Sunday, August 30, 2009

Half Full - Half Empty - What are You Full Of?

Matthew 12:43-45

As the last message in our series “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” a series in which we have looked at characters through the Bible, I decided to go a little different route. Instead of looking at an actual character, today’s person is fictional. He is an illustration created by Jesus to demonstrate a point.

In the passage I read to you, the immediate context is some Pharisees and teachers of the law demanding that Jesus do a miracle. He calls them a wicked and adulterous generation who asks for a sign – but to whom none would be given. Except for his death and resurrection. After all, the people of Ninevah repented at Jonah’s preaching.

Understand that the Pharisees were the holiness movement of their time. If you’ve been in this church for long, or if you’ve been a part of what goes on at Camp Sychar, you have heard calls to repent. One of the things I remember about church camp was a call to repent from listening to evil music (sometimes, but not always, accompanied by kids throwing some of their records and tapes into the campfire). I often wondered how many of those kids went out and bought a new copy when they got home.

One hallmark of any holiness movement, whether it was the Pharisee movement or a more current one, is holiness of conduct. We, as Christians, are called to stop our bad, sinful activities. About that, there is no argument. We can find all sorts of Biblical mandates to stop sinful behavior:

Exodus 20:4 You shall not make for yourself an idol. v. 7 You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God. 13-17 You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall not covet…

Galatians 5:19-21: The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Colossians 3:5-9 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.

You’d have to be dense to miss out on it; the Bible is full of commands to stop sinning. The reason? We’re called to be God’s people, set apart for God, and we are not supposed to act like the “people of the world” who are defined by their sins.

Unfortunately, we as Christians have become identified as those who “do not.” You know: we don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls who do. Why is that? Because we have focused on what we do not do instead of focusing on whose we are. The Pharisees weren’t horrible people, remember; they were focused fully on obeying every rule in the Torah. They knew exactly what to avoid. As a good Pharisee, the Apostle Paul had a lot to say about what kinds of things to avoid; 1 Thessalonians 5:22 sums it up: Avoid every kind of evil.

There’s a problem with basing your life on avoiding evil, however. Jesus tells a story about a man with an evil spirit. More correctly, a man from whom an evil spirit has been cast out.

"When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation." Matthew 12:43-45

When we simply live a “just say no” life, we have kicked out the evil spirit and cleaned house, but to what end? We have supplanted biblical Christianity with a counterfeit. This counterfeit has been given a name, too. In 2005, in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist came to an important conclusion about the spiritual life of young people in our country.

Our country’s young people (and many not-so-young) in vast numbers subscribe to something called MTD.

Not MTV: MTD, standing for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which consists of beliefs like these:

  1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
  2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
  3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
  4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
  5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also "about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents." As the researchers explained, "This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one's prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God's love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people."

It all sounds well and good. Except that it’s not true Christianity. It’s a counterfeit! Because it consists of simply being nice (or don’t be bad) and nothing more. The god of MTD is a distant god who created and doesn’t intervene, doesn’t care.

The problem with just “avoiding being bad” is that it doesn’t lead anywhere. Have any of you ever decided that you are going to lose weight? What’s a major way you decided to do it? Who here has tried to diet? Did it work? Remember the Atkins diet? It was all about what you couldn’t eat. People would lose a ton of weight right away. But after a while, they would regain it all, plus some. Why? The diet told them, “You can’t eat the things you like. No pizza. No pasta. No bread. No way.”

So after a while, not only do they quit the diet, but they quit in a big way, going out and pigging out on pizza and all sorts of foods. And furthermore, who defines how much “bad” we have to avoid? When Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that and in Romans 6:23 All have sinned and fall short of the glory of GodFor the wages of sin is death – what part of that leaves it up to a scale of more good than bad?

And when we live our lives just trying to stop doing bad things, that only gets us so far. Because that’s never supposed to have been the goal of God’s people. Our goal is supposed to be God himself! We are supposed to strive for Christlikeness. But how are we really supposed to do that? How can we clean house and not be overwhelmed?

Remember the scripture I read from 1 Thessalonians: Avoid all kinds of evil? Paul goes on to say this in the following two verses: May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. You see, we aren’t the ones who do it. The one who calls you, that’s God, is faithful, and he will do it!

God is the one who sets us apart (that’s what sanctify means), and he is the one who keeps us blameless. How does he do it? Easy. He gives us the Holy Spirit. He Himself dwells within us. Paul writes to the church in Galatia saying, Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:16). Next week we will begin looking at what living by the Spirit looks like – you won’t want to miss this upcoming series on the Fruit of the Spirit.

Last week I talked a lot about hearing God’s voice – and this is key. We cannot live by the Spirit if we won’t listen to the Spirit. And when we stop sinning, instead of just quitting a sin, we truly repent, which means we turn 180 degrees and go in the opposite direction.

So this morning I invite you to truly repent. To allow God to clean house and to live in it, to fill it with Himself. Because he is the only one who will keep your spirit, soul, and body blameless. He is faithful, and he will do it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Back when Tara was pregnant with Jonathan, she was traveling a lot to play her violin. Because she would be gone for extended periods of time, we bought a prepaid cell phone. Unfortunately for us, most of the places she traveled were in southern Ohio and West Virginia, where cell phone reception was spotty at best, ruining the whole purpose for having gotten that phone. Then we moved to New Knoxville, where our particular carrier didn’t have reception either. I got pretty annoyed at that guy who would go around on commercials asking, “Can you hear me now?”

As hard as it is to believe in this 3G world, there are times and places where we don’t get cell phone reception. It’s really amazing not only how helpful these things are, but also how addicting they are and how upset we sometimes get when someone isn’t answering their cell phone. I remember when I was the associate pastor at Stonybrook UMC; pretty much weekly I would go back to the senior pastor’s office and we would pray together. Inevitably, his cell phone would ring. He would ignore it. Then his desk phone would start ringing on the “private” number, and he’d say to me, “I’ve got to get that; it’s my wife. If I don’t get it, she’ll get all worried about me.”

We have an expectation that we can get in touch with pretty much whoever we want, pretty much whenever we want. After all, we’re extremely busy and we need whatever it is we need right this minute. This reflects our general attitude that faster is better and now is best. This attitude often carries through to our prayer lives; I’ve had people tell me, “I want to know God’s will for my life” when what they really want is for me, in two or three easy sentences, to tell them what they want to hear. They’d rather not hear, “Meditate on the Word of God and see what God has to say to you.” Sometimes God speaks hard words.

God had some hard words to speak to Israel, but first someone had to listen. Last week we looked at Hannah, one of the great heroes of the Bible, who trusted God so whole-heartedly that she dedicated her son to Him and though she cared deeply for him and made sure to take care of his needs, bringing clothes to him every year, he was raised in the Temple, where The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.

I wonder what people then would have thought about the United Church of Christ’s advertising campaign “God’s still speaking.” They’d probably respond much as people do today. I remember watching a TV program about the Bible in which they interviewed several so-called experts, one of whom was a pastor of some sort. He told the TV audience that the Bible was a book about a certain place and time, written to and about them, and that its only relevance today was historical. He had about him a scholarly, condescending air, as if he was rolling his eyes at us provincials who think that God might talk to us.

Funny. Maybe God might just try to speak to us. Even though they were living in a time in which it seemed God was silent, He began to call Samuel. I read that account this morning; twice Samuel heard his name called, and twice he went to Eli. I can only imagine how ticked off Eli was; it was almost dawn. Eli is old and tired and nearly blind, and here comes Sam, saying, “Here I am; You called me.” Eli responded, “Just let me sleep! Can’t you read a clock? It’s not even 6 in the morning!”

Finally, Eli got it. Someone was calling Samuel. Maybe it just might be God. So Eli told him what to do. Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.' " So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

When Samuel begins to listen to the LORD, the LORD speaks to him, and he becomes the prophet of the nation. There is something really interesting here. We know that Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was a woman of prayer. Not just a praying woman, but a true woman of prayer. We know that Samuel had been dedicated to the LORD and he was brought up in the Temple. But 1 Samuel 3:7 gives us a very important insight. Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. This is huge! Samuel had probably served the LORD in the Temple for around ten years, yet he did not yet know the LORD. If you base your relationship with Jesus or your assurance of heaven on your longevity in a particular church or even on a list of the positions you have held, you’ve missed the mark. That’s not the point at all. I will probably get criticism for this, but I’m going to go ahead and say it. There are some people among us who have been here for many, many years who do not yet know the LORD.

Maybe you’re one who has been serving in the church for years, and you don’t yet know the LORD.

Samuel lived in a dark time, when God wasn’t speaking much. Or maybe it wasn’t so much that God wasn’t speaking, but that nobody was listening.

In 1 Kings:19, there is a fantastic story about Elijah, who has already faced down 450 prophets of Ba’al and the evil queen Jezebel, but is now afraid for his life. He is depressed and scared, but an angel appeared to him, gave him food and water, and encouraged him. Now we find Elijah in a cave on Mt. Horeb.

And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."

The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, 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.

God’s voice wasn’t the earthquake, the wind, or the fire. God’s voice was a gentle whisper. Sometimes I talk about God’s “holy 2x4” that He has to bring upside my head to get me to understand something, but that’s not God’s day-to-day way of speaking. God speaks quietly. The truth is, if we really want to hear from God, the key skill we need is listening.

I believe we’re in a period like what Amos prophesied: (Amos 8:11) “The Days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.”

But this isn’t like a regular famine, in which it never rains and everything dries up. It’s like the famines in many war-torn areas of Africa, which were once rich and fertile, but they have been ravaged by years of war, which has not only killed their crops, but has left the formerly lush and fertile ground barren and pockmarked with craters and unexploded ordinance. And the warlords who perpetuate this famine? They are pastors who are driven by politics and personal desires instead of by the Holy Spirit. They are Sunday morning church-goers who stiff their waiters at noon, who lie, cheat and steal to get ahead, who gossip, who do everything but share Jesus. They are parents who don’t teach their children about Jesus. They are long-time church members who don’t personally know Jesus. They are Christians who don’t ever read their Bibles or listen to God speaking. This has left our country, founded on Christian principles, a post-Christian nation, pockmarked with craters and scorched earth.

The saddest thing about this: we live in famine-ravaged America, where there is a famine of hearing the words of the LORD, yet there doesn’t have to be a famine! As Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

We have the word of God available for us whenever we want it! Yet we still don’t hear from the LORD. Why not? Because we don’t listen. Understand this: we can’t just go about our 21st century American lives and expect to hear from God whenever we want to. God doesn’t shout over the din of our ever-so-noisy lives. God doesn’t shoe-horn His way into our too-busy, always going, lives. Remember Elijah and the quiet whisper? We as Americans generally reject anything supernatural, and we have really limited how God will speak to us. Did you know that right now, in Muslim countries closed to the Gospel, where Bibles are as rare as honest politicians (just kidding), Muslims are having visions of Jesus Christ and are converting to Christianity. According to Karel Sanders, a missionary in South Africa, among African Muslims, “42% of the new believers come to Christ through visions, dreams, angelic appearances and hearing God's voice.” But because we don’t believe in that which we cannot see, we don’t listen to God speaking through visions or dreams. And that is a shame.

Because I don’t believe that we need to be living in a time of famine of the word of the LORD. We are living in Holy Spirit time; the Holy Spirit was already given to us. We area already in the times of which Joel spoke (Joel 2:28-29) when he said this: I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy. The Apostle Peter rightly identified this outpouring of the Spirit with the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. And now that we, all of us who have accepted Jesus Christ, have that same Holy Spirit, men, women, and children have been commissioned as visionaries and dreamers.

In fact, the Holy Spirit has commissioned us as new Samuels, ones who hear from God and boldly speak His Word. You have been commissioned. Now you have a job to do.

You might be saying, “wait a minute! I’ve never seen a vision! I’ve never dreamed a dream! God doesn’t speak to me like He did to Samuel!” Hasn’t He? Or maybe, like Samuel, you just haven’t recognized His voice.

Sacrifice is needed to hear from God regularly. Now I’m not talking about Old Testament animal sacrifice. I’m talking about the sacrifice of our lifestyle and of some of our beliefs. We must sacrifice the modernist belief that God doesn’t speak anymore. Now, I know some people have used this very statement to support their own unbiblical views, but here’s the thing: we have a responsibility to check everything with the Bible. If something doesn’t have biblical support, it must not be a word from God. In the Old Testament, there were stiff requirements for prophets; if you predicted something would happen, if it didn’t come true, you were a false prophet. And the penalty for false prophecy was death. So if you think you have a word from God, you’d better check to see if it really is from God. This might mean you have to slow down your lifestyle enough to read the Bible and understand how it all fits together and to actually know God and see if the word fits with His character.

It also means you have to be sensitive to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit. I saw a cartoon with a guy sitting in front of a computer listening to his iPod, praying, “Dear God, how come I can never hear your voice?” To hear from God, we’ve got a responsibility to listen! And start to recognize that voice. For once, Eli had good advice for young Samuel. When you hear the voice, when you think it might be God, respond to Him saying, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Let's Make a Deal

1 Samuel 1:1-28

Have you ever made a deal with God? It’s a pretty funny scene, really, making a deal with God. What makes us think that we, God’s creation, can deal with the Almighty? Yet we do it all the time. I remember making deals with God when I was in junior high, specifically when I was running long distance races. I would ask God to get me through the race and there were all sorts of things I would do for Him once I got finished (secretly I think that me being in ministry now is part of the payback).

Sometimes we can be tempted to make deals with God over little, insignificant things. Then we generally sound like a toddler trying to extend bedtime with a “one more book, please, and I promise I’ll go right to sleep!” But usually the “let’s make a deal” mentality doesn’t set in until the stakes are huge.
  • God, if I get this job, then I’ll…
  • God, if you can get me through this, I’ll…
  • God, if only you’ll spare his life, then I’ll…

Have you ever bargained with God like that? I know I have. I know that I have a bad track record of following through. Hannah was nothing like that. She made a bargain with God; in 1 Samuel 1:10-11, we read this: In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. And she made a vow, saying, "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head." The stakes were high; she wanted a son. Understand that in these times, women were not treated as women are today; they derived their worth from the men with whom they were associated. Hannah was simply one of Elkanah’s wives. Because the other wife had sons, she had worth. Because Hannah had none, she was, in effect, worthless. She cried out to the Lord, not just for a baby, but for worth, for meaning.

You can tell that this was her cry if you look at 1 Samuel 1:13-16. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."

"Not so, my lord," Hannah replied, "I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief." The term she used for “wicked woman” also has the connotation of “worthless woman.” She wants Eli to know that she’s not worthless. And here she is, pouring out her soul, pouring out everything to the LORD, so that she would be given worth.

And her deal was this: if the Lord will give me a son, I will give him back to the Lord and he will be set apart as a Nazirite for his entire life. Now where have I heard that term before? Oh, yes, it was Samson, who totally stunk at being a Nazirite.

And God answered her prayer, and she, having made the deal with God, followed through by giving her son to the LORD. What makes this act significant is that Hannah’s one request was for a son, and when she received what she’s asked for, she gave her son directly to God.

Here is what separates Hannah from the crowd: when she received what she’d asked for, the one thing that she desired above everything else, she immediately gave it to God. I pose that most of us don’t understand what this is all about. We wouldn’t understand how Hannah could do this. After all, now she finally has the son. How could she now take that son and drop him off at the tent of meeting? Doesn’t she care about her son? About his well-being?

What Hannah does here demonstrates her integrity. She’s already laid it all out; she promised God that if He gave her a son, she would give the son to God. When she does indeed have a son, she could start bargaining. She could try to make another deal with God. She could go “Rumplestiltskin” on God, saying, “I know I made a deal with you, but I don’t want to uphold my side, so why don’t we have a contest to see if I can get out of my side of the deal because it’s all not fair.” She could say something like, “Well, I meant my next child.” Or she could subtly go back on her deal by saying, “Now I’ll raise Samuel to know God by bringing him to church every week until it gets inconvenient.”

This “until it’s inconvenient model” is unfortunately the model that many of us follow as we dedicate our children to the LORD. Many of us slipped away from church when we were teenagers, never to return until we have children of our own. Then we decide, “Wait, I want to bring my children up in the church.” Which in itself isn’t a bad thing at all; in fact, it’s an acknowledgment of the reality that the church is where we should be bringing our children up.

When we baptize children, we ask this question: Will you nurture these children in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life? This is a serious question. Notice what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t ask, “that by the church’s teaching and example” or “by their Sunday School teacher’s teaching and example” or “by Rudy’s teaching and example,” but “by your teaching and example.”

Though we often cite how other people and other factors have gained influence over our children, the truth is that parents are still the top influences in their children’s lives. Hannah’s integrity was the first step in Samuel’s growth. And, as we read in 1 Samuel 2:26, the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with men.

Hannah also demonstrated an utter trust for God, a completely sold-out, on fire confidence in the LORD. She trusts God so much that she realizes that God is in control. Before we ever had children, we began praying for the children we would eventually have, not knowing at all what that would take us through. We continue to pray for our children, trusting them to God. This is one of the hardest parts of parenting, but also the most rewarding, because we don’t know the course God might have for them. A prime example is our little guy, Jason. We don’t know what his future holds, if that means reunification with his birth family or becoming a permanent part of our family. But trusting that matter to God is more important than our personal wishes. We trust that God’s will is bigger, is wiser, and is better than our will, and though we seek to understand God’s will, we know that there are some things we just might not understand this side of heaven.

Hannah also demonstrated true love. She showed that she loved God enough to give her very best to Him. She was not satisfied with giving God her second best or her leftovers. She didn’t hold anything back. She gave God her everything.

Guess what. Before we worship Hannah for giving everything to God, this is what Jesus calls us all to do. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus tells this parable: The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy, went and sold all he had and bought that field.

So I wonder, what is it that you want most of all? What is it you crave? What is it you need? What can’t you do without? What is the deepest desire of your heart?

I don’t just ask this as a rhetorical question; I want you to think about it – to write it down. At very least, write down the question and think about it this week.

You’re only allowed to go to the second question once you’ve answered question #1. Question #2 is this: what’s the price you’re willing to pay?

In Luke 12:16-21, when someone came to Jesus to ask him to intervene in a dispute over an inheritance, [Jesus] told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'

"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." '

"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'

"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."

Or another way of putting it is this: a man stipulated in his will that when he died, all of his massive wealth be exchanged for gold and buried with him. His family conceded to his wishes and he went on to his reward, gold in tow. When he got to the pearly gates, someone asked him, “What’s in the box?” When he opened the box to show them the gold the cry went up, “Hey! This guy brought pavement!” His desire was for stuff, and it didn’t do anything for him.

Jesus wasn’t finished there. He had more to tell his disciples.
Luke 12:22-34: Then Jesus said to his disciples: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What is your treasure? What is the greatest thing in your life? Are you willing to give the object of your deepest desire to God? I was really impressed a few weeks ago when I was meeting with one of my pastor friends. He runs more than I do, and so I asked him about his mileage. He told me, “I haven’t been putting in all those miles; I figured out that I was giving the biggest and best part of my day to running, so I started reading my Bible and praying before I run. Which means less time running, but more time with God.”

Which means he is demonstrating that God, not himself, is his treasure.

Friends, I don’t know any other way to say it, but if there is anything in your life that is more important than Jesus Christ, then you’ve got it wrong. This includes all kinds of good things, like your job, your hobbies, Ohio State football, even your family.

In slightly different context, the Apostle Paul put it this way in Philippians 3:7-11
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

He said, “All of the things that the world calls important, all the things I used to call important: they are garbage.” The word that Paul uses here, skubala, is better rendered “unspeakable filth.” It’s used for dung, excrement and food gone bad, a pitiful thing, like a half-eaten corpse, or lumps of manure. If we were to translate it directly, it would most likely be an epithet or a curse word. That’s how strongly Paul felt about all of his former goals.

Why?

Because he turned it all over to God. Because he, like Hannah, realized that only by giving God everything could he attain what is really important.

Now, it would be silly to look at Hannah and miss out on the important underlying fact to this story. Of utmost importance in Hannah’s story is this: Hannah was a woman of prayer. She wasn’t just someone who prayed; prayer defined her. She was a woman desperate for God’s intervention, and she knew this would only happen if she gave of herself entirely in prayer.

Friends, prayer isn’t just something we bow quickly and do before we eat. It’s not just something the pastor does for you. It’s not just our list of prayer requests. Prayer for Hannah was like an air tank for a diver: she could not do without it. And she’s constantly praying, not for God to do the same old thing, but to do something new, to do something wonderful, to include her in it.

This is my prayer for us; that God won’t simply replicate the old things that He’s done before, but that He will do something new and awesome with us, with this church here in Millersport.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Now Who's the Strong Man?

(Judges 16:1-22)

The book of Judges follows a pretty sad course. Israel starts out serving the Lord. Then they fall into sin and idol worship. They are then enslaved, and finally they cry out to the Lord. God raises up a judge who delivers them, and they serve the Lord again, for a time. Samson was one of those judges. In Judges 13, we read that an angel commanded that the boy would be a Nazirite, set aside for the Lord, as described in Numbers 6.

Not every Bible hero is a priest or a king. Samson was a lay person, specially dedicated to God. The angel told Samson’s parents that he would become a Nazarite and would begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judges 13:5b). The important characteristic of a Nazirite is that she or he is holy, set apart for God, marked for God’s service. Their vows required non-conformity from them; they were not supposed to act like the people around them. They totally abstained from wine – to the point that they wouldn’t even touch the skin of a grape. They never cut their hair. And they never came into contact with a dead body.

How do you look at a commitment like that? Samson seems to have taken only one part of his vows seriously: the hair part.

Understand that by the time we get to Judges 16, which I read from this morning, Samson was already married to a Philistine woman… for four days. During this time, he killed a lion barehanded; later he returned to find bees and honey inside. In direct contradiction to his Nazirite vows, he scooped out the honey and ate it.

Now it doesn’t seem that bad, does it? I mean, what’s really wrong with that? Here’s the deal: nothing is wrong with it. Except that as a Nazirite he was not supposed to touch anything dead. Get this: the Nazirite vow was almost never recorded to be a life-long vow; in fact, it was usually a vow that someone took for a set amount of time. For one example, the Apostle Paul took a Nazirite vow in Acts 21 for a time (to demonstrate that he was living in obedience to the Law). In other words, Samson was special, even as a Nazirite, as he was set apart by God for his entire life.

We mostly know Samson for his mighty physical strength, but his physical strength was not accompanied by strength of character. On the outside, Samson looked the part. He looked just like a Nazirite was supposed to look with the long hair and all that. Everyone knew his story – how he’d been set apart from before he was born. For God. To be their hero.

But the truth was, Samson was not like he appeared. Though he put on the best appearances, and though he was called the leader of his people, and though God Himself called Samson and appointed him to deliver His people from the Philistines, Samson lived a compartmentalized life.

He looked like a leader. He frequently attacked the Philistines and seemed to be the type of military leader that the Israelites wanted. Yet he withheld his best from God. In Samson’s case, it was his sexuality he withheld from God. The first thing we find Samson doing in the scripture I read today is visiting a prostitute. He had previously married a Philistine woman, who he married simply because he thought she was hot, never taking into account the fact that he was supposed to be set apart by God and for God.

Let me take a moment to talk to you about strength of character. One mark of having strong character is when every aspect of your character lines up in obedience with God’s commands. This means everything. When it involves dating relationships, one of the first questions must be: “In what direction is this person going?” If you are on fire for Jesus Christ and you end up with a spouse who doesn’t care at all about God, you are in store for a life of heartache. This isn’t to say that a spouse or a girlfriend or boyfriend can’t bring their partner to know the Lord, but trust me on this one: missionary dating usually does not work, and it usually brings trouble. In college I had a friend who I’ll call Jim. Several of us were praying for Jim to come to the Lord and were actively witnessing to him. One funny thing was that the only college women Jim was attracted to were Christians. I remember one young woman, Carol, who told him she wouldn’t date him because he didn’t know Jesus. Jim then decided to check out this Christianity thing, and before long, he knew Jesus and gave his life to Him. Oh, and now Jim and Carol and their two daughters are very involved in their church and love Jesus as a family. Carol had absolute standards for the guys she would date, and loving Jesus Christ was one of those standards.

And we’ll just say that we can be pretty sure Samson wasn’t going in to the prostitute or to Delilah to talk about Yahweh, the one true God. In fact, it wasn’t for quite a while that he even told Delilah why he had that nappy hair. Which is completely in line with Samson’s character.

Quite plainly, though Samson looked the part of the Nazirite, he really was led by his temptations rather than by God. Some of you know full well what temptation is like; it seems like you are assailed on every front. Guess what: you might be in a better place than someone who doesn’t feel tempted. In a recent study, Loran Nordgren of my alma mater came to the conclusion that if you think you’re good at resisting temptation, you’re probably not.

You can read the story here
.

Here’s the thing: if you think you can resist, that there’s no way you’re going to fall into that temptation, chances are higher that you will put yourself into a scenario in which you’re more likely to fall. Nordgren’s advice: “Avoid situations where such weaknesses thrive, and remember you're not that invincible.” In my junior year of college, I lived this out. In my first couple of years in college, I had spent a lot of time partying, and that had to change. My fraternity brothers expected the usual, and since I didn’t think I was strong enough to resist, I started scheduling work hours for the nights when my fraternity would have parties. I would call around and say, “I see you’re on the schedule to work Saturday night’s rotation; you want to get out of it?” Then I wouldn’t be around to fall in the face of temptation.

Samson put himself into the wrong situations over and over again. He was such a strong man, physically, but when it came to temptation, Samson was a weakling.

Some of you are probably glancing around thinking, “These people are all so strong. They’ve all got it all together.” If you’re thinking that, it’s because we’re good at putting on our best faces and covering everything else. Like Samson, who was recognized as a Nazirite because of his dreadlocks, many of us are recognized as Christians because we look the part. Inside, however, might be a different story. Really, if you’re weak, you’ve come to the right place, because the rest of us are, too. We’re in the same boat. But we’re all called to live victoriously.

What are some steps we can take to live build strong character?

  1. Plug into the Lord. Spend serious time in the Word and in prayer. Pray with other Christians. We don’t have any indication that Samson ever consulted the Lord in anything he did. I’m sure Samson would have done better as a part of a cell group.
  2. Honesty. Admit that you’ve got struggles. When you admit it, that’s the first step to overcoming. What’s dishonesty when you’re dealing with struggles? It’s the guy who yells, “I don’t have a problem with anger, and if anyone says I do, I’ll hurt ‘em!
  3. Invite accountability. Surround yourself with some trustworthy people with whom you can share your struggles. Tell them plainly what your issues are and ask them to really ask you about them. When I was going through that growth time in college, it was my fraternity brother David and his roommate Nick who held me accountable. Now I’ve got a couple of guys who I meet with every other week for encouragement and accountability. I’ve given them permission to ask the tough questions. It’s absolutely important to be honest with your struggles. This is why 12-step programs are so helpful; because there people understand the struggle, and you don’t have to put on the “I’m so good” mask. You can really be yourself.
  4. Be a support person. When someone shares a struggle with you, don’t gossip; don’t tell others, not even as a prayer request, without consent.
  5. Give all of yourself to Jesus, not just part.
When I was in college, I found a little brochure called My Heart, Christ’s Home by Robert Boyd Munger.

You can read it online here.

It’s an allegory of Jesus being invited in to a house, and coming in and cleaning house, room by room. Finally, when the whole house has been cleaned, we get to the final thought.

Then a thought came to me. I said to myself, “I have been trying to keep this heart of mine clean and available for Christ but it is hard work. I start on one room and no sooner have I cleaned it than I discover another room is dirty. I begin on the second room and the first is already dusty again. I’m getting tired of trying to maintain a clean heart and an obedient life. I am just not up to it!”

Suddenly I asked, “Lord, is there a possibility that You would be willing to manage the whole house and operate it for me as You did that closet? Could I give to you the responsibility of keeping my heart what it ought to be and myself doing what I ought to be doing?”

I could see his face light up as he replied, “I’d love to! This is exactly what I came to do. You can’t live out the Christian life in your own strength. Let me do it for you and through you. That’s the only way it will really work! But,” he added slowly, “I am not the owner of this house. Remember, I am here as your guest. I have no authority to take charge, since the property is not mine.”

In a flash it all became clear. Excitedly I exclaimed, “Lord, You have been my guest and I have been trying to play the host. You are going to be the owner and master of the house. I’m going to be the servant!”

Running as fast as I could to the strongbox, I took out the title deed to the house describing its assets and liabilities, its condition, location and situation. Then rushing back to him, I eagerly signed it over giving title to him alone for time and eternity. Dropping to my knees, I presented it to him. “Here it is, all that I am and have, forever. Now you run the house. Just let me stay with you as a servant and friend.”

He took my life that day and I can give you my word, there is no better way to live the Christian life. He knows how to keep it and use it. A deep peace settled down on my soul that has remained. Am and his and he is mine forever!

May Christ settle down and be at home as Lord of your heart also.

(quoted from My Heart, Christ's Home, new expanded version, by Robert Boyd Munger, IVP 1986.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I Doubt It

John 20:24-29

What is your reputation? When did you get that reputation? How long have you had it? One day I found out what mine was. In a college German class, I had an assignment to interview a randomly selected classmate and give a speech about them. One of my soccer teammates drew my name, and the day of the presentation, he finally called me. I told him, “Mike, you know me well enough. We’ve played soccer together for three years. I trust you to tell the class about me.”

He told the class that I was loud, arrogant, brash, and hot-tempered, and that I was someone you didn’t want to mess with. The class wondered who this guy was that Mike was talking about. I didn’t usually exhibit those attributes in German class – but he assured them that these were good traits for a college goalkeeper!

Today we are looking at a Bible character who brings the reputation with him. "Doubting Thomas." We first meet Thomas in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, and Luke 6:15, where he is simply named as one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. It is from John that we get most of our information about him. He is specifically named – and nicknamed. Thomas comes from the Aramaic Toma, which is much like our name Tom. Toma, like the Greek Didymus, means Twin. Tradition suggests multiple people who could be Tom’s twin, but without sufficient evidence to convince me; as much as I wanted this message to be about a missing twin, I can’t in good conscience go that direction!

Thomas is best known for his actions in the scripture I read to you today. He knew Jesus had been crucified, so when his friends told him that they’d seen the risen Lord, he doubted. For this, and for his resolve that he would not believe the news until he had physical proof, we vilify Thomas. Before we call Tom “doubter” – what was the reaction of the other disciples to the news of Jesus’ resurrection? In Luke 24, some women went to embalm Jesus’ body. They found the stone rolled away, and two angels asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and told them that Jesus had risen. When they told the disciples, this was the response: (Luke 24:11) But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed like nonsense. I can only imagine! Of course they sounded like nonsense. Hey, that guy you saw crucified… he’s alive. (Luke 24:12) Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. Duh. What had happened? Things were just as the women had said. Jesus was alive. So why do we single out Thomas as the doubter?

I happen to love Thomas. Why? Because he wasn’t a sheep. He refused to believe what was physically and logically impossible. When someone dies, they are dead. Period. The Romans were experts at killing. Crucifixion meant dead victim. So Thomas set forth to do research in the best way he knew. Show me the hands. Show me the feet. I want to touch the spear-hole.

I love it! He set out to prove or disprove what his friends told him. And a week later, he got his proof: (20:26-27) Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Immediately he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” The evidence was overwhelming, and Thomas believes. Not only does he believe, but he shows that he wasn’t as skeptical as he previously seemed. At the sight of Jesus and at Jesus’ words, all doubts disappear, and all the elaborate tests he had planned went out the door.

And then Thomas shows that he is no doubter; in fact, his faith is amazing. He puts it all together. When Jesus had asked his disciples who He was, in what has come to be known as the Great Confession, Peter stated, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). But Thomas’ faith is more; not only is Jesus the Son of God, but He is God.

This is a fantastic statement of faith. Which brings me to the question: What do we do with doubts? Too often I’ve heard Christian leaders answer doubts with comments like “we don’t question that.” Oh really? Obviously someone is questioning; otherwise the question would never have come up. That kind of dismissal of doubts has horrible consequences: it causes people to repress their doubts, to shove them deep, to pretend they don’t exist, never to deal with them. And it drives people away. I’m the kind of person who, if I’m told that we don’t question something, questions it all the more. What are you hiding, that I’m not allowed to question this?

If we’re not allowed to question, we’re in trouble. Because the Bible is full of heroes of the faith who question God. If you’re not comfortable with this, you’d better steer clear of the Psalms, where the psalmists question Him all the time. In Psalm 13:1 David asks, How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? He doubts God’s character. He is accusing God of forgetting him.

In Habakkuk 1:2-3 we read: How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. The prophet doubts God’s justice!

Revelation 6:10 tells us that: [the martyrs] called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” These who gave their lives for God now doubt God’s timing.

You see, our God allows questions. In fact, He encourages them. Understand that there is a difference between having question and being a scoffer or a mocker. In Psalm 1, we read that those who sit in the seat of mockers are not among those declared blessed, and for good reason. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions. If you think God doesn’t allow questions, then your God isn’t big enough. My God is big enough to field all of our doubts.

What does that mean? It means that if you’re agnostic, that is OK… agnostic means “I don’t know” – and if we are willing to admit that we don’t know something, that’s the first step to finding an answer. Thomas said, “I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Unless I get proof, I won’t believe.” Then Jesus gave him proof. I believe that when we seriously seek answers, our gracious God gives them. Sometimes they are the “holy 2x4” kind of answers, like God gave Job (read Job 38-40 if you want the Holy 2x4!) – like Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? (Job 38:4). But other times the answers are so gracious, quiet, but clear that the only reasonable response is Thomas’ “My Lord and my God!”

I said you’re OK if you’re agnostic… that is only true to a point. If you don’t know, but you’re not willing to seek answers, you’re better described as idiot. Really, what else should I call someone who is willfully and consistently ignorant?

The fact that God is big enough to not only allow doubts and questions, but even encourage us to express them is tied to the fact that God Himself not only has, but is the answer. When Thomas doubted, he got more than he even asked. He wondered, “Who can come back from the dead?” and he got the answer: God can.

A bigger question than “are doubts allowed?” is “what do you do with the answer?” Thomas went on to serve God faithfully, knowing that Jesus had indeed risen. In fact, there is an entire sector of Christianity which traces its roots back to Thomas. Yet, in John 20:29 Jesus told [Thomas], “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus pronounces you blessed if you believe.
  • You who wait to see the resurrected Jesus.
  • You who wait for justice.
  • You who wait for an answer to your prayers.
  • You who doubt.
  • You who seek Him.