Monday, July 11, 2016

We Love Because God First Loved Us


It has been a rough past week.  I shared last week about peace and security in the Lord…and that topic would still certainly be appropriate for a time like this.  Many people have a lot to say at times like this, a lot of opinions are shared when we have tragedies occur, which is their prerogative.  I guess I am just the opposite.  For me, at least, it is not a time to plea or pontificate…but a time to ponder and pray.  I just don’t know that anything I would have to say would be sufficient to deal with the raw hurt, anger, fear, sadness and other emotions that people are feeling…feelings which are entirely real and understandable.
So, whether it is the right thing or not, I try to let Scripture speak.  I want to hear the voice of God when bad news seems to be overwhelming.  It is not much different when I get called to the hospital to help a struggling family.  Sometimes…most of the time…people just need you to be present, and they need to know that God is present.  So, as it came to sharing this message today, I spent a significant amount of time thinking – what does a preacher person say?  There are a number of important passages that we could and perhaps should consider.  I tend to default to the Scriptures that remind me of God’s attributes, and what it is that He shares with us and wants us to know.

Today, I want to talk about one of my favorite Bible characters, and some of my favorite words that He shares with his readers…with us.  John is known as the apostle of love.  This is certainly due, in no small part, to His understanding and grasping the nature of his Father…and in this section he tells us that God is love.  One of the keys to John’s writings is that he wants us to know that anyone who knows God has been born of God’s love and will…and is responsive to God’s love and will.  At the beginning of chapter two of John calls his readers, “My little children.” As an aged person at this point, all of his readers would be like his children…and this reflects the fact that we are all children of our Father.  This is our big picture.  John provides to us some critical information concerning love (here, 1 John 4:7-21)…and he starts with this -- Love is not God; love does not define God, but God does define love, for God is love.   Much of what is called “love” in modern society is in reality…lust.  It bears no resemblance or relationship to the holy, spiritual love of God.  The “God kind of love” is special, unique -- agape, from the Greek, meaning – a love that knows no boundaries…it is unconditional, powerful.  It is born out of the very essence of God.  It is unique because it was delivered to us in the most powerful way --through God’s only begotten, one of a kind, Son…Jesus Christ.  None of this took place or was prompted by any love that man has ever had for God…man has betrayed God over and over – it was prompted by His love for us.  The Father was the initiator!  Unbelievers love their families, and even sacrifice for them in many respects.  Many people have some kind of intellectual understanding concerning God, but what is lacking – a personal relationship…a personal experience.  But, John says, God is invisible -- no one can see Him in His essence, only through special appearances of His glory, shekinah – burning bush, pillar of fire and cloud, mercy seat.  Yet, Paul says – “Jesus is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).  By taking on a human body, Jesus was able to reveal God to us (John 14:7ff).  God wanted to do more than just tell us of His love, rather, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  And even more than this, He wanted to live or abide in us!   He says this six times in this section.  And so He is able to do so through His Spirit…bearing His fruit.  Jesus ascended and left His Helper, the Holy Spirit to guide us.  In this way, the Father reveals Himself through the lives of His children. 

So, men may not be able to see God directly, but they can see God in us…the Father in the lives of His children.  His love is experienced in us, and then it is expressed through us to all.  Christian love is evidence that people truly know God!  It is not simply an intellectual pursuit, but through an exciting day by day walk that makes us Christ-like.  At the same time, there is the other side of the coin.  This is the part that the world does not understand, unfortunately.  We love not only those who are like us, but even those who are different from us or would be enemies to us.  For those of us who are in Christ, we can and must always find ways to reconcile our differences in the Lord.  As children of our Father, we may fuss like regular children, but we also forgive and move on.  We cannot love God and hate a brother or sister in the Lord.  We love, unconditionally…and are a blessing to all.

Yet another wonderful characteristic of the Father’s love is that His positive love removes negatives, such as fear and punishment.  Knowing the persecution that early Christians were experiencing at the time of John’s writing this letter, one would think that they would have plenty of reasons to be afraid.  Not so!  John says that we Christians can experience boldness or confidence toward our Father…we do not need to fear the past, present or future – the love of God transcends all this.  We are indeed sons and daughters in relationship to our Heavenly Father, and not prisoners who cringe before a judge, because our judgment is not future…it is past.  Jesus Christ took our sins to the cross and suffered judgment for all mankind – if we are in Him, we have no need to fear, but can have blessed assurance.

Rob Chaffart shares this -- Point Pelee's Lifesaving station in Ontario, Canada was established in 1901 as a result of the numerous lives and vessels lost to this peninsula. With its many shoals and reefs, it is most certainly a sailor's nightmare.  On November 22, 1906, the Conemaugh, a wooden steamer, lost all control in the Pelee passage. It hit the shoals with such a force that most of the blades of the propeller were broken off by the impact. The crew was in dire panic.  The team of seven at the nearby lifesaving station set out immediately to the rescue. Their task wasn't easy however, and it was made even harder by the tumultuous waves that constantly invaded their tiny boat. Once they were finally near enough to the Conemaugh, the crew went about the task of rescuing the crew.  One thing they didn't do, however, was try to pick and choose who would be saved. Imagine if they had said something like this: "Oh, here is Joe, my neighbor. A real jerk of a man! I don't think there is room for him in my boat. Good riddance!" But no such thought ever entered their heads. Rather, they made three trips, risking their lives each time, so that anyone on board of the Conemaugh could be brought safely ashore.  Would we have done the same? I'm speaking to those of us who have experienced God's love in our lives! Why is it that we have no trouble loving God, but when it comes to loving our fellow mankind, we are left wanting? So often we end up pondering how it is possible to truly love others. After all, we have been burned so many times, and these wounds continue to haunt us every step of the way.  How can we love like Jesus does? Is it even humanly possible? Immediately we are reminded that "Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold..." (Matt 24:12 NIV) It is completely normal, given the evil in this world, to hesitate to love. Nevertheless, this Bible text continues "…but he who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Matt 24:13 NIV). Those of us who do not let wickedness influence us in our love for others are the ones who stand firm!  We were destined to love! No wonder the evil one tries to thwart God's plans by every means possible! Will we let him? It all depends whether or not we are "standing firm".

We can know…we can experience genuine agape love, if we fully know the Father through the Son and have His Spirit dwelling, living in us.  We also understand that the love of the Father is sacrificial!  Know that the love of God is part of His very essence.  When we understand the Father’s love for us, it makes all of the difference in our lives.  Even, if we have not had a good example of an earthly father’s love in our lives.  When all of the pieces of the puzzle come together and in place in our lives, God’s plan becomes apparent to us and real for us.  When we understand our Heavenly Father’s love for us, we share this love with others and have no need to worry or be afraid.  He helps us to grow in our love for Him and for others.  We have everything to look forward to in our hope of joining our Heavenly Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  If we are living for Christ, we can be confident that we will be with Him one day.  We can now respect and understand just how it is that the Father had done what He has done for us…He wants us to be with Him!  We were all steeped in bad news at one time…news like the world has to offer.  But, now we have the Good News that we enjoy, and that we need to share with a world that desperately needs it.  Life is short…love is what matters.  The Father’s love through His Son is what matters most – and it is what makes the difference for us, His children.

Blessings, Don

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Being Thankful in a Thankless World


Thankful or thankless -- which word would you say better describes our society today? It seems like the majority of our culture lives with an attitude of entitlement. People feel they are entitled to better pay, better benefits and more stuff.  People feel that if they cannot afford it, then they can rob Peter to pay Paul so to speak, or better yet, have the government pick up the check. The majority never stops to give thanks for what they have, but loudly voices their desire to have more.  We have, in many respects, devolved into a society of thankless people, and there are repercussions. The greatest irony in all of this being that – Thanksgiving has been overrun by NoThanksButIAmShopping. For many people, it is about greed…I am going to get something ahead of you.  This is just the opposite of Thanksgiving.  This is not to say that shopping is evil, just whether greed is dominating our lives, or gratitude.  If we are thankful for what we already have, it should help us not to be so needy or greedy.  We have enjoyed so many blessings that we have come to expect them. We even have begun to display these same attitudes when it comes to God. People acknowledge God less and less…they don’t give Him honor and glory for their success in business, or as pertains to life in general. They will tell you it’s because of their own hard work that they have accomplished these things.  In this familiar passage (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), Paul reveals to us that thankful hearts shows that we are healthy Christians.  God expects us to be a thankful people. As Christians, we are called to live counter-culture. With the approach of Thanksgiving, let’s discover how to have a thankful heart in an unthankful world.

There are some important realizations that we must own, if we are to live like Christ. One is that we are not entitled to what we have, but understand they everything is a blessing from God.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)  Even at our most economically unstable times, we have so much wealth in the United States that it is easy to take for granted simple blessings.  What we consider to be poverty today far exceeds the standard of living that most people enjoyed a century ago.  We have gained more possessions for ourselves today than at any other time in history.  While a great portion of the world looks at the United States and sees great wealth, many people tend to view it as what we are entitled to for being Americans.  If we encounter situations that cause us to have to tighten our belts (so to speak), and our standard of living has to change, we become upset because we feel we are being denied what is rightfully ours.  The person who believes that the world owes him a living is not going to be thankful for much. He thinks he is doing others a favor by permitting them to serve him. And allowing others to serve should not be a bad thing…it is good.  But, the thankful heart is usually humble…a heart that gladly acknowledges God. When we understand that God is the source of all blessings our natural response should be gratitude. The principle of thanksgiving, including the holiday, allows us the opportunity to put everything in proper perspective and to thank God for His abundant blessings.  A truly thankful heart will change our lives. It will keep us from becoming overly critical or constantly complaining. It will draw us closer to our Heavenly Father and make us more conscious of His presence. Thomas Merton wrote, “Gratitude takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder, and to praise of the goodness of God.”

Finally, this exhortation by Paul proves our need for the Spirit of God, because in our own strength we could never obey it. Gratitude makes us alive! When we are grateful we realize that God is the source of all our blessings, and this keeps us from complaining or taking blessings for granted.  In fact, the word “gratitude” comes from the same root word as “grace.” And “thanksgiving” comes from the same root, as well…they are all connected. If we have experienced the grace of God, then we ought to be grateful for what God brings to us.  Where the Spirit reigns, there is gratitude to God, a deep sense of appreciation, and a spontaneous expression of it. Take some time to think about everything that you have, realize that it was God that gave it to you. When we line up our lives with God’s will, we will discover that it will become easier to be joyful and easier to be thankful.  

Blessings, Don

Thursday, September 10, 2015

At the Heart of Jesus' Religion


Tim Smith offers this -- Gary Morsch is the founder of Heart to Heart in Kansas City. As a physician, he has done magnificent work around the world taking medical supplies to low income people. Many years ago, he took a trip to Calcutta and Mother Teresa's House for the Destitute Dying. He took 90 volunteers and 12 million dollars of medical supplies.  As he made the trip, he thought to himself, "A lot of these people don't have to die. I can save their lives, and maybe we can turn it from the House for the Destitute Dying to the House for the Hopeful Living." He was going to make that happen.  When they arrived, Sister Priscilla began to assign everyone their tasks. As this was happening, Gary put his stethoscope around his neck to let Sister Priscilla know he was a doctor.  Everyone got their assignment and Gary found he was the last person.  She directed him to come with her. They went to the woman's unit and didn't stop to help anybody. They kept going and went to the men's unit and he thought this is where he was going to begin to help. But instead, they walked into the kitchen. He asked, "What do you need for me to do here?" She said, "Just follow me."  They walked out the door, and he sees a huge pile of putrefied trash.  She hands him two plastic buckets and a shovel and saw. "What we need you to do is haul this garbage to the city dump just down the street two blocks away. You can't miss it." Then she smiles at him, turns and walks away.  He is standing there thinking, "Did she not see my stethoscope. I'm a doctor! Doesn't she understand what I can do with these hands?"  In a silent shock and a bit of self-pity, he began wondering what to do. But there was only one thing to do. So all day, he carried buckets full of putrefied trash to the city dump, and by the end of the day having moved that entire pile, he was a sweaty, sticking mess.  He walked back into the building and saw this sign from Mother Teresa: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."  He said, "At that moment, my heart wilted. On this day, Mother Teresa pierced the armor I had worked so hard to construct. And my life was changed by the act of hauling garbage down the street and becoming a servant for others in need."

In essence, this is what Jesus communicates to some of the religious people of the day who are following Him and asking questions.  In this section of Matthew (9:9-17), Jesus presents two pictures…one is concerning the physician and the other is the bridegroom.  Each picture comes in response to questions from those in His audience.  The Pharisees are already in full opposition mode as they come to Jesus’ disciples to ask them a “religious” question.  The question is intended to trap them, because if they are good religious Jews, and most of them appear to be, then they should only be able to come up with the one answer required…the one that pleases the Pharisees.  Jesus, hearing this question, intercedes on His disciples’ behalf and makes a statement that would cause the religious leaders to have to pause for a moment in the midst of their attacks to consider what He is saying.  And what is it that Jesus is saying?  He is not making a case for a religious argument that people should go to a doctor if they are sick as opposed to staying home hoping for some miracle.  He wants the Pharisees to consider the big picture concerning what god they really serve.  Do they really serve the God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe…or a religious symbol of a god that they choose to serve in the name of God?  If they would understand and serve the one true God, then they would know Jesus, and that He came in order that sinners might have a relationship with Him and His Father.

So, Jesus quotes a basic and critically important principle from the Old Testament (Hosea 6:6) to show to them that right religion has always been about people more than about “principles”.  Or, that our principles should be about helping people rather than keeping laws that prevent us from helping people.  And this is certainly the prevailing thought that continues in this section, as Jesus entertains a question from John’s disciples.  On the surface, this portion of the passage might appear unrelated to the first part, but they walk hand in hand.  Continuing with the theme of adhering to the law, the disciples of John notice a difference between themselves, the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples concerning fasting.  They all (the Pharisees and John’s disciples) would keep regular fasts by which they would dedicate themselves to the keeping of ritual traditions.  John’s disciples would be in mourning, because their leader is being detained in prison. But, the allusion to the bridegroom is Jesus speaking about Himself, and that while He is with them, they should be rejoicing at having Him.  So, Jesus indicates that “fasting” is a matter of joy not sorrow. He has come to put a new face on their religious traditions. The Christian life is a feast not a funeral. 

Much as he does with the Sabbath and other traditional practices, Jesus wants them to understand that there is a larger picture that they need to grasp. This is why He moves into the illustration concerning the wine and the wine skins. Jesus comes to fulfill the law of the Pharisees and John and bring “spiritual wholeness.”  Jesus did not come to “patch us up” religiously, only to have us fall apart. He comes to fill us to the full…and to overflowing.  The Jewish religion was a worn-out wine skin that would burst if filled with the newness of the Gospel that Jesus is bringing.  He knows that the old ways, or old paths of the old law are not going to be sufficient in order for newness and wholeness to take place.  This is His purpose in coming…to fill us up and make us mature in Him.

Ken Pell from the First Church of the Nazarene in Broken Arrow, OK shares this -- There is not much you can do about it. Once you have been around it everybody else knows. I’m talking about the red dirt of western Oklahoma. It’s caused by the iron in the soil that, after being oxidized, turns to rust. It seems that nothing can erase or clean the stain from that red dirt on your shoes once you have walked there. If you have new shoes – everyone knows -- because they are not red ... yet. If you are from the city (OKC or Tulsa, for example) and you make your way into the western ranch lands everyone can tell "you’re not from these parts" simply by looking at the color of your shoes. The inverse is also true; if you go to the city and are wearing shoes that you have previously worn out "out there" everyone knows where you are from.  It’s not a judgmental thing. The cities in Oklahoma are intimately connected to the ranches and open lands; no one thinks they are better or inferior; it is simply a recognizable and distinct line of demarcation. There is simply no getting around it.  Godly love (Agapé) is like that too. It is such a contrast from the world’s love that it becomes immediately recognizable and "different." The world looks at the sacrificial, serving, grace-filled love of God and says "You’re not from around these parts." It cannot be duplicated, at least not for long, it can be "faked" for a little while (vv. 1-3) but even the masquerade is evidence that it isn't Godly love. When it has been poured into your hearts it cannot be hidden; that’s the nature of God’s love. It's just there and influences the lives of those it touches.

False religion in the name of Christianity is suspicious, protective, distrusting, critical, and prejudiced…whereas the freedom that Christ brings liberates us to love completely, be at peace, serve with vigor and be willing to learn and thrive in fellowship together.  This is the point that Jesus is trying to make concerning the attitude of the Pharisees, and even John’s disciples, as compared with those who would be His disciples…there is supposed to be a BIG difference.  And so it is amazing that believers today will still settle for a watered down gospel that is inept in order to empower their lives or make any real significant difference in this world, because it is more focused on keeping relatively meaningless regulations than on being like Jesus.  Jesus does not want us to settle for the old wine skins that we have in our lives that are incapable of producing love, joy and peace…but, wants us to be filled with the Spirit who can bring these virtues alive in us.  Jesus does not want us to settle for the old traditions, such as the illustration of keeping a regular fast for the purpose of keeping a regular fast, and miss the genuine life that He has to bring.  Jesus didn’t intend for us to do the same thing day after day, week after week, settling into a rote system without hardly lifting up our heads to breathe the spiritual air that is there for us to breathe.  Jesus did not intend for us to go through the motions of so as to miss out on what it is that He is really wanting to do in and through us!  This passage is the essence of Jesus’ religion…we need to consider and reconsider what it is that Jesus expects from us.  We have a mission here on this earth to fulfill, and we need to continue to invent and reinvent the wheel as it relates to what it is that Jesus wants us to discover in relationship to this.

Blessings, Don