Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Preacher is in Prison

Weekend Update
The year was around 60 A.D. and the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome.  He has completed three missionary trips and converted people to Christianity and helped churches in numerous locations. From prison Paul wrote several letters which have become known to us as the Prison Epistles. One of those is written to the church in Colosse.  The Colossian Christians had accepted Jesus, however they were being influenced by the Grecian and Jewish religions, and the gospel of Christ was being distorted. 

Paul's words of encouragement pointed out the supremacy of Jesus and the need for all men to believe and obey him. Probably no one worked as hard at spreading the good news of the gospel, as Paul. I mention again that he wrote these words while he was imprisoned in Rome for teaching about Christ. That must have been a depressing situation to be in. Having the responsibility of teaching others about  salvation  in Jesus, and the good news he was teaching got him thrown into jail again and again. 

Paul could still write words filled with hope and promise. He could still encourage Christians to remain faithful and make Jesus the priority of their lives.  The one thing I ask you to think about this weekend is mentioned by Paul in Colossians 4:2-4. "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should."

I continue to be impressed with Paul, in such adverse circumstances, still seeking avenues to reach others for Christ. He is a lesson we all need to learn.  Usually, when we are surrounded by adversity or issues of life, we are in no mood to be representing Jesus.  That's when Paul says, "Pray for me so I can reach others with the gospel."

One more thing we need to see about Paul's plea for prayer.  He asks that we be devoted to prayer, and have an alert mind and a thankful heart.  Come to think of it, Paul in prison has given us an example of how every one of our prayers should be prayed. You can credit your new-found attitude of being devoted to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart, to an old preacher in prison.
God really does move in mysterious ways. 


Friday, June 29, 2012

Sowing the seed

One time the disciples of Jesus asked him, "Why do you always tell stories when you talk to the people?"   We call them parables, but in reality they are stories from everyday life which are easily understood. However, their application to the things of the Kingdom of God is not always immediately detected. 

Jesus assured his followers that they are permitted to understand the things of the Kingdom of Heaven but there are some who aren't.  He continued by saying that to those who are open and receptive, more understanding will be given.  Jesus then addressed the issue of those who don't understand his stories. Look at Matthew 13:14-15 which incidentally is a fulfillment of prophecy. 

“You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them."   

The story Jesus had told which prompted the questioning of the disciples, was about a farmer who went out to sow seed on his land. Some of that seed fell on the footpath and just lay there on the hardened soil, and the birds came and ate the exposed seed. Other seed fell on shallow soil which was rocky underneath and could not develop a proper root system. so the young plants died quickly. Still other seed fell on soil that contained weeds, and the weeds choked out the desired plants.  But then Jesus says other seed fell on good soil and produced the anticipated crop, some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred fold. 

The application of this story to the people who he described as "ever hearing but never understanding, " and "ever seeing but never perceiving," can help us know why the disciples asked their question.  How does it all connect?  What was he talking about. planting seeds or seeing and hearing?

Jesus enlightened us all when he explained that in the story, the seed is the word of God and the soil represents the hearts of man. So in reality he is saying that some hearts are hardened to the point that the word of God cannot penetrate them, and becoming an abiding source of understanding.  Also, some hearts are so shallow, the word cannot establish the necessary root system in a heart. This type of heart might demonstrate a good beginning but when faced with the problems and storms of life, the lack of a deep hold on the things of God will bring failure. Third, that heart that is contaminated by those sins we will not let go, is a heart that will allow the word of God to be choked out.  The good, fertile heart which is prepared to receive the word, is the one that will successfully bring forth the desired growth, even in varying degrees of thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold. 

I hope you were able to catch the cause of people hearing but not understanding, and seeing but not perceiving.  Jesus said it is because their hearts are calloused.  Now his story makes sense.  

 "Lord Jesus, may our hearts be open and receptive to receive the Word, and may you always be welcome to abide in hearts that have been given to you.  Amen."


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Two Responses

A familiar New Testament scene from the gospels is one in which Jesus was transfigured, his appearance changing so much his face was shining like the sun and his clothing was white as snow. Also on that mountain were Peter and James and John.  Suddenly a couple of figures appeared from history. Moses and Elijah, and they were talking with Jesus. 

Peter couldn't stand it. He blurted out, "Lord this is great!  If you wish, I will build three shrines; one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."  Then a cloud overshadowed them and a voice thundered saying, "This is my beloved Son. I am pleased with him. Listen to him." These scared disciples fell to their faces and when they finally looked up, they saw only Jesus. 

God had put his stamp of approval on his Son. There was no doubt about his divinity, no doubt about who he claimed to be, and no doubt that God desired for him to be believed.  While the accomplishments of Moses and Elijah might possibly merit some kind of shrine, God wanted all to know Jesus was the one who is worthy. He is the one to follow and believe. 

Another picture came to my mind about David. Psalm 108 begins with these words, "My heart is confident in you, O God; no wonder I can sing your praises. Wake up, my soul! Wake up, O harp and lyre!  I will waken the dawn with my song."  David's response in this way is a result of his heart finding confidence in God.   In fact, his actions of responding are not isolated to just those two verses above. His confidence led him to do other things, too.  Here are a few:  1. He promised to thank the Lord in front of all the people.  2. He vowed to sing God's praises among the nations. 3. He wanted God to be exalted above the highest heavens, and God's glory to shine over all the earth. 

The instance on the mount of transfiguration and the instance when David found confidence in the Lord both merited response of some sort.  Numerous biblical characters prove the same thing.  When you are confronted with the Divine, some sort of response is going to happen.  

I look at Peter's response and receive the message that I am to recognize Jesus as God's Son, and that I should listen to him. This is Jesus that came to demonstrate love and forgiveness and obedience to us. Listening to him and following him brings those same demonstrations in our lives. 

Then I see David, the one described as being "after God's own heart."  And David has stumbled and made mistakes, yet he has sought and received God's forgiveness. Now we see him saying, "My heart finds confidence in God."  That is the picture of one who has grown in his relationship with God, even through a life of ups and downs.  He has come to know God as the source for his life. 

We need to find the Lord in both ways. In knowing we should listen to and follow Jesus, and in knowing that He is our confidence. 


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Misfortunes of Others

Home-run hero, Josh Hamilton, was up to bat and the Rangers needed a hit. Hamilton waited for just the right pitch, took his swing, and hit a grounder to left field.  Everyone knows when you get a base hit, you are to run to first base. Josh tried to make that first step and it looked as though his ankle turned slightly, and instead of running to first, he fell to the ground at home plate. He was fortunate enough to get to his feet and make it to first base without being thrown out. 

What happens when someone takes a fall like that, and we see it? Our first inclination would be to laugh at the person on the ground.  What about other mistakes people make?  When things go wrong, is it always a laughable situation? I must say I have been guilty of such laughter, and sometimes with a streak of meanness, think that laughter should be accompanied with ridicule. 

In the Old Testament book of Obadiah, the scene is set for us by the offenses and mistakes of Judah. The people had abandoned God and now the army of Babylon was closing in to capture them and their land;  a result of God's judgment for their sins. 

To the south of Judah was Edom, and the Edomites (who had never gotten along with Judah), were celebrating the troubles of Judah. The Edomites became a source of encouragement for Babylon, and even assisted in turning some of the Judeans over to their enemies. It was as though their very neighbors were reveling in the fall of Jerusalem and in the troubles of Judah. 

When all of that was over, the Edomites found themselves resting securely in a fortress of rock, high in the mountains. Surely no one could ever attack and defeat them up there.  But God knew just the opposite was true. God vowed to bring them down.

The short book of Obadiah tells of his dealings with Edom and the punishment which lies before them. The book ends with Edom being destroyed, and Israel being restored. This is such a difficult story to understand. How could a neighbor start acting like an enemy? Look at what God said to them.

"You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble."  v.12

Even in today's world, we see too much celebrating over the misfortune of others. We live in a "kick them while they are down" society.  It is no wonder that God stepped in and made right all the wrongs toward his people.  Is it any wonder that Jesus wanted us to see, the greatest commandment is, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37-39.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's about hearts

Today's child of God would do well to spend some time in looking into the law that was nailed to the cross by Jesus. It is still our "schoolmaster," teaching us things about God, foretelling the coming Christ, and even giving us a glimpse of ourselves in our response to God.  The short chapter 58 in Isaiah, only 14 verses long, is God speaking through the prophet, concerning the actions of some of God's chosen. 

In these verses the wrath of God is revealed toward his people because they are giving the appearance of being close to him, the appearance of being a righteous nation, and the appearance of a people who would never disobey God.  The people even start accusing God of not recognizing their fasting.  They  let God know how humble they are and he doesn't seem to notice.
God is quick to point out their fasting has no spiritual value, because their lives are remaining self-centered. He says their fasts end up in quarrels and even fist fights among themselves. He lets them know the spirituality they are professing through the act of fasting cannot coincide with the way they are treating their workers and each other. 

The word of the Lord through Isaiah nails them hard when they are asked the question, "Is that what you call a fast?" God wants them to know the brand of spirituality they claim to possess is negated through their selfishness, their treatment of others, and their fighting among themselves. 

Look at Isaiah 58:6-7  “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry  and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

The real message here isn't about fasting, it's about hearts.  It should cause us to make an honest and clear evaluation of our hearts when we are actively doing some work or ministry for God. It makes me wonder if I have been guilty of putting a spotlight on myself at the completion of something I have done in working for the Lord. Have I taken the credit for successfully accomplishing tasks which should have been accomplished to bring glory to God? 

Do you suppose at noon on any given Sunday, God is wanting to ask us, "Is that what you call worship?" We may have left church  feeling good about the singing or the preaching, but failing to realize that we are not the audience when we worship; God is. 

Read all of Isaiah 58 and you will see that  our work and worship is centered around who we really are, inside and out, 24/7.  If we are going to be the people of God, his glory must be reflected in the way we live for him and in the way we live in our relationships with others.  He loves us enough to show us the way, and his desire is for us to belong to him. 


Monday, June 25, 2012

Draw Me Nearer

The writings of  Paul reflected his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. This one time hater of Christians, fighting against the church, and putting Christ's followers in prison, had a complete change in his life when he personally met the Lord. We knew him as Saul back then, but now, because of his turn to Jesus and his valiant preaching ministry throughout the country, we know him as Paul. 

His ministry included bringing Jews and Gentiles together into one body. There were those Jews, even after they became Christians that felt before you become a Christian you must become a Jew, subject to all the rules and ordinances of the law of Moses. Paul's letter to the Galatians was to dispel some of the teaching they had received. It was a teaching from those who made Christianity conditional on people following tradition and man-made ideas rather than faithfully following Christ. 

Then in Paul's Ephesian letter, he reminded the Gentiles that at one time, they were the outsiders. They weren't God's chosen people and Paul told them "In those days you were living apart from Christ. "  Further, he let them know that they "lived without God and without hope." Those verses are lifted from Ephesians 2:11-12.  Would you care to guess the first word of verse 13?  It is the word, "but."  That's a short little word, carrying an eternity full of meaning. Read the verse carefully.

"But now you belong to Christ Jesus. Though you were once far away from God, now you have been brought near to him by the blood of Christ."  Ephesians 2:13 NLT

Regardless of who we are, we have been in the same situation as the Gentiles which Paul was speaking to. We might be followers of a denomination's list of rules and regulations, or perhaps  some religious leader's assigned set of things we must do. The fact that is powerfully exclaimed by Paul is simple and to the point.  It is the blood of Jesus that brings us near to God. 

The point is further strengthened as Paul continues in the next verses which include this statement, "His (Jesus)  purpose was to make peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new person from the two groups. Together as one body Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death, and our hostility toward each other was put to death." 

If the death of Jesus brings our salvation, and makes peace between these warring segments of society, how much more do we need to know this is our only hope of maintaining nearness to God?  Our small and petty differences which divide and separate us lose their significance when we learn our differences with others also demolishes our nearness to the Father.  Our ceaseless prayer  is, "Draw me nearer, Precious Lord."


Saturday, June 23, 2012

These are the things you should teach...

Weekend Update

Titus was a young man who assisted Paul in duties relating to Paul's ministry.  The New Testament letter to Titus serves us well even today, in that it is like a letter from a seminary professor to one of his recent graduates. Letters like that are always worth holding on to, and reading again and again. 

Titus, having been brought to Jesus through the efforts of Paul's ministry, is even called Paul's son in the faith.  A true and pure relationship existed between Paul and Titus, a relationship in which the student was continually encouraged in those areas that would be primary in future ministry opportunities. 

The letter is called a "pastoral" letter because Paul, the seasoned and well traveled apostle is a pastor to Titus. For example, young Titus might not be very experienced in some areas such as church leadership, so Paul uses the means of writing him a letter, encouraging him to appoint elders  in every city. Paul then gives the criteria for those who would become such church leaders. 

The most important reason for further training of Titus was so he could touch more lives with the gospel and the salvation that is available to all men through Jesus Christ.  Apparently Paul thought it important that Titus make the gospel an essential part of the ministry of this young servant.  Paul even mentions it twice.  Look at these verses:

 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,  while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you."   Titus 2:11-15

"But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”     Titus 4:3-7

Like the encouragement of Paul to  Titus, I would hope that our church leaders today could see this as the primary focus of our ministry.  And like the church of the first century, today's church must be built on the spiritual strength of the message of the gospel.