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Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Miracle Seeds

The Miracle Seeds

(Luke 8:5-15)

Jesus told a story (a parable) to His disciples about a farmer who went out to sow seeds hoping for a nice harvest. Some of the seeds landed on hard ground and the birds quickly ate them up. Some landed on rocky ground but when they sprang up they withered since they lacked moisture. Some of the seeds landed among thorns and the thorns chocked them out. But some fell on good ground and had plenty of room to grow. They sprang up and grew and yielded a big crop.

Jesus’ disciples ask what the story means, and this is what Jesus tells them. “The seeds, Jesus tells them, are the Word of God.” (Luke 8:11) “The hard ground that some of the seeds fall on is the heart of a person who hears the Word, but then the devil comes and takes the Word out of his heart, lest the person should believe and have eternal life.” (Luke 8:12) People who aren’t much interested in the Word and don’t think it is important are most likely the hard ground folks. When this indifferent crowd hear Gods’ Word they don’t take it too seriously. It makes no sense to them and they quickly forget what they have heard. The miracle seeds never have a chance to get into the ground of their heart, much less grow!

“The rocky ground that other seeds fall on is like the heart of the person who, when he hears the Word, he receives it with joy: but since he has no roots, he believes for a while, but then when the temptations come, he falls away.” (Luke 8:13) This person Jesus is describing perhaps pretends to be a good Christian but doesn’t take the Word seriously. He doesn’t see a problem with cheating on his wife during the week and going to church on Sunday. He takes advantage of others and does whatever he wants to do without worrying about what God would want. Those miracle seeds struggle to grow and take root in his life, but so many rocks are in the way. Alas, the poor seeds are never allowed to make it!

“Now the thorny ground that the seeds fall on is like the heart of a person who, when he has heard Gods’ Word, he goes out and is choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and is too busy with other things to bring the fruit from the seeds to maturity.” (Luke 8:14) Isn’t Jesus describing a person here who is busy shopping and playing video games and watching football and baseball and working two jobs and exercising and checking his messages and going to the movies and worrying about his portfolio and—the list goes on and on. Really there’s nothing wrong with these activities, but our persons’ schedule is so filled up with stuff that there is no room left for God. No room to pray and no room to read the Bible. The life giving seeds are never given a chance, never given space to grow and produce a crop. Never given room to sprout into eternal life.

“But when the seeds fall on the good ground, this is like the people who, when they hear the Word, with good and joyful hearts they hold onto the seeds tightly and keep them hidden in their hearts. And with patience they bear much fruit.” (Luke 8:15) Jesus is describing the people who belong to Him. Jesus wants us to desire and value his Word. He wants to plant his powerful seeds in our hearts. He wants to wait while his Word works its’ magic and we are born again! He wants us to give Him our heart. He, like the farmer, plans to cultivate it. Plow up the hard ground. Pull up the thorns and dig out the rocks. Fertilize the ground and make it ready so the seeds have room in our hearts to grow up into a life giving harvest.

This little story of Jesus’ wouldn’t make much sense if the seeds that the farmer went out to plant weren’t special seeds. But the seed (the Word) is special. The Bible has much to say about just how special Gods’ Word really is. We will just mention a few passages here that refer to the Word and its’ special place. Scripture says that “Faith (or believing) comes by hearing, hearing the Word” (Romans 10:17) The Word (the seed) has to be special if faith comes by hearing it and eternal life is given to those with faith.

Some may think that the Bible – the Word – is just an ordinary book like other books, but Scripture says that the Word (the seed) is “living”. “For the Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword …”(Hebrews 4:12) The Bible also says that the Word was made flesh and lived among us. (John 1:14) Of course this is referring to Jesus, who is called the “living Word”. David loved Gods’ Word and had much to say about it. Here in Psalms he writes: “Your Word is a Lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Psalms 119:105) These are just a few of the many scriptures that tell us that Gods’ Word can change us if we let it.

After reading Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed, what lessons can we take away? For me, I think the story teaches the importance of opening our hearts to God and to His Word so that the Word can grow and do its’ magic in our lives. This parable says that the devil takes the seeds away, “lest the person should believe and have eternal life.” (Luke 8:12) Right there Jesus is saying that the seed (the Word) causes a person to believe and believing brings eternal life. What importance the seeds are in the story!

In the natural world we have seeds that grow into apple trees and seeds that grow into tomato plants. Seeds that grow into giant redwood trees and seeds that grow into stalks of grain. We have all kinds of seeds on this earth. But have we ever thought about the seeds we have that cause people to believe and receive eternal life? These seeds (the Word) are something out of this world, wouldn’t you say? Shouldn’t we call them “miracle seeds”?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Parable of the Fathers' Love

The Parable of the Fathers’ Love

(Better known as the parable of the Prodigal son)

Jesus had many lessons that he wanted his disciples (and us) to learn. He often told parables –or stories- to get these lessons across. In Luke 15 we read three of Jesus’ parables that were all teaching the same message. It must have been an important message for Jesus to tell three stories that were all saying the same thing.

The message that Jesus is trying to get across in these three stories is that God, our heavenly Father, loves us and is emotionally attached to us. He worries and searches for us when we get lost in sin or when we travel down one of the roads that end up in a bad place.

The parable Jesus tells in Luke 15:11 begins with a father and two sons. The youngest son asks his father for his share of the estate and the father agrees to give it to him. Then this youngest son takes his money and “sets off for a distant country and squanders his wealth in wild living.” (Luke 15:13b) It didn’t seem to take this young man long to blow his inheritance, did it?

And to make matters worse, soon after he spent all his money, a famine occurred and he didn’t have enough to eat. The young man looked around and finally got a job feeding hogs for a farmer, but he didn’t get paid much. Jesus tells it this way: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the hogs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:16) Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it?

While the son was sitting in the hog pen with the hogs, dirty and starving, he began thinking of how much he missed his home and family. He thought about how the men who worked for his father were paid enough to have a good life, and here he was miserable and hungry. Maybe he could go back home and ask his father to hire him. He could be one of the workers. He had sinned against his father and he knew he wasn’t worthy of being his son anymore. But maybe his father would let him hang around as a worker. He got up and started off walking down the long road back towards home.

In the meantime the father hadn’t stopped grieving and worrying about his youngest son. Ever since the boy had taken off, he had spent hours each day gazing down the road and up to the hills just hoping to get a glimpse of his son returning. Finally one day the father saw what looked like a traveler way off in the distance! Could it be his son? The father took off running. Let’s read how Jesus tells it. “But while he was still a long way off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him: the father ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20b)

The son told his father that he wasn’t worthy of being his son any more and asked his father for a job as a hired worker. But the father wouldn’t listen to any of that. He called his workers and ordered: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on my son. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was lost and is found again: he was dead and is alive.” (Luke 15:22-24) So right away all the neighbors were invited to a party with feasting, music and dancing (Probably drinking too).

The oldest son had been out plowing the fields all day and as he trudged back home, sweaty and tired; he thought he could hear laughter and music coming from the house. When one of the workers told him that his younger brother had come home and his father was throwing a party, he really got mad. He sulked outside and refused to go in and join the festivities. His father went out and pleaded with his oldest son to come in and celebrate his brothers’ homecoming.

“My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The father told his oldest boy. “But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again: he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31)

Jesus’ parable tells us a lot about our heavenly Father, doesn’t it? First it tells us that God doesn’t stop us from doing what we want to do. The father in the story gave his youngest son his money and allowed him to leave, even though he didn’t want him to go. God doesn’t make us to be robots. He doesn’t force us to be good. We can leave our heavenly Father anytime we wish. Scripture tells us that since God has free will, we have free will too, since we are made in His image. This parable also teaches that if we leave the Father, He will keep anxiously waiting for our return. God is devoted to us and He will always welcome us back.

Along with this parable, Jesus told two other parables that were similar. One was a story about a shepherd who had one hundred sheep. But one day he found that one of his sheep was missing. Upset and worried, he left the ninety-nine and went out in the fields searching for his one lost sheep. Finally after a long exhausting search, he was overjoyed to find his lost sheep. He went home and threw a party, inviting his neighbors and friends with these words: “Rejoice with me for I have found my lost sheep.” (Luke 15:6b) Jesus added: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

And the third story that Jesus tells is about a woman who had ten silver coins and loses one. The woman turned everything upside down and searched everywhere in her house until she finally found her lost coin. And of course she called her neighbors and threw a party to celebrate the fact that she had found her lost coin. Jesus adds: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

These stories all teach the same truth: that God loves us. That when we stray away He cares enough to search for us, run after us and keep looking for us, always anxious to bring us back. Our earthly fathers may have let us down, even abandoned us. But we have a heavenly Father that will always be there for us. A God who is so thrilled when we come back to Him that there is celebrating in heaven with angels rejoicing. If we have strayed away, gone down a wrong road, or squandered all our money in wild living, let’s go back to our waiting Father. He will be overjoyed and we will be glad we did.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us from Evil

Every time we pray the Lords’ prayer we ask the Lord to “deliver us from evil”. (Matthew 6:9) Some of us have prayed that prayer so much that we just say the words and don’t think much about what we are praying. So what are we praying? And along with that, when we pray the Lords’ prayer we also pray: “Lead us not into temptation.”

Don’t these Biblical warnings in the Lord’s Prayer alert us to watch out for temptations scattered along our way? Temptations to choose what’s wrong – wrong thoughts or wrong actions. We may play with wrong thoughts or actions– joke about them -but never really let them in the door. But they are dangerous just the same. Sin is seductive and addictive and if it is allowed to get a foothold inside our lives it can take hold and grow into real evil -ruining lives and leaving devastation.

Obviously there are truly evil situations out there that we can become involved in if we do not ask for the Lords’ protection. We have all read shocking news in the papers or seen stories on television of normal looking folks like you and me who have gotten themselves into desperate situations just because they gave in to a serious temptation! They said “yes” when they should have said “no”. And crimes were committed, lives torn apart, and things will never be the same again.

We Christians are told that there are things we are not to do, places we are not to go, and even thoughts we are not to think. Jesus says that if we love Him we will keep His commandments.(John 14:15) Sounds difficult, but He promises to help us. It appears that when we walk down the road of life we will have to make our way through a mine field of temptations, doesn’t it? And Scripture tells us that that is true.

Awhile ago the newspaper showed the photo of a man walking out of prison, a free man after twenty-four years behind bars. The innocent man had been presumed guilty for the death of his murdered wife twenty-four years ago and has been behind bars even since. Finally he is a free man! His attorney had worked tirelessly behind the scenes and had proven his innocence from DNA samples. Another man, who had murdered several times, was finally indicted for this crime since his DNA matched the DNA at the scene of the crime committed twenty-four years ago.

The newspaper reported that during the trial so long ago, the district attorney/prosecutor had withheld important evidence in court that might have proven that the husband had not murdered his wife. The district attorney/prosecutor knew the husband was innocent, but in order to win his case, allowed the innocent husband to go to prison for life. For this successful district attorney it was all about winning – winning at any cost.

When the district attorney was tempted with bearing false witness and covering up the truth in exchange for winning another case in the courtroom and bolstering his reputation, he chose winning and looking good instead of doing the right thing. Over the years this powerful district attorney has worked his way up the ladder of success. Now he is a prominent judge in our state; wealthy, a church member and well respected. I wonder if it ever bothered him knowing that his actions were responsible for putting an innocent man behind bars. He will keep his position of power as a judge. Perhaps this judge would not have become as “successful” as he is now if he had not given in to the temptation to bear false witness in order to win.

These same problems came up with the scandal that broke this week at Pennsylvania State. Years ago a young boy was molested by a valued assistant coach of a winning football team: that crime was not reported to the police. The teams’ success and reputation, money and power were all at stake. The temptation was strong to keep quiet so their winning team would not be jeopardized. Several prominent men gave in and said “yes” instead of “no” to the temptation - the temptation to win at any cost! Even at the cost of harming children!

A few weeks ago another story was told in our local newspaper. A husband and father shot his pregnant wife, his little five year old daughter and his father-in-law as they lay sleeping in their home. And then he set their home on fire in hopes of burning up his murdered family members and covering up his crime. He had met a go-go dancer in a local bar and had fallen for her. He wanted to be with his new girlfriend without his pregnant wife and family getting in the way. When temptation knocked, this man opened the door wide. He never got what he wanted -the new girlfriend- and he is in jail now for a very long time. Is this evil or not?

Another part of the Lords’ Prayer reads; “Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins that others sin against us.” (Matthew 6:9) Probably a temptation that comes to all of us at one time or another is the temptation not to forgive someone who has hurt or harmed us. We may need Gods’ help in forgiving, but God will be there to help us forgive when it is too difficult for us to do on our own.

Sometimes we may want to pay back another person for harming us or our loved ones. But Scripture says that it is not our place to pay another person back for the harm they have done. God did not create to hating or “pay back” another person. Only God is righteous enough for such a job. God is a God of justice and He will take care of us and even out any score His own way. Scripture says: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) We need to remember that God will even out the score, even if it doesn’t happen until we are on the other side. “Every valley will be exalted and every mountain and hill made low.” (Isaiah 40:4)

We will face temptation as long as we live. But God promises to be there for us and to never let our temptations be bigger than we can handle. He also promises to give us a way out of our temptations. “No temptation has taken you except what is common to everyone else, but God is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear, but when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

So many Christians have been willing to pay the full price –to die- before giving in to temptation. There have been Christians down through the ages who have been willing to face martyrdom before going along with evil. The Christians in Germany and Holland who risked their lives by hiding Jews during the Holocaust refused to give in to the evil all around them! The Christians in early Rome who were willing to be fed to the lions before renouncing Christ didn’t give in either. Most of us won’t be called on to make that ultimate sacrifice. But there is often a price we pay when we say “no” to temptation! And there is a cost to consider in following Christ! Are we willing to consider the cost and pay the price?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Words of Judgment and Words of Comfort

                                                        a murel from ancient Nineveh

Words of Judgment and Words of Comfort

Visions from Nahun

The main message in the short little book of Nahun is that God has judged the evil city of Nineveh and that it would soon be completely destroyed! Mighty Nineveh was the most powerful city in the ancient world in 600-700B.C. and it was the capital of the nation of Assyria. The Bible calls Nineveh a “bloody city, full of lies and robbery, where its’ victims never depart.” (Nahun 3:1) Again Nineveh is mentioned as “The mistress of sorceries, who sells nations through her harlotries, and families through her sorceries.” (Nahun 3:4a) Not a nice picture would you say? The ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh were discovered by archeologists just beyond the Tigris River across from the modern day city of Mosel in Iraq.

For centuries Assyria had been the strongest and cruelest nation in the ancient world. But then in approximately 630 B.C., Nahun, a Jewish prophet, arose and prophesied Gods’ message of doom against her. The surrounding nations hated and feared Assyria, and for good reasons! Ancient documents attest to the cruelty of the Assyrians against their neighbors. Assyrian kings boasted of their savagery, celebrating the abuse and torture they inflicted on their conquered peoples.

In 722-721 B.C., the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel – ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. We now call them the ten lost tribes because these Jewish people were captured and scattered by the invading Assyrians and they were never heard from again. Most people believe that their identity as Jews has been forever lost. It has now been 2,722 years since the ten tribes were carried off to Assyria, and they never returned! Did these captured tribes of Israel intermarry with the Assyrians and lose their Jewish identity forever! Or were they all tortured and killed?

Nineveh was regarded as an invincible fortress. Beyond its massive walls, a system of canals, moats, outworks, and armed guards provided strong defenses. No one in the ancient world believed that Nineveh could fall. Nineveh was founded and maintained on murder, bloodshed, and constant warfare. But as strong and mighty as Nineveh was, God is always our real stronghold. Real strength stands on righteousness and never on evil. So Nineveh was doomed since God is a God of righteousness and justice. And there is a limit to how long He will allow evil to continue before judgment is meted out.

The end for Nineveh came just as Nahun predicted it would in 612 B.C. The Medes and Babylonians came against Nineveh killing the citizens and burning the city.

The powerful Assyrians were scattered to the mountains north of their land with no one to reassemble them. And the prophecies of Nahun were fulfilled to the letter. Nineveh disappeared from the scene of history and was no more. The great city was leveled, burned and completely destroyed. No one could even find the site where the great city had been until 1842 when French and English archeologists finally uncovered ruins they believe might have been the ancient Nineveh.

Nahun writes of her doom while Nineveh is still a powerful stronghold. And the book of Nahun ends with these words. “Your injury has no healing. Your wound is severe. All who hear news of you will clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not your wickedness passed over continually?” (Nahun 3:19)

The ten lost tribes of Israel- those tribes taken away by the evil Assyrians in 722-721 B.C.- are briefly mentioned in the book of Nahun. Other Bible passages foretell that those northern tribes will one day be restored. Ezekiel tells of the restoration of Israel in the amazing story of the valley of scattered dry bones. The story continues with God bringing the scattered bones back together into a skeleton. And then He adds flesh over the skeleton making it look human., but it is still lifeless. And then God breathes into this lifeless form and restores it again into a living person! Gods’ message in this story is that the scattered pieces of the tribes of lost Israel will be reassembled and given new life someday. This will be a true miracle from God just for Israel. It will most likely blow their minds!

But don’t some of the rest of us need a miracle from God too? We have children who have gone wrong or health issues that drag us down. Money problems that never stop or betrayals that we never expected. We’ve waited a long time for answers and finally all our dreams have dried up and have scattered and all our hope is dead. We have our own personal valley of dry bones!

But God has made us some promises too! He has promised to breathe new life into the dry bones and valleys of our lives. Let’s listen to just a few of His many promises to us. “And all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer believing, you shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22) “Exceeding great and precious promises have been given to us that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) and “Whatever you ask in My Name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13) God tells us to pray over our problems and then He will answer. Sometimes we keep praying and believing and praying and believing and nothing seems to happen. Years pass by and still the answer doesn’t come. The dry bones in our valleys are scattered and dead.

Let’s remember that the dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley aren’t living yet, even though Ezekiel and Nahun saw the miracle ahead of time. That promise to Israel may not be fulfilled until the end of the age. That may be a long time to wait. And some of our prayers may not be answered until after we die. But our prayers will be answered. God will breathe new life into our dry bones. We just need to keep believing Gods’ promises.

And here in Nahun this promise of a restored Israel shows up even again. “For the Lord will restore the excellence of Jacob (the southern kingdom) just like the excellence of Israel (the northern kingdom). For the ones who empty have emptied them out and ruined their vine branches.” (Nahun 2:2) It does seem impossible to us that those ten lost tribes could be put together again after more than two thousand years. But we know that nothing is impossible with God. If He promises He will restore the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom which was lost so long ago, then He will do it.

The name “Nahun” means “comfort”. But how could Nahun bring words of comfort when his short message was mainly that of the foretelling of destruction? The truth is that Gods’ words through Nahun were words of comfort and also words of condemnation. Condemnation proclaimed to the evil city of Nineveh, and comfort proclaimed to Gods’ faithful people, Judah. Nahun 1: 7-9a gives this double message. “The Lord is good. A stronghold in the day of trouble: And He knows those who trust in Him. But with an overflowing flood He will make an utter end of its place(Nineveh). And darkness will pursue His enemies. You who conspire against the Lord? He will make an utter end of it.”

Gods’ people, the two tribes of Judah, were comforted when Nineveh was destroyed -when they no longer had to worry about being attacked, tortured and killed by these warring people. If God had not judged Nineveh and stopped them in their tracks, there would have been no peace, no comfort for Gods’ people.

I have known fellow Christians who can not believe that God is not only the loving Savior of the world but also the Judge of the world who condemns. They ask how a loving God could judge and punish people? The answer is that God condemns evil because He is loving! God loves us too much to leave us in our sin. Our world cannot have real peace or real wholeness as long as evil remains, just as a human body cannot be healthy as long as a disease remains. Jesus our Savior takes away sin (disease) and makes us righteous (healthy). But for those who reject the Savior, who rebel against good and choose evil, there will be a day of judgment.

When that final Day arrives we will be there. And it will be both a Day of Judgment and a Day of Comfort, just like it was back when Nahun, whose name means “comfort” foretold of both Gods’ judgment and of His comfort. Judgment and comfort – do they really go together?