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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Three Simple Rules

Three Simple Rules



If you even walk into a Methodist church you will discover that most Methodists are a bunch of “do gooders”.  John Wesley and his brother Charles really founded the Methodist Church in England in the 18th Century and from the start it was a “do good” movement.  Wesley preached on street corners while emphasizing that Christians should give to the poor, visit the sick and live humbly.


And John Wesley passed down his Three Simple Rules for living and Methodists often quote these rules and try to live by them.  Here they are:  Three Simple Rules  1) Do no harm.  2) Do good of every possible sort.  3) Stay in love with God.  Just three simple rules!  Sounds easy to follow, doesn’t it?


The first rule “Do no harm” sounds easy. But watch out! The temptation to harm others is ever near.  You can harm another persons’ reputation by gossiping about them or passing on rumors.  Or hurt a persons’ feelings by not treating them with respect.  And it’s so easy to dislike a person and harm them just with your attitude. 


Of course you can do great harm by bearing false witness against another or stealing from them. And then there is murder and adultery!  There is a sentence in  the Lords’ Prayer that begs God to help us resist temptation and evil.  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  (Matt.6:13a)  Not only should we try to do no harm but we should try to stop others from doing harm if we can. We can not follow rule number one “Do no harm” without Gods’ help.


The second rule is “Do good of every possible sort.  ” First of all, in order to do good one needs to slow down.  Slow down and live life in the present.  If you rush through life, people will be invisible to you – you will be blind to their needs.  The story goes that for forty years a woman named Grace ministered to street people in her city and made a big difference in the quality of their lives.  And when she was asked what her secret was in being able to change so many lives, she replied that the secret was that she “walked slowly.”


In order to do good a person also has to care.  If we don’t really care about another person in need then we will walk on by and look the other way.  One of the seven deadly sins is the sin of sloth or apathy – the sin of not caring enough to do what we can do if we have the opportunity to right a wrong.


 Many years ago (1964) newspapers all over the United States printed a sad and disturbing story about a young woman in New York named Kitty Genovese who was murdered by a man with a knife. This knife attack took place in the yard outside of an apartment complex with thirty apartment windows overlooking the crime area.  And it took forty-five minutes for the attacker to slowly kill the young woman with his knife as many folks watched. 


As the attacker stabbed Kitty again and again she screamed and ran crying out for help while many watched from the safety of their apartment windows. She rushed frantically from door to door knocking and begging for someone – anyone - to open and let her inside to safety. But for forty-five minutes the crazed man chased this girl stabbing her again and again as groups watched from their apartment windows.


Not one of the many onlookers bothered to get involved.  Not one person opened their door to save the desperate girl from her attacker.  Were they afraid they might be hurt as well? Not one of those watching even took the time to call the police.  Finally after time passed and she had been stabbed more than fifty times, Kitty dropped on the cold pavement covered in blood and died alone while people all around her watched.  


For months after Kitty’s murder there were angry outcries and questions by the public and by newscasters asking how this could have happened in America!  How could a group of bystanders watch for 45 minutes and do nothing while a girl in their midst was being murdered.  Were these people human?


 We all believe that we are safer when we are surrounded by a group.  Since most of the people we know are caring folk, we assume that this general goodwill would cause persons in a group to try to help a person in trouble.  And most of the time that is what happens.  Nearly always good people are nearby to lend a hand when a person is in trouble. That is why the public was so shocked when they heard Kitty’s story.     


But I believe that the folks who watched from their windows as Kitty died didn’t care enough to risk their own comfort.  And not caring (Sloth) is considered to be one of the “Seven Deadly Sins”.  One of the definitions of sloth is “the inability or unwillingness to act or care.”   The Seven Deadly Sins are: 1) Pride,   2) Greed,  3) Lust,  4) Anger,  5) Gluttony,  6) Envy,  7) Sloth.  Actually there is no formal list of the “seven deadly sins” in the Bible.  But these seven sins are denounced everywhere in Scripture.  Pope Gregory (540-604 A.D.) put the list together for Christians back in the sixty century. We can pray and ask God to give us a caring heart.   


In order to do good a person needs to have confidence in God.  Loving God is the bedrock of doing good.  God is the source of love and when a person turns from God and chooses evil ways, the flow of love into that persons’ life could become unsteady.


And that brings us to rule number three: “Stay in love with God.”  Without staying in love with God we cannot follow the first two rules. Without God in the picture we can sometimes throw up our hands and give up on a person.  But what seems impossible with us is always possible with God.  God can open our eyes and show us that He can restore the person that has gone down a wrong path.  And God can give us the vision and strength to keep loving those who in our own strength we find hard to love.


When Jesus was on earth the Pharisees asked Him which commandment was the most important one in the Law.  And Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Mathew 22:37-39)


So Jesus is saying that the most important thing that we can do in our life is to love God, the God who loves us and gave Himself for us.  The God who created us and redeems us.  The God who is there for us, answers our prayers, watches over us, leads us and guides us.  The God who waits for us to come back to Him.  If we try to obey Rule number 3 the others will fall into place.  


It’s easy to become lukewarm in our love for God.  To follow Him from a distance.  But Scripture says that God is disappointed with “lukewarm” love.  He wants us to love Him with everything we’ve got.  Let’s do it.  Let’s stay in love with God.    

Sunday, April 21, 2013

god Sends Down Fire from Heaven

God Sends Down Fire from Heaven

1 Kings 18-19



It had been three and a half years since any rain had fallen in the land of Israel. The grasslands where the cows and sheep had grazed contentedly were gone now and all that was left was the parched barren dirt. The fields where farmers had planted the wheat and vegetables that grew so lush and tall had vanished and all that remained was the cracked thirsty ground. The rivers and streams were drying up and vultures were circling overhead as the nation of Israel waits to die.


 The year was approximately 875 B.C. and without rain it would not be long now until the people and animals would starve.  But just when it looked like the end was near, God spoke to Elijah.  “Go to King Ahab and to the people and tell them that I, the God of Israel, will give them rain!” It had been three and a half years since Elijah, Gods’ prophet, had gone to the palace and told King Ahab that God would not send rain until he prayed for it.


God had stopped sending rain because the Jewish people were worshipping Baal, the rain god.  King Ahab had built an altar to Baal and the Jewish people were sacrificing their children on this altar and begging Baal for rain.  Archeologists have found idols and carvings of Baal pictured with thunder clouds and lightening on his shoulder. Scripture says that God loved Israel and wanted to see them choose life (God) and not death (Baal).  Even though they were worshipping Baal, God would not leave them any longer without rain. 


Elijah had been staying with a widow and her son but after God spoke the word, he hurried back to find King Ahab and give him Gods’ message.  God had said that there would again be rain in Israel!  After more than three years of drought Elijah, the prophet of God had come with this good news. 


The first thing King Ahab did when he saw Elijah was to blame him for the terrible drought that had occurred in Israel. (1 Kings 18:17)  And Elijah was quick to reply. “I did not cause this trouble but you and your father, the king before you have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and have caused all Israel to follow Baal.”  (I Kings 18:18) 


Often when bad things happen the wrong people are blamed.  Or sometimes even God is blamed.  The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)  We often take a very complex issue – a mystery really - of how sin causes the earth to be cursed.  And we forget the Bible story of how death, illness and trouble came into the world because Adam and Eve chose sin.  And we take a complex issue and make it simple by blaming God for bad things that happen - or in our story the prophet of God was blamed when it was really the sin of King Ahab and the people that caused that drought.


Even three and a half years of drought had not convinced King Ahab to stop worshipping Baal, the rain god. And the Jewish people still worshipped Baal even though he had not given them the rain for all of this time. When Elijah begged the Jewish people to return to their God they weren’t ready to give up the popular idol all of their neighbors worshipped – Baal.  They wanted to compromise and maybe worship both God and Baal but Elijah insisted that they had to make a definite decision. 


So Elijah called for a showdown between the idol, Baal and the Lord God of Israel. All of the people in Israel were invited to come to Mount Carmel and there would be a contest.  After three and a half years of drought, the question of whether it was the Lord God or Baal who controlled the rain was about to be answered. 


This is how the contest would work.  Elijah was the only prophet that spoke for God, but there were four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal.  Elijah would build an altar to God and Baal’s prophets would build an altar to Baal.  Both altars would be built on Mount Carmel and both would sacrifice a bull on a fire pit full of wood.  But neither Elijah nor the prophets of Baal would light a fire under the sacrifice.  The prophets of Baal would pray to him and ask him to answer by sending fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifice.  And Elijah would pray and ask the Lord God of Israel to send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. 


So Elijah announced to the people: “the god who answers by fire --- he is God.”  (1 Kings 18:24b)  And all of the Jewish people who had gathered there agreed that this was a good test.  If Baal sent fire from heaven then it would prove that he was god.  And if the God of Israel sent down fire then they would go back to worshipping Him.


Elijah insisted that Baal’s prophets should go first.  “Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon.  ‘O Baal, answer us,’ they shouted.  But there was no response: no one answered.  And they danced around the altar they had made.  At noon Elijah began to taunt them.  ‘Shout louder,’ he said.  ‘Surely he is a god!  Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling.  Maybe he is sleeping and you must waken him.’  So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.  Midday passed and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice.  But there was no response and no one answered, no one paid attention.”  (1 Kings 18: 26b-29)


It was evening and Baal had not answered.  So Elijah took his turn.  He took twelve stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he built an altar.  Then he dug a trench around the altar and filled the trench with water and poured water all over the altar.  This way it would be difficult for the altar to catch on fire.  Then Elijah quietly knelt and prayed this simple prayer.  “Oh Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel … Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back to You again.”  (1 Kings 18:36-37) 


“Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.  When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord – He is God!  The Lord- He is God!”  (1 Kings 18:38-39)


So all of Israel came back to their God that day and turned from worshipping Baal!  God had given them proof that He is God by sending fire from heaven as they had asked.  And later the next day God sent a soaking rain to the land of Israel to water the thirsty ground and bless the people. The drought was ended and the crops would grow and the people and animals would thrive again.  This was the final proof for Israel that Baal was impotent and the God of Israel was supreme.  


After this great spiritual victory you might think that Elijah would be feeling good.  But that evening when King Ahab went back to the palace and told  Queen Jezebel all that had happened, the wicked Jezebel flew into a rage and sent a message to Elijah that she would hunt him down and kill him. And somehow when the fearless Elijah got Jezebel’s death threat he fell apart.


 Elijah, the mighty prophet at whose prayer God sent down fire from heaven, now ran and hid from the rage of a wicked queen.  He ran away and hid and falling into a  deep depression, Elijah begged God to let him die.  He told God that he was the only person in all of Israel that had not bowed the knee to Baal. He was all alone and it was too much.


God was gentle with Elijah and comforted him, reminding him that he was never alone and that there were more than seven thousand other Jewish people in Israel that had not worshipped Baal.  And God sent angels to feed him and strengthen him.


In this Biblical story from ancient times we see God miraculously showing His people that He is God by sending fire from heaven and by blessing them with rain. And we see God comforting and strengthening Elijah in his need.


 Some say they don’t believe this story from Scripture because they don’t see these things happening today. But look around!  Today God sends fire down from heaven in the form of the Holy Spirit to each one of His people to lead these ones to the truth.  And God comforts and strengthens and showers His people with blessings today just as He did long ago. He is the same Father God today as He was in ancient times - always searching for His children and always anxious to bring them to Himself.    






















Saturday, April 13, 2013

God Provides for Elijah

God Provides for Elijah
Elijah is one of the most powerful prophets of the Old Testament.  His ministry was marked by many miracles and his name meant “The Lord is my God”.  And that was the message that he preached.  Elijah was sent to shine God’s light out to the Jewish people during a dark and sinful time in their history. And because Elijah delivered God’s message to Israel condemning their spiritual darkness, he was always being harassed and threatened with death.  But God was there faithfully protecting Elijah at every turn.
The date was around 870 B.C. and sadly the people of Israel had turned away from worshiping God to worshiping Baal and the popular goddesses of the fertility cult. The Jewish people were renouncing their God after all that He had done for them.  
Centuries earlier with supernatural power God had rescued the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt and then He had led them safely back to their promised land. God had fed them and protected them from their enemies and given them the Ten Commandments and the law.  Down through the centuries God had been faithful to Israel but now Israel was not being faithful to God. Now they were turning their backs on God, the God who loved them so much. 
In 874 B.C. Ahab became king of northern Israel.  He married the wicked Jezebel and together they built an altar for Baal in the capital city and set up an Asherah pole too, encouraging the Jewish people to abandon God and worship these idols which included ritualistic prostitution, self inflicted injuries and human sacrifices.  Scripture describes King Ahab this way:  “He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal …  Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than did all the other kings of Israel before him.”  (1 Kings 17:32-33) 
Baal, a popular Canaanite and Phoenician god, was considered the god of fertility and lord of the rain clouds.  It was believed that Baal enabled the earth to produce crops because of the rain he sent.  The worship of Baal was a cruel and bloody religion.  Children and babies were murdered and sacrificed on the altar to Baal to persuade him to bring rain or to gain his favor for a good harvest. 
Asherah was a sex partner of Baal’s and she was the popular mother-goddess of sexuality and fertility.  She was worshipped by building Asherah poles and groves and combining sex and ritualistic prostitution along with the worship of this goddess!  Asherah poles were popular in ancient times and were popping up everywhere. But God had forbidden the Jewish people to have them. (Deut.7:5, 12:3)  Too often the Jewish people were tempted to disobey God and do what their neighbors were doing and worship at these heathen altars.  To keep Israel from idol worship was a never ending battle!  One king would tear down the idols and the Asherah poles and then a generation later the next king would build them back again.
Throughout Jewish history, God had always become angry when His people worshipped idols. Through one prophet and then another God told the Jewish people that He was jealous when they turned to other gods and that idol worshippers would be punished!  Scripture even says that the people who worship idols are really worshipping demons!  (1 Corinthians 10:20)  So God confronted this worship of Baal and Asherah - brought to Israel by the worst Israelite king and queen ever – Ahab and Jezebel - by sending His most powerful prophet ever- Elijah.
Soon after King Ahab set up idol worship in Israel, God called Elijah to go and deliver a message to him.  So Elijah strode into the palace and boldly announced to King Ahab that God was not going to send any rain or even dew to the land for the next few years, unless Elijah asked for it.  “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”  (1 Kings 17:1b)  After he delivered the message and before the startled King Ahab could say a word, Elijah turned and hurried out of the palace.
Perhaps God decided to stop giving rain to the land of Israel because now the Jewish people were worshipping Baal, the god who they worshipped for bringing them rain.  The coming drought that Elijah announced would be a demonstration that Baal, the lord of the rain, was really powerless to give rain!  Their so-called Baal god was being challenged.  Maybe the drought would teach the Jewish people that only God can control the weather and bless His people with rain. 
Elijah had just run outside the palace after announcing the news of the coming drought to King Ahab when God spoke to him again and told him where to go and hide.  Scripture says: “The word of the Lord came to Elijah: ‘Leave here, turn east and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan.  You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you.”  (1 Kings 17:2-4) 
Elijah obeyed God and hurried to the Kerith Ravine and brook to hide from the angry king who soon would be sending his soldiers out to search for him.  And Scripture says that Elijah stayed in God’s hiding place - the Kerith Ravine - for perhaps three years.
 Elijah could not farm or go to the market to get food while he was in hiding.  So God provided for Elijah in a similar fashion as He had provided for Moses and the Israelites during the years they wandered in the wilderness.  Bible scholars estimate that there might have been two million Israelites traveling across the desert with Moses.  Since a group this large –the nation of ancient Israel- could not possibly find enough food in the desert to sustain them, God faithfully provided manna (sweet bread) for the whole nation of Israel for many years. 
 Every day of those three years that Elijah was in hiding, the ravens brought him food!   Every single morning and evening several ravens flew in and dropped off bread and meat to Elijah. I wish I had been there to see it!  Scripture tells it this way. “The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening: and he drank from the brook.”  (1 Kings 17:6)  God faithfully provided.   
After about three years the long drought had caused the Kerith brook to dry up – the brook that Elijah had been drinking out of.  No rain had fallen in the land of Israel for years just as Elijah had predicted to King Ahab and all of the rivers and brooks in the land were drying up.  So God spoke to Elijah and said:  “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there.  I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.”  (1 Kings 17:9) 
Elijah again obeyed God and when he arrived outside the city of Zarephath he saw a widow at the town gate gathering sticks.  He called to her and asked if she could bring him water and a piece of bread.  And she answered Elijah: “I don’t have any bread- only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.  I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son that we may eat it – and die.”  (1 Kings 17: 12)  The poor widow and her son would soon starve because the land could not produce crops due to the severe drought.
Elijah told the poor widow that God had spoken to him and promised that her jar would not run out of flour and her jug would not run out of oil until it finally rained again.  And Scripture says that that is what happened.  Elijah stayed with the widow and her son and the three of them ate the bread made with the flour and the oil in the jars that never ran out! God had done it again!  God miraculously sustained Elijah –along with the widow and her son- until the rains finally came back and the earth was again able to produce crops. 
God provided for Elijah because Elijah trusted in Him.  And God will provide for you and me because we trust in Him.  Elijah lived through many troubles and hardships and so will we.  But underneath are the Everlasting Arms – upholding and providing. (Deuteronomy 33:27) There are many Hebrew names for God in Scripture that describe His nature and one of those names is “Jehovah-Jireh” which means “The Lord will provide.” 
Elijah lived an unorthodox and dramatic life as Gods’ prophet and God often provided for him in unorthodox and dramatic ways. We live in a very different age than Elijah and we probably are not called to be a major prophet as he was. So God may provide for us in a different fashion.  We may not have birds delivering our dinner as Elijah did.  But God who created the birds and all of nature can move birds or nature or situations or people or anything He wishes to guide us and provide for us.  And He promises that He will.        

Saturday, April 6, 2013

You Are Invited to Dinner

You Are Invited to Dinner



And what a dinner it will be! I’m getting excited! Let’s listen to the description of this homecoming dinner that you and I are invited to–this celebration- in the Bible.  Here is how it is described in the Bible.  “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine- the best of meats and the finest of wines.  On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations: He will swallow up death forever.  The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces:  He will remove the disgrace of His people from all the earth.  The Lord has spoken.”  (Isaiah 25:6-8)


This is a feast at the end of history, the ultimate wedding celebration-feast! (Rev. 19)   Jesus mentions this dinner or feast when He says:  “Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 8:11)  Can you imagine it- feasting not just on physical food, but also on the spiritual – feasting with people from every generation – people who lived thousands of years ago – and of course feasting in Gods’ presence?


Jesus has been called the real “Master of the Feast.”  And why is this?  Scripture calls the first of Jesus’ miracles a “sign,” or a signifier of what Jesus’ ministry would be about. Jesus’ first miracle happened at a neighbors’ wedding reception where the wine had run out too soon. The hosts of the party were embarrassed that now the guests would have no more wine to enjoy. So because his mother Mary nagged him, Jesus turned several large jugs of water into very fine wine.  And the party kept on going! (John 2:1-11)  If this first miracle is a “sign” of what Jesus is about, as Scripture says, it seems to say that Jesus is about bringing joy and bringing us all back together for a communal dinner and wine!    


Jesus too, pictures Himself and the salvation He brings, as a feast.  He tells us, “I am the Bread”. (John 6:35)  We can feast on Him. Jesus asked His followers to remember Him until He returns by eating a meal of bread and wine. The meal is called the “Lord’s supper” or “Communion” or the “Eucharist”. The bread is His body that was broken for us and the wine is His blood that was shed for us.  When we eat this feast we show our Lords’ death until he returns. 


Jesus’ salvation has been called a feast.  It is not only a fact that we can believe but we can feel it and taste it and be nourished by it also! The words in Scripture call us to “taste and see” that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34:8)   The Psalmist writes: “How sweet are your Words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  (Psalm 119:108)  There is a difference between just believing that honey is sweet and tasting it and enjoying it. And there is a difference between believing in Jesus’ love intellectually and allowing His love to become real down in our heart.  


Like Christ we also have a hidden spiritual dinner (John 4:32) that is ours to feed on, - this new life in the Spirit that we have when we follow Christ.  Without Christ it is normal for us humans to be driven by anger and fear and to feel that our lives are sometimes out of control.  But when we believe in our hearts and digest the truths into our lives that God is in control and that He can take care of our problems, then we are strengthened and have a new sense of peace.


 It is also normal for us to believe that we are hopefully accepted by God because we are good law abiding citizens and we obey and go to church, etc.  But the gospel teaches us that we aren’t accepted by God because we obey or do good, but we obey and do good because we are accepted by God through Christ. Christ doesn’t love us because we are beautiful, but we become beautiful because of Christ’s love.  “We love God because He first loved us,” (1 John 4:19) His amazing love changes us and His Spirit nudges us into the truth of his love.  


 Also Jesus tells a parable or story about a wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14) and tells us that the kingdom of God is similar to his parable.  Jesus tells that a king is preparing a wedding feast for his son and invites all of his family and friends and neighbors.  The king’s friends and family ignore his invitation because they are too busy to bother with his feast.  This hurts and angers the king so he asks his workers to go out into the streets and invite anyone and everyone.  “So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (Matt.22:10)


Jesus’ story ends with the king coming to his wedding feast and noticing that one of the guests isn’t wearing a “wedding coat”.  The king has this guest ushered out of the party since he is not dressed appropriately, or he might have even been naked. And then Jesus’ parable ends with these words: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:14)  What does this parable mean?


 Bible scholars believe that it may have been the custom back then for the host of a wedding party to provide the guests with wedding coats, particularly if the guests came in directly from the dirty streets. The wedding coat speaks of the righteousness that God, the gracious host, provides for all who accept his dinner invitation.  God invites undeserving people to His sumptuous feast, and then provides the righteousness (clean clothes) that the invitation demands. And of course, Jesus is that righteousness.  If we do not allow Him to clean us up – if we do not trust Him and allow Him to work in our lives and cover us – then we won’t fit into that ultimate party feast!


Jesus’ parable teaches that we must be clothed correctly to join the feast.  Evidently our normal clothes aren’t good enough – we aren’t good enough on our own.  A worldly life of sensual pleasure doesn’t make it and the religious life of ethical strictness doesn’t either.  Both are spiritual dead ends!  But to accept the gift of the wedding coat and to live a life based on Jesus’ salvation will bring us finally to the ultimate feast at the end of history.  We can have a foretaste of that future salvation now – while on earth we get little glimpses here and there – but they are only a foretaste of what is to come!






Many ideas and quotes in this blog are taken from Timothy Kellers’ book The Prodigal God , Chapter 7 “The Feast of the Father” pp. 118-149.