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Monday, December 12, 2016

Follow the Star, Part 3

Introduction
            Christmas is a time of signs and symbols.  The miraculous virgin birth of Christ was a sign that this child was very special and here by God’s design.  For Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
God sometimes gives signs to show people the right way.  Have you seen signs to guide you through life?  Some signs can be subtle and hard to notice.  Other signs are obvious, maybe even frightening.  Regardless, when we really want to know God’s will, we grow when we respond to the Holy Spirit’s leading with obedience. 
Today, I want to focus on understanding what God wants from you.  Suppose he has given you a sign.  How do you interpret it?  How do you understand what it means?

Matthew 2:13-16
13 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, 15 and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

16 Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance.

A Clear Sign
            Joseph received a clear message from God.  God sent an angel to warn him in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and baby Jesus.  If we accept what the scripture says, there weren’t any symbols to interpret.  Joseph didn’t have to struggle with what the dream meant.
There was another Joseph—in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis—who also had dreams.  That Old Testament Joseph’s dreams were strange and full of symbolic meaning.  Do you remember?  There was one dream in Genesis where the sun, moon, and stars bowed down to Joseph.  It was a symbol of how Joseph’s brothers—along with all the known world—would one day bow down to Joseph when he became Pharaoh’s second in command.
But the Joseph in our story this morning—Jesus’ earthly father Joseph—had a different kind of dream.  It was much clearer.  “Get up right now and run away to Egypt!  King Herod is trying to kill the baby Jesus.”  No symbols there.  The meaning is plain and urgent.
Sometimes God comes to people in a dream.  People have dreams all the time.  Usually, there’s nothing to them—just random synapses firing in the brain while we sleep.  But when God comes to you in a dream to give you a sign (or in any other way), you will know it’s something special you need to pay attention to.  If God wants you to get the message, you’ll be left with the distinct impression that this dream (or sign) is something important to which you should pay attention.

A Sensitive Ear
Now, if you make a habit in your life of tuning God out, you might not notice God’s voice.  (I know some husbands who have learned the art of tuning out their wives and kids.  The house could be on fire, and they still will not notice if the game is on TV.  Piece of advice:  if you do that too much, you won't have a wife and kids for very long.)
If you’re the kind of person who goes through life dismissing God’s voice—“Oh come on! God doesn’t speak to people.  I don’t believe in all that superstitious nonsense..."—you’re probably not going to notice when God speaks to you.  But if you believe God can and does speak to people, and you make a life-long practice of asking Him for direction, listening intently for the Spirit, and obeying when He speaks, you will notice when God sends you a clear message.
You know, a lot of people envy Joseph’s message from God.  God spoke so clearly to him:  “Get up!  Run to Egypt!”  We say, “Why can’t God just speak to me that clearly ?”
Do you realize, Joseph was a godly man?  He didn’t just wake up one day with the ability to hear God’s voice.  His whole life, Joseph was practicing and preparing his ‘God-ears’ to hear God’s voice.  Matthew 1:19 tells us Joseph was a righteous man.  That means he trusted God.  He worshiped God.  He prayed to God.  He had a relationship with God.  He went through life listening and trying to obey God.  So when God came to Joseph in a dream, Joseph already had the ears to hear.
What about you?  Do you trust God?  Do you worship God?  Do you pray to God?  Do you have a relationship with God?  Do you read the Scripture?  Do you believe God can and will speak to you?  Do you try to listen to God and obey?  The more you do, the more sensitive your ears will be.
But that's not what most people want, is it?  We would rather God only speak to us when we have a question or when we want something.  Then, once we get what we want, God can just go get back in His box and be quiet.  We'll call Him when we want something. 
What is that?!?  We've got it backwards, I think.  God is the Creator of the universe.  He created us, not the other way around.  We don't get to tell Him when and when not to speak.  Nor should we want to.  We should count every word that comes to us from Him a blessing and a privilege.  We should be at His beckoning call.  But we are sinful, selfish people and so we've got it all mixed up.

Importance is Important
Let me give you some important advice about interpreting God’s signs.  If you see a little something that might be a sign from God and it encourages you, just accept it.  Don’t question it.  Be encouraged.  For example, if you’re driving home from work and you see the most beautiful cloud formation in the sky and think, “Wow!  It’s almost like God painted that just to tell me He loves me.”  Well, maybe He did. (God does love you, so you can be sure that's true.)  Maybe it wasn't really a sign from God, but what’s the harm in just accepting that it might be?  I mean, God does love you and we’re not talking about selling your house and moving to China here.  We’re just noting the wonder of God’s creation and getting a little encouragement.  So why question it?  Just accept it!  It’s a small sign.  Give it the benefit of doubt.
This can apply to bad feelings too.  Suppose you are out late at the gym and it’s dark outside when you get done.  You go to walk out to your car to go home (like you do every other night in December), but you get this ominous feeling like maybe you shouldn’t walk to your car alone tonight.  I say: trust your instinct.  Maybe God is trying to tell you it’s not safe out there tonight.  Maybe you should wait inside until someone can walk you to your car.  What’s the harm in just accepting it as a sign from God?  Again, we’re not talking about selling your house and moving to China here.  All that’s at stake is a few minutes of your time and maybe asking someone for help. 
Now if you are having persistent feelings of doom and gloom, fear, depression, paranoia, distrust, etc. that are going on for weeks at a time, I suggest you talk it over with an experienced and trustworthy Christian friend.  God doesn’t want us to go through life afraid and paranoid.  If we are, there might be more going on we need to address.
The point is, the potential consequences the sign has on your life is important in how seriously you take it.  If it’s just a small thing, just accept it and thank God for it.  However, if the sign is pointing you toward a really important decision that will have lasting consequences, you ought to take a little more care in understanding it. 

Let me give you 4 tips that can help you discover what God Might saying to you.
            Tip #1 - Talk it over with a spiritual advisor.  If you feel like God might be trying to tell you something, talk to a trusted Christian friend, family member, Sunday school teacher, or pastor.  You may even want to discuss it with a professional Christian counselor.  These are people who can give you insight about what God might be saying (or if it's God speaking at all).  They can also encourage and give you support. 
            When I felt God was calling me to be a pastor, I talked with several people over a period of time:  my mom, by best friend, my wife, and my pastor.  They helped me understand and verify God's call and it just made me feel better to have people I trusted walking with me on that journey.  Even now, after years of experience walking with God, I still practice my own advice.  I talk to people about what I think God might be saying to me.  It is tremendously helpful (essential really).
            Tip #2 - Ask, " Does what I think God is telling me match up with the Bible?  The Bible is the foundation of what we believe and the last word in everything we do.  God gave us the Scriptures to guide us and He's is not going to ask you to do something contrary to His own Word in the Bible.
            In South Carolina in 2012, Tammi Estep stabbed her husband.  She said she did after, "Jesus and Mary told me to kill him because he is Satan's spawn!"[i]  Well, how many wives have not thought there husband's were the spawn of Satan at one time or another…  Seriously though, God is not going to tell you to murder someone.  Nor is He going to tell you to do something that contradicts what He's already said in Scripture.  If you feel He is, I would point you back to Tip #1 - Talk to a spiritual advisor.
            Tip #3 - Does the sign intend to lead you or others closer to Christ?   The Great Commission from Jesus to His followers is:  "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…" (Matthew 28:19 ).  This is our mission.   Remember, life is not about you.  This isn’t the story of your life.  This is God’s story and you are just one actor in the movie.  You don’t even have that big a roll.  So remember, if God is talking to you--directing you in some really important matter that will have life-long, lasting consequences--it will probably be linked in a large way to leading you or others closer to Christ.  If it isn't, if it's linked more to you own self-centered interests, it's more likely not God speaking to you.  Either way, I would point you back to Tip #1 - Talk to a spiritual advisor.
            Tip #4 - Ask the Holy Spirit to verify it for you.  It's OK to ask God to help you be sure.  People did that in the Bible many times.  There was even a man named Gideon in the book of Judges who made a kind of experiment.  God sent an angel and told Gideon to go fight some people who kept raiding Israel.  Gideon asked for a sign to verify it.  He said, "I'm gonna lay out a piece of wool fleece on the ground.  If there's dew on the fleece in the morning, but not the ground, I will know You were speaking to me."  And in the morning, there was dew on the fleece and not the ground.  But Gideon wanted to be sure, so he repeated the experiment, but this time he said, "Alright.  If it's really You, this time there will be dew on the ground all around, but not on the fleece." And it happened just like that!  In the morning, there was dew on the ground, but none on the fleece!  So Gideon knew it was God talking to him and he went off and defeated his enemies.
            It's OK to ask for a sign to be sure it's really God speaking to you.  But some might point out what Jesus said in Matthew 12:39, “It is an evil and adulterous nation that looks for a sign.  No sign will be given…”  Jesus' frustration in that instance was with those who had already seen sign after sign after sign that proved Jesus was indeed the Son of God.  He'd healed the blind and deaf, made the lame to walk, walked on water himself, and even turned water into wine.  What more would it take to convince people?  Enough signs had already been given.  Some people didn’t want to believe and so they just kept asking for more signs.  Then they would pick apart every sign given with sinful cynicism.  They weren't going to believe no matter what Jesus did. 
            So you can ask for a sign, but once you know God is told you to do something, it's time to act.  We probably all have had times we knew what we were supposed to do, but didn't want to do it.  Don't keep asking God for signs as an excuse to put off obedience.  Get busy.  And, oh, did I mention you should see Tip #1 - talk to a spiritual advisor?  You should. 

Conclusion
            I want to end this blog with a few guiding questions as you contemplate what God might be saying to you now.  Listen for God’s voice as you pray about the following:
  • Have you been listening to God?  Have you been exercising your spiritual ears?  Have you been trusting Jesus?  Have you been praying? Have you been reading your Bible?  Is it time for you to start today?
  • What has God been trying to say to you?  Has He been nudging you?  Has He been shouting?  Have you been ignoring Him?
  • Do you need to talk to a spiritual advisor—trusted Christian friend, family member, or pastor?
  • Is it time to “Get up and go” do what God’s been telling you to do?  What’s stopping you?




[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/tammi-estep-stabbing-south-carolina_n_2130765.html

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Follow the Star, Part 2

Luke 2:8-14
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Introduction
            Sometimes God gives us signs to show us the way.  If you believe in them and really want to know God’s will for you, you might be able to see and follow the signs to Jesus’ will for you.  Sometimes the sign may just appear—one bright star in a sky filled with twinkling stars.  Are you watching for the star?  Will you notice?
            At other times, God’s sign to you might be big and dramatic.  It might even be frightening—like an army of angels singing to the shepherds on a cold Bethlehem night.  It that case, the challenge may be—not so much noticing the sign, but—deciding what to do with it.  What will you do when God sends a sign so big it stops you in your tracks and shakes you to your very core?
            The shepherds could have run away and hid in fear.  They might have been frozen with fear and done nothing.  But instead, their fear turned into a blessing because they obeyed and went to Bethlehem and found Jesus.

A Cold, Dark Night
            Night time can be an eerie occasion.  It probably was for the shepherds.  I remember a cold, dark and eerie night when God gave me a big (and frightening) sign.  I was only 18-years-old.  I was driving from my mom's home in Macon back to college in Marietta.  Now I don't know about you, but when I have a long drive like that by myself, I like to turn up the radio.  And since I'd driven that route so many times, I wasn't paying much attention to where I was. 

'84 Mercury Marquis
            Then, my '84 Mercury decided to die.  Smoke billowed from beneath the hood.  The car decelerated and I pulled off to the shoulder.  The car shut off and would not start.  I found myself on the side of I-75 at 11:00 PM on a Sunday night somewhere between Macon and Atlanta and I had no idea where.  This was before cell phones so I needed to walk to a gas station to find a payphone.  The problem was, I didn't even know if I needed to walk forwards or backwards!  I chose to go forward.
            As I walked forward in the dead of night, cars speeding by at 65, 75, 85 MPH, it dawned on me--for the first time in my life--this could be my last night on earth.  All it would take was one of those speeding cars to swerve slightly off the road and hit me.  I'd heard of things like that happening before.  Or maybe, some serial killer decided to pull over and abduct me and cut me up into little pieces just for fun.  I'd heard of things like that happening before too.
            I realized that night that I was not ready to die.  "Why not?" I thought.  "I'm a Christian.  I gave my life to Christ.  I will go to heaven when I die.  What's keeping me from being ready?"  Yet I still felt I was not ready to die.  Something was left unfulfilled in my life.  I realized I walked that lonely dark road I was not walking the road God wanted me to walk in life.  And that dark road became a frightening sign to me that I needed to do some things different.  I needed to change the direction of my life so I would be ready when my time came.  God's sign to me helped change the course of my life.

Other Signs
            I have heard of dramatic signs in other people's lives too.  When I was in seminary, I volunteered as a chaplain for The Carpenter’s House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.  I heard several recovering addicts share how their addiction landed them in the hospital or nearly ended their lives.  They realized they had to change or else their addiction would kill them.  God must have saved their life for a reason so they better get busy finding help to overcome their disease.
            I have seen others signs too.  I had a church member once who had a heart attack.  He realized he needed needed to be there for his daughter as she grew into a young adult, found a mate, and got married.  He started walking and exercising and eating healthier.  His heart attack was a sign.
            Perhaps you lost your job.  It was hard--not only because of the money, but--because your job was an important part of your identity.  Maybe God is trying to tell you your job is not your identity; find your identity in Christ.  Maybe God is telling you to trust money less and trust God more.
            Maybe someone you love dies unexpectedly.  That can be a sign from God.  One of my former church members died this past weekend--Jim Ham.  Jim was a father grandfather county commissioner, and he was only 54 years old.  He died in a single car crash.  No one saw it coming.  Unexpected deaths like this can be a tragic sign that reminds us to cherish those you hold dear.  They jar us out of our complacency and teach us to take full advantage of the present moment for we never know how much time we have; nothing is guaranteed.
            What if someone you love looses faith?  When my brother came home one Christmas many years ago saying he no longer believed what he'd learned about Jesus in church, our family was very concerned.  Furthermore, Nelson seemed to know so much more about the Christian religion and what the Bible says than I did.  This was a big sign to me that I needed to make the effort to know what I believed and figure out if I was just taking for granted the things people had told me about Christianity over the years.  Perhaps when someone you care about has doubts about their faith, it is a sign to you to take your beliefs and how you live more seriously.  Maybe it's time to get serious about your own faith and GRO a little.
 
Slide – G.R.O.
            If you want to get serious and grow in your faith, you need to G.R.O.
            Growth can only come when you are committed to growth.  I hope you will commit to personal growth throughout your life. True Christianity doesn’t mean we get saved and then hide in a corner for the rest of life.  We are constantly growing to become more like Christ.  Growth should occur in all areas of our life--spiritually, intellectually, and physically.  These areas are all interrelated and you cannot be truly healthy in one area if you are lacking in the others.
            Respond.  In order to grow, you have to respond to the Holy Spirit.  You are responsible for your growth.  that doesn't mean you make yourself grow.  The Holy Spirit makes you grow.  However, when the Holy Spirit guide you to do something, you are able to respond by doing it.  So you must respond because you are responsible.
            Obey.  You grow when you are obedient.  You can't expect to grow if you disobey the Holy Spirit.  But if you respnd with obedience you will grow.  If the Holy Spirit guides you to study your Bible, you will grow spiritually.  If the Spirit tell you to exercise and you obey, you will improve your health.  But if you disregard or disobey, you will not grow.

Are You Ready to GRO?
            Sometimes God gives us a really big sign to shake us to the core.  If God has done that for you, I hope you will Grow by Responding with Obedience to what the Holy Spirit has said.  Perhaps God's sign to you was more subtle, but if you're paying attention, you can still see the sign like the star shining for the Wisemen.  Let God get your attention and ask Him to reveal what he wants you to do.  Next week we will discuss how you can interpret the meaning of Gods signs.

Holy Communion (AKA The Lord's Supper or the Eucharist) is a tremendous sign of God's love and presence with us.  The bread represents the body of Christ God gave us.  The wine represents the blood Christ shed for us on the cross to forgive our sins.  This simple meal reminds us of Christ's loving sacrifice for us and also his living presence with us today.  When have you last received Holy Communion?  Do you see God's sign to you in this sacrament?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Homesick

The Truth As Far As I Can Tell…
 
John 14:1-4 – Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.”
 
This Title Max Pawn Shop in Macon, GA used to be a
Gabby's Diner, where my wife and I had our first date.
I traveled to Macon, GA for a funeral this week.  Going to Macon often gives me a bittersweet feeling.  You see Macon is the hometown where I grew up.  It’s where I went to school, made friends, met my wife, and got married.  Going home to Macon is bittersweet because it has changed so much.  Most all of the places are still there.  I can point them out.  There is the old neighborhood, Burghard Elementary, Ballard A Middle School, and Southwest High.  There is the place I worked my first job. 
As I said, the community has changed a lot.  Everything is older.  It seems worn out and run down.  Gabby’s Diner, where Kelly and I had our first date, is a Title Pawn now.  Even if everything was the same, I’ve changed.  So, home just isn’t the same.  Those days of my youth are gone.  I can’t go back to them.   So it’s kind of bittersweet to go home to Macon because it feels like home has sort of been lost.  I can remember it, but I can’t go back and I don’t even know if I’d want to.  The Truth is, the good ole days weren’t necessarily that good anyway.
This bittersweet feeling reminds me that Home—our true Home, Home with a “capital H”—is not a place we go back to.  It never was.  Our real Home, the place our soul really longs to be, is somewhere we are going forward to.  You see, Home is not the house you grew up in.  Home is not Grandma’s house over in Bloomfield.  Home is not even the old church you went to as a kid.  Home—our real Home—is the place we learn about from Jesus when we read the Bible, when we worship in Church.  Our eternal Home is the reward awaiting all who know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
That is the Good News of the Christian faith.  We believe that those who follow Christ as their Lord and Savior have victory over sin and death.  Being a Christian doesn’t mean we are perfect.  You don’t have to be perfect to come to Jesus.  Actually, Jesus came to save us from our sin—to forgive the mistakes we’ve made (no matter how many times we’ve made them)—and to enable us to make a brand new start.  Jesus loved us when we didn’t deserve it, when we were totally unlovable.  He laid down his life for us on the cross so we don’t have to pay the price for our sins.  Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We have something great to look forward to after this life is over.  We have eternity.  Home is not a place we go back to.  Home is a place we go forward to.  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!







Follow this link to hear a great song called "Homesick" by Mercy Me.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Following the Star, part 1

Matthew 2:1-2
1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” 

Introduction
            Advent and Christmas are seasons of signs and symbols.  We decorate our homes, our trees, our church, our community.  Even stores and public buildings maintained by non-Christians adorn their spaces with signs of the seasons—stars, angels, trumpets, and Santa Clause (who was a Bishop in the Catholic Church many centuries ago, St. Nicolas).
            All these signs have meanings for those who are wise enough to see.  I hope you will take the time to notice the signs of the season and seek to understand their meaning more clearly.  But what about life?  Does God still give us signs—the way He gave a star to the Wisemen to guide them to Bethlehem and the baby Jesus? 
            Over the next few weeks, I hope to share some of my experience in sensing God's signs and guidance so that you might better sense His signs to you and find the divine guidance you need in your life.

A Critical Question
            To begin, each person must answer a crucial question for themselves. Does God give us signs?  Well, not everybody believes in God.  Some people are atheists—they don't believe God exists—and so they obviously don't believe God gives signs because they don't believe in God.  But what about religious people?
            Religious people (who believe is God) fall somewhere along a spectrum between two extremes.  There are superstitious people who see everything as a sign or supernatural event.  Every time it rains, every time a bird lands on a window sill, every time the phone rings, it is a supernatural act of God (or the Devil).  I had a youth pastor once who we paid $8,000 per year.  He was paid monthly, so his monthly pay check came out to $666.66!  He was like, "Hey, can y'all do something because I just can't accept a pay check with the number of the beast on it."  So we paid him twice a month, which came out to $333.33, which is a really good number (like the Trinity).  Now there wasn't really anything to the numbers.  It was just a coincidence.  But some people are very superstitious and see supernatural signs and event in everything that happens!
            On the other end of the spectrum, there are deists who believe God is not involved at all in human events.  They use the analogy that God is like a watch maker who designed the machinery of creation with all the laws of nature as the gears; God wound up the machine like you would wind up a watch and then He stepped back to let it run all by itself, never more stepping in to interfere.  So the deists believe God does not give signs at all or even intervene in human affairs in any way.  Another variation of this is people who believe God acted in biblical times, but no longer does.
            So we have the two extremes—deism and superstition.  As with most things though, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  Either extreme will lead you astray.  The Truth is, God is not a micromanager.  He is not like a puppeteer up in heaven holding the strings to every person's life and every event on earth.  He is not standing over us controlling every choice we make and every thing we do.   We are not robots.  God gives us free will.  We can choose to love Him or not love Him.  We have the choice.  That was the kind of creation God wanted—one that could move and act independently of His interference, for that is the only way real love and real relationships can exist.
            On the other hand, God is not a distant, uninvolved spectator either.  Read your Bible. God was actively involved throughout the Bible. He performed miracles. He intervened. The New Testament is full of stories and eyewitness accounts of God supernaturally influencing the affairs of the world on a very intimate, personal scale.  The very foundation of the Christian faith is the direct intervention of God's power over the natural law of death.  Jesus was crucified, buried in a tomb, and on the third day God rolled the stone away and Christ rose from the grave.  That is not natural!  That is a supernatural occurrence made possible by the direct intervention of God.  If we don't have that, we have nothing.
            And I think there is an important Truth the modern Church needs to hear—especially the Methodist Church (which tends to be so fixated on rationalism and intellectuality that we want to explain away everything with science and logic; we are so hesitant to talk about miracles and divine power). There is an important Truth you need to hear this morning. The Truth is that the Holy Spirit is still as alive and as active and as involved today as He was during biblical times.  Read the Book of Acts and see how the Holy Spirit moved and empowered people. Acts is the story of the New Testament Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, fulfilling the mission of Christ to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  It is said the book of Acts is the only unfinished book of the Bible.  It is unfinished because we are the Church and we are still on the mission and we are still writing the story.  We are still the Church of Acts!  And the same Holy Spirit that empowered them, that opened prison doors for Peter, that healed the sick and the lame and the blind and the deaf, that saved the lost and changed the world, is the same Holy Spirit that is living and moving and breathing in our Church today.  What's changed?  Nothing!  The only thing that's changed is the way we think and believe.  Maybe we need to change our thinking and realize the Spirit's power is still in us.
            Each person has to decide what they believe, for what you believe affects what you see and how you interpret the signs around you. Do you believe God can and does give signs to guide us? Or do you believe God does not bother to speak to us anymore as he did in the New Testament?  I want you to know that I believe God does still give us signs to guide us if we are willing to look for them.

Seeing the Signs
            In Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
            Do you want to know God’s will for you? I mean do you really care what God wants you to do with your life? What about your day? Do you care what God wants you to do today?  Many people go through life missing all God’s signs, because frankly, they’re not that interested in what God wants them to do. 
            The Wisemen in the East saw the star, but what about all the Jewish scholars in Jerusalem?  They had the Old Testament and their job was to focus on God and His teachings and to interpret His will.  Why didn’t they see the star? Why did a bunch of foreigners from a totally different religion have to travel thousands of miles to find the new “King of the Jews”? Could it be that the Jewish teachers and Jewish King Herod were too wrapped in their own selfish pursuits to look for or even care about what God was trying to do (at least until it threatened their own self-centered plans)?  So are the vast majority of people in our world today. We are too busy chasing our own dreams to see God’s vision for us and so we walk right past the signs God puts in our path.
            If you want to see the signs God gives you, you have to know God’s will; yearn for it like a the dry Southeast is yearning for water during this drought. As Jesus said, you have Ask, Seek, and Knock.
            You have to Ask to know God’s will. Make it your daily prayer. “Lord, what do you want me to do with my life? What do you want me to do today? What do you want for my family? What do you want for my church?”  I once saw a child ask their mama for a candy bar in the grocery store.  Have you ever seen this happen?  Mama said "No!", but that wasn't the end of it.  The child fell on the floor, kicking and screaming, "I want a candy bar!  I want a candy bar!  I want a candy bar!"  That's the passion we need when we ask God to show us His will.  (Maybe we need to be a little more mature about it, but that's the passion and commitment we need.)  
            You must Seek God’s will for you through the Scripture.  Study the Bible and see what it says. It teaches us all how to live. There are some parts of God’s will that apply to all of us the same. Look in your Bible to find God’s will for us.  And as you study the Bible, you will also hear God revealing things just for you.  The Church can help you test what you hear God saying and help clarify God’s word to you. Then, the Church can help hold you accountable to God’s will for you.
            You must Knock on the door of Heaven if you want to know God’s will. But when you ask, seek, and knock, God will open the door for you and you will begin to see the signs He gives to guide you.

Closing
I must confess that I’m no expert in seeing and following God’s signs.  Sometimes my eyes and ears are just a little cloudy.  However, I started diligently Asking, Seeking, and Knocking when I was 18 years old.  So, following God’s will for me and my family has been my number one focus for 24 years.  I started out by reading my Bible every day.  Soon God led me to my wife, my church, my family, and ultimately to my ministry.  So I have some experience with this.  I hope my experience will help me share something of value with you over the next few weeks as we consider how God shares signs to guide us through life.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Perfect Them in Love

Introduction
            The people of Pleasant Grove UMC are being the body of Christ.  Click here to watch Jeremy, Allie, and Sara share how Jesus is blessing them at PGUMC.  They are growing in faith, hope, and love thanks to Jesus Christ.
            1 Corinthians 13:13 says, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” Faith, hope, and love are the core components of the promise we—as a congregation—make to people who become members of Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church. We promise to “...do all in our power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”  In my previous two blogs, I talked about how we can help increase faith and confirm hope in others. Today I want to consider the greatest virtue—love.  

1 Corinthians 13:1-3
1 If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

The Greatest is Love
            Perhaps you remember a brash, young boxer who used to boast, "I am the greatest!" Mohamed Ali was possibly the greatest boxer of all times and his ability to boast and talk trash was even greater than his boxing ability.  However, true greatness, the greatest greatness, the only greatness that will last is love.
[Slide – Love is patient and kind…]
            Love is not a warm fuzzy feeling. The love the Bible describes is very different from the love we hear about from the world in movies and love songs. Love is what we do for one another when we act sacrificially. Love is full of patience & kindness.  love honors others.  Love protects, trusts, hopes forgives, and reconciles.  Love gives to others sacrificially.  Jesus is the greatest example of love.
            When I look at the way Jesus loved people and when I read how 1 Corinthians 13 describes love, I don't read anything about how another person makes you feel—how they give you goose bumps or make you tingle or how happy they make you feel.  The Bible teaches us love is what we do for others even if we get nothing in return.

Perfection
             John Wesley believed we could reach perfection in this lifetime. Wesley caught a lot of flack from theologians who scoffed at the idea of perfect people. People today might be skeptical of his assertion too.  Obviously, people are far from perfect. Even mature, faithful Christians—well advanced in years—still sin (if only in the sense that they occasionally make mistakes). Can we really be perfect?                         We may not be perfect in the sense that we never make mistakes, but, with God's help, we can reach the point that everything we do is perfectly motivated by love.  Perfect love does not mean we will never make mistakes. It means everything we do is motivated by love for God and love for our neighbor. Thus, even when we make a mistake, when it is motivated by love, the Holy Spirit can take our mistakes and turn them into good.
            I once gave my wife a Mother's Day gift I thought was perfect.  I was so proud of myself.  It wasn't a last minute gift.  I planned it weeks in advance.  I knew Kelly liked Tervis' insulated water cups and I found out you can make a customized Tervis.  So, I got online and designed on with a picture of our family and the message: "We Love You, Momma!"  I was so excited for Kelly to open the gift, thinking she would really love it.  When she opened it, she said, "You misspelled my name.  I spell it Mama."  Well, I felt terrible, but we had a good laugh because Kelly is a gracious, patient, loving person and she knew it was the thought that counts and that I had honestly tried out of love to honor and appreciate her.  To this day, we will occasionally have a laugh when we call Kelly Momma instead of Mama.  Even when we make a mistake, God can use it for good when it is motivate by love.
            Your goal as a Christian should be to grow in love toward perfection.  You should aim to reach perfection (in love) before you leave this world. Hope for it. Train for it. Work for it. Strive for it.

The Holy Spirit Enables Us
             The Holy Spirit empowers us to grow spiritually. When we open ourselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit, we can mature as Christians. We can grow in the fruits of the spirit—love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We can grow in faith, hope, and love when we let the Holy Spirit work in us.
            We don’t cause the growth. It comes from God. Suppose an eight-year-old child decides they don't like being eight and want to be sixteen.  So he closes his eyes and grits his teeth and concentrates as hard as he can on being a sixteen-year-old.  Can he make himself sixteen?  Of course not.  That's absurd! Only God can make a child grow.  However, there are things a child can do to cooperate with God's power and open themselves up to the healthy growth God wants to give. They can eat their fruits and vegetables, get enough sleep at night, pay attention in school, learn to obey their parents, etc.  These are things that will help a child mature over time.
            Similarly, you cannot make yourself grow spiritually.  Only the Holy Spirit can do that. However, there are some things you can do to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and open yourself up to growth.  You can pray daily and worship with other believers every week.  You can study your Bible and learn God's ways and will for your life.  You can serve others.  You can give of your time and money.  You can celebrate Holy Communion (we share Holy Communion at Pleasant Grove UMC the first Sunday of each month).  You can look to a groups of trusted Christians friends to hold you accountable.  These are things that will open you up to the growth the Holy Spirit wants to work within you.  Over time, you will mature and grow in your faith, hope, and love.  One day, you may find everything you do is motivated perfectly by love.

Conclusion
             We perfect one another in love by loving one another. Love gives birth to love.
Jesus gave the ultimate example. You see, it is not that we loved God. God first loved us. While we were still sinners, Jesus came and died for us to forgive us our sins. His love inspires true love in us.
God reached out to us in love—even though we didn't deserve it. And because He loves us, we can love Him. We can also love one another, because He loves us all. Even the worst among us is loved by God and can be loved by us if we allow the Holy Spirit to move in us. And when we love the unlovable, it can change them.
            We perfect each other in love by loving each other. Even when your brother or sister doesn't deserve love, love them anyway. This is our promise to each other. It is also how we perfect each other in love. For your love—freely offered—is the hope that love will grow in others. Love gives birth to love.
            So, brothers and sisters, I implore you to increase one another's faith, confirm one another's hope, and perfect one another in love all for the glory of God!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Confirm Their Hope

Introduction
            1 Corinthians 13:13 says, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.”  Faith, hope, and love are also the core components of the promise we—as a congregation—make to each other at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church.  When someone becomes a member of our church, we promise to “...do all in our power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”  This is what we promise to do for one another.
            Last week, we considered how we can help increase faith in others by the the way we speak and act and by our very presence in people’s lives.  Today, I want to focus how we confirm hope.

Ephesians 4:1-4

1Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. 2Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. 4For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.

Hope and Fear
            Hope is the opposite of fear.  Fear is the expectation of evil.  Hope is the expectation of good. There’s a lot of fear in our country right now. Some are afraid because people are protesting and causing disturbances after this week’s election.  Others are afraid the new president is not fit for the job, that he doesn’t have the temperament or wisdom or experience to lead our nation.  Some are afraid of the policies Trump might implement.  Some are afraid individuals or groups might use Trump’s harsh rhetoric as an excuse to be violent to minorities or other disenfranchised groups.  A Muslim woman in Louisiana told police she was attacked and robbed by two male Trump supporters after the election.  Later she admitted to police she made up the entire story.[i]  One woman’s fear drove her to concoct a lie. Other people’s fear may cause them to generalize what that one woman did and say that’s what all Muslims will do.
            Fear is the opposite of hope. Fear is the expectation of evil. Fear makes people act irrationally. Fear often brings into reality the very thing it dreads.  
            Hope is the opposite of fear.  Hope is the expectation of good.  Hope gives people the benefit of the doubt. It believes the best about people, hoping they will fulfill our expectations.  Hope expects things will turn out alright in the end, that it won’t be as bad as you thought, that maybe it might even be better than you expected.  Hope leads people to treat others with love and patience and grace. Hope enables us to forgive, to reconcile, to rebuild broken relationships, to overlook faults and to escape the chains of worry and anxiety.
            Hope is the opposite of fear. Hope is the expectation of good. Hope often brings into reality the very good it anticipates.  “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space.  Invite one to stay.”  (May Angelo).  At Pleasant Grove, we are called (and we promise) to confirm each other’s hope.

Confirm Their Hope
People hope there really is something to this Christian faith we preach.  How do we confirm that for one another?  We confirm one another’s hope by the way we act and treat one another.  Ephesians 4 names the behavior that is worthy of our faith.
            How can we confirm hope?  Ephesians 4:1-4 tells us.  We are to be humble and gentle.  We can show patience, making allowances for faults. People are not perfect. They make mistakes. Sometimes they just have annoying habits or don’t do thing the way you would.  We are all different and have different ways. Who is to say who’s right and who’s wrong? Does it really matter?  
            Thank God Jesus wasn’t so critical of people they had to be perfect to come near him. He accept all.  For his twelve Apostles, Jesus chose a few smelly fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot (who hated tax collectors), and a bunch of other riff raff that didn’t amount to much by society’s standards. Somehow they all had to get along. Thank God, Jesus was a very patient man. We should follow his example. 
            Ephesians 4 also says we confirm hope through unity and peace. We are to be united in the Spirit, bound together with peace. I want to tell you something the pastors of my community have been doing as a result of the recent OneCry Revival we had in September. We’ve been meeting together for lunch on Mondays every 2 weeks—Baptists, Methodists, Church of God, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics.  This week, a couple of the Hispanic pastors said that they had never felt such love and unity with the white pastors of our community. They said they are truly thankful to God for what He is doing to bring our communities together. There is great hope for what God is doing to break down racial barriers in our community. So while many in our country are fearful about the racial divide in America, we are hopeful that God will bring us together in peace and unity.  What will you choose? Fear or hope?

Jesus is the Good Shepherd
Some people don’t believe God exists; and if He does, they fear God is angry or uninterested in them.  However, the Christian hope is that Jesus really does know and love us.  In John 10:14 He said, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own sheep, and they know me…”  What an incredible hope!  That God—in Jesus—not only knows us, but loves us and was willing to lay down his life for us so that we can have eternal life.  This is the greatest hope we have.
How do we confirm this great hope in each other? Again, it is by the way we treat others. Here are some practical things you can do: 
  • Share encouraging words with people. Tell them how much you appreciate them, the gifts you see in them, how you’ve noticed spiritual growth in their lives. 
  • Send someone a card, note, or letter.  In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to stay connected and encourage people! Send an email. Share messages on Facebook. Send a text message to someone to pray for them or share a verse of Scripture. 
  • Another thing you can do to confirm hope is to honor people before others. Tell their parents, friends, employers how much you appreciate them. 
            People hope there really is life after death. 1 Corinthians 15:19-20 “And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.”  How do you confirm eternal life—something you have never seen?
            Well, some have seen.  I've heard stories from people (some in my own congregation) about people dying asnd being brought back to life by a doctor.  SOmetimes, they tell amazing stories of things they witnessed on the other side.  If you have a witness about this, share it and help confirm someone's hope!
            Sometimes our hope, in and of itself, is enough to confirm eternal life for others. When we hope, we press on through the hopeless trials of this life knowing there is hope waiting beyond the grave.  As Romans 5:4 says “And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.”  How you endure hardships can help others find hope.
            Finally, you can confirm hope by sharing ways you have seen the resurrected Jesus. You may not have seen Jesus in bodily form, but you can share some powerful moments in your life when it was as if Jesus were there with you. You can tell others how Jesus has made a difference in your life. You can share how Christ has given you a reason for hope instead of fear. You can make a difference. Your hope can be contagious.  An epidemic of contagious hope is what our world desperately needs right now.

Jeremy’s Story (Watch Jeremy's Testimony Here)
            A met a young man abuot a year ago named Jeremy Ptak.  Jeremy called the church and left a message.  He was interested in the Methodist church and wondered if someone could call and talk to him about it.  I called.
            Jeremy had lots of questions about Methodism and the way we worshiped and believed.  I tried to answer his questions.  I also invited Jeremy to come to church and he enthusiastically accepted.  He said he needed a ride and I was glad to offer one.  All week, Jeremy was excited come to church, but the day of church, he canceled saying something had come up.  We tried again the following Sunday with the same result.  Each week, Jeremy would start out excited for church on Monday, but back out over the weekend.  Finally, I asked Jeremy why and he shared his struggle.
            Jeremy struggles with severe social anxiety.  He gets really nervous around crowds.  He worries that people are looking at him and talking about him and he gets really nervous and overwhelmed.  He takes medicine to help, but the medicine also makes him very tires; it's a difficult balance between anxiety and depression without enough medicine and having no energy with too much medicine.  (To watch Jeremy's testimony, click here.)
            Jeremy didn't give up and eventually was able to come to Bible Study on Thursday mornings, dinner on Wednesday night, and even Sunday school and worship on Sundays.  Jeremy gave his life to Christ when he was younger, but he wanted to recommit himself to Christ; so, we prayed for him to do that.  Jeremy wanted to do the official ceremony in church and become a member of Pleasant Grove.  So I gave him a challenge.  I said, if you come to church on Sunday four times, then we will have a ceremony in church where you recommit your life to Christ and join as a member.  Jeremy completed the challenge and joined the church in May.  Praise God!
            The people of Pleasant Grove UMC helped confirm Jeremy’s hope in Jesus Christ.  They confirmed his hope by giving him a ride to and from church.  They confirmed his hope by the way they welcome him, just the way he is.  
            Jeremy still has struggles.  Sometimes Jeremy has to miss church because he is having a bad day or because his medicine has made him too tired.  Jeremy dips chewing tobacco to help calm his nerves and sometimes he has to get up and walk out of the sanctuary to take a break.  The people of Jeremy's church accept him and his struggles.  They confirm Jeremy's hope in Christ by the way they make allowances for his faults, by the way you love him, encourage him, and help him through his struggle.
            In turn, Jeremy is helping confirm our hope as well. I am inspired by Jeremy’s story. I think if he can press on through his own struggles, maybe I can endure mine too. How about you? Doesn’t Jeremy’s story give you hope? Do you—like me—see Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Risen Lord, the Savior of the world, at work in Jeremy’s life?

Closing
            Jesus is not dead! He is alive and He is moving in our world. Do not fear. Be filled with hope.  What can you do to increase faith and confirm hope in others? What practical thing does Jesus want you to do?  Why not get started today?


[i] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/muslim-student-reported-trump-inspired-attack-admits-made/story?id=43442471