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Showing posts with label Christian Living. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christian Living. Show all posts

Monday, April 29, 2024

Listen and DO - James 1:19-27

Introduction
We are studying the Epistle of James.  James is a short letter packed full of powerful wisdom.  It was written by Jesus’ half-brother.  We say that James is Jesus’ “half-brother” because Jesus and James both shared a biological mother—Mary.  But Jesus was the biological son of God while James was the biological son of Joseph.

Did you even know Jesus had a brother?  He did.  Matthew13:55-56 says Jesus had 4 brothers and that he had sisters too (but doesn’t tell how many).  And James was probably the oldest of Jesus’ younger brothers.  And James was the author of the Epistle of James.

Last week, James wrote that we should not seek so much to be saved from our trials and temptations, but that we pray to be saved through our trials and temptations, because God uses them to teach us enduring faith that refines our character.  But James has a new lesson for us today; listen to what he says.  Let’s read it together in our pew Bibles on page 1721.

James 1:19-27 (NIV)
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Listen and DO
James says, “My brothers and sister take note of this:  be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”  To whom is James writing?  He’s not talking about his biological brothers and sisters.  He’s talking about believers, fellow followers of Christ.  Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 12:50?  He said, “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!” 

It's important to note that James is not writing to unbelievers; he’s writing to Christians who are already following Jesus.  You cannot be saved and become a Christian by doing good deeds.  We are saved by faith alone.  We must trust Jesus and decide to follow Him.  But once we are saved, we should respond to the saving grace of God by doing something.  And James writes to remind Christians what we should do and how we should live.

And what should we do?  We should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  Now this is great wisdom.  God gave us two ears and only one mouth.  That’s a great reminder God has design right into your face to listen at least twice as much as you speak.  Every time you see your face in the mirror, remind yourself, “Today, I’m going to listen twice as much as I speak.”  And don’t just say it.  DO it.  Really listen.  Don’t just hear.  Listen and try to understand people.

Sometimes that means listening to more than just the words they're saying.  It means understanding them as a person, what’s motivating them to say the things they say.  Ask for God’s wisdom every day to really listen to and understand people and where they’re coming from.  And the Holy Spirit of God who lives in all believers can reveal people’s heart to you so you really understand them.

And be slow to anger.  There are times for righteous anger.  Remember, Jesus got angry when He saw the money changers in the Temple desecrating His Father’s House while cheating people out of their hard earned money.  However, we need to be slow to anger, because our anger is rarely as righteous as Jesus’.  And human anger does not bear good fruit like God desires.  Instead, it creates wounds and dissention and damages relationships.  It clouds our judgment and can even damage our health.  So put away anger and learn grace to be patient and stay calm so you can listen and understand people and be quick to forgive.  This is what followers of Jesus do.

James 1:22-24 (NLT)
22 
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23 For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like.

When we look into the mirror, what do we see?  I don’t know about you, but I see a sinner saved by the grace of God.  God’s Word says we are saved by God’s grace.  It’s not because of the good things we do.  It’s a free gift from God through Jesus Christ.  We don’t deserve to be forgive and saved from Hell, but—in God’s loving grace—He sent Jesus to save us anyway. 

So when we look in the mirror, we should see someone that God loved so much He sent His Son to save us—to even die on the cross for us.  So we see someone who is precious to God, but who also has some serious flaws who needs saving and it is a salvation that cost God dearly.  So don’t forget that face—the face of a precious child of God bought by the blood of Jesus.

And don’t forget how you still have some things to work on—not to earn God’s love, but because of God’s love.  God already loves you completely and unconditionally, but we know we have some flaws we want God to heal in us.  So listen to God’s Word in the Scripture and let the Holy Spirit empower you to do it.

There are so many ways I fall short of God’s Word it can be overwhelming where I should start.  Thankfully, James gives us a couple places to start—some things everyone can work on.  First of all, he says:

Slide – James 1:26 (NLT)
26 
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.

I love how straight forward James is.  He puts it so well.  Controlling your tongue—learning when to be quiet, when to speak, and what to say and how to say it—is something we all need to learn and something we all can learn.  It’s harder for some than others, but it is something we can learn and should learn.  You see, a lot of time in church, people want to worry over some deep theological question or some mysterious and obscure story in the Bible.  When what we really need to do, most of the time, is pretty simple.  Learn how to control your tongue.  

Now, some will say they just can’t do it.  But you can if you really focus on it.  And you can if you will invite the Holy Spirit of God to come in and take control of your tongue for you.  If God can creae stars that are trillions of light years away, He can control your tongue.  However, a lot of people just don't want to submit their speech to the Lord.  But James says, that's what we need to do.

And James gives another simple thing we can do—show compassion.  He says:

James 1:27 (NLT)
27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

In New Testament times, orphans and widows were the most helpless and vulnerable people in the world.  They had almost no way to make it in the world—no way to earn a living, support themselves, or protect themselves—aside from the compassion of people willing to help them.  So what James is talking about here are the most helpless and vulnerable people.

When we look around today, who do you see who are the most helpless and vulnerable people?  Widows and orphans are still on that list, but there are many others too--the elderly, the foreigner among us, and anyone else who is vulnerable who will not be able to make it if someone does not sacrificially step in to help them.  James says, pure and genuine religion in the sight of God is caring for them.  And you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to do that.  You don’t have to have all the answers.  You just have to have compassion in your heart and a willingness to do something.

Summary
So let me summarize everything for you.  And I want you to practice these things this week.
What can you do this week to practice these, because we want to be doers¸ and not just hearers.

  1. Listen More, Speak Less - Will you practice listening more and speaking less this week?
  2. Control Your Tongue - Will you invite the Holy Spirit in to start taming your tongue?
  3. Practice Compassion - What can you do this week to help the helpless, give hope to the hopeless, and protect the unprotected?
I challenge you this week to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only who deceive themselves.
I

Monday, April 15, 2024

Hello. My Name Is James.

Introduction
Today, I'm begin a study through the Epistle of James.  James is a power packed letter filled with practical advice for living as a Christian in an unchristian world.  Therefore, we are going to take out time and work our way through the letter slowly, lesson by lesson so we don't miss anything, because everything in this letter is important.  I invite you to follow along each week as we learn everything we can from this short but important book in the New Testament.  Let's start at the very beginning.

James 1:1
This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.
Greetings!

Writing Letters
My wife and I wrote a lot of letters to each other when we were dating.  In high school, we would pass notes back and forth regularly.  Then I moved away for college and we wrote each other letters every week.  We still have those letters packed away in boxes somewhere in storage.

Much of the New Testament in the Bible is a collection of letters written by early church leaders.  Today, we may think of letters as out of date.  Few write letters anymore, other than for very official purposes.  Most chose to use email or instant messages.  But in New Testament times, writing letters was sort of a cutting edge new technology for common people.  It is true that people wrote letters way back into very ancient times--millennia before the New Testament.  But ancient letter writing was typically reserved for royal officials because writing materials were very expensive, few were literate to read and write, and there was no post service to send letters long distances.


But by New Testament times, several factors came together at just the right time to aid the spread of the Good News about Jesus Christ.  Writing materials became cheaper and available to common people.  More people could read using the common Greek language almost everyone spoke to some degree.  And due to the expansive Roman Empire with well maintained roads and shipping routes, mail could be sent from one end of the Empire the other.  The writers of the New Testament took full advantage of this to spread the message that Jesus, the Son of God, had been crucified and then rose from the grave.


You may have learned in school letters have a general structure.  First, a letter has a heading that tells who it's from and who it's to.  Then, there is the salutation where you say, "Dear So and So..."  Next comes the body of the letter that contains the main points, followed by the closing:  "Sincerely, Your Best Friend Chris."  We often find similar patterns in the letters from the New Testament, like James.


Most letters in the New Testament are written by the Apostle Paul.  Paul was a prolific letter writer and many of his letters have been preserves in the Bible.  however, the Epistle of James by a man named James, who had his own style or writing and his unique perspective on living as a faithful Christian.

Who is James?
Who is James?  In the letter, James says: "I am a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ."

What is a slave?  In 1st century Israel, a slave was typically considered property of the owner, lacking personal freedom and autonomy.  People entered slavery due to debt, poverty, as a penalty for crime, or possibly if conquered in battle.  While slaves sometimes had legal protections under various legal codes, they were still fundamentally bound to serve their masters' needs.  And since a slaves master was the one with all the power, abuse was rampant despite any laws on the books to protect slaves. 

We don't like the word slave is the 21st century.  Some Bible translations try to sanitize the word from the New Testament and change it to servant.  However, servant doesn't really capture the essence of the meaning the biblical writers were trying to convey.  Servant is too nice a word.  The Greek word the Bible uses is doulos, which  literally means bondservant, a person who sold themselves into slavery to repay a debt they had no means to repay.  A bondservant doesn't just work for their master; they are owned by their master.

Slavery is a dirty word to our ears for many reasons. People were never meant to be owned by other people.  It is an abomination.  Another reason against slavery is it creates a serious imbalance of power. Human masters cannot be trusted to hold so much power over another human being—even if that person willingly submits to being a slave.  People sometimes can't even be trusted to properly care for a dog or cat, let alone another human being.  Perhaps that is why it is such a fearful responsibility to become a parent.  A parent has nearly absolute power and authority over a fragile human life--their child.  And parents do not always know what to do nor do they always chose the best thing to do.  Yet this is the nature of human life.  Parents beget children and (hopefully) do their best to exercise benevolent authority over their children for nearly two decades until their children are old enough to become independent.

James self-identifies as a slave of--not another human being, but--God and the Lord Jesus Christ.  And based on Scripture, God is a good and worthy Master.  He always seeks the good of His slaves.  He doesn’t treat people like slaves.  In fact, Jesus (who is God) said in John 15:15, I no longer call you slaves, but friends…”  But James calls himself a slave. 

Who is this James?  Do we know anything about him?  We do!  And it is fascinating!
The Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.  Matthew 13:55 says His 4 brothers were James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude.  James is always listed first, which typically means he was the oldest of Jesus’ younger brothers.  After Jesus was crucified, James would be the eldest living brother of Christ, responsible for being the head of the household.  And according tradition and most scholars, the James who wrote the Epistle of James was Jesus' younger brother. 

As far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything down Himself; or if He did, none of it survived.  So we don't have anything written directly from Jesus.  But in this letter from James, we may have the closest thing to the hand of Jesus.  James grew up with Jesus, spent some 20-30 years with Him.  He knew him through all the years that the Scripture writes about as well as what the Scripture leaves unmentioned.  And as we read the letter of James, we're reading the thoughts of a man who knew Jesus deeply and personally the way only a brother sometimes can.

Now, James and his other brothers didn’t believe in Jesus at first.  Maybe it's hard to think of your brother in such divine terms as being "the Son of God".  Can you imagine growing up the brother of Jesus Christ?  I can imagine Mary getting upset with James from time to time over something stupid he did (mistakes all mortal people make).  Maybe, in frustration, she said something like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother Jesus!”  And maybe James smarted off to Mary with, “Oh!  Jesus is so perfect!  You act like he walks on water!”  Of course, I'm being facetious, but on a serious note, I guess it might have been hard to grow up in the shadow of "the Son of God" or to think of your older brother as the long awaited Messiah.

At any rate, Jesus' brothers did not believe in Him at first.  Mark 3:20 says Jesus’ brother thought He was out if his mind.  They came and tried to take Him away so He didn't stir up trouble.  But at some point, probably after Jesus actually died and rose from the grave as He said He would, James became a believer.  You might think James would trumpet his status as Jesus’ brother.  “Listen to me.  I’m Jesus’ brother!”  But James doesn’t do that at all.  Instead, he humbles himself and says,  “I’m a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

To Whom Was James Writing?
Letters are written from someone to someone.  To whom was James writing?  He says, “I’m writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.”  What does that mean?  

The term "Twelve Tribes" was a cultural term among Jewish people that recalled their tribal history.  They started out as twelve tribes and had often experienced trials and tribulations that scattered them abroad.  In fact, there were no longer 12 tribes.  10 of the tribes had been scattered into oblivion when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.  All the inhabitants of the northern 10 tribes were carried away and never seen again as a distinct people group.  The 2 tribes that remained were Judah and Benjamin.  The Jewish people derive their name from the tribe of Judah.  And even they had experienced a great deal of "scattering" over the centuries.

At this stage in Christian history, almost all Christians were Jewish believers.  Scholars sometimes point out James was writing to Jewish Christians, not Gentiles Christians.  Some of you who are serious students of the Bible have probably heard that.  But that’s kind of a pointless argument.  Almost all Christians were “Jewish” at this point in Christian history.

The real point here is that believers (Christians) are being scattered because they are fleeing persecution.  The Jews who believed Jesus is the Messiah who rose from the grave are being kicked out of their churches (synagogues) by the Jews who didn't believe.  And at the same time, they are being ostracized in their communities, leading some to lose their livelihoods.  Others are being badly persecuted, some arrested.  Some are even being beaten or killed.  It was a difficult and dangerous time for Christians and many had to flee their homes and move away to new towns seeking safety.

God did not let these early Christians suffering go to waste.  As they are scatter, they go from town to town telling people about Jesus every where they go.  So Christianity is spreading, not being silenced.  And the Apostles, like Peter, James, and John as sending letters to these scattering Jewish Christians--creating a written record of the early Christian faith, which we have preserved in the New Testament of our Bibles.

Unfortunately, being scattered can make you feel lonely and really tests your faith.  You are tempted to just keep your mouth shut about Jesus, even though Jesus commanded His followers to speak up for Him.  And that’s one of the reasons James is writing—to encourage Christians who feel lost and lonely in a world that doesn’t have their same values.

Feel Like You Don’t Belong?
Do you ever feel like you don’t belong in a world where people seem so mean, angry, unloving, judgmental, and immoral?  I know I do sometimes.

The world around me right here in America is becoming foreign in many ways.  Sometimes it feels like common sense and common decency have been flipped upside down.  

But I know there are others around the world that have it even worse. I texted with a Christian friend who lives in Pakistan the morning I wrote this message.  He lives in a country that is 95% Muslim.  Many in that country who practice a very militant form of Islam think people like my Christian friend are crazy or guilty of blasphemy.  Christians are face discrimination, are frequently persecuted, mistreated, falsely accused, arrested, and even killed.  I know they often feel scattered, lonely, and discouraged.

If you ever feel like I do or like my friend in Pakistan, like a remnant of the faithful believers scattered in a lost and hostile world, James is a letter written to encourage you to be faithful and not give up.  But James is more than just clich├ęs and platitudes. James is a real talk.  In 5 short chapters, James shares powerful, practical wisdom about how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Whereas other writers often focus on philosophy and theology, James gets down to brass tacks and focuses how Christians live out faith in actions—not just beliefs.

Every paragraph in James is important.  So we’re going to take our time and work our way through James slowly, lesson by lesson.  And I hope you will come each week and pay close attention.  And I challenge you to go deeper in your walk with Jesus, deeper than just what you believe, as you learn to live out your Christian faith by what you do day to day.

Closing
James was Jesus’ brother.  But anyone who give their life to Christ and becomes a Christian is a brother of sister of Christ.  We are not alone.  We are part of a royal family—the family of God.  If you are a Christian, you are my brother, my sister.  You are not alone.  We are in this together. 

In the Old Testament, Jews inistiated their children into the people of God by circumcising their children on their 8th day.  For Christians, baptism is the sacred ceremony we use to initiate people into the family of God.  It is a sacrament Jesus told us to practice that God uses to pour out His grace upon us.  No one deserves God’s grace.  But He gives it freely to all who repent and seek His help.  

I want to close today by inviting your to become a Christian.  If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior of the world who died on the cross and rose on the third day, then chose today to follow Him.  Turn away from your sin and turn to Jesus and He will save you.  You will become a child of God, my brother or sister.  And though you may sometimes feel alone in this hostile world, you will never actually be alone.  For you will be part of the family of God with brothers and sisters all over the world.  And even more important, Jesus will walk with you through everything you face by the Holy Spirit that lives inside you.  

And if you have if you have never been officially baptized and initiated into God's family, I invite you to schedule your baptism today.  If you live close to me, contact me and we will talk about how you can be baptized.  Or, find a faithful, Bible-believing church near you, and be baptized in obedience of Christ our Lord and in expectation of the grace baptism represents.

Finally, I challenge to read this blog each week as we work our way through the powerful letter of James.  I usually post my blogs each Monday.  I pray you will read and receive the blessings and guidance God wants to give through my feeble words.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Building on Rock vs. Building a Life That Lasts | Matthew 7:24-29

The Introduction
I have now preached twenty-three sermons from Jesus Sermon on the Mount from Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7.  Leave it to a Methodist preacher to take one of Jesus’ sermons and turn it into 23 sermons.  But Christ’s teachings are so important it was worth soaking in each one.

Let's list Jesus' lessons from the Sermon on the Mount:

  • He said you are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
  • And Jesus said He didn’t come to abolish the Old Testament Laws but to fulfill them.  So therefore, we should live righteously—just as He lives righteously.
  • We shouldn’t murder, but we shouldn’t even be angry or curse at people.
  • Not only should we avoid adultery, we shouldn’t even lust in our hearts.
  • We should be faithful to our spouse, not take revenge, and go so far as to love our enemies.
  • We must be generous and help the needy, not in order to impress people with wealth and generosity, but do it privately so no one even knows we are giving.
  • With that same attitude, we should pray and fast privately, so no one even knows we’re doing it.
  • Store up treasures in heaven where they won’t be corrupted or stolen.
  • And don’t worry about anything, but trust God to take of you.
  • You shouldn’t be judgmental, thinking your are better than anyone else.
  • But don’t throw your pearls to pigs.
  • Treat others as you would like them to treat you.
  • Because the gate to heaven is narrow and the path to life is difficult and few ever find it.
  • And we have to be careful of false prophets, because many will sneak up like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing saying things people like to hear.  But we can tell who is a true prophet by the fruit they produce—because bad trees can’t produce good fruit.
  • And we should produce good fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Because these are the fruits of a true disciple.  
  • Not everyone who cries out “Lord! Lord!”  will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Only those who did the will of God the Father. 

These are the foundational teachings of Jesus Christ.  If we say we are Christians, these are the core teachings we follow.  And here’s how Jesus finished his sermon—Matthew 7:24-27.

Matthew 7:24-27
24 
“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. 25 Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. 26 But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. 27 When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”

The Solid Foundation
Jesus says, “Any who listens to my teachings and follows is wise, like a person who builds a house on a solid rock.”  Now, we’ve just finished 23 sermons based on Jesus’ core teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.  They are challenging, but not difficult to understand.  If you build your life upon these teachings, your life will stand against anything. 

We will all face many trials and tribulations in this life.  But if your life is built upon the solid rock of Christ, you will not fall even when rains and floods and wind beat against you.  Now, you know we’re not talking about rain and floods and wind.  We’re talking anything that life can throw at you:  grief, divorce, depression, unemployment, alcoholism…  You can think of hundreds of trials and tribulations you might face in your life—whether they come in your own life or in the lives of people you love.  But when these trials come against you, you will not fall if your life is firmly build upon the solid rock of Christ’s teaching.

Even when cold, dark death comes to visit you (as it comes for ever person), you will not fall if your life is built firmly upon the rock of Christ’s teaching.  For everyone “…who believes in Jesus will not perish, but have eternal life.”

But I must also point out that Jesus says, “Any who listens to my teachings and follows is wise, like a person who builds a house on a solid rock.”  You’ll notice he says, listens and follows. 

There are many people who come to church every time the door is open.  They love the experience of being at church.  They love the music.  They love the people.  They may even love to hear the words of Jesus preached and read from the Bible.  But you can’t build a solid foundation on hearing alone.  You also have to follow.

James 1:22 says, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.”  Many people listen to the Word of God week after week, but never do the Word of God.  They are only fooling themselves.  It is critical we listen and follow Jesus’ teaching.  It is the only way our lives will be able to remain standing when the troubles of life assail us and when death finally comes to visit and we must face Jesus on our last day.

Sinking Sand
Jesus teaching is a solid foundation that can support your life and even lead you into eternal life in Heaven.  Everything else is sinking sand.  There are a lot of people who build their life on things beside Jesus teaching.  But it’s not a solid foundation.  It cannot stand.

You cannot build your life on a foundation of feelings, but so many try.  They base everything on how they feel.  Some even choose to follow Christ because of an emotional religious experience.  Maybe they went to a revival and heard the Word of God or some great spiritual music and it moved them and made them feel something wonderful and the experience led them to follow Christ.  But that cannot be the foundation--because the feelings change and sometimes fade.  We have highs and we have lows.  Feelings are good and can be (should be) part of our walk with Jesus, but they cannot be the foundation.

Some will say they found their faith on traditions instead.  They say traditions last generation after generation and are more permanent that feelings and emotional experiences.  Traditions can be a helpful part of our walk with Christ, but they cannot be the foundation.  Traditions change and sometimes they are wrong.  Sometimes we find our traditions are contrary to Scripture and must be discarded.  Other times our traditions lose their value when they now longer serve to connect us to Christ and the mission of His Church.  So tradition cannot be our foundation.

Others will say the build their life on ideas, reason and philosophy.  They want to use their intellect to build a reasonable foundation that doesn't rely on tradition or religion or superstition.  Some may even subscribe to the best ideas and knowledge of the modern era.  But these also are an inadequate foundation.  For we soon find we were wrong.  And the morals and values and philosophies of today are soon found by another generation to be out dated and rejected.  These too are sinking sand.

What about family?  Surely family is a sure foundation upon which we can build.  Well, family is very important.  Maybe it should be the walls or the roof or the carpet of our life, but it cannot be the foundation.  For our family is only human.  They cannot fill the void in our life that only God can fill.  And family members will disappoint, reject, or die (for they are only mortal).  Family cannot be a truly solid foundation.

Nor can the pursuit of pleasures, our careers, wealth, status, popularity, or anything else other than Jesus' teachings be the sure foundation we need to stand against the storms of life.  Everything else is sinking sand.  If you try to build your life and your faith upon them, they will fail and you will fall.

Believe in Jesus
We are told often in Church (and in the Bible), “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved.”  This is true.  I can quote many Scriptures that say this and I preach it.   But what does it mean to believe?

To believe Jesus means to trust Him enough to leave behind your life of sin and follow His way of living.  Jesus’ way of living is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount (as well as the Gospels and the teachings of His people in the Bible).

James 2:14 puts it this way:  “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?”  You see, saving faith is listening to Jesus’ teachings and following them.

We all fall short, but God is gracious and forgiving.  In 1 John 1:8-9, it says:  “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.  But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.”  

So, as we end the message today—as we end this series of messages on Jesus Sermon on the Mount—I invite you to join me in a confession of our sins.  The words to this confession are taken the new Methodist hymnal "Our Great Redeemers Praise" on pages 738-739.  This is part of the Wesley Covenant Service.

The Confession
Leader:  We are those who seek to live as true disciples of Jesus Christ, but sometimes we fall short. Let us now examine ourselves before God, humbly confessing our sins and submitting our hearts so that we do not deceive ourselves and cut ourselves away from God. Let us pray:

People:  Father God, You have set forth the way of life through Your Son Jesus Christ, whom You love dearly. We shamefully confess that we have been slow to learn of Him and have been reluctant to follow Him. You have spoken and called to us but we have not listened. You have revealed Your beauty to us, but we have been blind. You have stretched out Your hands to us through our friends, but we have passed by them. We have accepted Your gifts and offered little thanks. We are unworthy of Your unchanging love.

Leader:  We now confess to you our sins.

Please forgive us for the poverty of our worship…

for the selfishness of our prayers…

for our inconsistency and unbelief…

for the ways we neglect fellowship and Your grace…

for our hesitation to tell others about Christ….

for the ways we deceive others…

People:  Forgive us for when we waste time and when we misuse the gifts you have given us. Forgive us for when we have made excuses for the wrong things we have done and when we have purposefully avoided responsibility.

Leader:  Forgive us that we have been unwilling to overcome evil with good and that we have not been ready to carry our cross. Forgive us that we have not allowed Your love to work through us to help others and that we have not made their suffering our own. Forgive us for those times when instead of working for unity we made it hard for others to live with us because of our lack of forgiveness, inconsiderate judgment, and quick criticism.

People:  Forgive us for when we have not tried to reconcile with others and when we have been slow to seek redemption.

Leader:  Forgive us also for these sins that we silently confess to you now.

Leader:  God, the Father of all mercies, is faithful to cleanse us from our sins and restore us to Christ’s image. Praise and glory be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Discerning Truth: Living the Fruits of the Spirit

Introduction
We are nearing the end of our series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—just a few more weeks to go.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount our Lord’s foundational teaching in the New Testament.  It outlines the ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven.  If you want to be a Christian, you should understand these principles in Jesus' sermon.

I challenge you to go back over Jesus’ sermon, found in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7.  You can find the sermons I’ve preached on it here on this blog over the last 21 or so weeks.  These could be a resource for you as you study Jesus’ core teachings.  

Today's focus is Matthew 7:15-20, discerning what’s true from false in our spiritual journey.

Matthew 7:15
15 “Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.

The Warning Against False Prophets
Jesus warned his people to watch out for false prophets.  Jesus' followers were poor.  They were oppressed.  They were hungry.  They were desperate.  They needed a savior.  This made them especially vulnerable to false prophets who would lie and tell people what they wanted to hear in order to use them for their own selfish gain.  Some real life examples we know of false prophets are:

  • In 4 BC, Simon of Persia proclaimed himself as Messiah during the time of Herod's death, leading a rebellion against Roman rule; he was killed by Roman forces, and his movement was crushed.
  • In 6 AD, Judas of Galilee led a violent resistance against the Roman census taxation, claiming to be the messiah who would deliver the Israel, ultimately leading his followers to a failed revolt and increased Roman repression.
  • A false prophet mentioned in the Bible (in Acts 8) was Simon the Magician.  He used magic tricks to convince Samaritans he was full of God’s power for his own personal gain.  Simon’s influence was finally destroyed when the Apostle’s Peter and John brought the true power of God to Samaria and exposed Simon’s magic tricks as false.

One may ask why people would follow a false prophet.  When people feel desperate, they often will cling to anything or anyone who seems to offer hope.  But that’s when you need to be especially careful.  You must understand how vulnerable you are.  And Jesus gives some practical advise about how to discern if someone is a false prophet.

Slides – Matthew 7:16-20
16 You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.

Understanding "By Their Fruits"
Jesus says you can tell a tree (or a prophet) by their fruit.  That’s great advice.  It means look at the visible results of a person’s ministry.  But even here we have to be careful.  False prophets also often produce “signs” that may seem look like good fruit.  A magician can do tricks that seem like impossible miracles.  Charismatic leaders can often speak and act in ways that accomplish things that seem to be good.  You may think magic tricks are real or the accomplishment of a charismatic personality are show they are from God.  But that is not necessarily true.  You have to look closely at what kind of fruit they really produce.  

Hitler came to power in Germany during a time when people were desperate for hope.  Germans were in a state of deep economic despair, national humiliation, and the devastating effects of the Great Depression.  Hitler was a charismatic leader who could stir national pride.  He was going to make Germany great again!   And initially, Hitler had success.   Through hate, bigotry, and racism, Hitler rallied Germans to revitalize their country.  But they did so by evil means and, in the process, they committed the most terrible atrocities the world has ever seen.  Approximately 6 million Jews died because of the Holocaust.  Is that good fruit?  Absolutely not.  That’s rotten, poisonous fruit.

I want to warn you.  As you look to the leaders you admire—whether they be political or buisiness or spiritual leaders.  Consider the fruit they produce.  Is it good fruit or bad fruit?   And be careful becuase some will say the ends justify the means.  They may argue, "Yeah I wish they didn't do or say those bad things, but look at what they accomplish."  In other words, the good they accomplish is justified by the bad things the do to accomplish them.  

Jesus is clear about who to tell a false prophet that is a wolf in sheep's clothing who will tear you apart.  You have to look at their fruit.  And the fruit is not the results of their work but the fruits of the Spirit.

Galatians 5:22-23
Galatians 5:22-23 names the good spiritual fruit a true prophet (and an authentic Christian) produces:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Just as we’ve seen bad false prophets (like Hitler, Jim Jones, and David Koresh), we have also seen true prophets lead movements to produce great fruit of the spirit (as defined by Galatians).  The early Methodists, guided by John Wesley's teachings, demonstrated the fruits of the Spirit in various impactful ways that reflected their deep commitment to living out their faith in practical acts of love and service. Their work led to:

  • Evangelism:  passionately preaching the gospel in open fields, towns, and cities, reaching out to the marginalized and working-class people, leading to widespread spiritual revivals and the rapid growth of the Methodist movement.
  • Social Reforms: Embodying the fruits of love, kindness, and goodness, they took strong stands against the societal ills of their time, including the abolition of slavery, prison reform, and the promotion of education for the poor.
  • Visiting the Sick and Prisoners: Demonstrating compassion and faithfulness, early Methodists took seriously the call to visit the sick and those in prison to offer comfort, healing, and encouragement to those in need.
  • Small Group Meetings: The early Methodist movement was marked by its innovative structure of small group meetings that met regularly for prayer, study, and mutual accountability. These meetings were essential for spiritual growth and community, fostering the fruits of peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control.

Christians can’t just believe in Jesus as an intellectual thing.  True Christians must live out an inward holiness that transforms our thoughts, words, and actions.  It’s not about moral superiority, but about being filled with the love of God and neighbor, a love that manifests in every aspect of your life.  Christian holiness is not static but dynamic and constantly growing and bearing fruit like a living tree.  It’s characterized by continuous self-examination, prayer, and participation in the means of grace, such as Holy Communion, Bible study, and fellowship with other believers.

Do you bear good fruit?  If a fruit inspector examined your life today, what would he find?  Would he find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? 

Now, we understand the life of a Christian is a journey.  Fruitfulness is not something that happens over night (just like a fruit tree does not bear fruit overnight).  But your life should definitely be heading in the right direction—toward fruitfulness.  God is the one who makes us grow and bear fruit.  But what are you doing to tend the garden in your heart that nurtures fruitfulness?  There are several things you can do to nurture the development of spiritual fruit God wants to grow in your life.

There is worship where you gather with other Christian believers and honor God.  Do you regularly in worship God with other Christians?

There is fellowship.  We may have many different groups we socialize with on a weekly basis at school and work.  But if you are a Christian whose heart's truest desire is to bear fruit for the Kingdom, other Christian friends should be your main social group.  Are you deeply involved with Christian fellowship?

Prayer is the heart of the Christian faith. Are you investing deeply in regular prayer throughout your day?

Bible Study is essential.  How else are you going to know how we are supposed to think and live unless we study God's Word--His official method for speaking to His people?

Are you in a small group where you talk about your prayer life and what you’ve read in your Bible and where people intentional hold you accountable and offer encouragement to live more fully for Jesus?

Are you practicing the means of grace Jesus specifically commanded His followers in practice in the Bible--Baptism and Holy Communion?

  • Baptism is the initiation ceremony for Christians in the New Covenant that replaced the circumcision ceremony of the Old Covenant.  Baptism is a means for God to pour out His grace upon those being baptized and those who stand with them to help everyone know and walk with Jesus.  It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
  • Holy Communion is as a means to receive God’s grace where we have our eyes opened as we experience the presence of Christ and receive spiritual nourishment for our faith journey. Communion is a sacramental act of thanksgiving and remembrance, commemorating the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, where bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ. This sacred practice fosters a deeper communion with Christ and with one another, strengthening our bonds with the church and empowering us to live out our Christian discipleship in the world.
Conclusion
As we reflect on Jesus' warning against false prophets and the importance of discerning true from false in our spiritual journeys, let us be vigilant gardeners of our souls. May we not only seek to identify the fruits in others but also nurture the growth of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control within ourselves. Through worship, fellowship, prayer, Bible study, and participation in the means of grace like Baptism and Holy Communion, let us cultivate a life that bears good fruit, reflecting the light of Christ in a world often shadowed by deception. Live out the Kingdom ethics Jesus taught in His Sermon on the Mount, growing closer to Him and each other as we journey together in faith.