with the restoration of Israel.  It is important to identify these nations.  These names were associated with what is now Turkey, Asia Minor (south and east of the Black Sea), and Russia.  Persia is modern Iran, Cush is south of Egypt, across from Saudi Arabia, and Put is identified with Libya.  These are the nations that will come against Israel at a future time and who will ultimately be defeated.

Can you see that happening today?  Some think that people who believe such things are radicals and extremists, but God's Word is true.  There is a spiritual battle today between the forces of evil, of Satan, and the forces of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Every time you and I pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, ON EARTH, as it is in heaven," we are declaring that we believe this day will come and we anticipate the rule of God on the earth.  For that to happen evil must be and will be destroyed.  I will talk more about this in the future, but for today I encourage you to watch the news and to remember that there is more going on in our world than we can imagine.  Our comfort comes from knowing that the God who orders the nations and the rulers of the nations cares about each one of His children.  He calls us to trust Him, to love Him and to serve Him as we look forward to that day and "speed its coming!" (II Peter 3:12).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"The Unity of the Body of Christ"

"How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!  It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.  For there the LORD bestows His blessing, even life forevermore" (Psalm 133:1-3).

What a beautiful picture!  Anointing oil flowing down, bringing healing, oneness, love, LIFE to the oneness of God's people.  So it is meant to be.  So it isn't - most of the time, but it IS possible in Christ.  God calls His children to a unity that is deep and real and beautiful in His sight.  What stands in the way is a misunderstanding of what real unity is.

I haven't spoken about unity for a while, but I was recently reminded that people in the visible church will often destroy (I know that's a strong word, but it's the first one that came to mind, and an accurate description of what people often do) ... people will often destroy the unity of the body of Christ over the most trivial of matters, without any thought to what they are doing and how displeasing it is to God.  God cares about the ONENESS of His body.  In I Corinthians 13 Paul makes it clear, as Jesus does in John 15, and as John does in I John 4, that LOVE is the greatest spiritual gift there is.  Loving God and loving one another is the very core of what it means to be Christians, to be followers of Christ.

What destroys this kind of unity, this oneness of heart and mind, focused on God, on Christ, on His body??  "MEism" ... the religion of ME!  Dissension and division within the body of Christ always begins with a person or a group of people thinking more about what THEY want than what God wants, more about what pleases them than what pleases God, more about what they want others to do than what they are willing to do themselves, more about people serving them than about them serving others.  The unity that pleases God must begin with knowing what God wants and making THAT a priority.  That can only be determined by God's Word.  Too many people "pray about it" and come up with the answer they wanted in the first place, even though it has no support in the Bible.  Let me give you an example.

We left the denomination that the congregation had been part of for 95 years.  Some thought that we were breaking the very command I am talking about - God's call to unity.  But the unity God calls us to is a oneness of heart and mind based on the truth He has revealed in His Word.  God never places you in a place where you have to decide which part of His Word you are going to keep.  The unity of the denomination was based on a common tradition rather than on the sound footing of God's Word in all things.  Denominationalism is not in the Bible.  Church hierarchies that can claim to own property that a congregation prayed for, planned for, worked for and paid for is not in the Bible.  Tolerating sin in order to maintain an outward unity is not in the Bible.  You can't make a case for such manmade unity from Scripture.  It just isn't in there!

But there are other things that destroy the unity God wants and that Jesus and His Spirit produce.  These, too, are aimed at pleasing men rather than God.  What should be the criteria for belonging to a particular congregation?  As a pastor I have heard all kinds of excuses from people who either don't want to be part of the church at all or who leave because of reasons like, "I'm just not comfortable," or this thing or that thing "just isn't ME," or "I am looking for something else" (What?  "I'm not sure, but I'll know when I find it.").  What does GOD want?  He wants unity based on truth that points to Jesus Christ and that produces obedience to His Word in every area of life.  Such unity is rare in the religious climate of the church in the United States today.  "MEism" is the fastest-growing religion in our country, and it is destroying the unity of the body.

So what do we do ... what do YOU do?  Ask yourself and earnestly pray, "What does GOD want me to do?  WHERE does God want me and our family to be?  How and where can I best use the gifts God has given me to serve His body, to build up the Church and to proclaim His name?"  Don't just pray about it.  Prayer is important, but it must be based on God's Word.  Too often we substitute prayer for Bible study and listening to what God has already said.  If you are truly seeking God's will and direction, you will never get an answer in prayer that contradicts God's Word.  God doesn't contradict Himself.  The Spirit who inspired the Word will not lead you in a direction that is contrary to what He teaches in His Word.

Unity, true biblical unity, is based on the truth of God revealed in His Word.  Those who break THAT unity suffer the consequences of heading the wrong direction on a one-way street - moving away from God instead of moving toward Him!  But praise be to God, He makes His way clear.  In His Word is the oil that brings healing and reconciliation and forgiveness and peace and joy.  God's Word speaks with authority precisely because it IS God's Word.  Be a student, be a learner, listen to no one (including me) without checking out the truth in God's Word.    Paul commended the Berean believers because he said they "were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).

May that be true of you and me as we pursue the true unity of the body ... brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, made one by His blood and united by His Spirit through the Word.  Such unity is truly a beautiful thing!!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"LIFE happens ..."

Well, I didn't get a chance to write last night because I spent the whole evening in the Emergency Room with my son, Chad.  He hadn't been feeling well all day and experienced some other symptoms after dinner so we decided it would be better to be safe than sorry, as the saying goes.  Still don't know what was/is going on, but ruled out some things.  Isn't that like life?  When things go wrong you sometimes have to try to figure out how to "fix" it, but in so doing, you need to get to the HEART of the problem. When it comes to most things in life, our problems have to do with our hearts!

I knew a pastor years ago who often said, "This would be a great world ... if it weren't for the people!"  That may seem like an odd saying for a pastor, but his experience had proven what the Bible says, that all the problems in the world can be traced to people, and the problem with people is their hearts - their spiritual "hearts."  Their affections have turned away from God, either because they have never heard of Him or they have rejected the knowledge of Him that He gives in creation and in His Word.

The Apostle Paul explains this in the book of Romans when he writes, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1:18-20).

When "life" happens to people who don't know God, the reactions vary from panic and anxiety, to anger and frustration, to sadness and depression.  Some years ago a Jewish rabbi wrote a book entitled, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."  In the book he tried to explain how God was able to comfort those who faced the trials of life.  He relied on his belief that God was loving and kind and compassionate, even when things happened that we cannot understand.  His idea was that when bad things happen to BAD people, we can understand that.  They bring it on themselves - so he believed.  But when bad things happen to GOOD people it is harder to understand.  It is then that we must rely on faith, that we must believe that God is with us.

Well, he was partly right - but mostly wrong!  The truth is, there are no "good" people.  The Bible says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23), and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).  The reality is that bad things happen because we live in a world deeply affected by sin - OUR sin, as well as that of others.  The author assumed that bad things happen randomly and that there is no purpose in them.  We know, because the Bible tells us, that trials, suffering, persecution, death ... are all the result of the sin of Adam, our first representative, in the Garden of Eden.  Paul explains in Romans 5:12 that death and all these other "bad" things came into the world through Adam's sin.  But he wasn't the only one who has sinned ... ALL have sinned!

The GOOD news is that the God who reveals Himself in creation and in His Word, also revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ, who came from heaven, became a man and walked among us.  God sent His Son into the world to reveal truth and then to go to the cross to pay the penalty for sin, "that whoever believes in Him should NOT perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).  Since the pouring out of God's Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), God has been working on the core problem of mankind ... God has been changing HEARTS and drawing people to Himself through faith in Jesus.  "To all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:12-13).  All people are created by God, and in this sense are "children of God," but not all people have been born again and therefore, not all people are the "children of God," spiritually.

When "life" happens to those who have been born again by the Spirit of God the reaction is not panic or anxiety, or anger and frustration, or sadness and depression ... it is trust in the One who has become "Abba, Father."  We read in Romans 8:15:  "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by Him we cry, 'Abba, Father.'"  

What a blessed assurance!  Using the words of Psalm 91, "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the LORD, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.' Surely He will save you from the fowler's snare and from the deadly pestilence.  He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge" (Psalm 91:1-4).  As I sat in the Emergency Room with my son last evening, these are the words that brought me comfort and gave me assurance.  As much as I love him, his God loves him more, and in that I found ... and I find ... rest.  I am his earthly father, but he has a heavenly Father because he has put his trust in Him.  And our heavenly Father is always at work, even when the "bad" things happen, because this we know:  "that in ALL things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to HIS purpose" (Romans 8:28).

Knowing God as your "Father in heaven" brings comfort, strength, assurance, hope, peace and even joy in the midst of "life."  Find your rest in Him today and you will "be strong in the LORD!"

Monday, September 17, 2012

"As the seasons change ..."

Here we are again!  The season is changing ... tonight, this week.  I am SO thankful that God never changes and that His promises are always, "Yes, and Amen!" in Christ.  Here is one of those promises:  "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease" (Genesis 8:22).  As long as the earth endures ...

I was thinking of God's promises as I listened to the news the last few days.  What's going on in our world?!  While I certainly don't claim to understand every event that is going on, I CAN tell you that God has a plan and that you and I are part of it.  I can also tell you that Israel is part of God's plan.  As the seasons change, God says that's part of His plan.  As the events in the Middle East change, God says that's part of His plan.  HE controls both!

Listen to the words of God through the prophet Jeremiah, written during a time when God was bringing judgment on the Jewish nation - a judgment that would bring death to thousands, the destruction of the temple and 70 years of captivity in Babylon.  That would certainly mean the extinction of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... or so it appeared.  But listen to God's promise:  "This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar - the LORD Almighty is his name ... 'Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,' declares the LORD, 'will the descendants of Israel EVER cease to be a nation before ME!" (Jeremiah 31:35-36).

God brought a remnant back to the land He had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through them the Savior, the Christ ... JESUS came into the world.  And He has a remnant yet today.  Once again, God has restored the descendants of Abraham to their land - to THEIR land.  Israel's God is "the LORD," the Almighty, the Holy One, the Great "I AM" - Yahweh, Jehovah!!  And through Jesus Christ, He is YOUR God and mine.  When you trust in Jesus for forgiveness you become an integral part of God's plan for the world, and this promise comes with it:  "And we know that in ALL things God works for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to HIS purpose" (Romans 8:28).

What is bothering, worrying you today?  What is weighing heavily upon your heart?  You are not the first to wonder about God's plans - to wonder if He even notices what is going on in your life.  But the words of Isaiah remind us who God is and that He DOES have a plan - in case you are wondering:  "Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, 'My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God'?  Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom.  he gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint"  (Isaiah 40:27-31).

The seasons will change, but GOD will not!  "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits!" 

"The WORD ..."

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Mark 13:31).

The Bible is a remarkable book ... remarkable because you can read and study it your whole life and continue to discover more of God's truth with the turn of every page.  There are doctrines, teachings, in the Bible that are difficult to grasp.  Even the Apostle Peter wrote, " ... just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.  He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters.  His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction"   (II Peter 3:15-16).  Some have used these words to declare that the Bible is too hard for most people to understand, but that's not what Peter says.  He says, "ignorant and unstable people distort" some of the things Paul writes, "as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."

One of the most beautiful things about the Bible is that while there are always more treasures of truth to mine from it's depths, a little child can grasp gems of truth that will feed and nourish their souls as they grow up into Christ.  The words Paul spoke to his young friend, Timothy, come to mind:  "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus"  (II Timothy 3:14-15).  The Scriptures, the "writings," the Bible, the very Word of God is for everybody.  It is for people of all ages, of all "levels" on the scale of spiritual life and growth.  Whether you are just beginning or have studied the Bible all your life, GOD SPEAKS through His Word to those "who have ears to hear!"

Today made me think of all this as I watched children going to what we have traditionally called, "Sunday School."  I remember Sunday School like it was yesterday.  I remember learning Bible verses; in fact, I remember going over them at home so we would know them on Sunday morning.  I remember studying the Bible in our catechism class.  Some years ago as I sat at a meeting of Elders and Deacons in another congregation I was serving at the time, as we had a discussion about how much children and youth should be "required" to memorize.  Quite a few of the men around the table lamented about memories of having to memorize and how they didn't like it.  Now they had children of their own and they were wondering if it was good to "force them" to memorize Bible verses.

As I listened, I prayed for wisdom.  Knowing that I could quote several verses to prove my point that such memorizing was valuable, that it was profitable, that it was pleasing to God, I felt led to go a different direction.  I looked at my brothers who were sitting around the table and made a statement and then asked a question:  "You were 'forced' to memorize God's Word as you grew up.  Some of you even 'had to' memorize questions and answers from the catechism ... and yet, here you are - leaders in Christ's body....  Do you think the things you learned by memorizing verses of Scripture had anything to do with your being here today??"  As you might imagine, it was pretty quiet around the table.  I then asked another question:  "Would you deprive your children of the opportunity to experience spiritual growth through the reading, studying AND memorizing of God's Word?"

I have to confess that in the silence that followed I was tempted to say, "I rest my case," but it wasn't really "my" case, it was GOD's case.   Psalm 119, for all its 176 verses, lays out such a powerful case for the necessity of knowing God's Word that it is easy to find verses in this Psalm to support an ongoing study of this marvelous book.  One of my favorite is verse 9:  "How can a young man keep his way pure?  By living according to your word."  And verse 11 follows:  "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."  In case you didn't catch it, hiding God's word in your heart means reading it, understanding it, accepting it as God's Word AND memorizing it so that it is THERE when you need it, pointing you to God for guidance and direction.  Verse 105 says, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path."  I encourage you to read through this entire Psalm - even to make it the subject of a week or two of devotional readings.

Are YOU depriving yourself and/or your children the joy, peace and power of God's Word?  When you go to worship, do you carry your Bible with you (or your iPad with a Bible "ap"?).  Personally, I still encourage people to bring their Bible and a pen to jot down notes or underline.  I know you can do that with electronics today, but there is truly something about holding your own Bible and becoming so familiar with it that it is like a close friend.  I have been studying it since I was in grade school, and in earnest for more than forty years.  I still discover new insights into the God I love and His work of establishing His kingdom.  You will not be disappointed as you make this your lifelong study.  Get involved today in "eating" regularly from God's Word, and your soul will never go hungry!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Hate what is evil, cling to what is good!"

Throughout the Arab / Muslim world hatred toward America is being expressed by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands.  While the blame for the anger is being placed on a foolish, disgustingly ignorant film which presents the Muslim's prophet, Mohammed, and Islam in a bad light, the truth is that Islam, as a religion, proclaims and promotes the conquering of the world by the followers of Mohammed.  America is hated for many reasons, but the hatred and violence being expressed is not of God, certainly not a god who is worthy to be worshiped.  The hatred and violence is the result of a failure to acknowledge the God of the Bible and to draw near to Him through Jesus Christ.  The human heart without the Spirit is filled with violence.  America is even hated from within by those who benefit from the freedoms God has granted us by His grace.  They don't know any better because they are so self-absorbed that the only "good" they see is what THEY want, and when they don't get it, hatred is the result and at any moment, violence may show itself in small or large ways, from angry words to murder.

This brings up an interesting and necessary question:  How do you determine what is good and what is evil?  What standard should we use to decide what qualifies as good or acceptable behavior and what isn't?  Is it purely subjective - up to each individual?  More and more people today seem to believe that there is no objective standard by which we can judge any behavior.  "Anything goes," is more than a slogan in our culture and in many places in the world today; it is the motto many people have adopted as their motivation for being tolerant of all sorts of behavior.  But "anything goes" gives no guidance in determining what is good or what is evil; in fact, it denies that there is any difference between the two!

As Christians, we hear God's voice saying, "Hate what is evil; cling to what is good" (Romans 12:9).  God Himself defines what is evil and what is good.  In the commandments and throughout His Word God draws a distinction between behavior that pleases Him, that glorifies Him and that is "good," and that which is evil.  Every word, every thought, every action can be "judged" by this unchangeable standard.  When God says, "Hate what is evil; cling to what is good," He is talking about His revealed will - the things He has said we should DO and the things He has said we should NOT Do.  It's really not that difficult.  God's standard was revealed in the Garden of Eden, and then more fully in the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai - the Ten Commandments, and then by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and by the apostles as they expounded on God's Word and were inspired by His Spirit.

Why is all this important?  Let's let Solomon tell us:  "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil"  (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).   Every person ... every human being who has ever lived, who is living now, or who will live must stand before God one day.  God will pronounce His just judgment on all who do evil ... and the ONLY escape ... ... ... ... the ONLY escape is faith in Jesus Christ.  Muslims do not know Jesus Christ, but they are not alone.  People all around us are living "without God and without hope in the world" (Ephesians 2:12).  That is why there is so much evil in our world.  That is why there is so much hatred in our world.

WE must be careful not to be engaged in evil ourselves.  As followers of Jesus, we know we are not yet perfect, but that is our goal.  The Spirit of God is at work within us producing "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control"  (Galatians 5:22-23).  But even these do not take away our sins.  Only the blood of Jesus Christ can do that and by receiving Jesus as Savior and Lord we are covered by His blood, justified (declared innocent) in God's sight, forgiven!   Then we are called to proclaim this good news.  To do that we must point out evil, and we must also proclaim what is good.  Too often we are good at pointing out evil, but we don't point people to God's standard OR to the cross of Jesus as the answer for evil.

God says, "Hate what is evil" AND "cling to what is good!!"  We need to do BOTH!

Friday, September 14, 2012

"The Essential Commandment"

The Jews have a phrase from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy that they repeat over and over.  It is called the Shema (from the Hebrew word "to hear"), and it is found in Deuteronomy 6:4:  "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one."  Moses, the writer of the book of Deuteronomy, follows this declaration with these words, in verse 5, "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."  Jesus was asked by a teacher of the law to declare what HE considered to be the greatest commandment.  He responded, "'Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.'  This is the first and greatest commandment, and the second is like it, 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37-40).

Most people who claim to be Christians have heard these words and have some understanding of what they mean.  We are supposed to love God and love others.  So, we try to do that, right?  Jesus summarized all of the commandments into these two:  love God and love others.  That's what disciples of Jesus do.  We try ... and we fail.  Then we try some more ... and we may actually feel successful for a little while.  But then we fail again ... and again ... and again.  We keep on trying because we don't really know what else to do.  We are thankful that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins on the cross, because we know we are sinners in need of God's grace.  Thank you, Father, for your forgiveness!!

So that's it?!  Living the Christian life means trying to obey these two commandments?  Is that what Moses was talking about?  Is that what JESUS was teaching His disciples??  Or was there more in these words?  As I was preparing to teach the first lesson in a study we are doing in our adult class on Sunday mornings, I was struck by something the author of our study book wrote ("The Essential Commandment" by Greg Ogden).  He rightly explained that Jesus wasn't giving us a "higher law" to try to obey.  Rather, He was calling people into a relationship of love with the living God!!

God had chosen Israel to be His special people.  He had set His love, His affection, on these people.  They were His treasure, the "apple of His eye."  So why the Shema?  What does it mean?  And what does it have to do with loving God?  Listen to it again:  "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one."  The Jews and others interpret this to be a statement that contradicts the teaching of the Trinity - one God in three persons.  After all, it says, "The LORD our God, the LORD is ONE." But it actually teaches the same thing that we learn later in the New Testament, that within the Godhead there is relationship:  Father, Son and Spirit!  AND, it explains why Moses follows it with the words, "Love the LORD your God ... " The word, "ONE," refers to the fellowship, the love, the unity, the relationship within what we have come to call "the Godhead" - the one, true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is like saying, "God is oneness."  

If the Bible didn't teach this, I would be guessing, but it DOES.  Actually, JESUS does!!  In John 14:11, Jesus says, "Believe me when i say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me."  Then in chapter 17, verses 21-23, Jesus explains what the Shema means ... here is what Jesus is praying for:
" ... that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  ... that they may be one as we are one:  I in them and you in me."  And He goes on in verse 26:  " ... in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them."  Do you get it???

Jesus brings His children INTO the relationship that He has with the Father!  The "essential commandment" is this:  enter into God's love, receiving the love of the Father through Jesus as His Spirit works within you ... receive His love and then LOVE HIM BACK!!  The Shema declares the beautiful oneness of God, the perfect love that only God Himself knows, and then invites us to share in that love, to join God in loving Him AND others.  Some are already part of His family with us - our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And we have the privilege and responsibility to invite others into the circle of God's love.

Do you see why THIS is the "essential commandment," or, as Jesus put it, the "greatest commandment"?  If you're not busy on Sunday mornings at 9:00 a.m., come join us at the Oakwood Intermediate School in Allendale every week for the next few months.  If you don't live in the area and are reading this blog, I will be sharing some thoughts as we look at God's Word concerning how to enter into this relationship of love with God and to find joy unspeakable!  "Hear!!  The LORD our God is ONE," and through His Son Jesus, He has invited YOU to be part of His "circle of love!"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Religion, Hate, Killing ... What did Jesus do?

Is the world unraveling into one gigantic religious war?  What are Christians to think of the turmoil in the Middle East and the part that Islam plays in what is happening?  How should we respond?  Are we, as Christians, partly to blame?  What about the God of the Old Testament?  Didn't He tell Joshua and some of the kings to wipe out whole cities and peoples - men, women and children??  How do we sort all of this out?

I'm not going to attempt to give complete answers to all of these questions, but I believe Christians need a response, an answer to these and other questions regarding "religion" that are being asked by many in our nation and around the world.  Is our testimony concerning the God of the Bible relevant to our world - even to Muslims?  Can we really expect people to understand the God who reveals Himself as just and holy, and at the same time compassionate and merciful?  Where do we begin?

We need to begin where we should always begin - with God.  The entire Bible is God's revelation of Himself.  We cannot pick and choose which parts we are going to use to "define" a god that we will like.  God is who He reveals Himself to be.  He is the same God in the New Testament as He was in the Old Testament.  His character never changes.  He IS God!!

When God destroyed all those living on the earth by sending the flood in the days of Noah, we tend to think that all the people who died were unbelievers, but the Bible doesn't say that.  The truth is, Noah and his family deserved to die as much as some of those who were swept away by the flood.  So it is today, "ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).  From the beginning God CHOSE some to receive His grace.  God made His covenant with Abraham and established the descendants of Abraham as His chosen people.  For two thousand years they would be the focus of God's attention on the earth and the Savior would come from the line of Judah.

To make sure that happened, God gave His law, established the tabernacle, then the temple, the sacrifices, the ceremonies - all pointing to the One who would come to be the perfect sacrifice.  To protect a godly line, a remnant who would believe in Him, God "isolated" His chosen people by commanding them to destroy their enemies from the land of Canaan, the land God gave to Abraham and his descendants.  Remember, ALL people, including those who believe, deserve God's judgment.  This is what most people miss or simply refuse to believe.  God would be perfectly just if He were to wipe the human race off the face of the earth.  In fact, God's judgment WILL come upon the WHOLE earth.  God has not changed!

BUT, God determined from before the world began to save SOME ... and so He ultimately brought Jesus, the promised Savior, into the world.  God deals with sinners differently during this "time of grace."  Paul writes in II Corinthians 6:2 that "this is the day of salvation."  There will be a time for God's vengeance, but now is a time when God is calling repent, for He has set a day for judgment (Acts 17:30-31).  Jesus Christ, and thus true Christianity, offers life and forgiveness through faith in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, because of His sacrifice on the cross.  Sadly, the popes and the crusades in the Middle Ages conquered and killed in the sign of the cross.  But this was a perversion of all that Jesus taught.  We live in the age of grace, the time of salvation.  Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us.

Islam is a false religion.  It teaches hate and violence.  While it is Islamic extremists who carry out violent acts, and there are kind and loving Muslims, ultimately, only true Christians, who know and love Jesus and who are filled by His Spirit, offer grace and forgiveness through the cross.  Christians need to be careful how we act and what we say.  Too many fail to show mercy, grace and love to all people, offering the Gospel to all who will hear.  One day God will deal with all who reject His testimony, but until then, may we understand that we have a calling to tell the world about the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God of salvation.  When Jesus returns, may we be found so doing!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Our God reigns!"

As I listened to the news this morning I heard about the United States embassies in Libya and Egypt being attacked, and four people, including the American ambassador to Libya, dying.  When the "Arab Spring" earlier this year produced new governments in these two troubled areas of the world many were hopeful of a more peaceful region being the result.  Such does not appear to be the case.  There are some obvious reasons for that and I won't get into those in this post.  What I DO want to talk about is GOOD NEWS!

The events of any twenty-four hour period display for all to see the evil that lies within each of us.  By nature we are bent towards evil.  The human race is headed towards self-destruction.  It is inevitable.  You see it in our environment and you see it in human relationships, whether on a personal level or on a national level.  But there IS good news.  God says that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13).  Saved from what?  Saved from self, from sin, from God's wrath against sin and from eternal death.  HOW??

Paul goes on in Romans 10:14-15 to say that people need to believe in Jesus Christ, but first they must be told.  Someone must bring the good news to the world.  He quotes Isaiah 52:7 and says, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"  In the days of Isaiah there were many battles being fought and in the midst of the battle it was often difficult to know who would win.  Messengers were sent from the battle to the king or to those waiting to hear.  They were swift runners who could carry the message quickly and deliver it accurately.

We need some swift runners today.  We need some committed messengers who will deliver the good news to those who are waiting to hear.  There are people who are fighting battles with their health, their finances, their families ... people with addictions and overwhelming struggles that have weighed them down to the point where they have given up on life.  They have no hope.  They are ready to throw in the towel.  Maybe you have been there.  Maybe you're there now.  Maybe you know someone who is.  There IS good news.

Going back to Isaiah 52:7, we read, "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'"  "Zion" referred to Jerusalem, to God's chosen people, to the ones who had heard about Him and who had trusted in Him.  Do you know this God?  He has revealed Himself in His Word, from beginning to end.  He is Almighty and just, but He is also compassionate and merciful, eager to forgive, abounding in love.  He so loved the world that He gave His own Son - He GAVE His Son to pay your penalty for sin and mine.  Oh, amazing grace!!!

THIS God reigns and is able to work all things together for good to those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  When I hear news like I did this morning, I inevitably turn to the God who has revealed Himself to me through His Word and Spirit.  I know Him.  I love Him.  I know He can be trusted because I know He is reigning from His throne in heaven.  Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, is ruling over all things at my Father's right hand.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to HIM!!  I am safe in His arms, no matter what is happening in the world or what happens in my life.

This is good news and it can be yours today.  If you know it, share it with others.  We can't always explain why things happen the way they do or predict how certain things are going to work out.  But this much we know:  "Our God reigns!"  If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, remind your brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing hard times:  "Be strong!  Your God reigns!!"  And then be ready always to give an answer to those who ask you the reason for your hope (I Peter 3:15).  Tell them, "MY God reigns ... and He can be YOUR God, too."

"How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news!!"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"I have installed MY King on Zion!"

Another 9/11 goes by and all of the pictures bring back the feelings and emotions of 9/11/01.  It's a sickening feeling, an overwhelming feeling, a disheartening feeling.  So much has been said, so much is being said, so much could be said about the events of that day and the days since.  Eleven years have already passed - those who are 15 or 16 and younger don't have any memory of that day.  People my age remember where we were when JFK (that's President John F. Kennedy) was assassinated.  So what can we learn from such events?  Is there anything that is relevant for ALL generations at all times?  As Christians, how do we respond?  Where is our hope?

I love Psalm 2.  It was written during a time when God had established His rule through King David and the armies of Israel had defeated most of the nations around them.  But God had more in mind.  Just as the nations gathered together against Israel, there would be - there will be - another battle.  That battle will take place at some time in the future, perhaps the near future, but even now the nations of the world are in turmoil.  Memories of this day remind us of the hate and the evil that is in our world.  We are still at war in Afghanistan and just yesterday another leader of the enemies of freedom was killed in Yemen.  That there is evil in the world is plain.  That there are powers fighting against the establishment of God's kingdom is obvious.  BUT, Psalm 2 brings assurance to those who know the one true God.

"Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against His Anointed One.  'Let us break their chains,' they say, 'and throw off their fetters.'"  What in the world are "fetters"?  They are used to keep animals from moving.  God is restricting the nations, preventing them from being as evil as they otherwise would be.  As he speaks to the men of Athens, Paul says, "From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live"  (Acts 17:26).  God sets the rulers in place and guides the events of this world toward His appointed purpose:  judgment for those who do not believe, but salvation for those who come to Him through faith in Jesus Christ.

What is God's reaction to those who fight so hard against Him and His kingdom?  "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.  Then He rebukes them in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath, saying, 'I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.'"  Remember, God knows the future as He does the present and the past.  God speaks as though it had already happened ... as though Jesus were already ruling from His throne in Jerusalem, as He will be in the future.  God says it WILL happen, in spite of the efforts of the nations to deny God - the one true God, the God who has revealed Himself in His Word.

That's how GOD responds to the nations; so how do WE respond?  Speaking in the voice of Jesus the Psalmist says, "I will proclaim the decree of the LORD:  He said to me, 'You are my Son; today I have become your Father.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.  You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery."  Jesus will reign over all the earth.  Read Zechariah 14 and Isaiah 2:1-4.  God is at work in our world, as He was at work in the days when the Psalmist wrote - 3,000 years ago!  The Savior has come; He has paid the sacrifice for sin on the cross, and He has risen from the dead and has been exalted to His throne at the right hand of the Father above every power and authority!

The Psalmist comes to this conclusion:  "Therefore, you kings be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.  Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in you way; for His wrath can flare up in a moment."  Jesus Christ is God's anointed.  The Gospel is good news - IF you believe it ... IF you receive Jesus Christ and acknowledge Him as King.  "Kiss the Son," means LOVE the Son.  Believers love Jesus because He FIRST loved us!  Our hope is in Him and our purpose in life is telling others about Him.

As we witness the evil of those who stand opposed to God, opposed to good, opposed to life, we need to be about our Father's business!  "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil  with good" (Romans 12:21).