September 28, 2015

September 27, 2015 - Jeremiah 11:18-20

Theme: Get the Complete Picture of God  

Take a moment and think about someone important in your life; someone you know well. It doesn’t matter whether this particular individual is a friend or foe, it’s probably hard to describe him or her in just one word. That’s because the more you learn about someone the more layers you see about who they are. We tend to make quick, analyzed judgments and decisions about people, but usually only those that we don’t know very well. The more time you spend with a person, the more you see who they are, and beneath the surface everyone is multi-faceted.

For example, when you read a good book you may be introduced immediately to a character but you never truly know them until you finish the story. Have you ever finished a book and had a different feeling about a character than you initially had at the beginning? This is because you learn more you start to understand things that weren’t apparent at the start. Sometimes the more you know about someone the harder it can be to define who they are or fully describe how you feel about them. They become greater than just the passing details you once knew. 

This is where we often see our relationship with God. We know a lot about God and the Bible tells us a lot. On top of that God is infinite and eternal, and we’ll never fully understand or know Him while we’re in this sinful world. The Bible contains more than enough information about God to give us conflicted feelings about how to describe who He is. It’s hard to narrow down just one thought or feeling about God because there is so much to Him. But it’s always necessary that we understand the complete picture of who God is. If we divide Him into bits and pieces here and there, we will struggle in our relationship with Him.

In our text for today, Jeremiah talks about several attributes of God, but he trusts in them with one understanding. We read from his record, chapter 11 verses 18-20: The LORD made it known to me and I knew; then you showed me their deeds. 19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, "Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more." 20 But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause.

These distressing words came about 600 years before Jesus was born. Jeremiah was in the thick of his ministry to the southern tribes of Israel and was not receiving much support. In fact, he was under threat of death. The Lord commanded Jeremiah to tell the people a number of times that they needed to obey the Lord’s Word and follow the dictates of His covenant with them. But the people would not listen. Jeremiah recorded God’s description of this in verse 8: “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart. Therefore I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not.”

Not only had the people turned their back on Jehovah, they were now threatening to kill His prophet. These people were led by men from Anathoth, which was Jeremiah’s hometown. They were telling Jeremiah to be quiet and complaining about his message of repentance. We’re told how God allowed Jeremiah to see and understand these things and what the people were plotting against him. But even with this knowledge, Jeremiah was powerless against this revolt on his own. With the Lord’s revelation also came an opportunity for Jeremiah to trust by faith, and that’s exactly what he did, and he showed it through this confession: “But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause.”

This is where we start to have troubles in understanding the many dimensions of who God is. It seems to be against the principles of Christianity to support vengeance and judgment. After all, those are two aspects of human nature that have caused a lot of sin and heartache throughout history. Why would God display these attributes if He is holy? How could He since He is also the one who calls for to “love your neighbor as yourself,” “to avoid everything evil,” “and to love and pray for your enemies.”

To many this is a blatant contradiction in the person of God and Christian theology. For others it represents a supposed difference between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus Christ. And for some, including ourselves, it can be an example of the difficulty we have in knowing and perceiving God. The root of all of these misunderstandings comes from the same place – when we impose our own way of thinking upon God. When we hear the words “vengeance” and “judgment” we automatically think of the human side of these attributes. Vengeance fueled by hatred comes to mind. Judgment motivated by selfishness permeates our thinking. We think of all the times these things have entered our hearts and minds and the wicked thoughts that gave birth to them. We recall the times when we saw others practice these sins in wickedness and especially the many times we were on the receiving end of them.

Those are our experiences with vengeance and judgment and other attitudes like them. Another one that comes up in the Old Testament is jealousy. In several passages God calls himself a “jealous God” and uses that as a basis for His interactions with mankind. How can that possibly be appropriate? We’re taught from early on that jealousy is one the worst things to feel toward others and display in our lives. And yet, our God gets to be jealous? Therein lies the fundamental misunderstanding in projecting our views and opinions upon God’s inspired Word and upon His nature. When God is described by human words, there is always a limitation in the way we can understand Him. No words can fully express or explain who He is. But what we do know is that God is not the same and sinful men and women.  

In Romans chapter 12 Paul quotes the book of Deuteronomy when talking about the sin of vengeance. He says, Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:19)." This shows us that there must be a difference between the vengeance we show and the vengeance that God shows. There must be a difference or God is a liar. We know deep down what that difference is. The problem is that we, and the world, are often too scared or defiant to be honest about it. The difference is our sin.

Think about how Jeremiah described Jehovah in His confession. Before he even got to the Lord’s vengeance he said this, “But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind…” There we have two aspects that separate our actions from God’s. Our motivations and deeds are thoroughly laced with sin. Every thought and expression is corrupted by sin, so much so that we can never complete God’s holy requirements on our own. The many times that Jesus pointed out God’s standards to others were ultimately painful reminders that we are helpless on our own. We need God’s intervention. He alone is righteous. That is the most defining quality about His nature and it stands in utter contrast to who we are.

God is also the one who “tests the heart and mind.” All of His dealings with people have the singular goal of bringing them closer to Him. One of the amazing aspects of this is that God is able to work through the effects of sin to build us up as stronger Christians. When He tests the heart and mind He is presenting an opportunity for us to be blessed through a difficult circumstance. Often those circumstances involve a sin that either we or someone else has brought into our lives. Without God’s ability to test us through these negative effects there could never be a positive outcome from sin. Keep in mind, sin itself is never positive and God never wants anyone to sin. But through His power and grace He is able to refine us in our faith, even when sin has taken place. That is nothing short of an amazing example of God’s care for His children, and also how His actions are different than ours.   

Paul put it this way when speaking to the Corinthians, No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13). Satan is the sole author of deception and temptation. When temptations come upon us, they come from Satan. But God always provides an escape plan, not just so that we can avoid danger but so that we can come out stronger through having experienced it.

When it comes to understanding God, it is absolutely necessary that we remember these aspects about His nature, especially when we see attributes like vengeance and jealousy that can create confusion. Just like in any relationship, to know God as best we can we have to keep in mind everything that He is. Separating what the Bible says about God, or isolating one attribute in contrast to others, will only give us an incomplete picture; and ultimately it’s unfair for us to do this with God. None of us would like it if others only picked out one or two of our characteristics and always defined us according to these things. That’s because we are much more than what we appear to be on the surface. If, on top of this, they also blatantly misrepresented our attributes we would be even more outraged. The same principles apply in an even greater way to God. Yet, there are many in the world who do this very thing with God. They isolate the seemingly disconcerting qualities of God and blatantly misrepresent them on top of it. Who God is for them and how they describe Him to others then becomes false and skewed. 
We certainly have become guilty of this in our lives too, even if not to the same degree as others. At times, we have focused too much on God’s righteous judgment and vengeance while ignoring His grace. At other times, we have allowed ourselves to become discouraged because we forget that God has all control and a plan for our lives. At times we have discredited His care of our lives and the ability He has to turn momentary events of pain into lasting examples if His love.

This is the lesson we see in this single event from Jeremiah’s life. What we are impressed with is the difference that faith makes. Jeremiah was met with the unbelief of his fellow countrymen. They turned from God because they didn’t like God’s message to them. They wanted to stay comfortable in their sins and unbelief. God, in His love, wanted to break them free from this bondage through repentance. The people focused only on what they considered to be the oppressive attributes of God. The law and requirements that He demanded in their lives. They either forgot or choose to ignore that qualities behind these attributes and the reasons why God would be so demanding. Every moment of discouragement through the law was meant to create a void only filled by the eternal encouragement of the gospel. But if you only focus on one, you miss out on the importance of the other.

Jeremiah had every opportunity to respond to his adversities in the same way. In fact, he had even more reason according to human standards. He was God’s just prophet. He didn’t indulge in idolatry like the people did. He was faithful to Jehovah and His Word. Why would God allow him to be subjected to persecution and death? It would have been easy for Jeremiah to complain under such circumstances; surely we have done worse under far less.

But what we see from Jeremiah is the response of faith in God. He focuses on all of God’s attributes. He doesn’t minimize God or force God into his own definition of who He should be. With all honesty, Jeremiah readily admits that God alone is righteous. He has claim to and control of all things because He is the Creator, and the only example of pure holiness. All sinners are subject to God and have no right to complain or resist His will. These things are all true about who God is. He judges and avenges sinful actions because His holy nature demands it. If He didn’t do that He would cease to be God. 

But if this was everything about God, Jeremiah certainly would have been led to complain against Him and reject Him as his fellow citizens did. If this was the sum total of God we too would be led to respond in skepticism and rebellion for God would be nothing more than an all-powerful deity who hated us because of our sin. But faith makes the difference and faith does not come from the law. Faith is not born from the struggle between God and men because of sin. Faith comes from a full understanding of God, from His complete nature. God is not only righteous, just, and demanding. He is loving and compassionate and full of grace.

God has a plan and calling for our lives even when we rebel against His will. God takes vengeance on sin but He does it with a purpose, to keep us protected from sin. And there is ultimately hope with God because He has accomplished that plan of vengeance and not one sinful human had to suffer for it. God’s nature is only fully understood when Christ is known, because Christ was the one who suffered for sin. The vengeance that the Bible talks about from God is indeed holy and right, but it was also thrown upon Jesus as the worthy sacrifice for sins. That’s why Jeremiah could respond with faith, and why you and I can too. Because in Christ we have a complete picture of God’s nature. Perfectly holy, hating sin and pursuing holiness, but also paying for sin freely by grace. No one will ever know God if they don’t know all of those qualities, because Christ is the complete example of God. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

September 21, 2015

September 20, 2015 - James 2:1-5

Theme: There is No Favoritism in Faith
1) In the church among you
2) In the church within you

James 2:1-5 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

A young Christian man was trying to speak up about his faith and share it with others. He was told that he was discriminating against others because he wouldn’t go along with what the popular majority said. He was called judgmental and offensive, told that he was playing favorites; told that those were two things that God, and specifically Jesus, didn’t like. The cries of opposition kept coming stronger and louder. Voices telling him that he wasn’t really a Christian and the Bible tells us not to judge others. Finally, the young man replied and said, “I’m sorry, but if I work too hard at not offending you, I will offend God.” 

We hear these same voices day after day. The accusations of discrimination, favoritism, and judgment are often leveled against Christians who stand humbly on the Word of God. Those who try so adamantly to define our faith for us, and how well we’re following it, are often the ones who know next to nothing about what the Bible really teaches. In truth, the Bible does tell Christians to judge sin, both for themselves and for others. That’s what repentance is, it’s a reminder of judgment. A word like “discrimination” is used to color how we think of proper Christian judgment, as if we’re denying someone’s God-given rights, as if it’s the same as being racist, jealous, or hateful.

Why do these voices bother us so much? Why do they have such an effect on our lives and on the strength of our faith? Don’t act like they don’t. I know how it feels to be ridiculed for what you believe. I watch the same television and scroll down the same pages of internet you do and hear the voices and what they say about the Bible. How they lessen it as if it is some cheap hoax. How they claim superior knowledge while the rest of us are mindless slaves. How they champion the deep desires in my sinful heart and show me a path where these evil things somehow become acceptable.

The voices against our faith are loud, they’re abundant, and they’re influential. Sometimes they come from our closest friends or relatives. Sometimes we see sin in those we trust the most and we learn from them. If mom or dad, uncle or aunt, brother or sister do what I thought was condemned by God it must really not be that bad. Perhaps we just need to loosen the moral reigns of our faith a bit and stop being such uptight Christians. Times are changing, we need to adapt. And the voices like those go on and on, and their effect becomes greater and greater.  

It may not seem like it but the words of our text address those many voices we hear. The Spirit’s point in this chapter is that the Christian faith is not a beauty or popularity contest. Looking good on the outside has no bearing at all on one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of favoritism that God condemns. He doesn’t want us to discriminate when it comes to faith. No matter who you are, the blessing of faith applies to all equally. We don’t have the right to withhold the gift of faith or make others feel as if they’re inadequate to receive it. We are not to build ourselves up against others as if we’re somehow greater or more significant to God. That’s the evil type of judgment. That’s true discrimination. Speaking about sin or defending the truth against error is not the same as denying one access to faith because of appearance.

A call to repentance is not discrimination. Because without repentance, faith dies. So you tell me, who are we favoring when we ignore or become ashamed of Godly repentance? What becomes of our faith when the voices of the world convince us that we don’t need God’s Word or that following it is an evil thing? Like the young man said, there comes a point when if we worry so much about not offending the world, we will offend God. Who do you care about more? The danger of showing favoritism in our faith is indeed a reality and that’s why God chose to address it here. But it’s not the unbelieving world who gets to define what that favoritism is and what it isn’t. God’s has already taken care of that in His Word.  

Part 1

The most obvious place where improper favoritism can exist is in our congregation. This is the example given to us by the Spirit in these words. He brings us the literal example of a synagogue service, which was the Jewish equivalent of our regular Sunday worship. When it comes to expressing our faith in a congregation, there are no varying degrees between Christians of greater wealth and Christians who are poor. There’s always a temptation for us to favor those with greater influence or wealth because we can often gain more in material terms from them.

But God singles this situation out as a warning against following this sinful desire. Faith in Christ is not to be used as a bargaining chip to gain whatever we want, even if it’s done in the name of a Christian congregation. The most obvious reason why is because faith is a free gift from God. None of us had to do anything to earn God’s forgiveness. How dare we make others feel differently? Paul tells of this freedom in Galatians 3:26-27 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Another reason against showing favoritism is that all members of Christ’s Church have value. Paul wrote the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12) and explained that although the Spirit gives different gifts to different people, they are all given from the same Spirit and have the same purpose. Giving people the impression, or saying as much directly, that some people are more valuable than others, or more important, is discrediting the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul stated that it’s like the body saying that because it has ears that can hear, it has no need for eyes that see, or feet that walk. In reality, all parts of the body are important to the overall function of the body. The same is absolutely true in Christ’s body, the Church.

The best way to avoid favoritism in a church is to emphasize Christ’s saving work of redemption. Instead of getting caught up in comparing ourselves with others, or focusing so much on one person’s gifts over another’s, we can zero in on Christ’s grace. When Christ’s grace takes hold of a person’s heart by faith, all the little details about who they are fade away. Paul went on to tell the Galatians that it doesn’t matter if someone is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female when faith in Christ is present. Because God holds up His promise given long before the ailments of favoritism came upon our culture. This promise was that His only begotten Son would be the Savior of the entire world; that people from all nations and cultures would come to the cross and find eternal salvation and God delivered this through Jesus Christ. 

Part 2

It’s obvious that there should be no favoritism of faith in the church among us. But there’s another church that we don’t always think of, and very often favoritism can affect it even more. This is the church in your heart. God calls this church His dwelling place and it’s much more important than where we choose to sit on Sunday mornings. This is the church that Jesus talked about when He preached that the “kingdom of God is at hand and that kingdom is within you (Luke 17:21).”

Before we even begin to learn about the congregation that shares our confession of God’s Word the Holy Spirit is busy establishing God’s sanctuary in our hearts. Faith begins in the heart and wherever faith is present is a home for God. Paul explained this to the Corinthians to show them the serious nature of the sins they were caught in. He wrote to them, “Don't you yourselves know that you are God's sanctuary and that the Spirit of God lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).”

Those with faith in Christ are a church in and of themselves. Faith grants you direct access to God at all times. You need not approach Him in temples and sanctuaries made with human hands. Therefore, as much as you would want to keep this congregation and church building from sin, you should desire it even more for your own heart. Don’t follow the Corinthian’s spiritual blind spot. Recognize your status as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Appreciate your right to be called a child of God and a member of His kingdom today. Because faith in Jesus and from Jesus is in your heart.

Just as much as you should avoid favoritism in the church among you, you should avoid it in the church within you. This kind of favoritism is harder to recognize, though. When it comes to your heart, who comes in and gets the choice seating? As we mentioned earlier, which voices are the ones you heed the most? It’s easy for us to judge the worthiness of what we hear based on who says it and what status they have in the world. It’s no secret that the wealthy and famous are often the most influential in the world. People will flock to listen to celebrities, athletes, or political figures as if they know something we don’t.

But isn’t this also what James is condemning here? Don’t assign value to what a person says just because they are popular or rich. This is extremely important when it comes to the church in your heart. Who gets to preach there every day? Who is allowed to enter the pulpit of your inner being and dispense spiritual knowledge? All too often we allow the high profile voices, the ones that society tells us to listen to, to speak the most to us. But sadly, these are often the voices that reject what God tells us in His Word. We judge the truth of something based solely on how many people believe it and how likeable the person is who says it. We exalt the rich and powerful of the world and give them the best seats in our house. We welcome the twitter feed from celebrities as if it’s pure Gospel and we share in the crude jokes of the ungodly with great regularity and eagerness, beckoning them back again and again to worship in what is really supposed to God’s dwelling.  

Do you see how this favoritism can be a huge problem? If you come to church regularly every Sunday and hear God’s Word that’s a wonderful and beautiful thing. But if every other day of the week you feed yourself spiritual lies in the inner sanctuary of your heart, you will be fighting a losing battle. Sitting at the feet of the modern day moralists and many spiritual leaders in the world can easily destroy the filter that God provides us in His Word. Before you realize what’s happened, you end up looking down on Christ with the disdain as someone unwanted and common. His life-saving message becomes too poor because so many are calling it discriminating, unfair, and judgmental; and we’re listening to them instead of listening to our Savior.  Cast favoritism out of your heart, with as much authority as you would cast it out of this congregation.   

What unfaithful people we are; always running after what seems newer and exciting and popular. So much more willing to listen to the rich and the famous than the poor and the lowly. So willing to make time for our favorite celebrities and to hang on their every word, than to defend the way we learned of salvation. But there’s a reason that Christ prevails against all others. There’s a reason why He alone deserves our complete devotion and favor. There’s a reason that we ought to discard all treasures that detract from Him. That reason is this: For as many times as we forsake Him, for as many times as we block Him out or kick and scream against His will; He is there every time to forgive us.

He is there at all times with His gentle hand of grace, resting it upon our weary heads and comforting us as a father comforts His child. He is faithful in our place, in every moment we are rebellious. He daily encourages us to return to His Word, to tear down the idols in our hearts that have supplanted His throne. And what’s most amazing of all, is that through the still, small voice of His Word, He can block out all of the voices of the world. For all those voices who tell us that we’re unloved, that’s there’s no purpose out there, that Jesus doesn’t care or doesn’t even exist. For all those voices that shout day after day about our mistakes and sins, that want to keep us focused on the problems and pain. For all the voices that beckon us to follow every path but God’s, who almost convince us His gospel is too good to be true. For all those voices, Jesus says to you, “Be still, and know that I am God.” And just like that, everything is quiet, the voices, loud as they are, fade away. And we rest in the peace of our Savior. Amen.

May that peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.

September 15, 2015

September 13, 2015 - Matthew 6:24

Theme: God Demands Your Undivided Attention

“Oh, [Lord] how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way (Psalm 119:97,103-104).”

Our portion of God’s law for meditation today focuses on the 1st commandment, and comes from Matthew 6:24:

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

157 years ago, presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech about the severe problem of slavery in America. His speech is often remembered by a phrase Lincoln used to emphasize his point: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln’s point was that America could not endure if slavery continued to be a polarizing issue. Change was needed to survive.

Most people remember those words from Lincoln’s speech and what they meant. But he wasn’t the first to use that phrase. The idea of a house divided against itself was used much earlier before Lincoln, and for an entirely different purpose. Jesus was the one who first said those words. And when He said them He wasn’t applying them to a blemish on the record of civil society. He spoke them concerning His spiritual work as God. Many at Jesus’ time were accusing Him of receiving power from Satan. If this was the case, it would have verified without question that Jesus was not the Son of God and was not working for God’s will.  

In the face of this serious accusation Jesus simply revealed the contradiction of such a thought. If Jesus really was working for Satan and not God, it would show through what He did. The very fact that Jesus did things in alignment with God’s Word and against Satan’s desires proved that He was from God. Because, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” If Jesus was truly against God’s will, He was contributing to His demise by His teaching and by His works. He would have been destroying the very house that He supposedly was supporting.

The way in which Lincoln used this phrase certainly fit the culture of America at that time. But it shouldn’t overshadow the greater truths that Jesus first revealed through it. Slavery, as witnessed in our nation’s history, is one result of many that come from sin. Jesus addressed the core problem, the corruption of our human nature by sin. We see a similar teaching from Jesus in our verse for today. In it He calls each of us to examine our hearts and test where our spiritual loyalty rests. The essence of the first commandment is that God demands your undivided attention. If you’re trying to serve other masters, your house will fall.

The word “mammon” is taken directly from the Aramaic language in which Jesus spoke these words and it means worshipping money, riches, or possessions. When we think of Jesus highlighting mammon as an idol that can be served over God, it certainly makes sense. In our culture, money and possessions are often the most important things in life for many people. Pursuit of acquiring the best things and the salaries that allow rich lifestyles are common themes in America, probably because America allows the greatest opportunities to achieve these things. But even if you don’t have a lot in life as far as money and possessions go, mammon can still be a problem. There’s a mindset and an attitude that comes along with seeking money and riches above all else. You may not get caught up in everything as much as others, but it can still change your heart from seeking God first. Whatever you desire the most will affect how you manage your time and what you choose to select as priorities. You don’t necessary need to have a fat bank account or a mansion to fall victim to the god of mammon, it can begin in your heart first.

I would say that the heart is where mammon usually affects us the most. Many of us know that money can’t buy happiness and we understand the importance of God in our lives. Most of us are also wise with our money and generous with giving gifts. But we also must remember that it’s not only those who greedily desire to be filthy rich who break the first commandment. Anytime we put something above God in our lives is idolatry. Very often the more you know about God’s Word, the harder it is to be honest about the areas where you’ve fallen short. Yes, we use the Word to examine ourselves and confess our sins, but we can also use our knowledge of the Word in a sinful way to blur the line between right and wrong.

Making excuses for sinful attitudes and stretching the truth to convince others of morality is just as serious as bowing down to a carved image. We all know better than to worship a false god, but are we always honest about the deeper attitudes and feelings in our hearts? Putting our money and possessions above God can be a hard sin to be honest about. For example, there’s nothing wrong with working hard to support yourself or your family and putting in a lot of time to be good at what you do. God expects as much from a Christian who seeks to bring Him glory in all that he or she does. But what about when your job keeps you from church? What do you do when you have to work on Sunday and you’re not getting that weekly day of rest that God commands? Are you able to recognize the point when your career and job has become more important than God? Not everyone who works on weekends is bowing down to mammon, but it can happen easily and it can be hard to be honest about it when it does. Your job is important, but it’s not more important than God.

Because it is a good thing to work hard and to have a good job, it’s often used an excuse for missed time with God and His Word. Be honest with yourself right now and think about how often you’ve used the excuse of busyness or other responsibilities when you’ve had opportunities to hear and study God’s Word. And think also about how often you use this excuse. That could be an indicator of the effect that mammon has on your life.

Perhaps at this point you might be thinking, “Pastor, you’re being too harsh. I need to support my family, I need to make sacrifices for my job, and I need to make time for my relationships outside of work too. Sometimes there’s just too much going on! Plus, it’s easy for to stand up there and talk about studying the Word, you get to do that for your job, I don’t have that luxury.” It’s true that the more responsibilities you have the harder it will be to properly prioritize everything. It’s also true that a pastor has the benefit of being around the Word of God often. But that blessing can lead to problems if not properly understood. One of the greatest dangers I have as a pastor stems directly from being around God’s Word a lot. It’s very easy for me to look at my time in the Word as a purely academic process that’s simply part of my job. With that attitude studying the Word of God becomes more of a chore and obligation, rather than something I desire to do for my personal relationship with God. Each week I have the command from God to make time in His Word for my own spiritual life, on top of what I do for the congregation. That is difficult to do and I fail often; but that’s what the first commandment demands of me.

No matter which way you look at it, God never says that personal or professional busyness is a valid excuse for failing to find time with Him. There will be certain times that where no matter how hard you try to make it to church, Bible study, or devotion, it won’t work out. But if you plan your time the right way, that will almost never happen because you won’t be put in those situations where you have to decide between one or the other.    

It may not seem like a big deal if you miss time with God here and there. Maybe in the end it won’t really change what you believe. But any missed opportunity, especially when there’s not a good reason for it, creates a division. Jesus warned, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Take these words to heart when you think of your obligations in the first commandment. Once a division is created, it will widen unless you fix it. So, yes it’s true that missed time with God is not so big of a deal when isolated on its own. A Sunday here or there is not going to destroy your faith.

But the question is, what precedent are setting, both for yourself and for others? If you convince yourself once that your job or whatever event you’ve been looking forward to is important enough to displace your time in God’s Word, what will happen the next time you’re confronted with the same situation? When others see you putting matters of finances and employment ahead of God, what message will they get from that? How serious will they take God’s first command? But when you make it clear, both for yourself for those that learn from you, that time with God comes first no matter what, your spiritual house becomes stronger, not divided. In both cases, habits are developed and once established, they grow – in whatever direction they’re headed. Don’t allow mammon to dictate the direction of your spiritual life. God’s standard is very clear, He is to come above all other things.

There’s no denying that we’ve failed in this regard many times. And this is only one facet of the first commandment; mammon is not the only thing that can get in the way of God. So, what do we do? When confronted with our misplaced priorities and the fact that we’ve allowed money and possessions to so often trump God’s Word, how can we change?

The only thing that can change you is to know that you are forgiven. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all you who weary and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” Who doesn’t want rest when it comes to the daily grind of a busy life? But the rest that Jesus offers is spiritual. The confidence and good cheer that comes with knowing that your sins are taken away and you have a fresh life with God. But forgiveness doesn’t mean anything to those who don’t need it. If you can’t recognize the ways that idolatry has invaded your life, especially through your job and possessions, the promise of sins forgiven will go in one ear and out the other. No change will happen.  

Along with recognition and repentance of sins comes a healthy test of your life to see what you can do differently so as not fall into the same trap again. Repentance is meaningless if you confess your sins in one breath yet have no intention of correcting the attitude or thought which first led to the sin. When it comes to mammon, perhaps you and your family need to have a serious conversation about what’s keeping you from hearing and studying God’s Word consistently. Perhaps you need to take time to reevaluate your dedication to God and willingness to serve Him. And when you isolate the cause, work on changing it.

You don’t have to do it alone. Christ says that whatever you ask in prayer in His name, He can accomplish it for you. You have a fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters that are going through the same struggles, and they can and should be ready to step up and lend helpful aid or advice. God has put me into your life to aid and assist you in staying connected to His Word, and I am always happy to help. And in that Word you have direct access to Christ whenever you need it. What else could you want for change? You simply have to use it like God wants you to.

No one wants to be a member of a divided church and no one wants to be a divided individual. If you’re struggling with keeping the first commandment because of time management or misplaced priorities, you’re not alone. Don’t get discouraged. God’s command is a lot simpler than you think. But for us who know that command well, we need to ask the tough questions to get to the root of the problem. If you’re worshipping an idol, the solution is clear, stop doing it. But for the dedicated and sincere Christian who is struggling to understand where idolatry has entered, you need to dig deeper.

If you find that your job or possessions are keeping you from God, are you willing to follow God above all else? Perhaps that solution means seeking a new job or reorganizing your schedule so that you don’t have to be divided about where to spend your time. That’s a tough thing to examine and even tougher to change. If you see a fellow Christian struggling with these things, are they important enough for you to lend a helping hand or an attentive ear? It takes courage to put yourself out there in order to help others. But with forgiveness in heart and hand, nothing is impossible.

It’s not a coincidence that the verses after our text address food, clothing, possessions, and priorities. Right after teaching the first commandment and warning about the danger of mammon, Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:25-26, 33).”

If your job, possessions, money, time management, or anything else is taking a higher priority than your relationship with God are you willing to part with those things? Are you willing to follow the change that comes through the good news of forgiveness in Christ? You don’t have to worry, no matter how difficult it seems. God promises that whenever you seek His righteousness above all else, and that’s the kind of righteousness that only comes by faith in Christ, everything will be fine. It’s there in the words, all you have to do is listen and trust Christ by faith, faith that changes your life through the gospel.

May He continue to lead us from division in our heart and souls about whom and what to serve to peace and unity in the Gospel of forgiveness as found only in His Word of truth. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.      

September 8, 2015

September 6, 2015 - John 6:67-69


Having an Eternal Perspective on Life
1) It casts out fear
2) It’s built on faith and confidence 
3) It’s found in Jesus alone

Imagine yourself getting a call from the doctor’s office a few days after a routine visit. You come in and the physician asks you to take a seat. He gets right to the point, you have a life-threatening disease. If you don’t do anything, you’ll pass away in a month or so. There’s no special drug or pill to take care of it. But there is good news, it can be fixed. One small surgery and everything can be taken care of, it’s actually pretty easy. So easy in fact, that the doctor says you can do it yourself. Hopefully at this point, you would speak up and say something to the effect of “huh, you want me to operate on myself?”

“Sure” the doctor says, it’s not hard at all. In fact, I’ll tell you everything you need to know and I’ll write down each step for you on piece of paper, you just follow the instructions. Even more, you can use my scalpel, I’ll provide the medications, and you could even use my facility. But I’m really busy that day so you’re gonna have to do the procedure. At this point, the situation is so preposterous that you get up and start to walk out, you’re not gonna deal with this nonsense. The doctor quick rushes over and stops you and says, “Okay, okay, I get it, that won’t work, you’re right it’s too much for me to ask you to operate on yourself. Tell you what, bring in one of your friends or relatives, you pick, and they can do the procedure.”

Hopefully you never find yourself in that situation and I doubt you will, because it’s quite foolish and ridiculous. No sane physician would expect or even allow a patient to perform a life-altering procedure on himself, even if he wrote it down step-by-step. You can give a person all of the instructions on how to do something. They can know with great certainty the steps that need to be done, they can even memorize them. But it doesn’t mean that they can do it. Having knowledge involves more than just knowing the bare facts. It involves having the right perspective, having experience, and having confidence in what needs to be accomplished. Therefore, you can know how to do something, but it doesn’t mean you can do it.

Sin is a disease that we all suffer from, and we all, if the world lasts long enough, will die from it. God gives us precise instructions in His Word about how to defeat that disease. Think of those instructions as His law, the moral commandments. If you follow those steps you will live. But the problem with this disease is that it also negatively affects our ability to keep the law. Sin continually keeps our works and actions short of God’s holy standard. Therefore we know how to live, but we can’t. 

This is a problem that all people suffer from and so all people choose different remedies to fight this disease. Some choose to mentally ignore it. They believe that if they can put mind over matter, they can get past it. Others spend their entire lives trying to do more good than bad, hoping in the end that the scales will be tipped in their favor. Still some give up entirely, forsake all avenues of help, and just live for today, fully content to believe that death is the absolute end of everything. And many Christians, especially today, are trying the scalpel of God’s and cut sin out of their lives on their own. I’d like to offer the alternative found through Christ, the Great Physician of our souls, who works on them without our help and doesn’t force us to fix ourselves. This eternal perspective on life, comes from John 6:67-69:  

Then Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also want to go away?" 68 But Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 "And we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
These words came at a very critical point in Jesus’ ministry. John 6 opens with the feeding of the 5,000, one the greatest miracles recorded from the life of Jesus. In the wake of such an amazing act of love and care, the people flocked to be with Jesus. As chapter 6 continues, however, it becomes quite apparent that they looked to Jesus only as someone to provide them with the physical needs of life. They clamored for more signs and miracles. They pressed about Him to receive more and more. 

Jesus tempered their fervor by reminding them that true bread comes from the Father in heaven and that this is the bread He was meant to distribute. Though they shouted all the more, “Give us this bread always!”, the message was lost on them. They still were thinking only with their stomachs. This is the point where Jesus delved into the deeper and richer meaning of His ministry. Yes, He was able to help them with their needs but He came for something much greater. He came to gain eternal life for all, and that all who believe in Him would receive that life. But He was the only way. A life with Jesus is a life of self-denial and personal repentance and confession. 

Jesus further elaborated by explaining that this spiritual truth was the meaning behind the feeding of the 5,000. It ultimately was a picture to teach the people that Jesus could provide for the eternal needs of their souls, not just the daily needs of their bodies. He implored them to gain this eternal perspective by believing in Him, not as a worldly leader but as their Savior from sin. Jesus said, “I am the Bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die (John 6:48-50).”

In this one chapter, Jesus gave the people everything they needed. He taught them that He not only knew how to get to heaven, He could actually take them there! He was the way. He was the Bread of Life. All they had to do was eat this bread; that is, believe in Him by faith and they would have eternal life. But it was too much for them to handle. We’re told that many who had once followed Him, left. Many disciples said, “This is difficult teaching, who can accept it?” And so despite the great power and miracles, many left on that day. In what was supposed to be a moment of great clarity and success, the number of followers began to dwindle. 

Part 1

The main culprit here was fear. There wasn’t a gap in Jesus’ theology. His preaching didn’t contain any errors or contradictions. It was the peoples’ fear that led them to their conclusion. Fear of the unknown. Fear of having to trust without seeing. Fear of relying on someone else. Life with God is elusive for people. We don’t know what it feels or looks like by nature. We can’t rely on experience or understanding to achieve it or to know that we have it. It takes trust in Jesus. The people wanted more signs; they didn’t want to trust. They desired more physical proof to keep their spiritual lamps burning. They wanted a little more each time so that they had a reason to keep following Jesus. But when He stopped the miracles and taught, they didn’t want to listen; His simple words of truth were too hard to bear because they were afraid. 

An eternal perspective of faith in Jesus is not hindered by the fears of everyday life. Faith supersedes the minor problems of the world because Jesus has overcome the world. He gives us this greater gift. We don’t have to get hung up on all the fears of our heart or body because our promise from Jesus is better than all that. In another writing John phrased it this way, There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love (1 John 4:18). If you’re following Christ out of fear, you need to reset your spiritual focus. Our faith is one of joy, not torment. Those who know God’s love and forgiveness of their sins have no greater reason to follow Him. 

All who were there that day heard these difficult sayings of Jesus. All were confronted in their minds and hearts about the spiritual dilemma they were in. How could salvation with God be bound with one Man only? Why must there be only one way to heaven? How come I can’t do it myself? Why must I trust without being able to see? These were the questions that Christ’s words stirred and everyone felt it, just as everyone today still feels it. But not everyone turned in fear and left.

Part 2 

When Jesus tested the loyalty of His faithful twelve, Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 "And we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." What a rock-solid confession from Peter! Instead of fear, he stood firm with faith and confidence in Jesus. Peter’s confidence came from knowing that Jesus had ownership of eternal life. Peter spoke with that eternal perspective, not by focusing on himself or his own works. If he had done that, he would have been met with fear only. But confidence in faith comes from believing that eternal life comes from Jesus because He alone has that right. This is precisely what Jesus tried to tell the people, but they were only focused on their own lives in this present world. They had no hint of the eternal perspective of faith that allows you to look beyond this veil of tears.  

That Peter’s confidence was not based on himself or things of the world also comes through when he points to Jesus’ words. There was a little confidence to be gained from Jesus’ miracles, but not nearly enough to get past sin. Peter’s faith wasn’t based on his ability to grasp and comprehend Jesus’ works. It wasn’t about seeing with his own eyes what Jesus was able to do. It was based on Jesus’ words – the words of eternal life. The simple promise of His Savior was all that Peter needed, and it’s all you need too. 

Part 3

We tend to place the confidence of our faith in our own words and actions. To make ourselves feel better about this we connect our actions to Jesus or to God’s Word, to make them look a little better. We tell ourselves that the better we are at keeping God’s Word, the closer to God we’ll be. We’re told by many that the true difference between us Christians and the rest of the world is about how we carry ourselves and what we see in our lives as evidence. But confidence in the things that we do is limited, even though we jump through mental hoops to connect them to Christ. Confidence in our works is like seeking physical bread, instead of the bread of life. That’s because our faith is the same as Peter’s. And it works the same way as the many followers of Jesus. It’s not about us. It’s not about how well we perceive God’s power. It’s not about what we do better than others. If that was the case, we would only have fear in God’s presence, and we would turn away at Christ’s preaching. Rather, faith is about the words of eternal life from Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. It’s those words alone that make Christians and keep them confident in that faith. Anytime we turn to the right or to the left away from Christ’s words, be they ever so hard to listen to at times, we will be filled with fear and not confidence.    

Through the words of Jesus, we not only have the path of eternal life laid out for us to understand, we become members walking that path in His footsteps. The knowledge contained in God’s Word is not simply instructional knowledge, where God gives us the tools and we complete the task. We’re helpless if that’s the case because we have no ability to put that knowledge into practice. It’s the same as one of us trying perform surgery on ourselves. Our confidence is that Jesus has the words of eternal life; not just to instruct through His laws and commands but to give through His forgiveness and love. 

When you tuck your child in at night, you promise them that they’re safe from harm and danger. They don’t trust that promise because they know all about the security and protection of your house. It’s not because they have extensive knowledge about locking doors and securing windows or calling the police. They also don’t trust that promise because they’ve seen mom or dad perform hand-to-hand combat with thieves and invaders. They trust because mom and dad say it, that’s it; because it’s a promise given to them from someone they love and have faith in. The same is true of Jesus when He tells you that you’re free from sin. You don’t need perform. You don’t even need to recognizes everything that Jesus is capable of. Your salvation is not about your perception of God. You simply trust Jesus. This is why He singles out a child-like faith as the model for true Christianity. Our faith and confidence is based on the words of our Savior, the best gift from our loving Father in heaven. 

The world is filled with followers who know the right path but are dominated by fear of having to do it themselves. Even in churches, there are many Christians who respond to God’s Word by saying, “These are difficult sayings, it’s too hard to believe them.” Even Peter, the bold confessor, has his infamous moments of failure, on record for people to read about for the rest of time. The same is true of each of the 12 who stayed with Jesus on that day in Galilee. They all faltered and failed in expressing their faith. And so you too will fail at times as well. Sometimes your faith will be really weak. Sometimes it won’t feel very powerful or feel like it has an effect in your life. Sometimes all you’ll be able to dwell on is fear and you’ll wonder where your confidence has gone. 

But in those moments, remember what faith in Jesus is. Jesus brings His love and forgiveness to you by faith; whether it’s strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, vibrant or dim. That’s the eternal perspective, and it is received through the words of eternal life, the words of Jesus. If that’s the source of your faith, take courage and have confidence, no matter how you feel or how you’ve failed; for the power and love of Christ is with you. Amen.   

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.