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Showing posts with label Revival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Revival. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Breath of Life (Dry Bones)

            I heard someone describe getting old like this - put Vaseline on your glasses so you can barely see, earplugs in your ears so you can barely hear, weights on your arms and legs so you can barely move, and rocks in your shoes so every step hurts; this is what it feels like to be old.
            Being old is relative.  At 43, I don’t think I’m old, but I’m not young either.   As a pastor, I’m considered young. The average age of a pastor in the United Methodist Church is around 55.  Most of my colleagues are older than me--some much older.  I was only 36 when I came to PGUMC.  Hal Brooker came up to me and said, "Now I feel old.  This is the first time my pastor is younger than me."  (I think I'm a year or two younger than Hal.
            At the same time, I don't feel wet behind the ears as a minster.  I’ve been a minister for 17 years.  Many people don't become a pastor until their 50s or 60s so many of my colleagues who are 10, 20, or 30 years older than me are a lot less experienced as a pastor than me.  So I can feel both old and young at the same time as a pastor.  But to my kids, I’m just old!
            At what age do you consider yourself old?  That's a hard question to answer.  Many people’s bodies start to feel the effects of age at 37 or 38.  That was true for me as I started noticing my muscles and joints aching.  AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) grants membership at 50.  Is that old?  One survey showed most people defined old age as 68.  Really?!?!  Another survey defined old as 80 (I bet the people in that survey were probably 70!)  It seems everyone thinks old is what happens to people who are older than them.  No one wants to be old.
            So since it's so hard to define when old age starts, let me give you a few signs of old age:

If you fall asleep watching TV or reading the paper, you might be old.
If you become forgetful, you might be old.
If you groan when getting up from a chair or out of bed, you might be old.
If you say ‘back in my day’, , you might be old.
If you choose clothes for comfort rather than style, you might be old.
If you repeat yourself, you might be old.
If you have no idea what is in the music charts, you might be old.
If you insist ‘things aren’t as they used to be’, you might be old.
If you repeat yourself, you might be old.
If you choose places to eat because they play quiet music, you might be old.
If you have an afternoon nap, you might be old.
If you repeat yourself, you might be old.

            It seems few people want to be considered old.  Sometimes, it's because of vanity.  People are too proud to give up their youthful beauty or strength.  But often people don't want to grow old because it’s painful and limiting and causes health problems and, ultimate, we are afraid of death.
            If God allows us to live long enough, we will all grow old.  And the fact is every day we live, we are growing older.  The Good News is, God can breath life into our bones at any age, and ultimately even in death we find Eternal Life.

 Ezekiel 37:1-14 1 The Lord took hold of me, and I was carried away by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley filled with bones. 2 He led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. 3 Then he asked me, “Son of man, can these bones become living people again?”

“O Sovereign Lord,” I replied, “you alone know the answer to that.”
4 Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! 6 I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

7 So I spoke this message, just as he told me. Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. 8 Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.’”

10 So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones represent the people of Israel. They are saying, ‘We have become old, dry bones—all hope is gone. Our nation is finished.’ 12 Therefore, prophesy to them and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 When this happens, O my people, you will know that I am the Lord. 14 I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live again and return home to your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the Lord has spoken!’”

Explain the Passage
            The people of God were called Israel.  They were 12 tribed scattered throughout the Holy Land.  They were a united Kingdom under King David and King Solomon.  But then there was a civil war and the nation split into the northern kingdom of Israel (10 tribes) & the southern kingdom of Judah (2 tribes).  The Bible tells us that not a single king who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel was good.  They were all evil.  And God warned Israel for many generations to repent, but they would not.  He even warned that they would be conquered and destroyed if they did not, but they still would not turn back to God.  So finally, the Assyrian army swooped down upon them and destroyed their kingdom.  Their cities, their homes, their temples, everything was destroyed and the people we dragged away in to captivity throughout the Assyrian empire, never to return home again.  The northern kingdom of Israel was completely obliterated, and has not revived again to this day.  The Israel--the Jews--we know of today consist of the 2 remaining tribes of Israel--Judah and Benjamin.  The other tribes of the northern kingdom are know as the 10 lost tribes of Israel because they have gone extinct.
            Ezekiel was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel during this destruction.  And God showed him this vision of the valley of dry bones during this time as his people were mourning the loss of their national identity and culture.  It was a vision God gave to tell the people that even though they were dying, God would one day bring all 12 tribes back together again.  This is a prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled; we are still waiting for it, but God will fulfill it in the Last Days. 

God Asks Ezekiel (and all of us) the Question
            A question like that reveals a lot about your faith.  Do you believe God has the power to turn bones into living people again? Do you believe in God? Do you trust Him?  When everything seems hopeless, do you believe God will come through?  Even as you are growing older and your body and health are failing and there's nothing you can do about it, do you trust God?  Do you trust God even as you face death?
God told Ezekiel to preach to the Dry Bones.

            That doesn't make any sense to preach to dead bones.  They can't hear.  They won't do anything you tell them to.  What's the use?  It took a lot of faith and obedience for Ezekile to preach that sermon.  But Ezekiel trusted that God knew what He was doing.  Ezekiel obeyed and we're still talking about it today.
            Sometimes we look at our church or our community, our family, our friends,and we think sharing the gospel with them or inviting them to church is about as hopeless as preaching to valley of dry bones. What’s the use?  We think, "They're not going to listen."  But if God ask you to do it, you do it.
            Ezekiel trusted God. He said, “Lord, I don’t know if these bones can live again or not. Only You know. But if You tell me to preach to them, I’m gonna preach.”  Ezekiel preached and the Lord brought life to the dry bones.
            If God asks you to preach to Dry Bones you better do it, because you just don't know what God wants to do, but God knows. You have to trust Him. If God aske you to invite you neighbor to church, you better do it.  If God encourages you to warn your sister or brother, daughter or son that they're going down the wrong road, you better do it.  God knows what He's asking.  If God ask you to be a preacher, you better do it.  God asked you for a reason--even if you don't know what it is yet.  If God asks you to preach to dry bones, you better do it. 

Sometimes I Feel Like I’m Preaching to a Valley of Dry Bones.
            Sometimes, the church seems to be full of nothing but whining and complaining. “I don’t like the food on Wednesday nights… I wish we sang different music...  Louder... softer.. faster... slower...  No body called me when I missed church…"  Sometimes, the church seems like it's lost its focus. Sometimes people act like the Church of the Living God is hospice care for the dying.  Friends, I believe in hospice care. It’s a God send to people who are dying and I encourage you to use hospice if you or someone you love is dying.  However, the Church of the Living God is not someplace we go to be comforted while we wait to die. It’s a place we go to COME ALIVE! So COME ALIVE!
            And while you're at it, bring all your friends, all your family, everyone you can to come and meet Jesus in His church and COME ALIVE!

            Oh, how I long to hear the bones rattling and shaking!  Oh, how I long to see dead, lifeless people rising up to new life!  Oh, how I long to see people getting excited about church!  Oh, how I long to see the young, the old, the middle aged, EVERYONE standing together as an army of God--ALL FOCUSED on our MISSION: Making disciples of Jesus Christ!  Oh, how I long to see Pleasant Grove Giving Hope to the Hopeless, Building New Relationships, and Helping Our Community!             Can these Bones Live Again? Oh, Sovereign Lord, only You know the answer to that.  But I know You have the power to do it! 
            “Dry bones!  Oh you dry bones!  You better listen!  You better listen to the Word of the Lord!  This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again!”  You better get up!  You better get up and get busy serving the Lord! 

Amen?  Amen!

Monday, July 25, 2016

What is Revival?

James 4:8-10

            Friends, America desperately needs to turn away from sin and return to God.  Yet, it’s easy for us to point the finger at others so we don’t have to look in the mirror at ourselves.  However, each of us, personally, needs to turn away from the world and turn to God.  If we draw close to God, He will draw close to us.
            My great hope is that everyone would turn away from the world and turn to God and thus experience a great personal revival.  I have been praying for this kind of revival for a long time.  Many in our church and in our community and in our nation have been praying for revival.  We long for the return of those days when revival swept across our land in days of old:  when thousands upon thousands turned to the Lord and were save, when churches were filled on Sundays, when Americans lived godly lives of integrity, when our leaders led our nation according to the will of God.
            The Word of God in James 4:8-10 speaks plainly on the subject.  It speaks to me.  I pray You will hear God’s Word speak to you today.  May it cut straight to your heart, convict you, and challenge you to change.

James 4:8-10
Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.

Loyalty Divided
            If ever there were a phrase that describes Americans today, verse 8 describes us when it says, “…for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.”  This is what distinguishes us from the Christians of the New Testament.  It is what separates us from early Americans who built this nation, inspired by their commitment to Christian values.
            Some have said, “Well, it was easier for them to be close to God.  They actually saw Jesus and they witnessed miracles.”  My friends, they were no more equipped to draw close to God than we are.  Their closeness to God was a conscious choice.  They chose to forsake all else and draw near to God and He drew near to them.  They saw miracles because they were close to God.  Their success at changing the world was directly related to their commitment to God.  We remember and venerate these “saints” of old because they forsook the world and chose God.
            But what of Americans in the 21st century?  Can we say we are wholly and completely committed to God?  Are you?  It should be no wonder to us that America is in the state it is in for, “…your loyalty is divided between God and the world.”  Worshiping God on Sunday morning has become just one option among a myriad of things we can do.  We could choose instead (and quite often we do) to: sleep in, go to a ball game, hang out with friends, go fishing, work in the yard, see a movie, watch TV, clean the house, play video games, have friends over for lunch, go shopping, or any number of other things.  (There’s nothing inherently wrong with these activities; but our loyalty is divided because we treat worship as if it is optional and often place other things ahead of God.)  We have come to believe and live as if our comfort and happiness are what’s most important.  It’s all about us (so we think).  Did it ever occur to you that life is not about you?  It’s not even about your family or your kids.  Life is our opportunity to glorify God.  It’s what we were created for:
God put air in your lungs so you could sing His praises.
God placed beauty all around us so we could see THE ARTIST.
But we have made it all about us and what we want.  How selfish!  How foolish!  The servant has said to the King, “No!  I don’t want to serve you! You serve me!"
            We have fallen for the world’s lie that our security is found in:  more money, a better job, and social acceptance.  We seek shelter in our comfortable lives, always doing what we want, what we are used to, and turn away from the mission of God because it seems too risky.  We don’t want to be different.  Everyone else is doing the same as us and we feel justified in being like everybody else.  We are like sheep all heading off to slaughter.  We feel safe in our flock walking along together, until it is too late and we feel the knife at our throat.  O wake up!  Wake up!  Before it’s too late!

A Personal Revival
            What then should we do?  James tells us.  O hear the Word of God!  “Let there be tears for what you have done…” Are you not sorry that you have traded loyalty to the God who made the heavens and the earth, who also made you, who gave you the ability to know love and joy and peace and happiness, and who (even when you rejected Him) left the glory of heaven and came to earth to save you by dying on the cross—paying the price for your sins—that you might take off your filthy ways like a dirty garment and put on a brand new, pure and brilliant, white robe?
            You have traded your loyalty to Him for the worldfor empty pleasures that do not truly satisfy, that are worthless, that are selfish, empty, shallow, shameful, and self-indulgent, that bring about evil and suffering and destruction for you and the whole world.  You have traded your loyalty to God for worldly ways that lead to the exploitation of the poor and needy, that foster injustice and oppression, that hammered the nails through the hands and feet of Christ.  Are you not full of sorrow and grief that you have betrayed God for the sake of the world?  Oh recognize how far you have fallen from the high calling of God!  How you have broken His heart!  How your actions are leading to the enslavement of America and the whole world!  Does it not break your heart?  Are you not ashamed?  Does it not fill your eyes with tears?
            Then, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts…”  You cannot wash away these sins with water.  There is but one ingredient that can wash away the stain of your sins.  It is the blood Christ, which he shed on the cross at Calvary.
            “Humble yourself before the Lord…”  Bow your head in humble prayer.  Earnestly ask the Lord to forgive you and wash you clean.  And humbly commit yourself to Jesus—completely and wholeheartedly.  Choose this day—as did the Christian saints before you—to no longer divide your loyalty between God and the world.  Instead, give your allegiance completely and fully to God.  Cast away anything else that threatens to draw you away from Him.  And follow the Lord from now on.
            Some say revival is a week-long series of church services designed to get people saved.  Some say revival is a movement in history like the Great Awakening in America in the 19th century when people were swept up in religious fervor.  But I say the essence of revival is James 4:8-10.  Revival comes in our individual hearts when we humble ourselves, repent of our sins, and choose God—forsaking all else.  Revival comes when we yearn to follow God more than we yearn for anything else.  Truly, revival is when we want God only (and nothing else).
            Revival can spread across the land like a wildfire when just one person lives an authentic Christian life and leads another to do the same.  Soon whole churches, communities, even the whole world is changed forever because individuals had the courage to live wholeheartedly for God despite what anyone else did.
            So hear the Lord crying out to you:  “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.  Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.”

            If your heart is broken because you have loved or been loyal to the "world" instead of God, I invite you to confess your sins, repent, and make a change.  I offer the following confession adapted from page 890 of United Methodist Hymnal. May these words be your sincere prayer to God.  He will hear you and forgive.

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.

My Prayer for You
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, July 18, 2016

Do Not Worry

            Today, I would like to write about one of my all-time favorite passages.  It’s very poignant today as we reflect on so many troubling events in our world. In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus reminds us not to worry.

Matthew 6:25-34
25 “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
28 “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, 29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
31 “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
34 “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

What is Worry?
            Worry is:  “To allow one's mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles”  Some people are more prone to worrying than others, but we all worry.  It is part of our fallen, human nature; we forget to trust God or we never really knew we could trust God.  
            Sometimes, we even worry about problems that are only imaginary.  For instance, a teenager might worry themselves sick wondering whether there will be any friends in their classes when school starts back.  This may be a potential problem, but it’s not a real problem right now.  And there may be plenty of friends in their classes, we just don’t know yet.  But people will worry even about things that are only potential problems.
             Worry is a waste of time and energy.  It’s not healthy.  It’s like spinning your tires—it doesn’t get you anywhere and it ruins your tires.  If you can do something productive about your problem, do it.  But then, stop worrying about the problem over and over.
            What would it feel like not to worry?  How much time do we waste worrying?  How much mental, emotional, and spiritual energy do we waste in the unhealthy habit of worrying?  What would it be like to be free from the anxiety of worry?  To know that God has got your back.  Oh, what a wonderful thing!  Our lives would be less stressful and so much happier, peaceful, and serene if we gave up worry.

The  Basics
            The Scripture lists two things we should not worry about:  food and clothing.  But it’s really about more than just food and clothing.  Food and clothing represent the basic necessities of life.  To these, you could add other basic necessities like water, air, shelter, companionship, etc.  God will make sure we have the basics we need to live.
            There is something else implied in Jesus statement.  You may have a deeper spiritual problem if you are worrying about more than the basics.  Perhaps you have become self-absorbed and fallen too deeply in love with the things of this world.
            What do we really need to be satisfied?  Perhaps it would be enlightening to compare our problems in America (a first-world country) to those who live in third world countries.  Consider the following meme's about our first world problems:

            Meanwhile, most people around the world earn less than $2/day and struggle to find enough food and clean water.  Now, I know that all our problems are not so trivial.  We have real problems too.  However, we already have so much.  Sometimes we lose perspective about real problems and what are just our “worldly” concerns.  Sadly, the only time we may regain a proper perspective is when a real tragedy strikes.
            If we want to be truly happy, we should learn to be happy with the basics.  Paul tells us in Philippians 4:12, “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.”  We would all do well to learn Paul's secret to a contented life.  I suggest you practice needing less.  Here are some ways you can improve:
            Simplify your life.  Get rid of things you don’t need.  Resist the urge to buy more and more new things.  Learn to live with what you have.  Borrow or rent instead of buying if it’s practical.
            Go without.  Fasting is the spiritual practice of going without.  Typcally, fasting involves giving up food, but it can be other things as well like watching TV or using Facebook.  Fasting can help us discover what we can do without, remind us what we really need, and it can also help us to be more grateful for what we already have.
            Practice being thankful.  Genuine gratitude for what we already have helps us to be more satisfied and need less.  We stop looking for the next great thing that might make us satisfied and start to realize how blessed and satisfied we already are.  Being thankful actually helps you to be a happier person.  Take the "Gratitude Quiz" and see if you are a grateful person –
            The point is, God is going to provide for your basic needs.  You don’t need to worry about the basics.  And don’t allow yourself to become consumed by yearning for more and more beyond the basics.  When you are satisfied with the basics in life, you will worry less and have less stress.  You will have a happier, more peaceful life and you will be more focused what’s truly important.

How to Overcome Worry 
            Jesus said “do not worry.”  But how can we actually overcome worry?  It is hard sometimes because worry is not just mental; it can physically take over your body.  For some, worry can become a paralyzing medical disorder that requires medication to overcome.  If that is the case, I encourage you to get medical help.  Regardless of your situation, the following steps can help you overcome worry.
            Pray about it.  Philippians 4:6, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.”  Putting it in God's hands through prayer is the first step and can make all the difference.  Remember, God can handle any problem you have.
            Talk about it.  Another thing you can do is talk about your worries with a trusted friend or two.  Talking about your concern can relieve stress and bring fresh insight.  However, don’t keep talking about your worries over and over again all day long to everyone you meet.  That’s just an outward form of worry and will only aggravate and prolong your anxiety.
            Make a plan.  You can deal with worry by making a plan of action.  Worry is often mistaken for planning because both require you to think ahead and consider a plan of action.  The difference is, planning is productive.  Planning sets up goals and identifies practical steps that can change a situation.  Worry is unproductive because it just keeps going around and around about potential scenarios and possibilities over and over again.  Planning turns into worry when you go too far and your planning stops being practical and productive.
            Do what you can.  Instead of worrying, make a plan and then do what you can do.  Instead of thinking, do.  If you can’t do something, stop worrying about it.  You’ve done all you can.
            Let it go.  Once you’ve done all you can do (at least for right now, in this moment) then, let it go.  Don’t go on worrying about it.  You’ve prayed and put it in God’s hands.  You’ve done what you can do.  Now, let it go.

How to Let Go
            Sometimes, you get stuck and just can’t stop worrying.  When that happens, here’s what works for me.  First, I meditate.  I make a concerted effort to quiet my mind while asking God to help me.  I concentrate on my breathing.  People often comment that I am so relaxed and calm when I preach.  I can tell you, it takes effort.  I am not a natural public speaker.  It has always made me nervous--even after 17 years.  I've learned to relax through lots of practice.  One of the biggest things that helps me relax is concentrating on my breathing--breathing slow and deep.
            Then, if your mind continues to wander back to your worries, try to think of something else. It helps me when I listen to music.  Another thing that helps me is to watch a commedian or something funny on TV.  It's hard for me to worry when I am laughing.  I will also sometimes blow off steam by joking around with others or just being silly.  Another thing that helps is to go out and have some fun.  These are all things that have helped me break the cycle of worry.  Maybe they will help you too.

            There is one thing you should worry about:  Is your heart right with God?  Have you repented of your sins?  Have you asked the Lord’s forgiveness?  Have you decided to follow Jesus?  To listen to his instructions and obey?  Has the Spirit of God assured you of your salvation—that you are a forgiven, child of God?
            If your heart is right with God, you have nothing to worry about.  Even if terrorists attack. Even if the wrong person gets elected.  Even if the country falls apart.  Even if the Methodist church splits apart.  Even if you lose your job.  Even if your children go astray.  Even if things seem completely out of control, remember, God is in control!
            If your heart is not right with God, I beg you to get it right with Him today.  Won't you repent of your sins, turn to Jesus, let him take control of your life, and commit to follow him the rest of your days?  If so, perhaps you would like to use the following prayer to guide your words to Jesus.

Lord, come in and take control of my life.
Fill me up with Your wonderful grace.
Cleanse my heart and my wretched soul.
Lord, take control of my life.
I know Jesus is the blessed son of God
and that He died on the cross for my sin
and that He rose from the grave
and is living again.
Lord, I confess my sin.
Lord please come in.
Forgive my sin and make me anew.
Teach me to walk in Your ways.
Shine in my life for the world to see.
Lord, take control of my life.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Christian Community

Acts 2:40-47

            If there's anything the violence of the last month has taught us, it's that our world is in desperate need of God.  I am starting to lose track of all the violent attacks reported on the news.  Less than a month ago, a gunman went on a shooting rampage and killed 49 people and injured even more at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  Just this past week, videos were released of two separate incidents where black men were shot by police officers who are now under investigation.  (Regardless of who's right or wrong, it is a terrible trajedy and telling of the kind of world we live in.)  Then, on Thursday, five police officers were killed and seven wounded along with two more civilians when a sniper opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Texas.  Our world is in chaos.  We desperately need God to save us from ourselves.  We all need to repent and turn our hearts back to God before it's too late.
            I long for our nation to turn back to God.  It is something I have prayed about for decades.  It is why I am a preacher.  Here’s something I wrote in my prayer journal way back on June 29, 1999--even before I became a preacher:
“Lord, we need You more than ever.  Please work in the hearts of every man, woman, and child on this planet.  Revive us, Oh Lord.  Turn our hearts back to You.  Save us from these crooked ways.  Bring us back to You.”
This has continued to be my heart's desire for 17 years.  It has directed my life and my ministry.  I’m not alone.  I believe there is a longing in many hearts for our community, our state, our nation, and even our world to turn back to God.  I long for this.  Don’t you?
            As we long for a more godly community, we have different ideas about what that looks like.  Some wish the community to be more like it was in the “good ole days”.  Some long for a more progressive community, where we are more tolerant and open to people who are different than us. Who's right?  If we don’t know what type of community you are aiming for, how can you hope to achieve it?
            Rather than aim for our own worldly ideas of a Christian community, let's look to God's Word.  There was a time when the Church community lived wholeheartedly for God.  Let’s read the Scripture to see what pure Christianity, pure Godly living, pure revival looks like.

Acts 2:42-47
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What were the characteristics of this early Christian community?
            First of all, we see these Christians were devoted. We sometimes hear about parents who are devoted to their children; who would do anything for them.  Sometimes perents are so devoted they smother their children or do too much for them and spoil them.
            We hear about sports fans who are devoted to their team; they won’t miss a single game—whether in person or on TV.  They dress in their team’s apparel, decorate their homes and cars with their team logo.  The most extreme
fans are so devoted they might even paint their faces or bodies for the game.  I’ve seen cheese heads at Packers games shirtless in the dead of winter in Wisconsin!
            The early Christians in Acts 2 were devoted to God.  Oh, that people in our churches today were more devoted to God than they are to the things of this world!  Oh, that we were devoted like the Christians in Acts chapter 2!
            The early Christians were devoted to the Apostles' teaching.  The Apostles spent three years with Jesus.  They learned from what he said and what he did.  They were personal witnesses of his death and resurrection.  In turn, the Apostles passed Jesus’ teachings on to the Church in Acts.  
            These early Christians—who were so close to God, whom we should imitate—were devoted to the Apostles' teachings.  They didn’t try to change the Apostles' teaching to fit their lifestyles.  They didn’t try to make exceptions for themselves.  No.  They humbled themselves, repented of any behavior that was contrary to the teachings—whether sinful things they had done or good things they had left undone—and devoted themselves to living the way Jesus said they should live.
            The Christians of Acts 2 passed these apostolic instructions on to others as well.  They challenged their family, friends, and the people of their community to repent of their sin and turn to God by following the Apostles’ teachings about Jesus.  More and more people started coming to the Lord—and it started to change their community and eventually the whole world.
            These early Christians were also devoted to fellowship.   In other words, they were together as one mind and body.  They saw each other as family.  The bond between these believers was even stronger than the ties between brothers and sisters.  Elders treated their younger believers as their children and young Christians treated their Christian elders as parents.  Everyone in the Christian community was part of the “family of God” and it was more than just words; it was real.  Everyone had each other’s back—to the point they would even sell their possessions for the good of the whole Christian community.  No one went without because everyone was wholeheartedly committed to their Christian family.
            The Church in Acts experienced the risen Christ in their midst because they were devoted to the Breaking of the Bread (otherwise known to us as Holy Communion).  The early church was not distracted by keeping up with the Jones’, making more money, or driving a nicer car.  They were not caught up in sports or politics. They were not glued to their TVs or their Facebook feeds to see the latest gossip in the news.  No.  They were devoted to worshiping the Lord through Holy Communion Thus, they were overwhelmed by Christ's presence in their lives.  Oh that you would be more like these early Christians!  As the song says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus and looked full in his wonderful face.  And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”  The Acts 2 community's closeness to Jesus through worship, fellowship, and Holy Communion made them truly alive in Christ and dead to the world, but there is more.  
            These Christians in Acts 2 devoted themselves to prayer.  It was more than just saying they would pray for one another.  They prayed with one anotherThey met every day to pray together—in their homes, in the Temple, where they worked, in the streets.  They never did anything without praying about it first.  Daily, they prayed—not for safety from persecution or death (though these were ever present and real dangers), but instead they prayed—for boldness to share the Gospel of Jesus with the dark world around them.  If you want the dark world around you to change, if you want to see an end to the violence, you must get serious about prayer.  Revival starts with prayer.  It will change you and it will change the people around you.  Soon, it will change the whole world.

What were the results for the early church in Acts?
            These early Christians lived with a powerful sense of awe and wonder.  They saw God’s miracles all around them—in normal everyday things, and sometimes in dramatic actions—healings, people released from prison, impossibilities becoming realities.
            Have you lost your sense of awe and wonder when it comes to God?  Have you become a cynic, skeptical of everything you hear about God and the church?  Have you stopped seeing the Hand of God working in the world around you?  Have you ever had a sense of wonder about God?  I suggest you devote yourself wholeheartedly to the things I mentioned before as did these early Christians in Acts.  You see how they were filled with awe and wonder.  It will work for you too.  
            Another result was the early Christians saw people being saved everyday.  The rich, the poor, men, women, children, slaves, Jews, Gentiles, politicians, beggars, merchants, idolaters, prostitutes, people of all different races and languages, were convert to Christianity—drawn by the powerful authenticity of these people who devoted themselves to the Lord with their whole hearts, who lived what they believed, who were committed to the Kingdom of God above all else.  Daily, new people became believers and the Church grew and grew until it became the largest religion in the world.

Do you want the world to be a better place, a safer place, a more loving place?  It starts with you.  It starts now.  The choice is up to you.
            The Apostle Peter told us what to do—how to find the salvation we and our world so desperately needs.  Acts 2:38, Peter said, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
            He said repent, which means turn around; go a different direction.  Stop living the wrong way and start living the right way.  Stop being unconcerned, lazy, apathetic, indifferent, silent, uncommitted, and start living wholeheartedly for God!
            Peter said, be baptized.  Baptism is a symbol.  It means we die to our old way of living and are reborn to a new way of thinking and acting.  So you must be baptized with water as a symbol, but more importantly, you must die to your old ways and start living a new life.
            Some might say, “I have nothing of which to repent.” You better check yourself again.  We all need to repent of something.  We all need improvement.  We all need to grow.  And just because you are living like or have the attitudes people held in the “good ole days” does not mean you are living right.  Some of those “old” attitudes were wrong (racism, sinful pride, complacency).  It may be that Jesus has some new attitudes and practices He wants you to learn.
            Some might say, “I don’t want things to change.  I like my life the way it is.”  Well, what can I say.  You have fallen in love with the world.  I pray the Lord will break your heart until you realize the world has nothing worthwhile to offer.  Then maybe you will turn away from the world and turn to God.
            Some might say, "We need to protest!  We've got to stand up for our rights!  We need to fight!"  Violence will change nothing; at least not in any positive, lasting ways.  Look instead at Jesus' example.  If anyone did, Jesus had the right and the power to call down 10,000 angels to come and violently change the world.  However he didn't.  Instead, he offered forgiveness and grace.  He said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  In the end, he died on the cross for the very people who hated him.  As he hung on that cross, he prayed, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  Only love can heal our broken world.  God is love.

Perhaps it's time to repent and turn to God.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Almost a Christian

The following message was adapted from John Wesley's sermon from 1741 titled "The Almost Christian."  I pray it challenges you to consider the very important question:  Are you a Christian or merely almost a Christian.

Acts 26:1-29
1Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You may speak in your defense.”
So Paul, gesturing with his hand, started his defense: “I am fortunate, King Agrippa, that you are the one hearing my defense today against all these accusations made by the Jewish leaders, for I know you are an expert on all Jewish customs and controversies. Now please listen to me patiently!
“As the Jewish leaders are well aware, I was given a thorough Jewish training from my earliest childhood among my own people and in Jerusalem. If they would admit it, they know that I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of our religion. Now I am on trial because of my hope in the fulfillment of God’s promise made to our ancestors. In fact, that is why the twelve tribes of Israel zealously worship God night and day, and they share the same hope I have. Yet, Your Majesty, they accuse me for having this hope! Why does it seem incredible to any of you that God can raise the dead?
“I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. 11 Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.
12 “One day I was on such a mission to Damascus, armed with the authority and commission of the leading priests. 13 About noon, Your Majesty, as I was on the road, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions. 14 We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.’
15 “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked.
“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. 16 Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. Tell people that you have seen me, and tell them what I will show you in the future. 17 And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles 18 to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’
19 “And so, King Agrippa, I obeyed that vision from heaven. 20 I preached first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that all must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do. 21 Some Jews arrested me in the Temple for preaching this, and they tried to kill me. 22 But God has protected me right up to this present time so I can testify to everyone, from the least to the greatest. I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Messiah would suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, and in this way announce God’s light to Jews and Gentiles alike.”
24 Suddenly, Festus shouted, “Paul, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!”
25 But Paul replied, “I am not insane, Most Excellent Festus. What I am saying is the sober truth. 26 And King Agrippa knows about these things. I speak boldly, for I am sure these events are all familiar to him, for they were not done in a corner! 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do—”
28 Agrippa interrupted him. “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian so quickly?”
29 Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that both you and everyone here in this audience might become the same as I am, except for these chains.”

            We live in a “Christian” society (or at least we think we do).  Polls show that 71% of Americans claim to be Christian.  However, more and more, people are acting in very unchristian ways.  Even our government is making decisions many feel are unchristian.  We fear our nation is slipping into unchristian ways.
            Paul and the other Apostles lived at a time when Christians were such a small part of the population they seemed insignificant.  It is estimated that less than 1% of the population at that time was Christian.  There were only 40 Christian churches in the whole world in 100 AD!  This tiny group of Christians were spread out across a Mediterranean world filled with debauchery, corruption, and bent on destroying the fledgling Christian faith.  Compared to those beleaguered Christians, you would think we have nothing to complain about!
            Perhaps, the main reason we fear for our country is because it has been so “Christian” in the past.  We remember fondly a time when churches were better attended, people were more honest, and society better reflected the beliefs and values we consider “Christian.”  And now, as we see those values eroding, we feel our nation will soon be “Christian” no longer.
            But then, we need to consider if we truly live in a Christian society now.  Have we ever really lived in a Christian nation?  Does the term “Christian nation” even mean what we think it means?  What does it really mean to be a Christian?  And most important of all, we need to ask ourselves:  Am I really a Christian?  These are the questions we will explore in this message.

The Characteristics of an Almost Christian
            There are many good, kind people in our world who are not Christians.  Sometimes we admire them and mistake them for Christians.  So, the first thing we must do if we are going to define what is a real Christian, is to note the characteristics of someone who is almost a Christian. Then, we will be able to go one step further and describe someone who is completely a Christian.
            Someone who is almost a Christian is honest.  They tell the truth and do not lie.  In fact, they will speak the truth even when it is hard.  They will be honest, even if it goes against the grain of public opinion.  They will tell you what you need to hear even if you don't want to hear it or if it upsets you, because someone who is almost a Christian is truthful.  Yet it is more than just words.
            Someone who is almost a Christian also has integrity.  In other words, they are the same person when no one is watching that they are when everyone is watching.  Someone who is almost a Christian acts the same way on Sunday morning at church that they do on Saturday night.  They have integrity.
            Someone who is almost a Christian--who is standing right at the threshold of being a true Christian--is kind and helpful.  They are the kind of person who always encourages others.  They send cards to people who are sick or in mourning. Someone who is almost a Christian visits people when they are in the hospital.  They are so thoughtful and always know the right thing to do to cheer people up.  Someone who is almost a Christian faithfully prays for others, but there is more.
            Someone who is almost a Christian--who is knocking at the very door--will be very religious.  They refrain from things the Bible forbids.  You would never hear someone who is almost a Christian spewing profanity.  Their talk will always be wholesome and good.  They would never commit adultery or steal.  They would never go around town gossiping about others behind their back because they are almost a Christian.  However, these people do more than avoid bad things.
            The "almost Christian" does many good things.  They go to church regularly.  They volunteer at church and in the community.  They might coach their son's baseball team or teach Sunday school.  They do good every chance they get--even giving to charity, both within the church and without.
            Someone who is almost a Christian--just millimeters away--is always clean and well put together.  They exercise regularly and take care of their body.  Their home is always clean; you can stop by anytime unannounced and you will never find dirty dishes in the sink; there will never be dust on their furniture.  Their vehicle is always clean and tidy; it never smells like the lunch they ate in their car yesterday, because they are almost a Christian!
            These people--who are almost Christian--are some of the best citizens you will find.  They always do their civic duty.  They are proud of their country and community.  They always want to do good and be good.  One more thing:  someone who is almost a Christian prays every morning and night, and before all their meals, and many times throughout the day.  They are always praying to God, because they are almost a Christian.  

            Some of you will say:  "Is it even possible that someone could have all these fine attributes and still only be almost a Christian?"           
            Yes!  John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, who wrote the sermon that inspired this blog, was just such a man.  He said this of himself--that he was at one time only an almost Christian.  Listen to some of the things Wesley did before he became a complete Christian:
Wesley grew up the son of a preacher.  He learned the Bible and godly living from his saintly mother.  He went to seminary and became an Anglican priest.  He traveled from England to Georgia to be a missionary to the Indians.  John Wesley strove with all his might to do good and follow God’s will as a Christian.  Yet it was only after he had already done all these things that Welsey fnally realized he was only an almost Christian.  In 1738 while listening to someone read Martin Luther's preface to the book of Romans, something amazing happened.  Wesley said, "while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."  Wesley realized that all the good things he had done, all those things that made him almost a Christian, had done absolutely nothing at all to save him.  Only Christ could save him and so Wesley surrendered everything to Jesus and became a real Christian for the first time at the age of 35-years-old.

A Complete Christian
            Now that we have described someone who is almost a Christian, we can define what makes you a complete Christian.  First, Jesus said you must "Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength…"  God must be absolutely first in your life, no exceptions.  
            Many will say, "Of course!  I do love God."  No, I don't think you understand the gravity of this.  The love of God must engross all your heart, all your desires, all your passions until you are utterly dead to the world; until your pride is obliterated.  Your love for God must take absolutely first place in your life--before your wife, before your kids, before your career, before your hobbies, before all your worldly desires.  You must forsake all else for the love of God--Jesus said this is the greatest commandment.
            And the second greatest commandment--if you are to be fully a Christian (and not only almost a Christian)--is to "Love your neighbor as yourself..."  And in case you're wondering, Jesus said everyone is your neighbor.  It's not just the person who lives next door, it is also the person who lives on the other side of town or the "wrong" side of town.  It is also the illegal immigrants from Mexico who keep crossing our borders and threatening our economy.  Our neighbors are also homosexuals and others with lifestyles with which we don't agree.  Our neighbors are people in other countries who do not share our same values.  These are our neighbors and we are to love them.  The person who shot and killed all those people at the nightclub in Orlando is also our neighbor; so are terrorists who are bent on destroying our way of life.  All these are our neighbors and we are to love them as we love ourselves.
            You say, "Those aren't our neighbors!  Those are our enemies!"  Jesus also said, "Love your enemies.  Pray for those who curse you."  So if you are to be fully Christian, you also must love your enemies--both your own enemies and the enemies of God.  And your love must be such that you would even lay down your life for them, as did Christ.  Lest you forget what this Christian love is, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us, "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance."
            You say, "Who can live like that? It's impossible."  You are right.  It is impossible.  No human can love like this.  It would be like asking a camel to walk through the eye of a needle.  So there is one more thing you must have if you are to be fully and completely and wholly a Christian: faith.  
            Humanly speaking, it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.  With Christ we are more than conquerors.  With Christ, we are called sons of God.  Christ said we would do even greater things than he did!  (How is that possible?  How can we do more than Jesus?  He was God! Yet, Jesus said we would!)  Through Christ, we have overcome the world, death, sin (not just the guilt of sin, but also the power of it!).  Through faith in Christ, we are saved!
            But don't be deceived!  Faith that doesn't bring repentance, right living, love and good works, is not real faith; it is a dead and useless faith, the same faith demons have.  You say, "I believe!  I believe what the Apostles' Creed says:  I believing Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried, and that he rose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty!"  Good, but don't you know there are demons burning in hell right now who believe those very same things?  That is not saving faith.  It is dead and useless.
            Faith that saves, is trusting in Jesus so that you surrender everything to him.  It is trusting him enough to follow his teachings and do what he says, right now.  Saving faith is putting the love of God and your neighbor above everything else.  It makes you throw away all your pride, all your reliance on your own merits--knowing that all your good deeds are nothing and have no ability to make you good, let alone save you.  That kind of faith changes you.  It changes everything.  
            John Wesley said:  "Whosoever has this faith which ‘purifies the heart’, by the power of God who dwelleth therein, from pride, anger, desire, ‘from all unrighteousness’, ‘from all filthiness of flesh and spirit’; which fills it with love stronger than death both to God and to all mankind—love that doth the works of God, glorying to spend and to be spent for all men, and that endureth with joy, not only the reproach of Christ, the being mocked, despised, and hated of all men, but whatsoever the wisdom of God permits the malice of men or devils to inflict; whosoever has this faith, thus ‘working by love’, is not almost only, but altogether a Christian."

So we must get to the most important question today, which is not are we living in a Christian country, but am I a real Christian?  
I think if we are honest, we will have to admit that not many of us even rise to the level of someone who is almost a Christian. How then can so many go on believing they are completely a Christian. And if not, then what are you to do? Should you go on the same as you were before you read this? Should you go on pretending to others that you are a real Christian or deceiving yourself until the day you are horrified to find yourself before God’s throne and finally realize that you were not a Christian your whole life or maybe almost a Christian, but that you have failed to be wholly and completely and fully a real Christian.
Humble yourself.  Repent.  Let Christ save you and have faith in him alone to help you live as a True Christian from this day forward.