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Showing posts with label Faithfulness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Faithfulness. Show all posts

Monday, October 2, 2023

What Jesus Really Said About Divorce

We are working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  Today our subject is a sensitive one:  divorce.  The experience of divorce is described by many as one of the most painful experiences of life.  It is something that affects not only the divorced couple, but also their children, families, and friends.  And just based on statistics, it’s likely half of the people reading this have been through a divorce or will sometime in their lifetime.

Jesus had some important things to say about marriage and divorce.  He spoke the Truth with genuine love.  Please know upfront that is my intention too—to speak the truth in love.  I’m not here to judge anyone.  I think if we really understanding of what Jesus said about divorce and how it should be interpreted in our world today, we will find an incredible amount of God’s grace and love as well as Truth that can change our lives forever for the better.

So what did Jesus say?  It is found in Matthew 5:31-32.

Matthew 5:31
“You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ 

Jesus is talking about an Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 24 that says, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her…” he can give her a written certificate of divorce and send her away. 

The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus day debated a specific clause in that statement quite a bit: “if he finds something indecent about her.”  What does it mean to be indecent?  There were two popular interpretations in Jesus’ day.  A famous rabbi named Shammai said the only indecency that could lead to divorce was a serious transgression.  For example if a woman was stealing her husband’s money or flirting with her neighbors or walking around exposing herself in public, this was serious indecent behavior that were grounds for divorce.  Another famous rabbi, rabbi Hillel said a man could divorce his wife simply because she burned his toast!

So the religious Jews of Jesus day generally grouped themselves into one or the other school of thought about divorce.  One said you can divorce your wife for almost any reason at all and a stricter belief that it had to be a serious offence.  I should point out here that it would not be necessary to divorce your wife if she cheated on you, because the Old Testament penalty for adultery was death.  So if your wife cheated and was put to death, no divorce is necessary.

But Jesus, who is God, says:

Matthew 5:32
But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.

People has often used this passage to prove Jesus forbids Christians to divorce or to remarry after a divorce.  On the surface, that’s what it seems like Jesus is saying.  But if you only read the passage this way, you are misunderstanding the point Jesus makes.  Throughout this chapter, Jesus uses real-life examples to show people are utterly helpless to fulfill God’s perfect and holy Law.  Remember what Jesus said in the passage last week about lust and adultery?  If you even look at someone else and lust in your heart you’ve already committed adultery in your heart and broken God’s law.  And since hardly anyone can honestly say they haven’t ever lusted, we are guilty.

The Jewish religious leaders knew how hard it was for people to stay married to the same person their whole life.  So they were always looking for exceptions.  One group said “if she burns your toast, you can divorce her.”  Another group said, “No.  It has something serious.”  Jesus said, it was never God’s intention that anyone get divorced, and if you do you are breaking God’s law (see Matthew 19).  The point is, once again, Jesus is saying we are unable to fulfill God's Law.  That’s why Jesus came to fulfill the Law for us, to die on the cross to pay our penalty, and offer us God’s grace and mercy to restore our broken relationship with Him.  This passage is not directly about divorce.  It's about how Jesus came to save us from out sin.  He's using a practical example from life to show how helpless we are.

But What About Divorce?
Well, that’s a fine biblical theology lesson.  However, what we all still want to know:  Is it OK for Christians to divorce and remarry.  I get it.  Divorce is heart wrenching.  And genuine Christians who want to be faithful really struggle when it comes to divorce.

Methodists accept that divorce is sometimes necessary.  This is true of the two largest Methodist denominations—United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church.  And as far as I know, divorce is allowed by all the other major Methodist traditions of which I'm aware.  However, I want to state clearly that we believe this not in spite of what Jesus and the Bible says but because of what Jesus and the Bible says.  How can that be when Jesus clearly seems to prohibit divorce?

The Bible’s laws about divorce, laws that Jesus confirmed, were specifically designed to protect women in the ancient world against abandonment.  Since most women in Jesus’ day could not work to provide a living for themselves (unless they turned to prostitution), God did not want women to be abandoned.  So, God gave strict laws to forbid divorce so women could not be cast out and left destitute.

In a perfect world the way God intended it to be, divorce would not be necessary. A man and woman would be faithful and loving to each other their whole lives. But we all know we don’t live in a perfect world.  Sometimes divorce is necessary.  Sometimes, in our modern world, divorce is the way to protect women (and also men). 

Look at an example:  What if a man is abusing his wife?  There is no way in the world Jesus would tell that woman she must stay with her abusive husband.  Jesus’ teaching about divorce was there to protect women, not hurt them.  And this goes for mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse as well as physical abuse.  Jesus wants more than anything to protect the vulnerable.

And it also goes both ways—for both men and women—because Jesus wants to protect men too.  In our modern world where women can leave their husband and make it on their own, men need protection from abusive relationships too.  Sometimes divorce is the only way out of a abusive marriage for a husband.  And if Jesus was here today speaking to you, He would say the same thing.  So don’t let anyone twist what Jesus said to protect women 2,000 year ago to hurt women (or men) today.  God’s Law and Jesus’ teaching is meant to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

Now, that is not to say Christians should take marriage lightly or use divorce as a excuse not to work through tough marital issues.  Marriage takes a lot of work and faithful spouses should be committed to do everything possible to stay together if they can.  The truth is, divorce is so difficult and expensive and painful, I don’t think too many people out there take it lightly. 
Our goal should be to marry for life.  And I think two faithful people who are truly committed to each other and to Jesus can find a way to be together for life.  But it takes both the husband and the wife to make that happen.  And if it can’t happen and staying married is more harmful than good, then divorce is permissible—maybe even advisable.

In first Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul also taught about divorce.  He said if your spouse is determined to leave, you should let them go.  You aren’t bound to try and force them to stay.

There is much more that could be said on the subject of marriage and divorce than we can address in a general message like this.  Marriage and divorce are complex and every case is unique.  If you are struggling in your marriage or contemplating divorce, come talk with me (or find a good pastor or marriage counselor to talk to.)  Many times marriage problems that seem too big to be worked out can be overcome with a little help from a counselor.  And if your problems are truly cause for separation or divorce, a wise counselor can help you determine that too and you will have the peace of mind knowing you did everything you could to save your marriage.

We Live In A Broken World
We live in a broken world.  The Bible tells us our spiritual ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and brought sin into the world.  All of creation has suffers the consequences.  Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard.”  We see the results all around us.  There is sickness.  There is war.  There is famine.  Even our marriages fail because the world is not the way God intended it or wants it to be.  

That’s why Jesus came.  He came to fulfill the requirements of the Law when we couldn’t.  Jesus gave His life on the cross to atone for our sins.  Jesus rose from the grave to prove God’s promise of reconciliation and eternal life for all who repent and call on the name of Jesus to be saved.  So remember what Jesus did for us and follow Him as Lord and He will strengthen you to live for Him until we realize the healing and restoration of the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Don't Fall Away

Do you ever stop to review all God has done for you?  I have lived long enough now that it is quite easy to forget all the wonderful things Jesus has done for me.  It's not that I'm not grateful.  It's that there is just so much my brain is not big enough to consciously contain it all--unless I intentionally sit down and try to recall it.  As I do, I think of how Jesus saved me from a broken, abusive home and from poverty.  I remember how Jesus led me to the woman who would become my wife.  I recall how Jesus inspired me and my wife to get a college education, even though it was very difficult and we didn't have a lot of financial support from our families.  Then, Jesus called me to leave a promising career in engineering to enter the ministry, which was another great unknown and tremendously difficult.  Furthermore, Jesus somehow gave us the wisdom and energy to raise 3 brilliant kids, despite moving around from place to place and living on very little income.  I could go on and on about God's blessings to me and my family.  

How about you? What has God done for you? Some of you have survived strokes, heart attacks, and other devastating injuries.  I know someone who conquered cancer and gone on to be very active in my church.  Others have overcome, with God's help, substance abuse or other terribly difficult problems.  Some of survived losing a child or a spouse or someone else you love deeply, picked yourself back up after a divorce, or coped with mental illness.  We’ve all made it through COVID (so far); do you remember when the world shut down?  Here we are.  We are still alive and living, with God's help!  Let us give thanks for God is good!

This is the last blog in our series about conquering your fears. Through faith in Christ we can overcome our fears because God fights for us and we are not alone.  God is with us and the heroes of the Bible and even our loved ones who’ve died and gone to heaven cheer us on when we have faith in Christ.

We’ve been studying how the Israelites had to conquer their fears in order to enter the Promised Land.  The Israelites started out as slaves in Egypt.  God sent 10 plagues to force the Egyptians to let the Israelites go free.  Unfortunately, the Israelites were too afraid to enter the Pormised Land, so they were stuck wandering in the wilderness for forty years until Moses and all the original generation died (except for Joshua and Caleb).  Then Joshua became the new leader who led a new generation to conquer Jericho and the rest of Canaan.  

Now, as we come to our story for today, Joshua is an old man.  God has done all the major fighting for Israel.  Most of the unbelievers have been driven out of Canaan.  A few remain as a test of Israel’s faithfulness—to see if they will complete the work of driving out all the worshipers of false gods (or if they will be unfaithful to Yahweh, the God of Israel).  And now, Joshua is coming to the end of his life and he has some parting advice for his people. 

Joshua 23:6-13
“So be very careful to follow everything Moses wrote in the Book of Instruction. Do not deviate from it, turning either to the right or to the left. Make sure you do not associate with the other people still remaining in the land. Do not even mention the names of their gods, much less swear by them or serve them or worship them. Rather, cling tightly to the Lord your God as you have done until now.

“For the Lord has driven out great and powerful nations for you, and no one has yet been able to defeat you. 10 Each one of you will put to flight a thousand of the enemy, for the Lord your God fights for you, just as he has promised. 11 So be very careful to love the Lord your God.

“But if you turn away from him and cling to the customs of the survivors of these nations remaining among you, and if you intermarry with them, 13 then know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive them out of your land. Instead, they will be a snare and a trap to you, a whip for your backs and thorny brambles in your eyes, and you will vanish from this good land the Lord your God has given you.

Joshua’s 4 Pieces of Advice
Joshua gives the Israelites four pieces of advice:  
1.     Be Obedient.  2.     Be Faithful.  3.     Continue the Mission.  And 4.     Love the Lord your God.


Be Obedient

God wanted the Israelites to be obedient.  It’s important to point out that God’s grace came before His call to obedience.  In Exodus 1, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  Then God does amazing, miraculous things to deliver the Israelites:

He sent ten plagues on the Egyptians to force them to let the Israelites go.  Then God parting the Red Sea so Israel could cross the sea safely on dry ground.  Next God fed the Hebrews in the wilderness with mana from heaven and quail for meat and water in the desert.  

Now notice, all this happens before God gives Israel the Law.  Exodus chapters 1-19 is all about what God does for the Israelites.  It is not until Exodus 20 that God gives Israel the ten commandments and the rest of the Law.  You see, God’s grace and deliverance precedes the requirements He gives, even in the Old Testament.


The same is true for you.  God’s grace pursues you, woos you, encourages you, and invites you before you even spend a single second thinking about Him.  Then, when you realize you need God and you turn from your sin and turn to God through Jesus, God saves you and adopts you as His very own child.  Now, you are part of His family forever.  It is only after God has done all this that you don't deserve that God asks you to be faithful and obedient and act as a member of His royal family.


Be Faithful

God enabled Joshua and the Israelites to drive out the unbelieving Canaanites from the Holy Land, because the Canaanites had rejected the One True God for generations (for at least 400 years).  So now, God gave the land to the Israelites.  They were to be God’s royal priesthood who would represent God to the whole world.  They were to help all the nations return to God.  They had a special purpose. 

A few Canaanite settlements remained in the land.  They were there to test Israel’s faithfulness.  Would Israel be faithful to God?  Would they become bored with their devotion to God and become intrigued by the exotic foreign gods of the Canaanites who remained in the land?  Would they decide to hedge their bets?  (You know, let’s worship the God of Israel so He will be good to us, but let’s also worship the gods of the Canaanites just in case?)  God wanted Israel to be faithful to Him alone.

Unfortunately, Joshua 23:12 has been used to say God forbids intermarriage between different races or nations because it says, "if you turn away from him and cling to the customs of the survivors of these nations remaining among you, and if you intermarry with them, then know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive them out of your land."  God doesn't have a problem with intermarriage between people of different races.  It is intermarriage between believers and unbelievers that God discourages.  We know this is true because the clues are right there in the Scripture.  Caleb was the only other Israelite (besides Joshua) who left Egypt who was also honored to enter the Promised Land.  Caleb was not an ethnic Israelite. He was a Kenizzite (which were a Canaanites), yet Caleb married and had descendents who were accepted as Israelites who received allotments in the Holy Land.  Furthermore, Rahab was a Canaanite from Jericho. God saved her when she converted and worshiped the God of the Israelites.  Rehab married an Israelite named Salmon.  She became the great great grandmother mother of King David and one of the direct ancestors of Jesus. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, is listed in the New Testament as one of the great heroes of the Christian faith (Hebrews 11:31).  Intermarriage of different races wasn't the problem. Marrying people who worshipped false gods was the problem.  The person you marry is the person who has the greatest influence in your life.  Therefore, we should chose someone who shares our most important core values, which should be our devotion to God through Christ.

In this life, there are many things that will entice you away from God.  Be very, very careful that you remain faithful to God.  He is the only one worthy of your worship.  He must be the first priority of your life.  Do not turn away from Him for riches, for family, for power, for influence, for nation, for politics, for entertainment, for anything.


Continue the Mission

God chose the Israelites for a purpose.  He blessed them so that they could be a blessing.  God had already done the hard work of driving out most of the Canaanites.  All that was left was to mop up the few remaining groups.  This was certainly doable for the Israelites who now had a majority and who occupied the fortified cities of Canaan.  Unfortunately, they lost their focus on being the royal priests of God.  They turned their attention to their own personal pursuits—their families, income, and pleasure.  They forgot the mission of God.  Before long, this led to complacency and unfaithfulness.


Christians have a mission too.  We are to go into all the world and make disciples of Christ.  We are to teach people about the love and salvation of Christ and invite people to follow Him as Lord.  We are to baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When we get distracted, we worry about all the other things in life.  The main mission of Christ becomes an after thought or no thought at all.  Our lives are about what makes us happy and soon we don’t even care about God at all, except that maybe He can be useful to give us what we want or help keep us from losing what we love.  Where are we then?  We've become like the Canaanites.  We are right back where we started—full of fear, feeling lost and alone.  

We must stay focused on the mission of God or we get lost once and consumed by our selfishness, fear, and depravity.


Love the Lord Your God

Joshua told the Israelites to love the Lord their God.  Jesus said the same thing.  He said the most important commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And the second was like it:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  

Love is powerful.  Fear of punishment only goes so far.  It’s an immature and incomplete way of living.  God doesn’t want us to obey Him out of fear.  He wants us to obey because of love.  


How is it with your friends, your children, your spouse?  Do you want them to be faithful only because they’re afraid of what will happen or how you will react if they betray you?  No!  We want the people we love to be kind and faithful because they love us. Right?

God is the same way.  God has already loved you with the greatest love of all.  Romans 5:8 – “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”  God wants us to be obedient and faithful—not out of fear, but—out of love.  When you love someone, you try to the best of your ability to do what they want.  Most importantly, you do what they need (even if it's not what they want).  That's love.  

What Christ asks of us is not so difficult.  It is an easy burden to bear and one He helps us carry.  It is love.  Love God with all you are love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Is that so hard?  We are not asked to take up a sword and drive out Canaanite armies.  In America, thanks be to God, we are not even in danger of being tortured or killed for our faith as many other Christians are around the world. So can’t we be obedient and faithful and love?

As I close, I want to invite you to decide who you will follow.  Have you ever decided to follow Jesus as a Christian? If not, please do that today.  Ask God to forgive you for the ways you've turned your back on Him up until today.  Now make a commitment to follow Christ and ask Jesus to help you keep your commitment.  From this day on, seek to be obedient and faithful to God through Christ.  

Perhaps you are already a Christian.  Maybe you even became a Christian a long time ago.  Have you been faithful or have you drifted from the faith or from your commitment? If so, please chose to recommit your life to Jesus today.  God will forgive you for getting off track.  He will help you to make a fresh start if you ask Him.  So ask Him today.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Faithful - The Truth As Far As I Can Tell...

Luke 16:10 – If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.

We are called to be faithful.  Faithfulness is the concept of unfailingly remaining loyal to someone or  Christians—those who put their faith in Jesus Christ and follow him as their Lord—promise to be faithful to Christ.  At my church (Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church), we formalize our commitment with vows.  We promise to:
something, and putting that loyalty into consistent practice regardless of extenuating circumstances.
·       Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin,
·       Accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,
·       And confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

Our promise is to serve Christ as Lord, in union with the church.  So we ask people to become members of our church congregation who promise to faithfully participate in its ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness.  Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness seem like little things, but they are the building blocks of a vibrant spiritual life.  We hinder our spiritual life when we neglect any of them.  Furthermore, we harm our fellow church members when we are not faithful.  Are you faithful to Christ?  Are you a faithful member of a church?  Ask yourself:
·       Am I faithful in prayer? Do I pray daily?  Do I pray often throughout the day?
·       Am I faithfully present at church?  Do I attend Sunday worship weekly, missing no more than five Sundays a year?  Do I participate in a Bible study, a Sunday school, a small group, or a prayer group?  Am I present regularly at special events like Trunk or Treat or the Easter Egg Hunt?
·       Am I a faithful giver to my church?  Am I committed to give 10% of my income to the church?  If not, how much will I give and how might I begin to work toward the goal of one day giving a full tithe?  If I already give 10%, how might I go further and be even more generous?
·       Am I faithful to serve in my church?  Do I volunteer regularly (as a teacher, or choir member, or help with cleanup, or changing the church sign, or serving Wednesday night suppers, or helping with youth, or something else)?
·       Am I a faithful witness for Jesus Christ?  Do I try to live a life of integrity that represents Jesus well?  Do I tell people how important my faith is to me and what Jesus is doing in my life? How many people have I invited to church this year?

Faithfulness is vital to the Christian life.  If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.  But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.  Of course, I’m no expert and I certainly don’t claim to know everything, but that’s the Truth as far as I can tell…

Remember, God loves you and so do I!

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Fruit of the Spirit - Faithfulness

Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ has the Holy Spirit of God living inside them. 
The Holy Spirit is a powerful force.  It is the very power of God that was with God and was God creating the universe filled with trillions upon trillions of stars and planets and galaxies—so much that it would take you 27.4 billion years to travel from one side of it to the other if you could travel at the speed of light.

And when you have faith in Christ, the power of God’s Spirit takes up residence in your soul and begins to work His creative power in your life.  However, our powerful God is not a monster or a tyrant.  He will not force change upon you—even though He knows it’s for your own good.  He only grows change within you as you cooperate with His love and nurture the spiritual fruit He wishes to give you.  Like a garden—when tended and nurtured—the Fruit of the Spirit grows steadily within you until you reap a bountiful harvest.  The Apostle Paul wrote:

Galatians 5:22-23
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I want to talk to you about faithfulness today.  According to Wikipedia:  “Faithfulness is the concept of unfailingly remaining loyal to someone or something, and putting that loyalty into consistent practice regardless of extenuating circumstances.  It may be exhibited by a husband or wife who, in a sexually exclusive marriage, does not engage in sexual relationships outside of the marriage.”  However, when we speak of faithfulness—as a fruit of the Holy Spirit—we are speaking of faithfulness in a relationship that is even higher than that of marriage.  We are primarily focused on faithfulness to God through Jesus Christ.  Our faithfulness to God leads us also to be faithful in all our other relationships, because doing so is an expression of our faithfulness to the Highest Power.

Before we were ever faithful, God was faithful to us.  He created us with the purpose of sharing His love—of living a life in loving relationship with God and each other.  Boy have we messed that one up.  The history of humanity has been a continual history of turning our backs on God and each other.  Yet God has been faithful to us, even when we have been totally unfaithful to Him.  Ultimately, God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, in love to reconcile us to Him.  Yet we were unfaithful and murdered the Son of God on a cross.  Yet still, God didn’t turn His back on us.  Christ rose on the third day and continues to offer God’s love and forgiveness to all who repent of their sin, turn to God, and trust in Christ.  Through faith we have eternal life—but we have something even greater; we have a living, loving relationship with the God of the universe who is always faithful and challenges us to be faithful.

Faithfulness in Uncertainty
God calls us to remain faithful even when we don’t understand.  Faith, almost by definition, implies a degree of uncertainty.  We sometimes use expressions like "taking a leap of faith" to describe faithful obedience.  We even use a simple exercise to demonstrate faith—a trust fall—where you close your eyes and fall backwards into the arms of a colleague you trust (it can be an unnerving experience).  Faith implies that we don’t have all the answers, that sometimes we are walking through life in the dark and cannot see the way, but we are trusting in God’s faithfulness to get us through.  Even when we hurt, even when losses come that are too deep to fathom, even when we don’t understand and just want to give up, faithfulness means we just keep trusting God and walking through the darkness towards His voice.

We don’t have all the answers, but we do have some; we have enough to get started and we will get enough as we walk to continue walking the road of faith.  There are many who read the Bible and lament, "I don’t understand it."  It is true that there are many things in God’s Word that are very hard to understand.  However, there are also many things we read that are very clear and it’s not the things I don’t understand about the Christian life that disturb me most.  I am far more disturbed by the things I do understand.  For then I feel the Holy Spirit convicting me:  “Will you be faithful?  Will you obey?  Will you do what you know you should do?"

The Faithfulness of a Church Member
In the United Methodist Church, we try to spell out the ways we promise to be faithful to God when someone decides to become a member of the church.  Many feel church membership is no longer important.  "Why should I join as a member of a church?" They say, "Isn't that like joining a club?  It sounds so exclusive!"  And our culture reflects this devaluing of church membership more and more.  It mirrors the general aversion to commitment that runs throughout our society.  People ask some of the same kinds of questions about marriage.  "Why should I get married?"  They ask.  And for all practical purposes, it seems they have a point.  In our times, an unmarried couple can do just about everything a married couple can.  They can fall in love, live together, have sex, have and raise children together.  So many ask, why should they bother with marriage?  I would argue marriage is essential.  Here's why.  Through marriage, a man and a woman stand before God and witnesses and promise to love each other for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, until death.  And until you make those promises to each other, the relationship can only go so far.  Until your partner knows that you are all in, 100%, completely committed to the very end, your relationship cannot go to the deepest levels.

And much the same is true of church membership.  You can attend a church and never become a member.  For most practical purposes, you will look and act just like a member.  You can attend, worship, sing in the choir, volunteer, and even serve in some official positions.  However, your relationship with God and the other members of the church can only go so far until you fully commit.  Until you stand before God and the whole church and promise to be 100%, all in, sold out to the mission of the church, you can only go so deep.  And so, I encourage everyone who really wants to go to the deeper levels in their spiritual journey to prayerfully consider joining a church as a member.

The very first step to becoming a member of my church Pleasant Grove United Methodist church) is to become a Christian.  You cannot be a member of our Church unless you are a Christian—meaning you have repented of your sins and placed your whole faith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for your salvation.  So we ask potential church members some questions in front of the whole church to help them profess their faith in Christ.  We ask:
  • Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
  • Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
  • Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?  

Local Church Membership
Having become a member of God’s “Holy Catholic” Church (that is the universal church that is made up of all believers in Christ from all places and in all times), now one makes a commitment to be faithful to a local congregation of the church.  So we ask potential members a few more questions about how they will be faithful to the local congregation.  We ask:  "As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?"

Are you faithful to pray?  I recommend everyone should pray five times a day.  Say a prayer to start your day when you wake up and a prayer before you go to sleep.  That's two prayers.  Add to this a prayer to bless your food before every meal (which for most is three times a day) and you have five prayers.  But don't stop at just five prayers.  Live a live of prayer.  Throughout your day, say a breath prayer whenever you think about it (a breath prayer is a short prayer you can say in one breath).  So as you are sitting in traffic, aggravated by the person in front of you for going too slow, breathe out, "Lord Jesus help me to be patient."  As you pass an accident on the side of the road, pray, "Father, please help that person who is hurt."  When someone asks you to pray for their mother who is having surgery on Tuesday, right then as they are asking in your own mind pray "Holy Spirit, take care of their mother this Tuesday during her surgery."  In this way, you can be more faithful to pray.

Are you faithfully presence at church?  We need to be together with other Christians for worship, study, fellowship, and service.  This is best done in a local congregation.  Do you attend church weekly.  My own practice and what I encourage everyone to adopt is to miss no more than five Sundays of worship per year.  Does that seem excessive?  I don't think it is.  Last week I was talking with a South Korean pastor who explained that Christians in Korea have church 7 days a week.  On work days, thousands of Christians come in to the sanctuary as early as 5:00 AM for an hour long prayer service before they go to work.  It's no wonder that a great revival is taking place in South Korea, home of the largest Christian church in the world--Yoido Full Gospel Church--with 480,000 members.

Are you faithful in your giving?  The biblical standard is to offer 10% of your income God through the local church.  So if you earn $30,000 per year, you would give $3,000 to the church each year.  The church in America struggles to do all the good God calls us to do because we simply don't have the funding we need.  That problem would be instantly solved if every Christian would simply be faithful to give the tithe.  Maybe you are willing to jump straight into tithing.  But could you grow more faithful in your giving?  If you are only giving 1% right now, could you be more faithful to give 2-3%?  make it a goal to grow a little bit every year until you reach 10%.  And if you are already giving 10%, don't just sit back and fold your arms and say, "I've given all I need to give."  What was Jesus' standard for giving?  He said give it all.  Remember, he said if some ask you to carry their back for a mile, go an extra mile with them.  If someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also.  That sounds a lot like 100% giving to me.  Now, what you give is between you and God.  And no one at my church--me or anyone else--is going down the list checking to see who gives what or ranking people by their giving status.  That's between you and God and our church is all about grace.  Jesus doesn't want your money.  He wants your heart.  For where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.  I just want to encourage you to be faithful in your giving.

Are you faithful to serve.  Some people think, "Well I give a lot of money so I don't have to serve."  Members who join Pleasant Grove UMC promise to do both.  It's not either or; it's both and.  Faithful members give and serve.  So remember the words of Galatians 6:9, "So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up."

Are you a faithful witness?  A witness is simply someone who tells what Jesus has done for them.  A witness invites others to come and see what Jesus is doing in there church.  Are you a faithful witness?  How many people have you talked to about Jesus?  How many have you invited to church this year?  If you haven't invited anyone, what does that say about the faithfulness of your witness?

Repentance and Call to Faithfulness
If we are honest, we all see how we have fallen short in many of the areas in which we promise to be faithful.  It breaks my own heart to think of the ways I fall short and fail God who has been so faithful to me.  In particular, I struggle in the area of faithful prayer.  Don't get me wrong, I pray all the time, because I am a pastor.  I pray several times during the Sunday worship service.  I pray to open Bible studies, Sunday school classes, in prayer meetings, and with those who are sick or in the hospital.  Where I struggle is in praying when I am not operating as a pastor.  I think it's because I pray so much on other occasions.  I just get tired.  However, I have asked the Holy Spirit to help me be more faithful in this area of my life and I'm working on it.

How about you?  Can you be honest with yourself and God?  Can you confess where you have not been as faithful as you should?  Do you faithfully renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?  Do you faithfully accept the freedom and power God gives you every day to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves ?  Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and serve him as your Lord? Are you faithful pray, be present at church, to give, serve, and be faithful witness?

Perhaps God is calling you repent today.  Maybe you need to commit your life to Christ and becoming a Christian for the very first time.  Maybe you need to find a local church where you can join and become a faithful member.  Maybe you need to admit that you have not been faithful to the membership promises you’ve already made.

Even when we are unfaithful, God is still faithful.  In 1 John 1:9 it says, “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.”  Perhaps today, you would like to pray the following confession to God and ask the Holy Spirit to help you be more faithful.

Prayer of Confession
"Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen."

And now, I offer this prayer on your behalf:
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2018

When You Are Afraid, God is With You

             The Book of Daniel follows the stories of Jews from Judea who were taken into captivity in Babylon.  For centuries, God had warned the Jews to turn away from the sin and be faithful to God, but they would not.  Finally, their time ran out and the had to face the consequences of their sin.  The Babylonian army attacked their Judean homeland, captured the capital of Jerusalem, and burned their holy temple to the ground.  Any Judeans who were not killed in battle were exiled to Babylon.  The best and brightest Judeans were forced to serve the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar.  The Babylonians changed their captives names, made them speak Babylonian, and tried to make them forget the Judean heritage.  It was an awful predicament to be in.
            The Judean's suffering was caused by their own bad behavior.  However, God did not forget or abandon them.  He was still with His people, even when everything around them changed.  He was with them when they needed help.  He was with them when they were afraid.  And today, the same is true for all of us.  God is with us even when things changes.  God is with us when we need help.  And today I want to focus on the truth that God is with us when you are afraid.  A good verse to memorize that reminds us of God's presence when we are afraid is Isaiah 41:10, "Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you.  I will hold you up with my victorious right hand."
            Today, I want to share a fascinating story of three Jews who were trying to get along in Babylon who were forced to take a stand for what they believed in--even at the risk of their lives.  Let's look at the story and I will make some comments as we go through.

Daniel 3:1-6
1King Nebuchadnezzar made a gold statue ninety feet tall and nine feet wide and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then he sent messages to the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials to come to the dedication of the statue he had set up. So all these officials came and stood before the statue King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Then a herald shouted out, “People of all races and nations and languages, listen to the king’s command! When you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes, and other musical instruments, bow to the ground to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue. Anyone who refuses to obey will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

The Dilemma
            There are times in all our lives when we face a dilemma—will we do what we know is right or will we bow to the pressure of those around us to do something we know is wrong?  There is usually a cost involved.  It may not be life threatening, but there may be a social cost.  If you don't go along, you may lose friends or influence.  Sometimes, you may become socially ostrisized for doing the right thing.  Or maybe it may be a risk to your career.  You might not get the raise or the promotion.  You could lose your job because you refuse to go along with something you know is not right.  It could negatively affect you financially.  What will you do when you are faced with the dilemma and you have to chose right or wrong?
            As for me, I know this.  This world is not my home.  I am a Christian, a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I live here in this world as an alien in a foreign land—like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were exiles in Babylon.  I try to get along in this world the best I can.  I serve the people around me—whether they are Christian or not.  I try to show them God’s love and even introduce them to Jesus.  I want them to become a citizen of Heaven too, because I know this kingdom will one day pass away.  However, the Kingdom of Heaven will last forever.
           I try to get along with every--even those with whom I don't agree.  However, there are some things I cannot do.  I will not call anything right that I know is wrong.  I will not call anything wrong that I know is right.  I will do my very best to obey my Lord and live how I believe He wants me to live.  And I base my understanding of His will on His Holy Word in the Bible, the voice of His Holy Spirit in my heart, and the traditions of His Holy Church through the centuries.  These criteria are a firm foundation we can trust.  They have stood the test of time and do not change according to the whims of culture.  They have guided Christians like Peter, Paul, Luke, John, Matthew, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Billy Graham.  They guide me.  What guides you?

Daniel 3:7-15
So at the sound of the musical instruments, all the people, whatever their race or nation or language, bowed to the ground and worshiped the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

But some of the astrologers went to the king and informed on the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “Long live the king! 10 You issued a decree requiring all the people to bow down and worship the gold statue when they hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes, and other musical instruments. 11 That decree also states that those who refuse to obey must be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—whom you have put in charge of the province of Babylon. They pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They refuse to serve your gods and do not worship the gold statue you have set up.”

13 Then Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage and ordered that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought before him. When they were brought in, 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you refuse to serve my gods or to worship the gold statue I have set up?

15 I will give you one more chance to bow down and worship the statue I have made when you hear the sound of the musical instruments. But if you refuse, you will be thrown immediately into the blazing furnace. And then what god will be able to rescue you from my power?”

The Ultimatum
            And there it is—the ultimatum.  "Bow down and violate your conscience and do what you know isn't right or be thrown into the fire and burned to death."  Usually, our dilemmas aren’t so life or death, but there is as cost.  There is often a social cost, a cost to your career, or a financial risk that tempts you to cave in.  If you will just go along and bow down, everything will be alright, but your conscience tells you it is not right.  What will you do when you are faced with the ultimatum?
            Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew what God commanded.  Bowing to the idols and breaking God's commands is what got the Jews into captivity in the first place.  For God had commanded in the Ten Commandments:  "Do not worship any god accept the Lord" and "Do not make idols of any kind."  They knew what to do, even though it was going to be incredibly frightening and dangerous.

Daniel 3:16-18
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. 18 But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

Powerful Faith in a Sovereign God
            Verse 18 is an incredible statement of faith in the Sovereign Lord.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew God could save them.  He had the power.  But they also recognized His sovereignty and said they would do the right thing even if God didn't save them. 
            God is sovereign.  What does it mean to be sovereign?  It means He alone has the right to chose how He will act.  No one can tell Him what to do.  He doesn't have to save us.  You aren't rewarded for doing the right thing.  You do the right thing because it is right, not because it gets you something you want.  God is sovereign Lord.  He deserves your faithfulness and nothing less.
            As a child, I was taught that good always triumphs over evil.  As an adult, I know better know.  I have seen that good does not always triumph.  Sometimes, evil triumphs over good in this life and in this world.  But I am not discouraged, because I know this world is not our home.  This life is not all there is.  Even if God does not set right the wrongs in this world in this life, I know He will in the next.  For in the end, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess the Jesus Christ is Lord!
            In the mean time, what good does it do to save this life and lose eternity?  What good does it do to gain power and influence and money and possessions in this life if you lose your very soul?  God is able and will set the balance of justice right in the next life.  Live by faith.

Daniel 3:19-25
19 Nebuchadnezzar was so furious with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face became distorted with rage. He commanded that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than usual. 20 Then he ordered some of the strongest men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So they tied them up and threw them into the furnace, fully dressed in their pants, turbans, robes, and other garments. 22 And because the king, in his anger, had demanded such a hot fire in the furnace, the flames killed the soldiers as they threw the three men in. 23 So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, securely tied, fell into the roaring flames.

24 But suddenly, Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in amazement and exclaimed to his advisers, “Didn’t we tie up three men and throw them into the furnace?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, we certainly did,” they replied.

25 “Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god!”

When You Are Afraid, God Is With You
            God was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the flames!  Three men were thrown in, but four were in the furnace walking around.  Some say the fourth man was the pre0incarnate Jesus, others say it was the Holy Spirit, but it was God in some present form right there with the three men in the flames.  And this is an important truth for us all to know when we are facing deep troubles.
            When you are afraid, God is with you—literally.  You are not walking around in the flames alone.  God is with you.  He is not somewhere far off in Heaven or the other side of the world merely thinking about you.  No.  God is right there wit you.  When you are waiting to go into surgery, God is at your side.  When you are struggling through months of physical rehabilitation, God is with you.  When you are dealing with a rebellious child, God is right their with you.  When you are grieving because you've lost your spouse, the person you loved most in the world and you don't know how to go on, God is their holding you.  When you've lost your job, your car broke down, your house is on fire, your daughter gets divorced, or whatever, God is not far away.  No.  He is with you--walking with you, holding you, and sometimes carrying you (or dragging you!).
            We know the extend of God's commitment to be with us in the midst of our struggles.  For God came and was born as the man, Jesus, as a baby in a manger.  He grew up in a poor, everyday, family.  He dealt with many of the same struggles we face.  He was tempted (but never sinned).  He stood firm on the Word of God.  He showed God's incredible power, love, and mercy.  He was tortured and crucified for our sins.  He died on the cross and rose on the third day.  He even descended into Hell to preach to the lost who were there.  Nothing can stop Him from being with any person who calls out for His help.  As Isaiah 43:1b-3a - “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.  When you go through deep waters,  I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Daniel 3:26-30
26 Then Nebuchadnezzar came as close as he could to the door of the flaming furnace and shouted: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”

So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stepped out of the fire. 27 Then the high officers, officials, governors, and advisers crowded around them and saw that the fire had not touched them. Not a hair on their heads was singed, and their clothing was not scorched. They didn’t even smell of smoke!

28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel to rescue his servants who trusted in him. They defied the king’s command and were willing to die rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore, I make this decree: If any people, whatever their race or nation or language, speak a word against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they will be torn limb from limb, and their houses will be turned into heaps of rubble. There is no other god who can rescue like this!”

30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to even higher positions in the province of Babylon.

Practical Application
            Let me give you some practical wisdom from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego's story that you can use is your life starting right now.  First of all, build your faith in Christ – now. The time to build trust is not when you’re about to be thrown in the furnace!  God will hear you at anytime you call, but you're going to need all the help you can get.  How much comfort and wisdom and courage and strength will you miss out on if you wait until the last minute to cry out for help. In the moment of distress, you will already have your hands full dealing with trouble.  Now, now is the time--while you are clear-headed and can plan ahead--to build the faith you will need to face the problems that lie ahead (and problems lie ahead for everyone.  We all will face them at some point.).  So build your spiritual muscles know so you will have the resource readily available when you need it.
            Second, know your core values.  When I was a child, there was a country song the went: “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything…”  Now that makes a lot of sense to me.  Do you know what's really important to you?  Do you know what you'd be willing to die for?  You need to know that so you can stand firm if ever your core values are challenged.  On what do you base your core values?  As for me, I know am a citizen of Heaven.  My faith and what I believe is built on the Word of God in the Bible, the voice of the Holy Spirit in my heart, and the tradition of the Holy Catholic Church.  These have guided God's people for thousands of years and they are a firm foundation that will not fail.  One what do you base your core values?
            Third, stand firm in your convictions.  Ask the Lord to give you strength and courage to stand for what you know is right.  Your stand is a great witness to the power, sovereignty, and glory of God.  It is could be the greatest testimony you every give (or your greatest shame if you fail).
            And finally, always remember: When you are afraid, God is with you.  God is especially there with us whenever we stand for what is truly right.  We see this in Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  We see it in the New Testament through the lives of the disciples and martyrs like Stephen.  We've seen it throughout history.  When we are afraid because we're trying to do the right thing, God is truly with us.