Sunday, October 31, 2010

Stuck!


John 5:1-9a
 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"
"Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." 

Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

I was in college in an upper-level German class, it was exam day, and I was stuck.  I loved German language and literature, but this was essentially a political science class, and I was – shall we say - under interested in this topic.  The exam asked for us to locate and name the states of Germany on a map.  I just sat there at my desk, stuck.

Have you ever been stuck?  Maybe it’s an exam where you hadn’t studied the right material (or you had studied the right material but you just couldn’t recall it).  Maybe it’s a situation where you don’t know what to do, where you know what is right, but you know it will be much easier to do what isn’t.  Maybe it’s a relationship that’s going nowhere – and has been going nowhere good for way too long.  Maybe it’s something physical.  But whatever the case, you’re stuck.

The Bible is full of stories of people who are stuck. Noah was stuck in an ark. Moses and the Israelites were stuck in Egypt.  The prophet Jeremiah was stuck in a pit.  Jonah was stuck in the belly of a fish. Daniel was stuck in exile and in a lion’s den. And a certain invalid was stuck by a pool called Bethesda, waiting for a miracle which wasn’t going to happen.

He had been an invalid for 38 years.  The average life expectancy for a male in the ancient near east was only 40 years. Talk about stuck.  Then a stranger approached him and asked him if he wanted to get well.  What kind of question was that? Doesn’t this joker know that of course he wants to get well? Why else would he be spending his time by the pool, waiting on a superstition, grasping at straws?  Didn’t the stranger know that there were places where a beggar could make good money, but those places didn’t include Bethesda?  After all, who wants to be one of “a great number” of disabled?  That’s just not good business.  You want to be the only invalid in a busy area, perhaps by a different one of the Temple gates, maybe where people are coming with money, not in the midst of a whole bunch of other beggars.

But that question had to haunt him.  Did he really want to get well?  Did he have any concept of what “well” might mean?  He was stuck.  Does he want to be well?  Jesus asked the honest question, “Do you want to get well?”

Did you notice that the invalid never answers Jesus’ question?  Instead, he deflects Jesus with his excuse.  "Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." (John 5:7)

He never says, “Oh yes, I want to get well.  I want it more than anything.”  He just tells Jesus why he never got healed.  I wonder if he had gotten a scroll saying, “In Jerusalem there’s a pool called Bethesda by the Sheep Gate, and the angel of the Lord comes down and stirs up the waters. If you’re the first one in the pool after each such disturbance, you will be cured of whatever disease you have.  My great uncle Phil had a growth on his leg and was the first in, and the growth is gone.  I checked it out on snopes – it’s true.  You can check it out in John 5:4.  Now forward this scroll to eight of your friends or horrible things will happen to you.”

He was grasping at straws, holding on for a miracle, banking on superstition.  But because he was an invalid, he couldn’t get into the water.  I wonder why he even bothered showing up at the pool – maybe he just never left.  Whatever the case, he had every right to not expect to get better.  A lifetime of being an invalid, no chance to get that healing.  He is stuck.

And he didn’t have anyone to help him. There are other stories in the scriptures about people whose friends or family members were there to help.  Remember the guys who brought their friend to Jesus, cutting a hole in a roof and lowering him down?  They cared so much that they went to every length to get him to Jesus.  But this guy didn’t have anyone.

And it’s pretty clear that this guy didn’t know Jesus either.  Unlike the woman who sneaks through the crowds just to touch Jesus’ garment, the woman to whom Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well,” he doesn’t even know Jesus. When the crowd asked him “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus has slipped away into the crowd that was there. (John 9:12-13)

While we can partially attribute other healings to other people, this is all on Jesus.  While the guy doesn’t even know Jesus, and while the guy is making excuses as to why he wasn’t well, Jesus goes ahead and heals him.
Why would Jesus do this?  Because that is his character. 

Jesus’ character is one that loves the lost, the overlooked, the marginalized, the foreigner, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, even the enemy.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd who goes out searching for the one lost sheep and proclaims:  There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:7)

This is why Peter can describe Jesus as not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9).  He wants everyone to be saved.  He wants wholeness for everyone.  This is why he went to the cross once and for all. For everyone. That’s why Romans 5:8 says But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus is still asking the same question to all of us who are stuck.  Do you want to get well?  William Barclay says, “The first essential towards receiving the power of Jesus us the intense desire for it.  Jesus comes to us and says: ‘Do you really want to be changed?’ If in our inmost hearts we are content to stay as we are there can be no change for us, the desire for the better things must be surging in our hearts.”

This is why Jesus asks the question “Do you want to get well?” Because the first requirement to receive Jesus’ power is to want it.  He doesn’t force wellness on us.  He asks us if we want to get well.  Do we really want to get well?

When I was a high school student, I took a trip to Chicago to see my brother.  We went into Chicago on the el, and as we were riding into the city, a panhandler approached us asking for money.  When I looked up at him, I realized he had been horribly burned.  Honestly he looked like something from a horror movie.  I was so shocked at his appearance that I didn’t do anything.  And I felt guilty for it for a long time.  But a few years later, I read a story in the newspaper about this man, how doctors had offered him free surgery, but he turned it down. He simply made too much money panhandling.

There are people who don’t want to get well.  Turn on the television and you will most likely find a reality show that would lose a lot of its luster were the participants suddenly to get healthy.  If you’ve seen the show “Hoarders” you’ll find a hidden group of people who are holding on to “stuff” and actively not getting well.  But their advantage is that someone, usually a family member or friend, has identified them as needing help.  But the invalid in today’s story doesn’t have that. 

This moves us from the realm of the individual to the realm of the community.  There are people among us and around us who are desperately in need of healing.  Maybe you know who some of them are, but maybe they are invisible to you.  There are people who want to get well, but they just don’t know how to.  There are some who don’t want to get well, but maybe they just don’t know how to access Jesus’ power. 

When I was in college, my friend Nick and I were going through a Bible study on evangelism. One question asked, “Where are the places where ‘pagans’ gather?” I answered, “Kresge Hall” where I had lots of my classes. We knew where the place was on campus where they gathered.  In today’s passage from John, one of those who desperately needed Jesus’ healing was by the pool called Bethesda, by the Sheep Pool.  Do you know where people gather, people who desperately need Jesus?

Are you willing to go to them? 

Understand that Jesus’ healing wasn’t just something he did and then left.  He did it as an example for us to follow.  In John 14, he tells his followers to believe in him, “or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:11b).  So when you see his miracles, the end goal is for us to recognize Jesus through them.  Don’t just pass by a miracle – when God does something, give Him glory!

Jesus goes on to say “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)  Do you realize what Jesus is saying?  This is an amazing statement!

Do you believe this?  I mean, do you really believe this?  There are times when I wonder, because sometimes I often don’t see much difference between the church and the world.  But we are the ones in whom the Holy Spirit lives! There’s no reason for us to end up being the ones who are stuck!

Here’s the thing: we have the power of the same Jesus who told the invalid to get up and walk.  So why don’t we see the same healing?

We are mortal.  I want to get this out first and foremost.  This life is hard and ends in death. There are times when we pray fervently for someone to be delivered, yet they still die.  This is the curse of this sinful world, but the promise of Christ is eternity where 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. (Revelation 21:4) Unfortunately, we have to wait for this.  There are all kinds of times when I wonder what God’s up to.  There are no easy answers for a parent who has lost a child.  We have no answers for why one person’s cancer is gone and another’s has come back with a vengeance.  These are all indicators that there are problems in this world.  These are reminders that because of sin, everything in this world is out of order, and we’re in desperate need of Jesus.

Sometimes we’re stuck due to our own disobedience. James tells us that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, that if we are in trouble, we are to pray.  If we are happy, we are to sing songs of praise. If we are sick, we should call the elders of the church to pray over us and anoint us with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.  Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:13-18)  

Perhaps the most amazing part of that scripture is this last section; Elijah was a man just like us. He was one of the greatest heroes of the faith, but he wasn’t fundamentally any different!  His prayer was powerful… and so is ours!

So do we pray, really pray, for each other?  Are we confessing sin to one another and praying for each other?  Sometimes we sit around and question God when in truth, we’ve failed to be obedient.  Did any of you ever lose a privilege because of your disobedience?   I remember getting grounded from the car as a teenager for leaving without telling my parents where I was going and being out too late. Then did I rail about the horrible injustice?  Well, if I did, it was dumb, because the truth was, justice was served. 

What makes us think we somehow deserve to reap the rewards without being obedient? When the Bible gives us clear instructions, we have two choices: we can obey, and reap the rewards, or we can disobey and not reap the rewards.  One of the choices isn’t to do whatever we want to and expect God to bless it, no matter if it’s within or outside of his will.

Sometimes we’re stuck because we aren’t looking at the big picture. The Apostle Paul attributed this, in his own life, to God keeping him from becoming conceited.  He tells of “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment him. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”  (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) Maybe your pain is for God’s good.  Maybe God wants to use you in spite of your weakness.  Maybe God wants to use you as a healer.  Maybe God wants to demonstrate His strength in your weakness.

Whatever the case, I believe God’s plan for all of us involves healing.  Otherwise Jesus’ ministry would have looked very different.  Jesus proclaimed himself the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He read Isaiah’s word: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After he read this, he said to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-19, 21).

I believe that some of us desperately need healing, the kind that only Jesus can give us.  I invite you, as we sing our final song, to come forward to receive prayer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Law of Sowing and Reaping


*see below for a note on source  

James 4:13-17
Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.

Today we are reaping the harvest of the seeds we sowed yesterday.  What does that mean for you?  For me it means that I am in the midst of experiencing the harvest of the commitment I made in 1992, the commitment to make Jesus really the Lord of my life.  I had already professed my faith publicly, but it wasn’t until I was out on my own that I actually made my faith my own.  I decided I wouldn’t live a double life anymore; I would be the same person during the week as I was on Sundays. And no matter how many times I fall short, I would never give up.  And now I’ve only begun to reap the harvest that I sowed nearly 20 years ago.

This is true for most aspects of our lives. I’m personally glad that when we started our married life, we had nothing. Some of you know what that’s like; you started out dirt poor.  Our date night was sharing nachos at Taco Bell and window shopping at Wal-Mart (it was amazing how many fellow seminary students we would see there).  We learned to live within our means and trust in God to provide for us, which He did – miraculously.  We learned the hard lesson about car leases and began saving for retirement and for an emergency fund.  We began tithing when we didn’t know how we would possibly make budget – it was actually during a building project at our church in Lexington when we decided that we needed to tithe.  After all, designated giving is giving above and beyond the tithe; that’s why we refer to “tithes and offerings.”  We were being called to give sacrificially, and at that time, to us, any giving was sacrifice!  We said, “we’re going to have to trust God to provide the money for our pledge to the building fund; why not trust Him for the money for our tithe, too?”  And God was faithful, and we’re still reaping the harvest. 

Maybe your life is different; you’re reaping debt and hardship right now because of seeds you sowed in the past.  We all know that we can’t change the past, but the good news is that the commitment and actions you make today will become the seeds that will create your harvest tomorrow.  It’s critical that we make strategic plans for the future. Remember that right priorities + right actions = right results.  Just because we want something doesn’t mean we will get it; but when our right priorities are coupled with right actions, we will see success.

One of the most important things to discover as you’re planning for the future is the realization that we’re not in charge.  Life is unpredictable; we’re not guaranteed tomorrow! James 4:14 says our lives are like a mist that vanishes.  I love running along Buckeye Lake in the early morning, when the lake is as smooth as a mirror, the steam whisping up off the surface.  By the time I come back on my return trip, the mist is gone.  That’s how short life is.  That’s why we’re told not to boast about tomorrow; we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Every day I am reminded how short life is.  Last summer, I got the news that my friend Chad and his brother had died in a terrible kayak accident.  Chad was one of the most alive people I’ve ever known; always living in the moment, pushing sports to the extreme, enjoying himself.  Then one day, gone.  Life is fragile.   A little over a week ago, we were shocked by Bob Runkle’s death, after he’d come home from the hospital two days earlier.  Life is short.

Because life is fragile and uncertain, planning for tomorrow is critical.  You might think James is against planning for the future, but he actually tells us to plan for tomorrow according to God’s will.  In other words, planning for the future isn’t up to us; it requires us to listen to God’s will and plan accordingly.

Planning for future financial health according to God’s will is important, because we often allow our pleasure addictions to drive our financial decisions.  By “pleasure addictions” I’m talking about anything we seek, apart from God, to meet our needs or solve our problems.  Anything.  This includes the obviously bad, like drugs and alcohol, but it also includes “neutral” or “good” things like our relationships, exercise, and spending.  Yes, spending can be as much of an addiction as drugs and alcohol.

In Luke 12:16-21, Jesus tells the story of a foolish man who has been blessed with financial abundance.   And he 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."

This guy is blessed, but he doesn’t realize that it was God who gave him the ability to make wealth.  So he thinks, “I’ll build more barns so I can accumulate more.” He is working toward building a secure retirement without ever involving God in the planning.  The results are disastrous.  We have to continue to ask ourselves: do my future plans and financial strategies align with God’s word and God’s will?

There are times when we know what we’re supposed to do, but we fail to act. And in every aspect of life, we need to activate the fundamental life principles of sowing and reaping.

In Galatians 6:7-8, Paul writes this: Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.  If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

If we live our lives to satisfy our pleasures, we are sowing selfishness, and we will reap a harvest of destruction.  But when we live to please God, we are sowing to the Spirit, and we will reap eternal life.  When many of us think about eternal life, we think about Heaven, but it’s really more than just Heaven. Eternity has no beginning or end; it’s already started.

Paul goes on to say this: Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6:9-10).  Did you catch that Paul guaranteed a harvest?  You reap what you sow.  Did any of you farmers plant corn, hoping to harvest soybeans?  How ridiculous is that? 

In our lives, all of our attitudes and actions are the seeds we sow. This is true in our financial lives as well.  A good seed we can sow is integrity. Another seed to sow is attention to detail.  Paying attention to little details can make a huge difference when it comes to working toward financial health.  Little purchases add up to big dollars, and little savings add up to big savings.  You can also sow the seed of initiative, stepping out and doing what needs to be done when it needs done – not waiting until it’s done to you or for you. In our current economy, nobody wants to take financial risks, but the Bible tells us that the seed that is left on the shelf dries up.  The servant who simply buried his money was punished and what he had was taken from him.  This is an important time to be planting seeds, not burying our money.

A 2nd life principle of sowing and reaping is that you determine the size of the harvest at the time of planting.  The Bible puts it this way: The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  2 Corinthians 9:6. 

Do you sow bountifully or sparingly when it comes to giving to God?   Jesus promises that as you give, so will it be given back to you.  In Luke 6:38, we read Jesus’ words: “Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Do you sow bountifully or sparingly when it comes to investing for the future?  Most people like to talk about retirement; I think of retirement in Tom Keene terms; it’s not about retiring; it’s about transitioning into the next step of life that God has in store for us.  God didn’t create us to quit. He created us to keep moving forward in our calling.  So we have to invest something for the future.  Are you taking advantage of every opportunity?  Matching funds for your 401(k)? Pre-tax giving?  If you don’t take advantage of this benefit, you’re leaving money on the table.  A friend of mine didn’t realize that he was giving above the minimum – it allowed him to retire from pulpit ministry five years ahead of schedule and move into the next step of God’s call for his life.  The size of the harvest is determined at the time of planting.

If you’re using the 10-10-80 formula, as you grow in discipline and even in income, you’ll be able to increase the first two categories.  In tough economic times, it can be tempting to decrease the amounts you give and save in order to increase the amount you have for expenses, but that just demonstrates a lack of trust in God’s provision. Instead, how might we sacrifice in the area of personal expenses in order to continue to save and give, trusting God to meet our needs.  Remember that nothing good comes without sacrifice.  Even our salvation came at the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  We can’t expect to coast our way to success; that’s why we need to set future goals.

Remember that as you set future goals and move toward them, you are determining the size of the harvest at the time of planting, and not only will you determine the size of the harvest, but you will reap more than you sow.

When Jesus told the parable of the sower, Jesus said, Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:8). An example of this is the ministry of Ginghamsburg UMC, where they don’t just collect money to send food to Darfur; they work to create sustainable agricultural programs in Sudan.  Simply feeding people creates consumers, but empowering farmers empowers creators. I had a fraternity brother we called the “complete consumer” because it didn’t seem that he ever gave anything back to society.  But when we become creators as well, we bless others, reaping more than we sow.

When you sow to debt, you reap more debt. For example, take a $5560 charge with a 18%, interest rate.  The credit card company guarantees themselves 18% of what you continue to owe, so pay $1000/year just in interest on an amount that has a minimum payment of $80/month.  If you’re only paying the minimum, at the end of forty years, you will still owe the initial amount.  You went to Disney forty years ago, and you still haven’t paid for it! You have paid $1000/year to the credit card company – they’ve made $40,000 off you! 

What if, instead of paying $80/month to the credit card company, you invested it at 12% interest?  Because of the miracle of compound interest, in that forty years, you would have made roughly $950,000.  Talk about reaping more than you sow!  You might be saying, “Wait – the stock market is down, and I lost everything.” No, you didn’t lose everything.  If you didn’t cash in, you haven’t lost anything; it’s only on paper.  Since the 1800s, the market has always come back – it seems to fluctuate every five years. So if you haven’t cashed in, you’re just experiencing one of those fluctuations. I do want to advise you that it is a good idea to seek out the advice of a wide investment consultant when it comes to investing your money.

Now, for those of you who farm, this won’t come as a shock, but let me say it anyway.  The harvest comes in a later season than the sowing. When the farmers are in the fields in the Spring, they don’t just come out the next week hoping to harvest.  And this is true of our lives as well.  If we want to experience the maximum harvest, we have to wait patiently.  Remember Galatians 6:9, where Paul encourages us to not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

The only way to experience financial health is to stay the course, day by day, month by month.  It’s not so different from running a marathon; last week when I was running, there were times when it got really hard, and had I not resolved to keep running, I probably would have quit.  But the running metaphor breaks down really quickly, because in running, it’s all about being mentally and physically strong and running a smart race.  And true, we are responsible for the work of sowing, but God is responsible for the harvest.  Much like a farmer, whose job is to sow the seeds and tend to the crops, yet is not the one who brings a plant out of the seed, our job is to make the plan and follow through, to do the hard work there, and God will bring the harvest.

I want to finish with something concrete that you can do to help you sow the right kind of financial seeds.  Create a financial plan.  This is a good time for you to take notes. 



Financial Plan How-To
(from Upside Living in a Downside Economy by Michael Slaughter)

First: Do a financial analysis. List on paper all your debt.  Including your house, your car, your bills (including your credit card bills!).  That number might be frightening, but don’t panic!  God is bigger! 

Then list all your assets. List all your bank account balances, investments, possessions, and insurance.

Now subtract the debts from the assets to determine your “net worth” – to give you a picture of where you are financially and to help you determine areas where adjustments need to be made.

Second: Begin an aggressive program of debt reduction. This requires an intentional plan, perhaps a three, five, seven, or a ten-year plan.  This, too, can be daunting, but seeing the plan can help you also see the light at the end of the tunnel.  If you’ve got creditors pounding on your door, send them a copy of your plan.  What they really want is their money, and if you’ve got a plan, that shows your good faith – that you’re going to pay them! 

Pay off smaller debts first – it gives a great sense of accomplishment to see those “paid in full” statements.  Then build that momentum by continuing to pay that amount to the next debt – for example, when we had two car payments, we finished up the smaller payment and then instead of paying the minimum payment on the second car, we applied both that and what we had paid toward the first car. 

A great way to find additional money for paying off debt is to reduce your expenses.  I know I’ve thought about this when I see someone begging for money, yet they’re smoking one cigarette after another.  Quitting smoking would easily save a one-pack-a-day smoker $1300 in one year. Have you ever met someone who is complaining about debt, yet they’re driving a super-expensive gas-guzzler? And living in a house they can’t afford, watching cable TV, checking the internet on their phone, going out to eat, going to ball games, etc. 

If you really take the time to evaluate, most of us have extra spending or extra possessions – did you know that in 1960 there was no such thing as storage, but now 1 in 10 Americans rents a storage unit – 2.35 billion square feet of storage. 

Additionally, you can earn additional income.  Consider the skills you have that might be marketable, and put them to work!

Third, create an emergency fund. Start by saving $1000, and continue saving until you have set aside three months’ worth of income.

Fourth, be sure you have adequate life insurance. If you’re a parent, make sure you have adequate insurance to cover your children’s well-being in the event of a catastrophe.  Remember that your insurance needs will change as your financial needs and goals change.

Fifth, write a will. If you don’t have a will and die, the state will divide your assets among your surviving heirs as they see fit after taking out probate costs, state inheritance taxes, and federal inheritance taxes.  That’s just not good stewardship! Would you rather spend a couple hundred dollars in attorney costs, or have several times that amount in court costs deducted from your estate before your assets are distributed?  A simple will can avoid these problems.

Sixth, look at your giving.  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21). It’s important to prayerfully identify the gap between what you are currently giving and what God wants to give through you.  Then you must determine how to close that gap.  When the first thing we do with anything that comes through our hands is give a portion to God, we’re demonstrating that our trust is in Him, not in ourselves. 

If you’re wondering what “giving to God” is, it requires two things: first, it must honor God by making God more visible.  Second, it will be a blessing to other people.

Finally, create a budget. Then stick to the budget!  The 10-10-80 plan can be helpful – the first 10% to God, the next 10% to savings, and the last 80% to live on. God calls us to step out of our comfort zone and to grow in our giving.   God calls us to live by the Holy Spirit, which is always about doing the right thing rather than the easy thing.  Because Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.   But as we follow God, sowing to the Spirit, God promises to bless us with an eternal harvest.

*Please note that the inspiration and the outline for this message are derived from Michael Slaughter's book Upside Living in a Downside Economy, 2009 Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rebalancing Life Investments

*see below for a note on source
James 4:7-10

There is an economic cloud hovering over us these days, yet there is a silver lining to this cloud: economic challenges cause us to re-examine our financial priorities and practices and rebalance our life investments.  If we’re willing, hard times can help us figure out what is really important in all of life and how to invest more wisely in our relationships, careers, and purpose, as well as our finances. Godly wisdom from the Proverbs indicates that God cares about financial matters. 

Proverbs 28:19: He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.
Proverbs 13:11 Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow.
Proverbs 22:26-27 Do not be a man who strikes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you.
Psalm 37:21 The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously.

God cares about the way we deal with money.  But it also shows that when we have right priorities and commit to right actions, we’re going to realize right results.  This is true in money management, but it’s also a true formula for rebalancing our life investments.

James 4 gives us helpful insights that we relate to the concept of right priorities.  If we want right priorities, we have to start by submitting ourselves to God.  “Submit yourselves, then, to God.” Submission runs contrary to our culture.  Our culture would have us listen and make our own decision or maybe bring it to a vote.  Submission to God is obeying him, putting our own agenda aside, deferring to Him.  When we submit ourselves to God, we surrender our practices to God’s practices and we elevate God’s priorities over ours.

James continues by saying “resist the devil and he will flee from you.”  There’s a reason why James put these two statements together.  Submitting to God always invites the devil’s attacks.  When we rely on our own strength and elevate our own priorities, Satan doesn’t need to put pressure on us, but when we follow Jesus with all our hearts, the devil attacks. So we are called to actively resist the devil.  In Ephesians 6:10-18, we read about the Armor of God.  The whole purpose of the Armor of God is to enable the Christian to stand.

Ephesians 6:11: Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
Ephesians 6:13: 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.
Ephesians 6:14: Stand firm then…

Paul uses the word “stand” four times in four verses… to make sure that we understand clearly what he was saying!  As Christians, we are to stand firm against the devil.  James understood this: this the way to defeat him every time.  And if we will draw near to God, he will draw near to us.

The problem, as James acknowledges, is that we often end up full of doubt, and, as such, we are double-minded.  James tells us that the double-minded should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.  So he calls us to belief – to act in faith, to rebalance our priorities, to submit to God, resist evil, and repent.

In our current economy, everyone has been talking about money. Our nation is going through a time of economic rebalancing, where people have been evaluating what is most important.  As people haven’t had as much money to spend, we have had to prioritize what we need and what we really only want.  I believe our nation is in a time of spiritual rebalancing as well.  While we evaluate our financial investments, our budgets, and our bank accounts, we need to evaluate, examine, and rebalance our life investments as well.  To do this, we have to humble ourselves before God and take His Word seriously.

“The worst kind of fool is the person who believes that God exists but who lives as if God’s directives are not to be taken seriously.” – Michael Slaughter: Upside Living in a Downside Economy. This is the “double-minded” person James refers to, trying to mesh two mutually exclusive worldviews: hedonism and Christianity cannot fit together.  Remember hedonism, the philosophy that says pleasure is the only ultimate good?  Though this philosophy has been around a long time, these days it is one of the most dominant worldviews in our culture.  We often understand it as materialism, where my needs and my wants are at the center of everything that I do. 
I do what I want.  I go where I want to go.  I buy what I want to buy.  And if I have anything left over, I’ll probably give something to God and to others, but I am the ultimate decision-maker.  A prime example of materialistic hedonism is Christmas.  Think of Christmas morning, with a huge pile of presents around a brilliantly decorated tree.  You’ve heard it many times from this stage that Christmas is not our birthday; it’s Jesus’ birthday.  We should celebrate our birthdays on our birthdays, but we should do what honors Jesus on His birthday.  Yet, even in spite of all of our Christ-centered Christmas celebrations, we often miss the real meaning of Christmas and celebrate materialistic hedonism in our self-centered parties and actions.

If you don’t think you’re double-minded, ask yourself how you celebrated Christmas.  We hold tightly to the materialistic worldview of our culture while professing a Kingdom of God worldview with our mouths.  When we say yes to Jesus, we commit to obey Him in everything. We gain His values, His worldview, and His priorities.  And when that happens, it makes Satan furious.  He goes straight to the offensive against us.

This is what happened to Jesus in the wilderness.  If you look in Matthew 4, we see Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  Have you ever noticed that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus to a place where He would be tempted?  I believe that we are often in a similar position; when we’re led by the Holy Spirit, Satan tempts us.

After fasting for forty days, Jesus was hungry, and Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread. The temptation is to spend in response to our appetite – to do with our money what we feel will satisfy our hunger at the moment.  This is why grocery stores have coolers of pop and racks of candy, gum, and mints at the check-out.  If you have pop, candy, and gum on your shopping list, that’s fine – you probably already went down those aisles and found what you wanted – at a much lower price.  So you waste money on something that only satisfies a craving. The first temptation is always to spend out of your appetite, not out of your need.

After this, the devil took Jesus to the highest place in Jerusalem and tempted him to jump off, telling Jesus, “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.  For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6)  Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7)   Here’s how this applies to us: we continue to spend our money unwisely and expect God to deliver us from our poor choices.  Jesus was wise enough to know that you don’t put the Lord to the test.  So when God gives us a command about how to use our money, we can’t just ignore it and expect God to deliver us from our own bad decisions.

The devil’s tested Jesus a third time by leading Him up to a high place and showing Him all the kingdoms of the world. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:9) Jesus’ reply, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Matthew 4:10b). This is a clear reminder to us that we need to submit every aspect of our lives to God.  To say it all another way, we have to stand firm in our commitment to worship God only, to follow God’s will and resist temptation. When we do, the devil will flee from us.  And when we draw near to God, he will draw near to us.

What it comes down to is this: anything less than full submission to God’s will is unacceptable for the Christian. This includes everything.  Our families, our jobs, our finances, our free time, even what we do when nobody is looking.  We have to have attitudes that say, “God, I want what You want for me, and with Your strength and Your power, I will work at it until my will is subjected to Yours.”  We choose to submit to God’s will.  This is rebalancing life’s priorities, and the result is right priorities!

Now that we’re together on right priorities, let’s get to Right Actions.  James tells us that right priorities are worthless without right actions.  Today we’re going to look at seven actions that will help lead us to right results in our financial lives.

Do the first right thing: planned giving to God.  In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul writes this: On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up… This applies to us as well.  The first thing we should do with our money is plan our giving to God.  This is a great way for us to acknowledge God’s ownership over everything. Psalm 89:11: The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it. None of this is ours.  It’s all God’s.  So when we “give back” to God, we are acknowledging His ownership over all of it and are putting our trust in Him for provision.  Jesus tells us to Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).  He will supply our every need, but we cannot serve both God and money.  In Malachi 3:8, God accuses His people of robbing Him.  “How do we rob you?” “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me.  Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.  Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”
Here’s the thing: God actually tells us to test him by tithing.  He promises that if we tithe, there won’t be enough room to store the blessings he has for us.  Some of you are probably thinking, “Of course he says that – he’s the pastor of a church where finances are an issue.” Yes, that’s true, and there’s so much more we could be doing if we had the money for it.  But that’s not why I say this. If you think that this is all about us making budget, you couldn’t be more off the mark.  In fact, if that’s what you’re thinking, I’ll challenge you to do this: tithe to Millersport Covenant Church or another church, and see what God does for you.  But understand this: if you don’t tithe, you don’t have any right to complain that God isn’t taking care of you.  You’re simply not letting Him.  The promise is only to those who trust God enough to give to God as He has commanded.
The second “right action” is seeking wise counsel through an accountability group or counselor. Most of us never learned how to deal with money except through the school of hard knocks.  Maybe you started out dirt poor and you figured out that you just had to hold on to your money.  Or maybe you always had money and when the economy tanked you had to figure out on your own how to navigate the new reality.  Whatever the case, maybe you need to check out Dave Ramsey or Crown Financial. Or look around here and find someone who is actually living debt free and ask some advice.  As Proverbs 15:22 says, Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.

Next, write or rework a budget. Regardless of what our government thinks, you can’t spend what you don’t have. With a budget, you are making a commitment to know where your money goes and thereby spend less than what you make.  If you don’t have a budget, you can create a simple budget – one simple way is the 10-10-80 formula.  The first 10% goes to God, as we’ve already discussed.  The next 10% you invest for your future.  And you live on the last 80%.

Or you can use the envelope method.  Figure out all your expenses and make an envelope for them.  At the beginning of the month, put the amount in each envelope, and when the money is gone, it’s gone!  Jonathan uses this method – though his financial needs are a little more simple than most of the rest of ours, it’s a good way for him to learn how to handle his finances. He has three “envelopes”: his offering envelope, his bank, and his wallet.  And he knows that he can’t spend what isn’t in his wallet.

We do this for our savings: we are saving for a new-to-us vehicle, knowing that the ones we have won’t last forever.  And we’d rather pay cash for a vehicle than get taken for a ride with finance charges and interest.  We’re also saving toward a vacation – we love to travel, but we know that until we have the money, we’re grounded.

Understand that budgets constantly need reworked, especially when you find charges that you weren’t anticipating, and an emergency account is important to have as well.

Once you have your budget worked out, perform plastic surgery and reduce your debt. By “plastic surgery” I mean cutting up your credit cards.  It’s a commitment to getting rid of debt.  Remember that debt is using the present and future to pay for the past. The Bible tells us we shouldn’t go into debt!  Proverbs 22:7 tells us The rich rule over the poor, an the borrower is the slave of the lender.  Jesus died to give you deliverance, but as long as you owe someone, you will always be their slave.  Plastic surgery is getting rid of every card you don’t need. Some people have a credit card for business expenses or for online purchases.  If that’s you, then you need to make sure that you pay the balance every month.  If you can’t do that, you need to cut up those cards as well!  Here’s the scary truth: credit can be addicting.  If you’re an alcoholic in recovery, the last thing you want is to have alcohol sitting around your house.  If you have trouble with eating too much candy, you don’t want to keep the candy jar sitting on your desk. And if you have trouble with overspending, you don’t need to keep a credit card around. 

Some people argue that they need one for emergencies.  What constitutes an “emergency”? For true emergencies we should have “emergency accounts” that we’ve saved up for.  Who wants to pay interest on an emergency?  Talk about adding insult to injury!

As you’ve cutting up your credit cards, make sure to call the company and cancel them.  But be strong as they will try to “win you back” with them as they won’t want to take “no” for an answer.  Then pay back your debt – either working on the smallest debt first or tackling the one with the largest interest rate. 

Now that you’ve undergone plastic surgery, it’s time to set future goals and practice delayed gratification.  Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. The Bible also tells us that Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1). When we use plastic, we’re not practicing faith in God’s word.  We’re saying, “I don’t want to wait for future blessings; I want them now!” But a powerful discipline of faith is practicing delayed gratification.  That means working now for a later reward.  This is an important aspect to building character, because of the discipline it requires.  If we can’t practice delayed gratification in our finances, it’s highly unlikely that we will be able to practice it anywhere else in our lives.

And here’s another thing: sometimes those things we just have to have now… we find out that we don’t really need them after all.  Why do you think time-share groups and car salespeople work on the “I can only give you this deal now” idea?  Because they know if you go home and think it over, you’ll realize that it might not be such a good idea.  If you run the numbers at home, they might not work out like “their” guy makes them seem.

One way to practice delayed gratification is to nurture an attitude of gratitude.  Have you ever been around someone who is just grateful for everything? This week I was visiting someone who has every reason to complain.  But instead of complaining, she was so grateful for what God has done in her life.  The Apostle Paul wrote: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Philippians 4:11-12.  Do you want to know what his secret was? I can do all things through Him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13).
It can be easy to get negative, but what would our lives look like if we took every opportunity to thank God for everything? 

Finally, Pray, Pray, Pray.  This is the most important right action you can take.  In James 4:8, James writes Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.  That’s a promise.  If you come close to God, he will do the same for you.  When I was in high school, once I was at my locker, “talking” to my friend Jacki.  But really I was looking past her, seeing who else was in the hallway.  She called me to the carpet – “I’m talking to you, but you aren’t paying attention!” Friends, that’s not multi-tasking.  And prayer isn’t just “checking in” with God, all the while paying attention to everything else – it’s giving him all our energy and attention.
Immediately after James tells us to draw near to God, he continues this way: Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.

This is language of repentance.  When we come near to God, we realize how far from him we have been, and that draws us to repentance.  He calls us to ask of ourselves: Do my priorities match God’s priorities? Have I submitted fully to His will? As we put ourselves in full submission to God, James 4:10 comes into play. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.  We can’t just rely on ourselves; prayer appeals to our loving Father who wants nothing more than to give us good and perfect gifts.

Right priorities + right actions = right results.  When we combine right priorities, which are God’s priorities, with right actions, we will see positive results.  But just knowing this won’t help: Faith without works is dead.  So if we want results, I challenge you to evaluate your priorities.  Do yours match with God’s? And where might you need to make adjustments? Which of the seven right actions might you need work on?  This isn’t a simple challenge, but it will bring results!  Ask God to give you the strength to keep going until He gives you the desired goals.

*Please note that the inspiration and the outline for this message are derived from Michael Slaughter's book Upside Living in a Downside Economy, 2009 Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN.