Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Don't Be Afraid: Christmas Eve

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.


God has a great sense of humor. I am reminded of that every time I look in the mirror. Here’s something that I find really funny. Back in 2 Samuel 24, we read about King David, against God’s will, taking a census of his fighting men. His rationale for doing so was for bragging rights; he wasn’t at war when he might need to know the strength of his army; Israel was at peace. David just wanted to show off how powerful he was in the size of his army and his nation. This was where his faith lay, not in God’s ability to protect them regardless of their number.

Now, in Luke 2, we find Caesar Augustus requiring everyone to go to their hometowns to be counted. Why? He wanted to know the extent of his empire. He wanted to know how many potential "taxable units" there were out there that he had power over. He had bragging rights and wanted to show off how powerful he was in the size of his army and nation.

So we have the Roman ruler doing exactly what King David was punished for, and in the midst of this census, the King in the line of David was born. I wonder if that irony was lost on those who first heard the good news, that in spite of Caesar’s show of his power, something, someone much more powerful had come.

But instead of offering a mighty show of power to Rome, God chose to show his power by not flexing his muscles. He chose to show love, tenderness, and gentleness in the form of a helpless baby, born in humble surroundings.

God sometimes shows his power in great, huge, miraculous ways, but not usually. In 1 Kings 19, there is a great episode where Elijah, God’s top prophet of the day, was extremely discouraged.

The Lord told him that His presence was about to go by.

A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind.
After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire came a gentle whisper, a still, small voice
.

And the Lord was in that whisper, and he came, encouraging Elijah.

God speaks today, often in a quiet, gentle voice, not flexing His powerful muscles. But although He is quiet, He is powerful.

The angel’s words to the shepherd were appropriate: Do not be afraid. No matter the size of the enemy, there is nothing to be afraid of. Whether it is the power of armies or any of the fears that the children mentioned this evening, God’s power is greater.

The angels, God’s personal messengers, and the mighty warriors of God, came not to fight, but to announce a birth. Certainly the shepherds were terrified as God’s glory shone around them. Back in the time when God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments, Moses asked to see God’s glory, and God told him, in Exodus 33:20, You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.

Now God is showing his glory to common shepherds. Of course they were terrified. But God shows His power by not killing them, but by giving them Good News!

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.

God is working to bring Himself glory, even to the least and the lowest, to show His character as the Lord, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and mercy. The angels announce good news for all the people: God comes to bring peace to all people, because he loves us so much.

Because of his love, we don’t have to be afraid of anything. In Romans 8:35, Paul asks, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? He answers his question in verse 38, I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is what Christmas means. No fear. Glory to God!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Prepare for the Impossible

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of this father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lord’s servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
Luke 1:26-38

It was a dark night and I was driving home from the worst choir practice ever. The choir director had invited me to come, and I liked to sing, so I showed up. I hadn’t sung in a choir since seventh grade, when my mom finally let me quit the children’s choir (believe me, it was hard being the only kid singing bass…). The practice was… not the best. First of all, the "bass" part was way too high for me to sing; I was used to singing whatever I wanted, usually the melody a couple of octaves below everyone else. So not only was I singing a real bass part, but we were singing Black Gospel and they often split into 3 parts instead of 4: soprano, alto, and "men." And those "men’s" parts are really, really high. So I had a terrible headache from trying to sing too high. Oh, and did I mention that as the new guy, I got to sit on the end of the row, next to "Ed" who had a policy of picking one note and sticking with it? To make matters worse, besides the director, I had only even met one person there, and he kept annoying me when I was trying to sing.

So on the way home, I had me a little conversation with God. Well, God, I showed up and sang. Good enough, eh? Then God’s voice came through: What are you doing for me? That was a fine question, because, after all, I was a seminary student! I was training to lead people for Him!

Then God answered: No, what are you doing for me?

It wasn’t long until I realized what God was saying: I was going to have to stick it out in the choir. Even though I couldn’t sing the part, and even though I didn’t know anyone, I was going to have to sing God’s praises in front of people.

Have you ever had a conversation with God? One where you have all the answers, but God has something else in mind? Where you know what is possible, but God has something else for you?
Just because you know the story, don’t gloss so quickly over this conversation Mary had with God. First of all, an angel showed up. "Greatly troubled" sounds so innocuous. I think I’d use the phrase "freaked out." Here’s the ironic thing: she was freaked out before the angel told her what was going to happen. The angel’s mere appearance and greeting were enough to mess her up.

But the angel told her that God planned to do the impossible.

Mary’s response: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.

Doesn’t she know that regardless of what an angel says, that virgins don’t give birth? But the angel told her that God had different plans. Think about it: God was the One who created the reproductive system; certainly He can change the way it works! It’s like this: one year for Christmas I received an electric train set. I loved setting my train up and driving it. It was fun watching the train go round and round. But sometimes the train went off the track. Then I’d reach down into the train scene I’d built, pick the train up, and set it back on track.

God can reach down into His creation at any time and can change the parameters.

  • He is not constrained by money – or lack thereof.
  • He is not constrained by disease. Cancer’s got nothing on Him.
  • He is not constrained by the rules of physics; He created Physics!
  • We know that God will act in accordance with His character , but He is not constrained by our understanding of Him.
  • He is not constrained even by our actions. Jesus told a bystander that if his people didn’t praise His name, then the very stones would cry out. Did you know that right now in Muslim countries with nary a missionary, Muslims are having dreams of Jesus Christ and are turning to Him for salvation?

What I see here is really a control issue. We don’t only want to know how, where, and when God will work, but we really want to control how God works and through whom God works. Once when I was serving as associate pastor, we had a healing service. The Senior Pastor asked for prayer for his shoulder, as he had slipped on ice earlier, and his shoulder really hurt. So I prayed for him. The next Sunday, he told me, "You don’t have the gift of healing. My shoulder hurts worse than ever." Whatever the case, his comment said this to me, "I want to know and control how God works."

Really, not having the gift of healing has freed me up greatly; I don’t have to have the gift of healing for God to do the healing, and then if God chooses to heal someone after I’ve prayed for them, He gets the glory, not me.

Mary had faith enough to tell the angel "May it be to me as you have said."

Even though it doesn’t follow the hard and fast rules of biology. Even though it was way above her pay grade. Even though she had no understanding of how it would happen.

What would it be like if we were to give God that same offering? I am the Lord’s servant: may it be to me as you have said.

What would God do with this church?

  • I see a church tearing down Satan’s strongholds in Millersport and beyond.
  • I see a church so compassionate that the lost and the lonely are found and enfolded in fellowship.
  • I see a church on a mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • I see a church transforming people into Christ’s likeness, one person at a time, that we would be characterized by repentance and response to Christ’s call to salvation.
  • I see a people who are so on fire for Jesus Christ that they will count the cost and pay whatever the price to see revival sweep this land.
  • I see a church whose heartfelt praise and worship reaches to heaven as a pleasing gift to God – not just as we sing, but as we live.
  • I see a church where buildings can’t contain our growth.
  • I see a church whose message is so clear that lives are changed forever.
  • I see a church who desperately care about the souls of their neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members, and will stop at nothing to see them transformed.
  • I see a church who daily communicates with God through Bible reading, study, and meditation.
  • I see a church who is characterized by listening prayer: who wait on the movement of the Holy Spirit, but when the Spirit moves, are ready to move.
  • I see a church characterized by intercession – that we won’t sit back and allow Satan to have victory in any aspect of our lives or the lives of the families in our church.
  • I see a church that is a healing place: that we are known as somewhere that people are healed physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • I see a church where young people are not only accepted and invited, but cherished and empowered for ministry.
  • I see a church serving in mission, here in Millersport and throughout the world.
  • I see a unified church: not two services who tolerate one another, but one church on a mission for God.
  • I see a church whose head is Jesus, whose help is the Holy Spirit and whose focus is the Great Commission.

Yes, the church that I see could well be our church.

What could we be if we will say along with Mary: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Prepare for a Feast

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all Italicfaces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.

The LORD has spoken.

In that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."

Isaiah 25:6-9:
There is something about a feast that gets me excited. I love Thanksgiving: I love the food. It's my favorite meal probably because it’s no mere meal, but truly a feast.
The big question is this: who is invited to a feast? Or moreso, who is welcome at a feast? I know that I’ve been to meals where I’ve not really been welcome. Some people are extremely uncomfortable having the pastor sharing at their table. It’s actually funny seeing someone squirm while trying to hide a beer behind their back. Then there are the courtesy invitations: you’re invited, but we don’t really want you to come. All we really want is a gift.

So who is really invited?
This is a sensitive issue. Isaiah was Jewish and he prophesied to God’s chosen people. The whole Jewish year is built around their holidays, which are, interestingly, feasts. These feasts celebrate what God had done for His people in the past. So naturally only Jews would really be welcome at a Jewish feast, right?

Others could show up, and if they went through the right rituals to become Jewish, they could possibly participate.
But here, Isaiah is saying the ridiculous: this feast is for all peoples. It is not only open to everyone, but it is specifically prepared for everyone.
This is something to think about as a church. I have heard from various people around town that their perception of our church, of us, is that we’re elitist. That we’re a clique and that they aren’t welcome. Before you get riled up, how inviting are we? We can be just like the Old Testament Jews when it comes to welcoming outsiders who don’t look like us, dress like us, listen to our favorite music, etc.
Did you notice that the food isn’t just leftovers or fast food; it’s God’s very best. In fact, the "best of meats" mentioned here is the portion of the meat that would have been given to God as an acceptable sacrifice. Instead of receiving it from us, God is giving it out freely. The idea here is that God asks us to give to Him, not so He can hoard what we’ve given Him, but for Him to give back to us!
Back to the idea of feasting; the feasts weren’t just about eating; they were about celebrating what God had done. One of the biggest Jewish feasts was Passover, in which they celebrated God delivering them from Egyptian slavery. The only difference in the feast that God speaks of here is this: it is a celebration of something that God will do.
What exactly is it that Isaiah prophesied that God would do? On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.

I usually read a similar passage at funerals: it’s one of my favorite passages, from Revelation 21:3-4, where John hears this: Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Though we aren’t experiencing this in its fullness, the good news is that this feast has already started! This is the essence of what we celebrate in Advent. We celebrate that God came to dwell with men and women in the person of Jesus Christ.
If we look back at what Isaiah said, he talked about God destroying the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations. What is that shroud? What is the only thing (besides taxes) that’s a given? Death. We’ve all got a terminal condition, and we’re all going to die. But in his triumph over the cross and grave, Jesus doesn’t merely defeat death, but He swallows it.
So, what is this feast? Jesus describes the feast this way:
John 4:13-14: Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.
John 6:35: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
John 7:37-38:If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.
This is the feast we get to sit down for: Jesus Christ Himself!

I love the way this scripture looks in the Bible. It’s written in poetic form, but then, at the end of verse 8, right justified is this statement: The Lord has spoken. When God speaks, no further explanation is necessary. It doesn’t need anything more, just his Word. Last week we sang a song with the lyric "Savior, He can move the mountains, our God is mighty to save" and I first made a mental picture of God pushing a mountain. But then I thought about it and realized that God doesn’t have to push a mountain; He says a word and the mountain moves. That’s the power of God’s Word. And when God says death is defeated once and for all, then it is.
And so we get to the payoff.
In that day they will say,
"Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."

The day when God makes his dwelling with us is now. Jesus already came and lived with us, and the Holy Spirit, who is God lives within us now. Death has already been defeated.

So we can live our lives with rejoicing and gladness, even while we await the fullness of His promises.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Prepare the Way

When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But the man who makes Me his refuge will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.

And it will be said, "build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people."

For this is what the high and lofty One says – He who lives forever, whose name is holy; "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite."

Isaiah 57:13-15

Our church is comprised of all generations. In this church, we are the "greatest generation" who changed the world. We are the Baby Boomers, who also changed the world. We are Generation X, who never set out to change the world, but did so anyway. We are Millennials, who once again believe they can change the world.

Those who lived through the Great Depression and learned to scrimp and save to get by; they figured out how to use every scrap, because they would probably need it.

Then came World War II, through which people voluntarily lived on less in order to help the war effort.

After these lean times came times of prosperity: we had everything we need. We built bigger houses and drove bigger cars, and even a recession and a gas crisis in the 70s was more of a speed bump than anything else. For years, the stock market was constantly growing and growing.

But unless you’re living under a rock, you can’t escape the news: we are living in uncertain times. If I hear the phrase "bail-out" again, I think I’ll puke. What I see is that much like the people of Judah in Isaiah’s time, our country is crying out.

Why do we cry out? Plain and simply, life is hard. Sin got in the way of our the life we were meant to live, a life spent face-to-face with God, a life depending on Him for everything.
Because our life is hard and uncertain, and because our sin has separated us from God, we make our own way in the world. We find things to satisfy ourselves or to dull our pain. Why do you think alcohol and drugs are so popular? Because they take the edge off a hard life... for a while, that is.

And often the things we have chosen to lean on become elevated to the utmost importance. We depend on them, and they become objects of worship. What is it that takes God’s place as THE only one worthy of our worship? In ancient times, the nations built idols to represent their gods, but the Bible is clear that idol worship is more than that.

Ephesians 5:5 says this: For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person – such man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Devotion to anything over God is idol worship, and it must stop now. None of our idols can save us. We’ve learned that Wall Street can’t. Politics can’t. Good health and physical fitness can’t. Having the right name or social status or living in the right neighborhood can’t. Our possessions can’t.

Isaiah 57:13 says When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But the man who makes Me his refuge will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.

Idols will not save. But the Good News is that the Kingdom awaits the one who makes God his refuge.

So the prophet Isaiah says, Prepare the road; remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.

What gets in the way? Anything can get in the way of us worshiping God with everything we are. We worship the creation rather than the created. Usually that comes in the form of self. I don’t mean a "stare-in-the-mirror" kind of narcissism, but a reliance on self for everything.

In the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, John Oswalt says this:

Since God is the only high and holy One, the people He most definitely
cannot live with are those who try to make themselves His equals.


The only people who have any hope of living with Him are those who
recognize who He is and who they are.


Our job is to prepare the road: we are the ones who make the obstacles, and it’s our job to remove them as well! When it comes to preparing for Christmas, we do a really good job. We decorate and buy and host parties. But these things don’t prepare us for Jesus’ return. Advent is a time of thanksgiving, hope, excitement, and joy, but it is also a time of reflection and repentance.

In Isaiah 57:15, God tells His people this: "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite."

John Oswalt again:
Our God offers life to those from whom the life has been all but
crushed out; he offers life to those whose spirit has been ground down to
nothing. They need not be captive to their sin and shame, as they need not be
broken by their captors.


The Holy One is with us for our deliverance. This is the good news of salvation!

I started this message by talking about what characterizes your generation. As a church, our mission is to be and make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. Let’s allow God to transform us into multiple-generations of disciples, characterized by transformation and reliance on God for everything.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Sword of the Spirit

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

As we have studied the armor of God, did you notice that it was all defensive armor? The armor we put on (the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of readiness, the shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation) is all defensive, designed to protect us from Satan’s attacks. But didn’t I say we were going to be taking this spiritual warfare thing to the devil? Why has it all been about defense? Isn’t the best defense a good offense? True. So today we finally pick up a weapon. Take up the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

This is a powerful weapon and is, indeed, the only weapon we need. But in order to wield this sword properly, we need to know how to use it.
You see, we’re not talking about a simple weapon that can be wielded well the very first time we try. In fact, when we examine how the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, we find that he knows the scriptures, too, and he can use them as a weapon against us if we aren’t careful. He often attacks us by taking scriptures out of context or by twisting their meaning.

I love to read, especially mystery or suspense novels, but I’m kind of a snob when it comes to what books I enjoy. I have a bunch of rules; for example, I feel like an author cheats when the culprit is someone who hasn’t been introduced until the end of the book or if the only way the hero finds out what really happened is to have the bad guy confess to him. Another "cheat" is when the hero is forced into a new combat situation, something they’ve never done before. Oh, and did I mention that their enemy is always an expert in whatever discipline they’re fighting in? It would be like me being challenged to a joust – I’m kind of afraid of horses, so I’m not a big fan of riding them, let alone riding one toward some jousting expert, who is charging at me with a huge lance, ready to take my head off!
Instead, we need to be familiar with the weapon we are using. We read in Hebrews 4:12 that the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Let’s look more closely at this sword we wield. It is living and active. There is a mainline Christian denomination with a slogan that "God is still speaking." I agree with this wholeheartedly – God is still speaking. Unfortunately, this denomination’s higher-ups believe that when God speaks these days, He contradicts what He’s said in the past.

If you wonder if the word is from God, you should be able to check it out against scripture. Does the new word contradict scripture, or does it fit with the Bible? Psalm 18:30 says, "As for God, His way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless." Psalm 33:4 says, "The word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does." And Isaiah 40:8 says, "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." If God’s word is flawless, right, true, and stands forever, it doesn’t change. If the "God is still speaking" campaign means what the denominational leaders say it means, that God has changed His mind, it would follow that God’s word was flawed (or at best short sighted), that it was not right and true, and that it does not stand forever.

That said, God does still speak to us. His word is living and active. When we read scripture, however, the first task is to find out what it meant. Only then can we find out what it means. God’s word is alive – it not only spoke to a certain situation in a certain place, but it also speaks directly to us as individuals and as the Church.

This sword is sharp. If you read the Bible, praying that the Holy Spirit will speak to you through it, you will be convicted. We read in Isaiah 11:4 "he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked." This goes along with Revelation 19:15, which says, "from his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations."

I’ve heard it said that God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. The word of God, when properly used, cuts. Try reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 without being cut. "Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." "Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." "Do not worry about your life." "Do not judge, or you, too, will be judged." "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven."

Feeling cut yet? Have the attitudes and thoughts of your heart been judged? If not, it’s probably because you’ve tuned this out. Maybe you’ve heard it enough that you’ve gotten immune to it. If that’s the case, you need to re-acquaint yourself with scripture through the lens of the Holy Spirit. And just when you think you’ve got it, that you’ve arrived, you’ll find that you’ve fallen short – that God’s word is more radical than you ever believed, that God’s word is more inclusive than you ever believed, that God’s word is more exclusive than you ever believed.
God’s word is a sharp sword – judging and cutting is what it does.

God’s word is a powerful weapon for fighting against unseen powers and against the forces of evil. It shouldn’t be a surprise – God’s word was the weapon Jesus used when Satan was tempting him in the wilderness. Jesus responded to Satan’s temptation by saying, "It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’"
Remember that even Satan knows the word of God and he tried to use it against Jesus! It’s sad but ironic that many deaths and injuries in home break-ins happen when the resident attempts to use a gun or knife on the intruder – the intruder then can often turn that weapon on the resident. Often the reason is that the resident did not know how to use that particular weapon.
Like I said, God’s word is a powerful weapon, so we have to know how to use it correctly.

Do you know how to use the word of God to fight the forces of evil?

We first have to sharpen our swords: by knowing the word of God. I grew up memorizing scriptures; memory verses were part of our Sunday School and church camp. That’s not just for kids, though. There are some of you who know the scriptures, and that’s awesome. God’s word helps us through good times and bad.

While Bible memorization is a good start, it’s not the only step. I wouldn’t send anyone into a sword fight without training, and I believe we need training as well. In boxing, they call training "sparring" – and in training to use the sword of the Spirit, I believe we learn best when we have a sparring partner. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend."

I have found that my biggest spiritual breakthroughs have always come when I’ve been meeting regularly with like-minded Christians. I currently meet w/ a couple of other pastors for encouragement, accountability, and spiritual growth. This is one of the ways I keep my "sword" sharp and how I can get different perspectives than my own. In fact, I even learn from discussing scripture with people with whom I don’t agree. As it is, I am confident that God does not limit His voice to the Bible alone; he also speaks through His people. Sometimes others give us better perspective into the Word or how God might be working in certain situations. Sometimes it takes someone else to tell us where they see God working in our lives in order for us to fully realize and appropriate it. This is why our cell group ministry is so vitally important. Even if you missed out on the launch, you can still join. We’ve developed a calendar of when they are meeting, and if you’re interested, you can fill out one of the white cards in the pews and Rudy can help you get hooked up.

But more than simply having sharp swords, we have to be able to use them. Just as a sword doesn’t help a warrior if he leaves it in its sheath, neither does the word of God help us if we don’t use it. Quite the contrary! In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel said to Saul: "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king." It is serious business to hear the word and to not follow it. Think of it this way: if you are in a sword fight, hearing the word and not following it is like charging into battle empty-handed.

In other words, instead of just knowing the Bible, we have to do something about what we read in it. In Luke 11:28, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it." James 1:22 tells us Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. What good does it do me if I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, yet I don’t do anything about it?

Please remember that we are supposed to use our swords not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. The word of God cuts, and we in the church sometimes have a tendency to cut down the wounded. Instead of using the word of God to attack people, use it in love. Find encouragement. Find ways to share the Good News. Use the Word of God to attack Satan’s strongholds and to attack the powers and spiritual forces of evil. Live out a life built on the Scripture: that is one of the greatest weapons we have against Satan… when people can look at you and say, "There’s something different about you; something good…"

Now, as we go, stand firm, taking the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Helmet of Salvation

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Ephesians 6:10-18

Take the helmet of salvation…

It’s a different day we live in today. I was always outside playing with the kids in the neighborhood. I was always up a tree. Anyone’s parents were in charge of discipline. And I was the only kid I knew who regularly wore a helmet when I rode my bike. You see, my dad had raced bikes for years, and he knew the value of wearing a helmet. I learned that value first-hand when I wrecked my bike and broke my helmet in half…

A helmet is an extremely important piece of armor. Last week we talked about the shield of faith and its value for extinguishing the devil’s long-range attacks. We’ve talked about wearing the right footwear and about the breastplate, which protects our hearts. We’ve talked about the belt of truth, which holds our armor together. Today we talk about protecting our heads.

The classical view of the head was that it was the origin of the person. It was seen as important as the source of speech. It was placed nearest to the heavens and thus drew from heaven its power, distributing the power to the rest of the body. This is why Paul wrote "From Him (Christ, the Head), the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work."

We protect our heads by wearing the helmet of salvation.

So, what do we mean when we say salvation?

That’s a good question, because in the scriptures, there were several distinct meanings of the word, and if you take into consideration the general thought of the day, we can add to that total.
In the Apostle Paul’s cultural environment, many gods, Zeus, for example, were called "savior." Roman emperors were given titles such as "lord" and "savior" and their power as savior was evidenced by their ending of war and bringing of peace. As an aside, the good news of this peace and prosperity was often called euangelion. What was salvation? It meant being delivered from hostile enemies and from war.

In the gospels, the word salvation is often attached to Jesus’ healings. Salvation, in that case, is primarily from disease or infirmity.

Then, of course we hear about Jesus also saving people from their sins. So which is it? What is salvation?

It means being delivered from enemies. Psalm 37:39-40 says The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The LORD helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them because they take refuge in him. It also means being healed – not just from physical illness, but being made whole: health, wellness, and goodness. It even means deliverance from sins. But it doesn’t simply mean deliverance from. It also includes what we’re being delivered into. Colossians 1:13 says: For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.

So what does it mean to put on salvation as a helmet? God’s salvation protects our head, which thus distributes protection to the rest of the body. Note that I said "God’s salvation." I said this because salvation comes from God alone through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We can refer to salvation in the past, because Jesus already died and rose again, sacrificing himself for our sin. He already did it, and there is nothing that can undo what he did. It is also a future hope, because we are saved for something: we are saved for heaven, for our future glorious life face to face with God.

But more than just saving us in the past and saving us in the future, God saves us in the present. He saves us now. In 2 Corinthians 6:2 Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:8, saying, For he says, "In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." He goes on to say this: I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation. Did you notice that he says "now" twice? He wants everyone to be clear of the urgency here. Salvation doesn’t have to wait!
What does it mean to be saved now? God saves us three ways: from the guilt of sin, from the penalty of sin, and from the power of sin.

God saves us from the guilt of sin. Romans 3:23 reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but verse 24 goes on to tell us that we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. What that simply means is that we were made as if we had never sinned. Therefore we aren’t burdened by guilt and shame.

God also saves us from the penalty of sin. Romans 6:23 tells us that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. We do not have to pay the penalty that is due for our sin. Jesus already paid it for us! Sin brings death, but Christ brings life to those who are dead in sin.

And God saves us from the power of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice defeated sin and death once and for all; we are no longer slaves to sin. God already paid a high price for us. Romans 6:18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. Romans 6:22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. We are each a new creation with the purpose of living holy lives for God in order to please Him.

Remember that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. There is no salvation anywhere else. Ever. Jesus’ death and resurrection was the one great act of salvation, once and for all. And because of his action, salvation is available for everyone.

It’s not that we deserve it; we don’t, but because of God’s grace, we receive it anyway. Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us that it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.

Please understand this: as we put on the helmet of salvation, helmets that aren’t worn or that are worn improperly don’t help. I remember going mountain biking with my friend Roby, and long story short: we ended up camping with these two brothers. The younger brother was really crazy and rode really hard, but he had a helmet… nicely affixed to the back of his bike.

That kind of helmet doesn’t help. And neither does salvation if you haven’t accepted it. Salvation is available for everyone, but God doesn’t force it on anyone. Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21, and Romans 10:13 all state that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. We’re not talking about a superficial "avoidance of the consequences of sin" but genuine calling on the LORD, coming from the conviction that I’m in desperate need and that God can and will save.

Unfortunately, even though salvation is available to everyone, right up to the last days, people will perish because they don’t love the truth. Remember how the Belt of Truth holds our armor together? 2 Thessalonians 2:10b tells us that They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. The truth is that Jesus Christ saves. Acts 4:12 tells us that Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. If you refuse to believe in him and put your faith in him, he will not defy your wishes and save you.

Salvation is a helmet that protects us. As the Psalmist wrote, in Psalm 27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?

Likewise, in Psalm 62:1-2 My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress. I will never be shaken.

So stand firm, with salvation protecting your head and all of your life.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Shield of Faith

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. nd pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Ephesians 6:10-18

Anyone who knows me knows that one of my favorite movies is the Lord of the Rings. Actually, it’s three of my favorite movies. But one of my favorite scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies is the beginning of the epic battle scene in the second movie, the Two Towers. The armies of evil mass at the base of the castle at Helm’s Deep, preparing for a mighty attack. Up on the top of the castle, in the driving rain, elves and humans prepare to rain arrows down on the marauding hordes. As the battle begins, arrows fly down upon the orcs, killing many of them. It’s only fitting that they first attack with arrows, because arrows are weapons that are best suited for long-distance attacks. An archer does not need to risk hand-to-hand combat to shoot arrows. This applies as well to spiritual warfare; Satan doesn’t need a foothold in your life in order to attack you; he can (and does) shoot his arrows from afar.

I really doubt that any of you have had real, physical arrows shot at you. I know the only time I experienced an arrow attack was when I played with one of those suction cup bow-and-arrow sets. But Satan doesn’t fire real, physical arrows at us. No, Satan’s attacks take different forms.
His main weapons are doubt, fear, worry, disbelief, guilt, and despair. His target is truth, and he attacks by spreading doubt. He makes us fear, especially the unknown. He makes us worry – is God really in control? Then he makes it seem irrational to believe in anything. He buries us in our past; the guilt of sin, telling us that there’s no way out from under it.

How can we hope to stand firm in the face of all of these attacks? Thankfully, we have an effective means of keeping safe from Satan’s arrows. The apostle Paul tells his hearers to take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

How does this work? Let’s look at the Roman shield. They were large: big enough for a soldier to hide behind. And faith is likewise large enough to shield us. The book of Hebrews defines faith as the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

Please understand that faith does not stop Satan from shooting his arrows. If the first salvo doesn’t get you, the devil will redouble his efforts.

I am positive that Satan will continue to attack Christians. Sometimes it seems like the only way to avoid his attacks is to give up: to do nothing for God’s Kingdom at all. In another scene from the Two Towers, the Theoden, King of Rohan, when asked to fight to save humankind, says, "I will not bring further death to my people. And I will not risk open war." To this, Aragorn replies, "Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not."

Even if you don’t like it, spiritual warfare is upon you, whether you would risk it or not. Here’s the deal; if you’re on God’s side, Satan’s arrows will fly toward you.

Though faith doesn’t stop the arrows from coming, faith does stop the arrows from finding their mark.

If you want to be safe from Satan’s arrows, you’ve got to put up your shield. You do this by knowing and remembering the Truth. Jesus Christ is Truth. God wins, Satan loses. God made you in His image and loves you. God knows what you are going through. Truth is Truth, no matter what the circumstances.

When Satan attacks you, remind him of the Truth. James 4:7 tells us to resist the devil and he will flee from you. Remind Satan whose side you’re on. Remind him that Jesus Christ died for you and that you have hope because of Him.

Then steadfastly refuse to believe Satan’s lies. Pastor Ray Steadman said this: Our problem is that we have become so accustomed to believing our feelings as though they were facts. We never examine them. We never take them and look at them and ask, "Is this true?" We simply say, "I feel this way. Therefore it must be true." This is why so many are constantly defeated; because they accept their feelings as facts. What if we would examine our feelings, always in light of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us? Like where it says in Romans 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Satan can’t condemn. He can only lead you down the road to condemnation. Judgment is by Jesus Christ, not Satan! And if Jesus says "no condemnation" that’s what He means!

Faith is always reminding us that there is something bigger going on. When troubles seem overwhelming, faith reminds us that God is the Creator of the universe and that He can help. God has a plan, and suffering can even be part of that plan. Romans 5:3-5 tells us: to rejoice in our suffering, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Even through suffering, we still have hope. While Satan’s arrows try to convince us that suffering is all there is, with faith, we know that there is more.

One of the toughest questions asked of Christians is this: why do bad things happen to good people. Even this question itself can represent the flaming arrows of Satan – the questioner generally assumes that God should stop all attacks (on so-called good people) and that for some reason He just doesn’t. But no matter the motives of those asking; that question is really a valid question. A simple answer is that there is a devil who is constantly on the attack.

But faith reminds us that this life isn’t all there is. James 4:14 says, "You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." Even the greatest joys in our lives, though they are all we know, will pale in comparison to the joy that is heaven.

Faith resembles a difficult race like a marathon. When I was running, I had to concentrate on finishing the race. I couldn’t simply concentrate on getting to a certain mile marker, because if I had been satisfied to run 20 miles, I wouldn’t have finished. If you ask a marathon runner why we do it, there are two main reasons: we feel great personal satisfaction for finishing the race, and we love the physical benefits of the extreme exercise. These apply as well in the spiritual realm: God promises us great rewards for persevering, and the process itself builds strong character. Faith enables us to persist, even in the face of suffering.

The other half of that is the great reward that awaits us in heaven. To be honest, we cannot imagine how great heaven will be. Too often we rely on lame images of heaven – sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp… I can assure you that heaven will be much better than this! It is unimaginably good – so good that it will make every bit of pain worth it. Kind of like reaching that finish line in a marathon – if you haven’t done it, you wouldn’t imagine how it feels.

On an absolutely basic level, faith enables us to please God. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God, and anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that God exists and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him. Notice that faith isn’t simply belief in God, but it also includes belief that God rewards those who sincerely seek Him.

Remember this: faith is always in action. James 2:17 reminds us that faith without works is dead. Real faith, like Truth, acts in accordance with what you believe.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Shoes of Readiness

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Ephesians 6:10-18

Are you ready?

I remember the first week of 6th grade. I was in a new school with new friends and new responsibilities and new privileges. One of those privileges was that as 6th graders, we could participate in school sports. My friend David and I decided that we would go out for the cross-country team. I was excited about running, but I didn’t know much about the sport. So on my first day of practice, I came out, wearing my basketball high-top shoes. I soon found out that they were terrible running shoes. They were heavy and stiff – they were like running in work boots.

I’ve found that it’s important to have the right shoes for the right activity.

Our shoes are a foundational part of our wardrobe, not just to keep us in compliance with certain signs. Shoes protect our feet. I remember going barefoot all summer... but my next-door neighbor had a gravel driveway, and I sure didn’t like walking across it to fetch a ball… you can’t stand firm without shoes!

Stand firm… with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

The shoes we are wearing are shoes of readiness or preparedness. We’ve got to be prepared! The Greek word that Paul uses here is used in the Greek Old Testament to mean a stand or a base, driving home the fact that if you’re going to stand firm at all costs, you have to have secure footing.

This "stand firm" thing should be familiar to you – it’s our battle order. Our secure footing is provided by the Gospel (appropriated and proclaimed). That makes it all clear, doesn’t it? Except that the word "gospel" is a good example of "Christianese" – one of those words that we Christians repeat so often that we often don’t grasp its significance. The Greek word here is euangelion, from which we take the word "evangelism."

Evangelism has gotten a bad name in our culture. For many, it brings up a thought of someone on a street corner, loudly denouncing passersby. This is not evangelism.

The word euangelion means "good news," so the word evangelism means, "bringing the good news." Isaiah 52:7, from which Paul most certainly got inspiration for this particular piece of armor, says, "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!’"

So when the Apostle Paul talks about the gospel, he’s talking about the good news: the message of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. There is no gospel apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Good News is the news of salvation. The Good News is that while we were yet sinners, Jesus Christ died for us. It’s the news that God has chosen to renew His covenant with us – that we are restored to right relationship with God through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. Remember last week when I talked about the body armor of God’s righteousness? How that right relationship protects us from the devil? Well, that right relationship is also foundational for the Good News.

The Good News is the news of peace – and the ultimate peace is having peace with God. We can only have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross.

Because we have peace with God through Jesus Christ, we are able to stand firm in the face of the devil’s attacks. Do you know this peace? Are you able to stand firm, no matter what’s going on? Even in the most difficult times of your life, can you truly say you have peace?

If you don’t have peace with God, it’s time to make that peace. Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, He is already extending you His peace, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace in spite of outward circumstances.

The shoes we put on, then, are the shoes of readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. What are we ready for? We are ready for Satan’s attacks, because we have the assurance that we are in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We have peace with Him through what Jesus did.

Not only do we have peace, but we are also ready to proclaim the good news of peace. This good news isn’t good news if it isn’t proclaimed! You see, putting on the shoes of readiness to proclaim the Good News doesn’t mean anything until you actually proclaim the Good News! Romans 10:14-15: How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

I had a teammate on a soccer team who showed up one day in a full complement of all of the most expensive brand new gear. He looked really nice sitting on the bench, but he never played. The point is this: don’t just dress like a pro. We called people like him "posers."

We were never meant to be posers. The Church must constantly be moving forward by consistently sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know Him. By proclaiming the Good News or peace.

Here is your assignment for this week. This week, I want you to tell three people about something God has done for you. It doesn’t have to be a stranger – in fact, if you’re not used to doing this, I would recommend that you start out with someone else from this room. This way you can have a good practice session. This is part of putting on God’s armor – proclaiming the Good News.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Breastplate of Righteousness

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Our battle order is to stand firm in the face of Satan’s attacks. Be strong, take your stand, stand your ground, after you’ve done everything, stand, stand firm.

Last week we were reminded that God’s truth is the centerpiece of our armor, holding everything together.

Today we’re focusing on the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate was one of the last pieces of functional armor to be used on the battlefield because it protected the vital organs without limiting mobility. In fact, even today, we outfit our soldiers with a sort of breastplate: the bulletproof vest.

A breastplate is important, again, because it protects the vital organs, most notably the heart. The heart represents the center of who we are. The heart was understood as the center of emotion, thinking, understanding, judgment, desire, wisdom, and morality. The heart receives God’s teachings, which thus influence our character. People in Bible times regarded the heart as the source of all the body’s activities. This means that whatever you do is controlled by your heart.

Proverbs 4:20-23 tells us this: My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body. Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

Did you hear that? Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. This is what’s most important to guard, and Satan knows that full well. Satan will attack your heart, because he knows how important the heart is.

Here’s something to consider: every heart has a ruler. Every heart is ruled by something. What rules your heart? Well, what keeps you awake at night? What gets you super excited? Where do you spend a majority of your time? There’s a good chance that one of those things rules your heart.

Does God rule your heart, or do you? Jesus tells his followers to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well. Many of us find ourselves seeking first after "all these things" – and losing out on the Kingdom in the process. What that means is that you’ve allowed your heart to be ruled by someone or something other than God…

So, how do we guard our hearts?

We guard our hearts by following one of the most memorized passages of scripture ever: Deuteronomy 6:5, where we’re told to love God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.

Paul tells us to stand firm, with the breastplate of righteousness in place. What does this really mean? Remember that righteousness is simply the seminary word for being in a right relationship with God. To protect who we are, how we think, how we make decisions, whatever we do, we must be in right relationship with God.

How can we do that?

We recognize our need for God; we have sinned and that messed up our relationship. God is a God of love, but He is also a God of justice, and sin cannot remain in His presence. If we do not recognize and admit our sin, there is nothing we can do to get back in God’s favor.

We accept that Jesus already paid the price that was required to reconcile us to God.

We grow in our love of Jesus and in likeness to Him, putting Him first in everything we do.
Putting our relationship with Him first protects us from danger during Satan’s attacks.

How does this work?

We gain confidence in who we are. God reminds us of who we are: we are fearfully and wonderfully made, says Psalm 139, created in God’s image, says Genesis 1.

God reminds us Whose we are: if we have accepted Jesus’ sacrifice, then we have been set apart by Him and for Him. And if God is for us, who can stand against us?

As God transforms us, He helps us overcome temptations and to cease sinful behavior.
So let’s prepare for Communion by wearing the breastplate of righteousness.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Belt of Truth

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Ephesians 6:10-18

Some of you have served your country in the military. Most of us have not. But there’s some amount of common sense to protect yourself in war. If you knew you were going into enemy territory, what would you do? You’d probably want to have some way to protect yourself!
We are, in a sense, like God’s paratroopers, having been dropped behind enemy lines. Paul’s audience would have understood the military analogy – especially as they were surrounded by Roman centurions. They knew that the Roman centurions were trained to stand fast and not give way, no matter what the circumstance. That same quality is necessary in spiritual warfare, and this passage from Ephesians makes our battle orders clear: We are supposed to stand firm.
Before Paul got to the individual pieces of armor, he tells his listeners to:
(verse 10) Be strong in the Lord (strengthen yourselves in the Lord)
(verse 11) Take your stand against the devil’s schemes
(verse 13) Stand your ground
(verse 13) After everything, stand
(verse 14) Stand firm

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist. What does a belt do? It holds everything together. This is what truth does. Our culture has allowed truth to slowly be eroded, exchanging absolute truth for "whatever works for you."
We find ourselves asking the same question Pilate asked Jesus in John 18, as Jesus was standing trial (before his crucifixion). Pilate asked Jesus if He was indeed a king. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.

So what do we know about truth?
Truth can be known or discerned, but there are also false spirits and idols that lead away from the truth. 1 John 4:1-2 tells us Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
1 John 4:1-2.
People don’t like being called out for sin. It’s hard to even acknowledge sin at all.

In fact, as 2 Timothy 4:3-4 says, For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Satan perpetuates the lie that there is no truth. But to say "There is no absolute truth" is making a statement of absolute truth! You can’t have it both ways!

The basis of truth is God, and the revealer and giver of truth is Jesus Hebrews 6:18 reminds us that because of his very nature, God is unable to lie. 1 John 5:20 We know also that the Son of God has come and given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Truth can only be found in Jesus Christ, and that has ramifications for us. Truth does not just call for intellectual agreement. It is to be obeyed and to characterize the new life in Christ. Listen to what Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:21-32.
Surely you heard of Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Truth leads to action. It’s not just a concept that as long as we believe the right things then we are fine. The only things you really believe are the things you act upon. I can see that all of you believe that the seats you’re sitting on will hold your weight.

The ramifications of this are staggering. Research is showing little to no difference in behavior between Christians and non-Christians. In 2007, the Barna Group conducted lifestyle research in the areas of gambling, relationships, sexuality, property and finances, substance abuse, and spirituality. In 11 of the 15 moral behavior areas they studied, there was statistically no difference between born-again Christians and non-Christians (you can read the full article here). This is scary. If we really believe in Jesus Christ as Truth, it should have an impact on our behavior.
How should someone behave if they know and walk in the truth?
  1. Admit to having sin. 1 John 1:8: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
  2. Keep God’s commands. 1 John 2:4: The one who says, "I know Him," but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
  3. Do not hate fellow believers. 1 John 4:20: If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
  4. Instead love them with their actions. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul talks about growing in spiritual maturity, using the gifts God has given us to reach unity in the faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, "truthing" in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. Ephesians 4:14-15. This is often rendered "speaking the truth in love" but it’s more than that. In Greek, it’s simply a verb form of the word truth. So it’s not just speaking truth, but acting it out. 1 John 3:18-19: Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.

This truth is what holds the entire armor of God together and allows us to stand firm. Without the Truth of Jesus Christ, none of the rest of the armor helps at all. So we put on the truth by learning more about Jesus – knowing Him more, and living out his commands, turning from our sin, loving one another, and living out the truth in every aspect of our lives. This is the belt that holds our entire spiritual armor together.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Win the 50-50 Ball (or, Let's Take This Fight to the Devil)

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Ephesians 6:10-18

As you probably know, I’m a soccer nut. I have played, coached, and watched the game on various levels throughout my life, and I have made some observations about the game. There is a huge difference between playing levels. One way this can be easily observed is in how a team plays 50/50 balls. To explain, a 50/50 ball is a ball in the air – anybody’s ball. The lower the level of play, the more times the ball bounces. There’s even a big difference between college soccer and professional soccer; in the pros, every single ball is contested.

There are reasons that young players don’t go up for the ball
  1. They think someone else will get it.
  2. They don’t know where the ball is going.
  3. They’re afraid of the ball/They don’t know the proper technique for receiving a high ball.

You might be wondering what this has to do with us. Here’s the scoop: spiritual warfare is a reality, but sometimes, much like a young soccer team, we allow the "ball" to "bounce" before we do anything about it.

Here are some reasons Christians often neglect spiritual warfare:

  1. We think spiritual warfare is someone else’s duty.
  2. We don’t know where Satan is going to attack.
  3. We’re afraid of spiritual warfare or we don’t know how to combat Satan.

This is why we’re even talking about spiritual warfare, a topic that often gets overlooked in today’s "I want to be able to see, touch, and empirically observe everything" culture. Believe me; Satan is real. He is the father of lies, and one of the biggest lies he lets us believe is that he isn’t real. We can be assured that whenever the Gospel is on the move, Satan is on the attack.

Let’s start here: spiritual warfare is the duty of every Christian. It’s never "someone else’s" duty. 1 Peter 5:7 reminds us to "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." When we ignore him, we are just allowing Satan to pick off the weak, the struggling, the young…

Jesus told a parable about how the Word goes out, and he put it this way: Some people are like seed along the path, where the Word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the Word that was sown in them. He always comes when someone begins to learn and grow in their faith, and, as Christians, it is our duty to be ready – not just for ourselves, but for others.

2 Timothy 3:12 tells us that "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" and this often takes the form of spiritual attack. If we claim Jesus Christ as our lord, we will experience spiritual attack, and we need protection.

To think that it’s just the pastor’s job or the job of the staff or church leadership is ludicrous. It would be like saying that war is the job of the platoon leader. Sure, he’s on the front line, but he’s not the only one fighting! The whole platoon fights, and likewise, the whole church fights. It would be like telling a soccer team captain to go get every 50/50 ball – it just doesn’t happen that way.

Remember that our fight isn’t against flesh and blood – it’s not against people, but against all of Satan’s minions: the rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

How can we know where Satan will attack? He will attack where the church is moving forward. He will attack when we are obeying God’s will. Remember the verse I read about the devil? He is a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Lions don’t attack their prey in the strength of the herd. They look for a straggler, one who has gotten separated from the others.

Are you separated from God? Are you separated from others? Satan loves to pick off lonesome Christians. This is one reason why it’s important to come together to worship. It’s also a huge reason why cell groups are so vital in the life of a growing church

So how do we fight against these types of opponents, these rulers, authorities, powers, and spiritual forces? How do we win at spiritual warfare? We take the fight to the devil. James 4:7 tells us to Submit to God and resist the devil, and the devil will flee! Spiritual warfare is the created against the will of the Creator. Because God is love, God allows free will and gives choice. He allows us to make bad choices. He allows us to choose to fight or to choose not to fight against Satan.

We resist the devil by simply not allowing him to influence or sway us. If we know the word of God, we can be sure that we know right and wrong. By doing "right" instead of "wrong" we resist the devil!

We also put on the armor of God, which we’ll be looking at in detail starting in two weeks.
Our most powerful weapon is prayer – we have been given the privilege of speaking directly to God for our empowerment and protection.

Not only that, but the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf. Paul concluded his letter to the Ephesians with the admonition to "pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints."

Because we’re committed to taking the fight to the devil, I know we’ll face spiritual opposition. And rather than just guess that we’re going to pray for one another, we need to start now.

We ended the service by pairing up and praying for one another - not chit-chatting or sharing prayer requests, but simply beginning to pray in the Spirit. If you're reading this online, find someone to pray for and pray together.

Jesus is the Blessed One!

Over the past two months, we have given a lot of time to the same portion of scripture: Matthew 5:1-12, in which Jesus pronounces blessing upon blessing. These "blessed are" statements were common in Jesus’ time – Jews were used to knowing who was blessed by God, why they were blessed, and specifically how they were blessed. The promise of Shalom, blessing, wholeness, and salvation was often what carried God’s people through, especially when they experienced tough times.

Unlike traditional Jewish blessing statements, however, which usually come one at a time, Jesus pronounced multiple blessings, blessing upon blessing, if you will, on those who know and understand their need for God, who mourn their sin and the sin of the world, who willingly place themselves in subordinate obedience to God, who want a right relationship with God more than anything, who show mercy, whose hearts are pure, who make peace, and who are persecuted because of their relationship with God.

The blessings: They get the Kingdom of Heaven, comfort, the earth as an inheritance, satisfaction in a right relationship with God, mercy, they will see God, they will be called God’s sons, and theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven – great is their reward in Heaven.

If you’ve been reading these, you’ll notice that the rewards given in the first and the last of the beatitudes are the same: yours is the Kingdom of Heaven. This is on purpose: it’s a literary device called "inclusio" meaning "bookends." When you see this, you can be assured that everything in between goes together. In this case, we can understand that all of the blessings Jesus pronounces are "Kingdom of Heaven" blessings.

Does this mean that we won’t get any rewards for living this Jesus-kind of life until we’re dead? No, because in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven has already broken into the world! The Kingdom of Heaven is among us even now, so the blessings Jesus presents are available to us now!

We Christians sometimes throw the word "blessed" around pretty willy-nilly (I know I’m guilty of this), but the blessings Jesus pronounces are anything but. The blessing Jesus talks about – this Shalom, is the end goal of all of life, and only God can bless us in this way. The blessing God presents demonstrates God’s character: who is God? Is God good? Is God just?

The conditions of the blessings – these conditions that Jesus pronounces, they are hard. Make no mistake: it’s not simple to be a Christian. When I was a teenager, I thought it was supposed to get easy when you became an adult, but it doesn’t. It is hard. But the truth is this: it is absolutely worth it. The rewards Jesus announces are so worth it.

Why? Because there is only one thing that will satisfy, and that is God Himself, and that’s what God gives us. When we look at the blessings Jesus pronounces, there is something unique. Jesus Himself satisfies every condition. Jesus Himself is THE Blessed One, and He is the One whom God sent to us.

Let’s look at it a little deeper.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. In Philippians 2:5-7, we read this: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Our God became flesh. Jesus, who was by nature everything, emptied himself, becoming nothing. He spent countless hours in prayer. Before his ministry started, Jesus spent forty days and nights, fasting in the desert. This is someone who had all the credentials to do it all himself, yet chose to follow the Father.

Blessed are those who mourn: In John 11:35, we find Jesus weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus. But not only did Jesus mourn the death of his friend, Lazarus, in Matthew 23:37-39, we find Jesus mourning over Jerusalem. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’" Jesus wants everyone to come to him, and it grieves his heart when we don’t.

Blessed are the meek: Jesus embodied meekness. He was all-powerful – did you realize that when the soldiers approached him to arrest him, they all fell to the ground before him? Yet this is the way he was described in Philippians 2:8-9: And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! This is the Jesus who pleaded with God, "If there’s any other way this can be done, please do it. But not my will, but Your will be done."

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Jewish view of righteousness went something like this: righteousness was given to Israel and to humanity as a main part of creation, and the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is the guide on the way to righteousness. They believed that the Torah, when rightly interpreted, was the means by which the hunger and thirst for righteousness could be met. One of Matthew’s goals was to demonstrate that Jesus embodied the Torah – that He was the One who was greater than Moses, and that it’s Jesus Himself who we are to hunger and thirst after. After all, according to Matthew 3:15, Jesus fulfilled all righteousness. When he died on the cross, Luke 23:47 reports the centurion saying, "Surely this was a righteous man."

Blessed are the merciful: You cannot look at Jesus’ life without noticing his mercy. Jesus constantly went to the people on the margins. He touched the untouchable. His life was characterized by serving the outsider, the poor, the hungry, the broken. He healed bodies and forgave sins, and, in his death and resurrection, he did the ultimate in showing mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: Jesus embodied the pure heart. Listen to what two of his closest friends had to say about him: 1 John 3:5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.
1 Peter 2:22 "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."

Blessed are the peacemakers: Jesus wasn’t just a peacemaker; he is the Prince of Peace. It was his death on the cross that allowed us to have peace with God. Romans 5:6-11


You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners,
Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.



Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness: Jesus was insulted, beaten, lied about, betrayed, and killed on a cross. He never sinned, but he willingly faced death, as that was God’s will.

As we travel along this journey toward our ultimate "great reward" we receive reward after reward as God unites Himself with us, reconciling Himself to us through Jesus Christ, setting
us apart (sanctification) and transforms us more and more into Christ’s likeness until one day we will be receive our ultimate goal of perfection.

Know that the blessing God gives will satisfy every desire. It’s not just a "sit on a cloud and play a harp" kind of boring version of heaven; it is having every single desire satisfied.

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven: If you know your utter need for God, He will give you Himself.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. If you mourn your sinful condition, God will give you Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who died for your sin.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. If you willfully place yourself in obedience to God and are satisfied in all circumstances, God will give you Himself – as well as dominion over His creation.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. If you seek for God with everything, He will give you Himself, and you will be satisfied.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. If you are merciful, God – whose name is Mercy, will give you Himself.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. If you’re pure in heart, God will give you Himself.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. If you make peace with others, rooting out sin, God will give you Himself.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. If you build your life around a right relationship with God, you will be persecuted. Stand firm in persecution, because God gives you Himself.