Devotional Message

Our Understanding of Heaven Impacts Our Hope

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We know very little about heaven, but I once heard a theologian describe it as “an unknown region with a well-known inhabitant,” and there is not a better way to think of it than that.

Richard Baxter expresses the thought in these lines:

My knowledge of that life is small,

The eye of faith is dim,

But it’s enough that Christ knows all,

And I shall be with him.

To those who have learned to love and trust Jesus, the prospect of meeting him face to face and being with him forever is the hope that keeps us going, no matter what life may throw at us.

James Packer, Your Father Loves You,  Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986.

Heaven is the New Jerusalem 

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:

“We have a strong city;
he sets up salvation
as walls and bulwarks.
2Open the gates,
that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.
3You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
4Trust in the Lord forever,
for the Lord God, is an everlasting rock. 
Isaiah 26:1-4

The prophet Isaiah is describing the new City of God, Jerusalem, in this section.  In doing so, he points out some key differences from other earthly cities.  Samaria fell to the Assyrians. Later, Jerusalem would fall at the hands of the Babylonians.  However, in this New Jerusalem, Heaven will be impregnable.

Another major difference is that this earthly city was often infested with all manner of sin and evil.  The New Jerusalem will no longer be the sinful city. Instead, it will be a righteous city set apart for a holy nation whose sins have been washed away.

“On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” Zechariah 13:1

This will be a select citizenship, only those who have trusted Jesus Christ will enter the city; and because they believe, they have peace.

Heaven is an eternal relationship with the God of creation.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesians 2:10, he describes how God views us,  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

The word translated here as workmanship is better translated, “masterpiece.”  We are the crowning Jewel of God’s creation.  What an amazing day it will be to stand before the artist God, who created us and behold this Creator face-to-face.  The masterpiece meets that Master Artisan. I shudder at the thought. What do you think you will do when you meet the Creator? Will you stand in awe and wonder?  Will you dance with joy?  I imagine I would just stand there with mouth wide open, in quiet reflection soaking in all the brilliance and wonder of the moment.  The Bible says you will behold him face to face and you will spend eternity in his presence.

Not even the finest writer will be able to put this scene into words.  No eye has seen, and no ear has heard the spectacles of what God has amassed for us in heaven. It is real. It is for real people. It is forever.

Other posts in this series:

https://revheadpin.org/2017/01/19/heaven-is-community-restored/

 

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Devotional Message, Leadership

Are You Looking for a Take-Charge Leader?

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When I work with churches seeking a new pastor I usually ask the question, “What kind of pastor are you looking for?”  Depending on what transpired before with the last pastor the answer may vary.  If the congregation is coming out of a difficult period and has lost is ministry mojo, they will say, “we want a take-charge type of shepherd.” That response makes me nervous, so I probe a little deeper.  Define what qualities that pastor possesses.  “We don’t care if he is black or white, young or old, just a guy who will take the bull by the horns and lead us out of the abyss of mediocracy.  We want to get back to the good old days.”  Then the next question out of their mouth is, “And by the way, are you available?”  To which I respond, “NO!”  What the congregation wants is, Jesus.

The Perfect Take-Charge Attitude.

In Mark chapter 1, he shares this spiritual insight, “The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.”

It was a typical practice for visiting teachers to be invited to read the Scripture and even to speak. So, the fact that Jesus was asked to speak indicates he had already established a reputation as a teacher.  Jesus was recognized as a teacher even by his opponents, but what amazed the crowd was how different His teaching was, He had a unique authority.  Religious leaders of that day taught the same way.  They would read lengthy quotations from the Law and prophets with memorized comments from long gone scholars to supplement the teaching.  This lecture style is my worst educational nightmare.  Just get me a pillow.  How blessed we are that God can work through any style to communicate His message of grace, love, and forgiveness.  I am sure the people listened reverently and respectfully, but you wonder how many went away feeling unfulfilled?

Jesus comes along, and His approach is refreshing.  It seems too different. Immediately this young teacher got the people’s attention.  The verse above has an interesting element in the original translation: “and dumbfounded were they at his teaching.”  In other words, the people were speechless.  They were struck by a blow, dumb with amazement.  Why was this the case?  Understandably, the scribes taught from a second-hand knowledge of the Scriptures, but Jesus taught as one who had personal experience. Surprisingly, Jesus taught as an insider.  He did not report the facts; He shared what He knew from His personal relationship with God and being the centerpiece of the Father’s plan to rescue His people from sin, death, and the Devil.

Authority in Action

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Mark 1:23-27  [1]

When the man with an unclean spirit appears on the scene, Jesus’ words now go into action.   In a later post I will dig deeper into the issue of “unclean spirits,” but for now I will leave you with this thought.  We tend to deny the reality of demonic possession. Even in western Christian society, we dismiss the demonic as mental unbalance, or physical abnormalities.  There are real 21st century unclean spirits.  Flip on your television, and without much effort, you will get a sense of uncleanness. Not to mention the unclean spirits that we can find on the internet with the click of an innocent email or ad.  Just think of what evil our children have access to at their fingertips?  And don’t get me started on the drug problems people are fighting today legal and illegal.  We have our demons.  We also have our champion.  Jesus rebukes the unclean, and the unclean spirit obeys Him because He only spoke as one who had authority He actually has power.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mk 1:23–27). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 

 

 

Devotional Message

Are You Ready to Go Fishing?

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My first fishing trip was a disaster.  I was completely unprepared for the event. This being my Dad’s wonderful idea for a Father/Son adventure.  It was cold.  It started at an ungodly early hour.  We went on his boat and he drove too fast for a kid who did not know how to swim in the bumpiest waves imaginable.  Then we couldn’t just use plastic bait, no, we had to go old school and use live worms.  In case you have not picked up on yet I am not an outdoorsy kind of guy.  My idea of the perfect vacation is a nice five-star hotel with room service completely bug and people free.  This fishing trip taught me valuable lessons, that I will share with you in this post. In Mark 1, we find Jesus calling the first disciples.  And He makes them an unusual offer, 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Here are four things I know about fishing:

  1. Fishing is unpredictable.

To explore this fact, take a trip with me back to Nineveh.  A quick reminder.  God sent Jonah to warn the King of Nineveh that His wrath was coming because of their wickedness.

“Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)

 But when the King heard the warning he did something unpredictable, he repented. “…the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes.Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.

 Due to this change of heart God changed His mind and spared them His wrath. “10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.”

 

  1. Fishing Takes Total Commitment.

On a recent trip to Haiti, I heard a Haitian pastor illustrate to his congregation the need for total commitment to Christ. His parable: A certain man wanted to sell his house for $2,000. Another man wanted very badly to buy it, but because he was poor, he couldn’t afford the full price. After much bargaining, the owner agreed to sell the house for half the original price with just one stipulation: He would retain ownership of one small nail protruding from just over the door.

After several years, the original owner wanted the house back, but the new owner was unwilling to sell. So, the first owner went out, found the carcass of a dead dog, and hung it from the single nail he still owned. Soon the house became unlivable, and the family was forced to sell the house to the owner of the nail.

The Haitian pastor’s conclusion: “If we leave the Devil with even one small peg in our life, he will return to hang his rotting garbage on it, making it unfit for Christ’s habitation.”   Dale A. Hays, Leadership, Vol. X, No. 3 (Summer, 1989), p. 35.

Jesus never says love the Lord your God with most of your heart.  Nor some of your mind, nor with some of your strength.  The verse reads, 29 Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord,30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Mark 12:29-30

Other places in the Bible we see clearly God expects total commitment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:5

When Jesus called the fisherman, they didn’t have time to call a church meeting or a family forum to discuss the option.  It was a simple, quick, and all-in moment.  Will you come and follow me and become fishers of me?  Will you take up the call to change the world?  Are you willing to leave everything you know and have been trained to do?  Then sit at my feet and produce a harvest and store up for yourselves a treasure in heaven.  Here is something the reader needs to ponder, what has God called you to accomplish for the kingdom?  What has he uniquely gifted you to do?  If you stop and think about it, you probably already know.  So, what is holding you back from answering God’s call to come and follow?  Know this, if God called you He has also equipped you and empowers you to do whatever it is He is calling you to.  Be bold, and courageous and follow the Master’s call.  You have been called, equipped, and empowered to do something extraordinary for God and His Kingdom.  Follow your calling!

Next week, we’ll look at the last two lessons I learned about fishing.

 

 

 

 

Devotional Message

What Does the Year Ahead Hold?

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10 I have seen the burden God has laid on men. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil-this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. Ecclesiastes 3:10-14

As we come to the end of one year and the beginning of another, our society tends to stop and reflect on the lives of those who passed away.  It is usually a somber time of reflection because there is such uncertainty for many when it comes to the afterlife.  I thought now would be a good opportunity to begin the year taking a closer look at heaven.

Death is not a stop sign, it is a marker of where the greatest miracle of all will take place for the Christian, a reunion with the Creator. This is the great Reversal.  As Christians, we don’t fear death because we look to “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” God turns the defeat of mortality into the victory of eternal life.

If we were to go back four thousand years, we would find the Egyptian culture was made up of people who not only believed in life beyond the grave, but we see individuals who were obsessed with life beyond the grave. Most Egyptians began preparing for the afterlife before they reached midlife.

If you ever get the opportunity to study Egypt, the tombs, and pyramids, you will discover what it took to build some of those monuments. Some studies show that it took hard labor from one hundred thousand workers for forty years to make one of the great pyramids. As you think about that, it makes you ask “why”? Why put so much effort preparing for death? Why would somebody put that amount of emphasis on a tomb, on the afterlife?

The answer is that the Egyptians understood what many of us take for granted, that they would spend a lot more time in the afterlife than they would spend in this life. Though some of their beliefs of what would happen in the afterlife were a little misguided. The point is, they understood to the very core of their being that the afterlife was a whole lot more important than this life.  So, they prepared for the afterlife during this life. God had placed that desire in their heart.

We live in a culture that lives for today, for instant gratification.

We live with a live-for-the-day mentality. We live with the belief that the only thing important in life is whether we’re enjoying the moment. Live life fast and hard, who cares about tomorrow? Instant gratification is what people are concerned about. There’s a total preoccupation with the here and now.

You see it in the morality of the day where the cultural attitude is: “Whatever feels good, whatever gives you or me gratification, it doesn’t matter what others think, so long as it is legal.  If it does not hurt others, then fine. And if it is pleasurable, then let’s do it! Who cares about the consequences!”

We see it in nation’s economics.  The national debt grows by the millions daily and who cares?  It is not our bill to pay. You can have anything you want today; just sign on the dotted line. Easy credit, plastic; you won’t get a bill, at least not for thirty days. You can have it now. And if I die before it is all paid off, good luck collecting the rest. Thirty days will never come. Buy anything you want with a balloon payment. Five years later will never come. Right? You can have it now. Worry about the balloon payment later. Instant gratification. Instant pleasure.

The idea of get it now, pay later has worked its way in every area of our culture even when it comes to faith. People just don’t want to talk about the afterlife. Nobody intends to think about dying.  No one wants to plan and prepare to die, but the reality is that unless Jesus comes again, we will all die someday.  And here is the dirty little secret no one wants to talk about, “No one will know the day or the time that death will come.” We can pretend we are in control, but we are not.

We can say, “Not only am I not planning on dying today, but I’m also not planning on giving an account of my life today. Eat, drink, and be merry. That time to stand before God and give an account of the life we lived is far way off.”  But are you certain of that?  Remember this the Egyptians had one thing right, “You will spend more time in the afterlife than you will in this life.”  So how prepared are you?   Over the next few articles, we dig much deeper into this question for the New Year.

Other posts in this series:
https://revheadpin.org/2017/01/12/what-is-heaven-like/
https://revheadpin.org/2017/01/19/heaven-is-community-restored/

Christmas Devotions, Devotional Message

The Light of Christmas Dispels the Dark Days of Doubt

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So, Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going.” John 12:35

 The Christmas season is a common time to feel like you are drifting through life.  Maybe you have been there too.  It has been a rough year, perhaps a turbulent few years. The hurts, pains, and disappointments of life have caused you just to drift; having no clear objective.  Have you lost your way?  Is your head up in a cloud and your faith in a fog?  December is the time you look at your past disappointments.  As you peak into the new year instead of a sense of anticipation, you only get stressed. The future produces doubt and worry.

To be honest, there are plenty of reasons for us to have doubt and uncertainty as we finish 2017 and begin 2018.  Will, the economy continue at these record levels or will it come crashing down around us?  Will I have a job five months from now?  Can I count on my health remaining intact? These concerns are real and things to be stressed about, to have doubts about the future.  What will my options be six months from now?  Will the options be any good?  Sometimes the options are the frying pan or the fire. I am so thankful to live in the land of freedom of choice, but sometimes both opportunities for your future are bad.  Consider the voters of my home state, Louisiana.  One year they had to vote for a new governor.  Edwin Edwards, a crook or David Duke, who had been the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.  What a choice!   I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Vote for the crook.  Better a lizard than a wizard.”

Dark days of doubt.  The one who walks in the dark doesn’t know where they are going.  Have you ever felt like that?  What does my future hold?  Where am I headed?  You’re in a fog.

God will guide me when I’m doubtful.

When I’m confused, and I don’t know which way to go.  John 8:12 “Jesus said, I am the Light f the world.  So, if you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through darkness, for living light will flood your path.'”

What are you worried about?  What has got you uptight?  What is it that is keeping you awake at night, keeping your stomach churning?  You’re going to have to make some significant decisions in 2018.  I don’t know what they are and you don’t either.  But I guarantee you; you will have to make some significant decisions in the year to come.

On what basis are you going to make those major decisions?  “I thought/felt it was the right thing to do?”  Feelings are highly unreliable.  You might have just eaten a bad pizza the night before.  It’s not a good way to make decisions just on feelings. “Everybody else is doing it” is not a very good reason either. The majority is often wrong.

When you face doubts, there is a reliable source that you know will always give you the right advice and never steer you in the wrong direction.  Is there any place in the world you can get that kind of help?

Yes.  It’s called God’s word.  It won’t steer you the wrong way. “For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness.” Psalm 18:28

God is the only reliable guide for life. His word is a flashlight.  It illuminates.  It keeps you from stumbling, helps you to see things.

May God show up in the midst of your doubts.  I would leave you with this poem.  It inspired me; perhaps it will you as well.

Let me meet you on the mountain, Lord,

Just once.

You wouldn’t have to burn a whole bush.

Just a few smoking branches

And I would surely be …your Moses.

Let me meet you on the water, Lord,

Just once.

It wouldn’t have to be on White Rock Lake.

Just on a puddle after the annual Dallas rain

And I would surely be…your Peter.

Let me meet you on the road, Lord,

Just once.

You wouldn’t have to blind me on North Central Expressway.

Just a few bright lights on the way to chapel

And I would surely be…your Paul.

Let me meet you, Lord,

Just once.

Anywhere. Anytime.

Just meeting you in the Word is so hard sometimes

Must I always be…your Thomas?

Norman Shirk, April 10, 1981, KQ (Dallas Seminary)

Christmas Devotions, Devotional Message

Two Warning Signs Your Heart Is Too Crowded for Jesus

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In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:1-7

There is a beautiful story that comes out of the Treasury of Jewish humor about a family from the lower east side of New York City. The younger members of the family try very hard to educate their immigrant parents. Part of this endeavor takes the form of a family trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the son and daughter interpret various paintings to the mother and father.

During the afternoon in the gallery, the party comes to a nativity scene. The father points to Joseph in the picture, “Is Papa?”

“Yes, that’s the father.” Then he points to Mary.

“Is Mama?”

“Yes,” the daughter replies.

“Baby?”

“Yes.”

“Vas de cows and donkey?”

The daughter explains: “The baby was born in a stable – they were poor peasant people and could not get into the inn.”

“Ahh!” said the father, “Just like Gentiles! Too poor for a room, but still they get their picture taken!”

Perhaps there is no verse in the Gospel narrative so clearly prophetic of the whole life and ministry of Jesus as the short, cryptic words of Luke: “There was no room in the inn.”

Have you ever had one of those Christmas seasons where you struggle to find that magical Christmas spirit?  You pull out all your favorite Christmas albums and watch the Hallmark channel on your television because the day after Thanksgiving there are non-stop Christmas specials.  Undoubtedly one of those will help you find that elusive Christmas joy.  But alas to no avail, there is no room in your heart this year for Jesus.  In this post why don’t we examine what may be preventing you from having a joyous Christmas?

Preoccupation

Preoccupation is one possible culprit.  Mary and Joseph were shut out; all the rooms were occupied. Every space was already filled. Those who had arrived earlier had settled in for the night.

We can have some sympathy for the innkeeper. He was not a mean man. He had no ill will toward the holy family. He was running a hotel. He was in the business of lodging weary travelers. The simple fact is that others had gotten there first, and there was no room for more, and that was that.

Preoccupation is the thing that gets into the heart first. We don’t intend to leave Jesus out of our lives.  We don’t have anything against Jesus, but others things have taken up residency early. It is painfully dull to get so preoccupied, that other matters more pressing filled up all the space. These things are important. They are our work, our social life, and our family responsibilities. “The heart is full; I tell you, Jesus! There’s no room!”

But all is not lost! The holy family beds down in a cave where the animals are kept. A poet put it this way.

 

The innkeeper says:

I only did what you have done

a thousand times or more,

When Joseph came to Bethlehem

and knocked upon my door;

I did not turn the Christ away

or leave him there bereft.

Like you, I only gave to him

whatever I had left.

How close to home that strikes!

 

Insensitivity

 Another reason there was no room was that nobody there recognized the importance of the moment. That’s familiar, too.

Rebecca Barlow Jordan wrote these, “If we had been the shepherds one night long ago, I wonder if we’d recognize the star or if we’d know the reason for His birth and if we’d actually go to worship at the manger. I wonder, would we know? Is it really any different than if Jesus came today? I wonder, would we recognize His face in any way? Or would we turn away from Him not knowing what to say?  If Jesus walked among us in our hurried, busy pace, I wonder if this stranger would actually find a place?”

We are impressed with shiny things. We marvel at greatness.  And we expect fame to come clothed with glitz and glamor.  When majesty comes from humble beginnings, we question whether or not the individual is even worth our time.  We expect that when God’s one and only unique Son enters the world that it would have to be a must-see worldwide event.  It must be impressive when he comes.  After all, the world had waited over 2,000 years for the blessed event. Our thoughts and God’s thoughts about greatness are incompatible.  God uses a manger and straw, peasants and donkey, a woman heavy with child, and a small hotel in a sleepy little, insignificant town off the beaten path.  What makes God’s coming so ordinary, so unspectacular that we meet that coming with insensitivity.  We dismiss it as not worth our time to stop and recognize the significance of that entry into the world.  How often we shut him out, not able to appreciate the beauty in the simplicity of the humble birth.  Think about how the flash would have taken away from the substance.  It was not about how Jesus arrived; the focus should be on the why He came.  To save the world from its sin.  He reached out to me, and He came for you. So, won’t you stop this Christmas season and find room for Jesus? We must make room.

The story of the Bethlehem Inn reminds us once again about preoccupation, about being unaware. And the innkeeper calls to our attention the importance of opening the door when the knock comes.

Christmas is coming again. What shall we do this year – just keep Christmas, or make room?

Devotional Message

The Question of the Ages: Was Jesus the One?

 

Bright lights with manger
A manger at night with bright glowing lights.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Matthew 11:2-6

 There are countless times throughout life that we are asked questions.  Some of these issues are easy to answer.  Like when you visit your favorite restaurant, and the waiter/waitress asks coffee or tea?  Or when your spouse wants to know if you want to go out for Mexican or Asian for dinner?

Then there are those questions that will require a bit more thought to come to a decision.  Like when you are trying to decide where to spend your college years.  Do I pick a major university or a smaller college that may better fit my personality?  When you are picking out, Christmas presents for that special someone.  Do I go with jewelry or a gift card?

At some points in our life, the questions we must answer are life-changing.  Remember when you were about to the ask the love of your life this question, “Will you marry me?”  And yes, it would forever change your life, or it could be a heart-breaking, devastating, life-altering event.  Or think about that moment in life when a wife asks her husband, “Do I look fat in this dress?”  The answer to that question could also be life altering or at least life shortening.  Then we have the question John the Baptist’s disciples posed to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” The answer to this question is one that every person will wrestle with at some point in their life.  Was Jesus indeed the Messiah, the one promised by God to come and save the world from the consequences of sin?  Can we put our hope, our faith, our eternal destiny in the hands of this man from Nazareth?  We will get back to the answers to those questions later.  For now, I will leave you to ponder those questions.

Historical context:  Why was John, the Baptist asking this question?

At the beginning of the Gospel of John, we are introduced to John, the Baptist.  He was this strange prophet, the herald of God sent to prepare the people’s hearts to welcome the new King, Jesus Christ.  But he had some odd behaviors.  He would never make the cover of GQ magazine. He wore camel’s hair and a leather belt.  His diet is not one I would recommend since he ate locusts and wild honey.  He was the prophet that Isaiah referred to as, “The Voice of One Crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.”  John, the Baptist, is also the one who when he saw Jesus approaching boldly proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

So, how can this same John, the Baptist, the prophet who paved the way be the same man who now questions the authenticity of Jesus?  He sends his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?”

What Happened? 

Let’s look, at all that has happened to John.  It is possible that his recent struggles have led to a crisis of faith.

1)    John is about to be executed.

John sent a group of disciples to question Jesus because he was currently sitting in a prison cell.  John had the nerve to confront King Herod and his wife Herodias, whose complicated, sinful relationship could be the stuff of movies.  For the curious minds: Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, son of Herod the Great. Her first husband was Philip I, son of Herod the Great, so she married her uncle, by whom she had a daughter, Salome, whom her mother used to destroy John the Baptist.  Because, John, the Baptist, confronted this sinful arrangement, Herodias along with her daughter Salome concocted this scheme to dance before Herod.  Because he was so intoxicated by her dancing, he offered her up to half his kingdom.  She instead settled for the head of John, the Baptist, on a platter.  John, in doing God’s work will now end up in prison about to face death.  I would imagine that could shake his faith a bit.

2)    John is having his doubts about the mission and work of Jesus.

Is John suffering from a case of spiritual failure?  Would this fall into the category of faithlessness?  Is it possible the one sent to prepare the way is backsliding? Jesus doesn’t judge John. Instead, he responds to him where he is at, at this moment in his faith journey.  Now that John is at this point in his life, you can imagine Jesus is saying “Great, now that you are willing to let go of all the preconceived notions of who you think I am, now that you are prepared to let go of your expectations, come, discover the real me. Allow me to take your faith to a deeper level.”

Jesus tells the disciple “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Tell him that “…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

What Jesus is saying is “give John a living testimony to all that you hear and see.”  Lives are being transformed.  The broken restored, the hopeless encouraged, those who have lost community reunited.  The lifeless given a new lease literally on life.   Go back to John and tell him your stories.  Tell him my stories.  There is so much more to the Messiah if only you are willing to open your spiritual eyes and ears and see what God is doing in your midst.

 Christians have questions also.

It is possible that our questions revolve around this: Has your life radically changed for the better because of Jesus?

As a Christian maybe, you have felt this way.  Have you wondered if this all there is? It is possible you expected more.  You expected life to be more comfortable.  You had big dreams, and maybe those hopes have been met with only disappointment, yet the evil around you prosper.  You understand John’s point of view.  There may come a time in your faith journey where you need some assurances.  Where you have questions, that need to be answered.  John sends word to Jesus through his disciples asking “Are you the one?”

Jesus Hears You, and He Responds!

When you are searching for some answers at that point in your life this same Savior, Jesus Christ reaches out to you with compassion and love.  He reaches down to find you wherever you are in your situation and reminds you He is real.  His promises are true; He has come back to assure you eternal life is yours.

These signs give us the confidence to continue living in hope.  Jesus says to look at the signs; they are evidence of my faithfulness.  Who else loves you so much that they would offer their very life to save you.  That is how important you are to Jesus; that is how real His promises are because those promises are sealed with His blood shed for you.

Devotional Message, Sermon Prompts

How the Resurrection Impacts Our Grief

Empty tomb
Empty tomb with three crosses on a hillside.

 

There are some chapters in the Bible that have no rival for the level of importance they play.  John 3 is one.  In that chapter, we have what many have called the message of salvation in a nutshell. In John 3:16, 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Another critical chapter is 1 Corinthians 15. Paul defends the truth of the resurrection in this chapter.  There were some in Corinth that questioned the validity of Christ rising from the dead.  So, Paul now is charged with dealing with the subject of the resurrection of the dead.  In doing so, Paul builds the foundation for what the theological point he is going to explain in detail. His underlying defense is clear.   The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the gospel and at the heart of our faith.

There are two essential elements in Paul’s argument.

  1. If Jesus Christ did not rise that casts doubt on the truth of God’s word and His promises especially as we deal with the death of loved ones.

 

Never is this more evident when the eternal fate of the one we love is in question.  This doubt is apparent in this story. As Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that the same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.  – Gary Thomas, Christian Times, October 3, 1994, p. 26.

It is at the grave that the reality of the resurrection has its most significant hold on us or provides us with its greatest comfort.  This widow felt the full weight of this truth as she said her final goodbyes.  What is the more profound question of “is the resurrection real?”  Underlining that questions for Christians are what the fate of our loved ones is?  Can we have a confident hope that those who have died and gone before us are safe and sound in heaven? If they are then our mourning is tempered and temporary.    This is the deep theological dive Paul is plunging into in I Corinthians 15.  Without Jesus’ resurrection, the witness of the apostles is both useless and false.  For the believer our faith futile.  And the entire world is lost because of our unforgiven sins.  As we say our final goodbyes, we must weep like everyone else because our Christian dead lost.  And the cruelest trick of all is that we are all left without hope if the resurrection is not real,  then Christianity is a farce and none of this matters if Christ has not risen from the dead.  Our life, our faith, our hope is worthless.

Yet, in Jesus’s own words He refutes the claims that the resurrection is something made up by men to calm the masses.  Jesus tells Mary at the tomb of Lazarus as that family is dealing with unmeasurable grief.   25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26 

  1. The Resurrection is Real!

Paul points out that just the opposite is true that indeed the resurrection is true.  And to prove his point Paul points out that this is not some new, fangled idea.  But that this was God’s plan from the beginning.

 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.21 Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. 22 In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22

Our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the pledge of that of believers, and an essential part of God’s plan to reverse the consequences of Adam’s sin. Due to one mans sin the entire world was plunged into darkness, through the sacrifice of the next Adam, Jesus Christ the entire world is redeemed and rescued.  The word at the beginning of v. 20 indicates that this redemption is happening ‘now, at this very moment’!

The world needed a savior.  We needed someone to take upon themselves the weight of sin and be our substitute, and Jesus was that Lamb of God sacrificed for our sins.  Isaiah describes this so poetically.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. Isa. 53:5-6

There is a Time for Weeping

So, there is a time and a place for mourning and sadness.

A psychotherapist tells about one of her patients who had been taught not to cry. The patient said, “My intellect tells me it is healthy to cry, but I have been brought up to be ashamed of my own tears. I feel weak, out of control and unstable when others see me cry, and I sometimes give in to depression if I allow tears to come.”[1]

That is a sad statement. But as a man, I have been guilty of buying into this philosophy and even at times teaching my boys that.  I was taught if you fall down and hurt yourself don’t you dare cry to get up rub some dirt on it and move on.  Today, God gives us permission to weep.  The Almighty says it is ok to mourn.  When we live our lives without mourning and sadness, we are hindering healing and help our souls need. We are meant to cry. Without grieving, we can’t get to joy.

No doubt Charles Dickens was right when he had Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist say this about crying: “It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes and softens the temper. So, cry away.”[2]

You may experience pain that is greater than any joy you have experienced in the past. It is possible you are holding in grief now.  Let it go. Know that one day you will be comforted.  The pain will be replaced with rejoicing. 

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.  Hope for us Christians is grounded in the belief in the resurrection.  This is why the resurrection matters.   Mourning like the widow in the earlier illustration can only be replaced by hope if the person dies, dies in the Lord, with their eyes looking forward toward the resurrection of all flesh.

[1] “Why Do We Cry?” by Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr., Reader’s Digest, February 1987, 141.

 

[2] Schreiner, 144.

 

Devotional Message, Sermon Prompts

Which Leper Are You This Thanksgiving?

lightstock_370168_small_byrene_haney

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw, them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-17
Sigmund Freud had a horrible cancer to his mouth, and in 1926, he also developed heart trouble and spent time in a sanatorium. He returned to Vienna with a yearning for morning drives, and for the first time, he said, he experienced the glories of springtime in Vienna. “What a pity,” he wrote, “that one has to grow old and ill before making this discovery.” Thanksgiving is a great time to stop and think. To reflect on the things God has done for us this past year.

Luke has given us a story from the life of Jesus that helps us think about the importance of being thankful for God’s goodness to me. And this story can help us to grow in our understanding of having a grateful spirit. With the story of the ten lepers, Luke emphasizes this rare gift of a thankful spirit. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells this story. It is possible that Luke met the grateful leper years later and heard the story from this man’s very lips.

Notice Jesus’ final words: “One of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. And Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give God praise?'” Only one had taken the time to thank the person who had made his recovery possible.

Have you noticed how infrequent gratitude is expressed these days? It seems like people have just come to expect everything to be given to them.

A man writing at the post office desk was approached by an older fellow who had a postcard in his hand. The old man said, “Sir, could you please address this note for me?” The man gladly did so, and he agreed to write a short message on the postcard, and he even signed it for the man, too.

Finally, the man doing the writing said to the older man, “Now, is there anything else I can do for you?”

The old fellow thought about it for a minute, and he said, “Yes, at the end could you just put, ‘P.S. Please excuse the sloppy handwriting.'”

How often do you hear people express sincere gratitude? This Thanksgiving season try this experiment. Keep track of the number of complaints you hear each day, and compare that with the number of times you hear people express sincere words of gratitude. And do me a favor and when you read this post record the results in the comment section.

In the account of the Ten Lepers, it is evident that only one was grateful and showed a heart of gratitude. I think it is appropriate to connect the attitude of gratitude to the writings of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12. Paul writes, in Romans,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. Romans 12:1-8

John Stott in his book on Romans points out that gratitude flows out from an appreciation of God’s grace. Stott says that “there is no greater incentive to holy living than a contemplation of the mercies of God.” So, our thankfulness and our attitude of gratitude flow out of our sense of the mercy God has showered on us. If you struggle with, bring grateful it is possible that you also struggle to receive God’s grace in your life. Maybe you feel you don’t deserve that kind of love and attention from the Father? It is possible there is some unforgiven sin in your past that still haunts you? Could it be that there are just too many broken relationships in your past that you cannot seem to keep and maintain any relationships? Whatever it is that is keeping you outside of God’s grace know this, you are forgiven. You have been forgiven not because of who you are but because of what Jesus Christ has done for you. It is possible those other nine lepers didn’t feel worthy to come back and give thanks. Their past sins may have haunted them also, but look at what they missed out on a chance to have all the pain of the past forgiven.

In the parable of the ten lepers when the one realizes how powerfully God’s grace and mercy has been showered on him, his response is, Jesus I can’t thank you enough. You stooped down and showed me a lowly poor miserable sinner, amazing and all-encompassing grace. Dear Savior, you took time out of your day to reach down and heal me and not only physically but spiritually. When others turn, and run the other way, you stopped and embraced me. Lord, when I think of what you have given me back, all I can do is to you my gratitude and love.

That is our response as well. When we stop this Thanksgiving and reflect on what God through Jesus Christ has given us back our spiritual response is gratitude. Notice I said our spiritual response because I believe our natural response is to take all of this for granted. To assume that somehow we deserve God’s mercy and grace when we deserve wrath and punishment. But our spiritual response understands exactly what we have been given back. Spiritually we know that we are poor miserable sinners in need of God’s grace. Spiritually we realize that God did not need to waste any of his precious time with us.

Spiritually we understand that like the leper we stand before a holy and righteous God covered with the sores and the scabs of our sins. But instead of turning away Jesus comes to us grabs hold of us and tells us that he will take that uncleanness away and make us whole again. He will allow us through his death and resurrection back into fellowship with him and the Father. We give thanks to God for his mercy shown to us through his Son and our Savior Jesus Christ.

Devotional Message

How We Handle Grief Is a Reflection of Our Understanding of Heaven

Cross shaped key
A woman carries a cross shaped key to gates of heaven

On November 1st every year the church stops to give thanks to God for all the Saints who have gone before us.  It is a time to remember all those special people that He put in our lives, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren and friends.  All these special saints that were witnesses to us.  I want to take time in this post to honor them for their walk with God and to thank God for sending us such a great cloud of witnesses.

The devotional theme for today is “Blessed are they.”  I am not here to glorify their accomplishments or lift them up because these saints are especially kind and good people.  We give thanks to God for them because they have finished their race, they have fought the good fight, they ran with perseverance the course laid out for them and now they have received their reward. No more struggle with the flesh, no more pain and tears for these people, they are in our Father’s house, they are at peace.  So “Blessed are they” because they have obtained an inheritance that will not fade, one that no robber can break in and steal. They have received eternal life.  They have crossed over from death to life.  Their struggle is over, they won their crown of righteousness, and we thank God for them.

Today we will look at one of the most famous sermons ever written, the Sermon on the Mount.  We will look at the opening section of this sermon, a section called the Beatitudes.

The church of the Middle Ages gathered together a list of attitudes that not checked could led believers away from God.  They called this list the seven deadly sins.  The sins were: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.
The first destructive attitude was pride.  We see the pride of sin on display daily, in politics, Hollywood, in our families, and even surprisingly in the church.  And if we are not excluded.  Simply hold up a mirror I am sure you will discover another culprit, you as well.  The church defined pride as “excessive egotism, being so self-centered that a person had no room in their spirit for God.” [1] It is easy to allow our ego to get puffed up, or as my mom would say, “became too full of yourself.”  When our pride goes unchecked that condition affects our relationship with God.  Pride pushes the need for God out of our spirit.  Making it easy to ignore the need for God altogether. Pride is very dangerous not only to one’s spiritual health but to one’s physical life as well.

During the Battle of the Wilderness in the Civil War, Union general John Sedgwick was inspecting his troops. At one point he came to a parapet, over which he gazed out in the direction of the enemy. His officers suggested that this was unwise and perhaps he ought to duck while passing the parapet. “Nonsense,” snapped the general. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—-.” A moment later Sedgwick fell to the ground, fatally wounded.

Today in the Word, August 30, 1993.
Martin Luther said, “Before God, everyone is compelled to lower his plumes.”

The Poor in Spirit

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

 This verse is communicating that the Christ follower who realizes he needs a Savior is blessed.  “Poor in spirit” does not indicate that your faith is inadequate or lacking something.  “Poor in spirit” is the condition that our spirit finds itself in because of our original sin.

There was this patient who went into the doctor’s office and sat down and said, “Okay, Doc here I am, help me.”  The doctor responded, “Well what is wrong with you?” The patient said, “How should I know you are the doctor?”  To which the doctor responded, “You have to help me help you. And believe you me, you do need help!”

The believer like this patient needs help.  The human soul is “poor in spirit” because we are sinners.  Sin separates us from God. Paul helps destroy any illusions we have that somehow, we are excluded from that claim in Romans 3, “…as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.’” Romans 3:10-11.  Armed with this firm understanding, we realize that we need help.

As Christians, we are well aware of the spiritual truth that we can’t save ourselves.  We are spiritually unable to stand before a just and holy God.  Thus, Christ comes to the rescue.  Christ stands in the gap for us.  He takes the full weight of our sins upon Himself.  And Christ gave His life as a ransom for a spiritually poor world.

Those Who Mourn

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Grief is never a blessed experience. Grief and sorrow are painful.  They test our faith and can rock our trust in God.  Yet, Jesus in this section says, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  But not because they are mourning, or they have endured a loss but blessed are they for they shall be comforted.  The blessing is in the fact that our faith in Jesus can help us work our way through even the most devastating losses.  Missionary John G. Paton shares this account.

Not long after arriving in New Hebrides as a pioneer missionary, John G. Paton and his wife rejoiced in the coming of a baby son to gladden their home. But the joy was short-lived. Soon death took both his wife and child, and Dr. Paton had to dig their graves and bury his loved ones with his own hands. In writing of this experience, he testified, “If it had not been for Jesus and the fellowship and grace He afforded me, I am certain I would have gone mad or died of grief beside their lonely graves.” Marvelously strengthened from above, the bereaved servant of God found that the promises of the Word were able to sustain him through the heartache and sorrow of his tragic loss. Our Daily Bread, August 6, 1992

In the original Greek, the word used for mourning is the strongest of those related to grief. It describes mourning the death of a person who is dearly loved.  Many reading this today are feeling the full weight of grief. You may be experiencing pain that is greater than any joy you have experienced in the past. Know that one day you too will be comforted.  The pain will be replaced with rejoicing.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

Know that mourning is not the end but a transition point.  A transition for your loved one from death to life.  A transition for you from mourning to laughter.  A transition to a great reunion in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Blessed are we who fight the good fight and persevere for the kingdom of heaven awaits.

[1] Parish Publishing, LLC