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Sunday, March 31, 2019

John the Baptist

John the Baptist
The prophets of the Old Testament foretold that God would send a messenger to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. God spoke to His people through the prophets and nearly every Jewish person knew that someday God was sending them a Savior or Messiah.  Over the thousands of years many were waiting expectantly.
Finally, when Jesus came to earth,, He told the people that John the Baptist was this messenger that had been promised in Scripture.  The messengers’ job would be to present the long-awaited Messiah to the Jewish people.  (Matthew 11:10) John the Baptist indeed was the messenger.
In all four gospels, John the Baptist sets the tone for the introduction and proclamation of Jesus.  And John the Baptist’s tone is stark and harsh. You would think that God would send a friendly cheerful outgoing preacher to advertise the coming of His Son, Jesus, the Messiah.  But John the Baptist was anything but happy and friendly.  He was a loner who hung out in the wilderness, wore a camel hair loin cloth and ate grasshoppers and wild honey.
John the Baptist would hold revival meetings in the desert. People would leave their villages and go out into the desert to listen to his preaching.  He would call out to the crowds following him, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) And he would preach repentance of sins and then baptize converts in the Jordan River.  
One day John the Baptist greeted the crowds coming to hear his sermons with these words: “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7,10)   Why was John the Baptist so hardcore?  What is the purpose of making everyone’s hair stand on end?
Since Jesus hadn’t yet died on the cross for our sins at that time, John the Baptist didn’t call the crowds to accept Him as their Savior and Lord yet.  But the people could repent of their sins and wait for their Savior and Messiah. Jesus said that Abraham could see Him, Jesus, his Savior from afar, and Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced. (John 8:56) Probably many other God-fearing people living before Jesus came to earth to die for their sins also “saw Jesus from afar and rejoiced.”    
John the Baptist described Jesus as the Judge of all things at the end of time.  When Jesus went out into the wilderness to hear him preach, John the Baptist introduced Jesus to the crowd this way: “He (Jesus) who is coming after me is mightier than I…His winnowing fork is in his hand, and He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Matthew 3:11-12) John the Baptist is picturing Jesus more as the Judge of all things at the end of time, than a sweet little baby in the manger.  
John the Baptist presents the image of Jesus as the cosmic Judge who will ultimately come again to put an end to all sin and wickedness for ever and ever.  John the Baptist’s lonely, hard style of life bears witness to a hard reality that is coming, a reality that will expose all worldly realities and conditions as faulty and transitory.
John the Baptist stands at the juncture where the world’s resistance to God meets the irresistible force of the One (Jesus) who is coming. – “the axe is laid to the root of the trees”.  So, John the Baptist is summoning the people who have come out to hear him in the desert (and also us) to rethink and reorder our lives totally.  And to change our perspective to a new perspective – the perspective of God.  Of course we humans can’t accomplish all of that on our own.  We need power outside of ourselves. God is the One who will change us, through Christ, if we are willing.  And He will change us to be what He wants us to be, if we will let Him!   
It is not from yourselves that you can expect grace, you can expect nothing from yourselves.  Go asks us to give ourselves to Him.  Trust only Him.  The religious leaders argued with John the Baptist that they were children of Abraham and they thought that God would save them because of that.  But John the Baptist answered them this way: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9). 
A power outside of us (Jesus) is coming, a power who is able to make a new creation out of people like us, stones like us, people who have no capacity to save ourselves.  We are able to repent and bear fruit because He is coming.  This means that we are being changed.  We are being weaned away from our possessions and our worldly loves and being brought into the Kingdom of God. “He who loses his life for My sake will find it, and he who finds his life will lose it.” (Matthew 10:39)
 John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease”.  (John 3:30) We must be like John the Baptist and let our desires decrease as we allow Christ to increase in our lives.  We are nothing.  The Word is everything.  Jesus is everything.  Not our will but His be done. He comes at the end of the ages, (Revelations) and He comes into the hearts of all humans who relinquish their human claims in the face of the God who is coming in power.
This blog took most of the ideas and passages regarding John the Baptist from Fleming Rutledge’s article “The Real Hope of Advent” which was published in Christianity Today Magazine in December 2018.


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Love and Marriage

Love and Marriage
It is a beautiful thing when a man and woman come together and make their promises to one another before God – promises to be faithful to one another and forsake all others, to love and cherish, to live together in sickness and in health, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, as long as they both shall live.  I nearly always cry at weddings when I witness those sacred moments and hear those marriage vows made before God by the bride and groom.  
Our heavenly Father is in the business of love and marriage.  When God first created Adam, He said that it wasn’t good for humans to be alone. So, God created Eve to be his wife and God, playing cupid, put the man and woman together in the Garden of Eden.  God was the One who created sex and marriage and He said that was “very good.”  Adam and Eve loved each other, and God came and walked and talked with them each day in the garden (Paradise)  and gave them everything they could ever want or need.  (Genesis 2:8-25)
But then God commanded Adam and Eve to obey Him and not eat of the Tree of Life, and that’s when they got in trouble! (Genesis 3) And it seems like in marriage as well as in life, God gives us simple laws to obey.  And when we rebel against His laws, our marriages, as well as our lives get into trouble.  
Having Christ in our marriage makes all the difference! Staying faithful to one another as well as staying faithful to Christ can make all the difference. Couples in Christian marriages have many benefits over couples in secular marriages or married couples in other faiths.  Christian husbands and wives have been led to serve one another as Christ serves us, - the Church. Scripture says that the steps of Godly people are ordered by the Lord.  (Psalms 37:23) And God will guide the steps we walk in our marriages if we ask.
There are guys and gals who live together but are afraid to be committed or tied down to another person in marriage. Lovers with no commitment? Having sex and having children and then often breaking up. Our world is full of very lonely individuals, alone and missing out!
Of course, it is important not to marry in haste.   Marrying a hard-hearted person could spell terrible heart aches in the future. But if we are too cautious and too afraid to commit to another person, we never will know the joys of true committed love.  And we miss out.   Scripture says: “He who finds his life shall lose it, and he who loses his life for My Sake will find it.”  (Matthew 10:39)
Then there are the marriages that don’t last. Some couples live like married singles under the same roof. They keep their money and their time separate and constantly keep score when their spouse doesn’t do his or her share of the chores, bill paying, etc. And legalistically keeping score isn’t good for any marriage.
Instead of pulling together, some married couples compete against one another. And sometimes they seem to both be shopping around, always looking for a better “deal”.  Flirting and cheating with others of the opposite sex. The wife wonders if she could have done better and compares the men she meets to her husband.  And the husband compares his wife to the younger more attractive women he meets.  Soon the husband discards the older wife, like dumped used merchandise, for a flashy younger model, a sexy “Trophy Wife”.
 The Bible says that without a vision, the people perish.  Some couples may not have a vision that includes God and His laws in their marriage. When marriage partners don’t have God’s good vision but make up their own little vision, things can break down.  And when the husband and wife are unfaithful and selfish or hard hearted, their marriage is on shaky grounds.
 Selfishness is the death knell of a marriage.  When one of the spouses is hard hearted and unfaithful and abandons the marriage, it is impossible for the other spouse to force his or her spouse to stay married.  Love must be given freely and even God refuses to force us to love Him.   
When Jesus was asked why Moses permitted husbands to divorce their wives, he answered: “Because of the hardness of their hearts Moses gave them permission to divorce their wives. “(Mark 10:4-5) But then Jesus continued by saying that God didn’t intend for marriage to be that way – to end in divorce.  It seems Jesus is saying that hard and selfish hearts cause divorce.  God will not force us to love each other.
If either the husband or the wife insists on leaving the marriage, then I believe that Scripture says that the abandoned spouse is not stuck but can move on with their lives and not feel forever guilty.  1 Corinthians 7:15 says: “If the unbelieving depart, let him depart, the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.”  Too many do not have God’s “peace” after being abandoned by a marriage partner. 
The God who created marriage also has some laws concerning marriage.  We harm ourselves and others when we ignore His laws.  Scripture says,” If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the Faith and is worse than a heathen.”  (1 Timothy 5:8) 
Jesus also said this: “Whoever divorces his wife except for the cause of fornication and marries another commits adultery against her.” (Mark 5:32) One of the Ten Commandments commands us not to commit adultery. (Exodus 20:3-15) Sexual unfaithfulness can break up a marriage, often leaving children without a father or mother in the home.  And our loving heavenly Father wants romance and exciting true love for the husband and wife. And reliable fathers and mothers there for the little children.   
Scripture has much to say about building good marriages. Husbands are to love their own wives as Christ loves the Church.  The husband is to love his wife as his own body and love her as he loves himself.  And the two are to be considered “one flesh”. (Ephesians 5:25 and 28)   Of course the wife is to love and respect her husband too and the two are to share the ups and downs of this earthly life and their love together.  And the husband and wife are both to submit to one another in love. (Ephesians 5:21) The Bible says that both are to submit! 
Good marriages partners are to also be unselfish, loving and truthful.  And most important, the husband and wife should love God and walk and talk with Him each day and allow Him to guide them in their marriage.  They are to forgive one another.  Nothing works without forgiveness.
Everywhere we look we can find good marriages if we just open our eyes!  Where have all the romantic songs gone to celebrate this?  Don’t we believe in true love anymore?  True love makes the world go ‘round! When a couple takes their vows before God seriously and ask His guidance in their marriage, their prayers will be answered! You can count on it. As believers in Christ, we have been promised God’s help for all our needs and all our problems.  And that includes help for our marriages.

Scripture says that Jesus has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 1:3) God has made provision for us and given us a glorious inheritance in Christ. This abundant inheritance and these many provisions are waiting there for you. So, let’s press into our inheritance when our marriages have problems.  And let’s ask and believe God for the answers and for His provisions.  It doesn’t get any better than that!

Monday, March 18, 2019

Sufficient and Sustaining Grace os Yours

Sufficient and Sustaining Grace is Yours
God promises so much to us - His children. He has so many priceless gifts He wants to give us! He not only gives us grace – the saving grace- to believe in Him and receive salvation.  But He also gives us the sustaining grace - or the help - to live our lives and do our jobs, raise our children and pay our bills.  And grace to follow Him and do good works in His Name.
We call it “sustaining grace” because it sustains us or keeps us going through good times and bad.  And it meets us at our point of need and equips us with courage, wisdom and strength.  Even when we go through terrible loss, sickness, persecution and death, God’s grace will be with us and bring us through and over to victory. (Revelation 21-22)
The Bible describes God’s sustaining grace for us this way: “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you.  That you always having sufficiency in all things may have an abundance for every good work.”  (2 Corinthians 9:8) And also: “God who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all things!”  ((Romans 8:32) 
A famous pastor and author, Max Lucado defines sustaining grace as: “God’s tumbling, rumbling, reservoir of strength and protection for you.”  God gives us “grace upon grace.”  (John 1:16) It’s so much more abundant than we can ever imagine.  We are so used to living in this fallen world where there is disease, trouble, wars and hatreds that we become anxious and fearful.
 But let God’s amazing grace take away your fears and anxieties.  Learn to rest in God’s abundant grace.  Scripture says: “Be anxious in nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, make your requests known unto God, and the peace of God which passes understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6) In other words, every time you start to become fearful, or anxious, stop and pray and ask for grace for the problem and then let God dethrone your fears.   
We may take God’s sustaining grace for granted and think that good things just happen to us by accident. But Scripture says that: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father.” (James 1:17) Let’s open our eyes and start recognizing at least some of the ways that God is blessing and protecting us and our families.
God has mountains of grace stored up for us, but I fear we may not receive all that He has for us because we don’t open our hearts through faith to receive these blessings.  Faith is the channel through which we receive God’s grace – His blessings - to meet our needs.  Scripture is filled with God’s amazing promises for His children.  And we can stand on these promises (or believe them) when we need them.  Over and over again through the Bible, God calls on His children to ask for help and call upon Him to take care of our needs.
And it is really simple.  When we have a problem or a concern we can just stop and pray: “Father, please give me grace.”  Then believe that God has heard your prayer and is giving you His grace and working out your situation. Keep on believing and trusting God to do what you can’t do and to take care of your problem.  Do what you can through God’s help to take care of your problem. And then stop worrying and keep looking to God. 
We read in Genesis 32:22 of Jacob wrestling with God all night on a mountain.  Jacob desperately wanted more of God and He wanted God’s grace and blessing in his life. As they wrestled, the “Man” injured Jacob’s hip.  Then at dawn the “Man” (either an angel or the Spirit of God) told Jacob; “Let me go, for the day breaks.”  But Jacob answered: “I will not let you go unless You bless me!”  (Genesis 32:26) Jacob was determined to have more of God in His life.
The “Man” told Jacob that his name would no longer be “Jacob”, which means “deceiver”, but now Jacob’s name would be “Israel” which means “He strives with God” or “Prince of God”.  Then God blessed Jacob (Israel). God’s power and blessing flowed through Jacob to his children and grandchildren and now, thousands of years later God’s blessings are still spilling over onto Jacob’s descendants (Israel)

God calls us to be like Jacob and run after Him and His will and blessings in our lives.  To believe Him when He promises us His victory.  And when the Spirit moves us, to wrestle in prayer for His answers.  Our heavenly Father has sufficient grace for our every need, stored up for us, but we need to ask and trust that the answer is on its way. 



Sunday, March 10, 2019

They Tried to Carry God's Presence in a Wagon

They Tried to Carry God’s Presence in a Wagon
2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 15
The 6th chapter of 2nd Samuel tells one of many short stories recorded in the Old Testament.  These Bible stories from so long ago tell us how God cared for, blessed, guided and sometimes punished His people, the Jews.  
 There are many lessons to be learned and spiritual treasures to be uncovered from these Bible stories. The sixth chapter of 2nd Samuel records such a story – short, sad and seemingly difficult to understand.  But when we stop and unwrap the package – or the message in this story, we can find hidden truths for our lives today. 
The date was around 850 B.C. and the story begins with King David calling out thirty thousand of his main men – priests, religious leaders, musicians, praise and worship leaders, and soldiers.  All these men were to travel with David on a joyful journey to the house of Abinadab to pick up the Ark of the Covenant and bring it back home.  
Abinadab’s house was in the land of the Philistines.  About 70 years had passed since the Ark of the Covenant had been stolen from the Israelites by the Philistines during a battle. And the Ark of the Covenant had been held by the Philistines ever since in Abinadab’s house.  (1 Samuel 4) David wanted to get the Ark of the Covenant back where it belonged - with the Jewish people.
The Ark of the Covenant was the place where God promised His very presence would be.  Several hundred years earlier, God, speaking through Moses and the prophets, had commanded the Israelites to build the Ark of the Covenant.  God called them to this project during the time the Israelites were camping in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.
 God had given them exact instructions as to how to build this Ark of the Covenant. Nothing was left for them to create on their own.  Inside the Ark of the Covenant the Israelites were to place a copy of God’s Law and over the Law, they were to build a “Mercy Seat” where God’s Presence would rest, with two carved cherubim angels with wings bending over the Mercy Seat.
 God also had given the Israelites careful instructions on how the Ark of the Covenant was to be carried from place to place.  The Ark of the Covenant was to have rings on its sides and poles sliding through the rings.  This was so that the Levite priests, who had cleansed themselves, could carry the Ark of the Covenant, by holding the ends of the poles on their shoulders.  Only the priests were allowed to carry the Ark of the Covenant out in front, leading the way.  God’s Holy Presence was not to be treated casually, but always with humility and great reverence.
 The very presence of our Holy God was resting there over the Mercy Seat.  The Ark of the Covenant was the center of the Jewish nation’s worship and the most sacred of its possessions. God’s Law was always a main part of the Ark of the Covenant. And not to be done away with. God’s presence hovered over the Mercy Seat and over the Law. Sinners could not approach a Holy God without being cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. Even the priests who carried the Ark of God by the poles were forbidden by God’s instructions to ever touch the Ark of God or to look into it because of it’s sacredness.
David and his men were excited as they started out that morning from Jerusalem on their journey to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant and bring it back in their midst where it belonged.  When King David and his merry men arrived at Abinadab’s house, they were celebrating and playing worship music before the Lord on all kinds of musical instruments.  Abinadab’s house was on top of a hill and David and his men put the Ark of the Covenant in a new wagon with oxen to pull it on the journey back. It was the most practical way to get the job done.  Abinidab’s two sons, Uzzah and Ahio helped out by driving the oxen on, with Ahio walking ahead to lead the way.
But trouble was soon to follow!  When the oxen had pulled the wagon with God’s Presence down the hill and across a threshing floor, the oxen stumbled and Uzzah, trying to be helpful, put out his hand and grabbed the Ark of the Covenant to keep it from falling.  Scripture tells what happened next: “Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error: and he died there by the Ark of God.  And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah….” (2 Samuel 6:7-8a)  
David was so upset that he refused to move the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, instead taking it to another house – the house of Obed-Edom.  In the months that followed Obed-Edom’s household was blessed because of God’s Ark.  And when David heard that God’s Ark and Presence was bringing blessings, he changed his mind and tried a second time to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. 
But this time David learned his lesson and followed God’s instructions and commands as to how to carry the Ark with God’s Presence (Exodus 25) instead of ignoring God’s laws and carrying God’s Presence any way he wanted!  This time the Levitical priests cleansed themselves and carried the Ark of the Covenant on the poles in front of the procession.  This time the Presence of God was revered and God’s commands concerning coming near to Him were obeyed. 
And finally, our Bible story ends with David and his many men joyfully bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, while playing music and worshipping, dancing and praising God as the Levite priests carry the Ark of God by the poles in front of the procession the way God had commanded them to do in the first place.
What can we learn from this short Bible story?  How does this affect our lives?  First, perhaps this story teaches us that we are to come to God with reverent and obedient hearts.  With humble and trusting minds.  We are to trust and obey Him. Rest on His provision.  Walk the straight and narrow road. And come to God the way He tells us to come – through the blood of Jesus.  Not do our own thing!  Or come our own creative way.
To come to God ignoring His laws and commands, but still expecting Him to bless us is folly.  To refuse to obey God’s instructions is literally irreverence.  We are not respecting God. We can’t drag God around after us any old way and expect Him to be our good luck charm. 
We can play music and act religious, light candles, and dress up in priestly robes. We can go through the liturgy, pray long prayers and have a form of godliness. But if we disobey God’s laws written in Scripture and are proud doing our own thing, we are fooling ourselves. The Presence of God today is borne by obedient people, not things.  God’s Presence is out in front leading us along, and not the other way around.

There are other stories in Scripture that teach us this same lesson. The lesson that God is righteous and holy, and that we are to come to Him the Way He has commanded us to come.  If we try to take hold of the Presence of God some other way than the Way He has given us, we may end up angry and disappointed with God like David was when he couldn’t push God’s Presence around his own way. Even though it seemed more popular and practical.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

We Believe in the Authority of Scripture

We Believe in the Authority of Scripture
Many Christians believe in the authority of Scripture.  We believe that the Bible is God’s Word and we believe we can stand on it. We rely on God’s faithfulness that is displayed through Scripture.  The Bible is our spiritual food – our precious faith grows and is nourished by hearing the Word of God. (Romans 10:17) And we discover that standing on – or believing the Word of God - brings us a great deal of comfort and strength.  
We believe we should stand up for what the Bible commands is right and true.  We believe we should be strong and not compromise when God’s laws are blatantly broken or disregarded. We believe we should confront sin but always do it with love. We believe we should follow Christ - who is the One who stood up against sin – the religious leaders’ sin of hypocrisy. Which cost Him His life.
Jesus warned us that accepting His invitation to follow Him would lead us eventually to resistance, rejection and persecution.  And sometimes death.  Jesus promised that through Christians who are willing to endure unjust suffering in His Name, He will bring in the kingdom of God on earth.  But even though following Christ will bring us peace and joy, it can also bring us danger, mistreatment and suffering.  We are called to “take up our cross” and follow Jesus.  (Matthew 16:24) And the cross is a symbol of death. 
Sometimes followers of Christ are persecuted because they believe that if the Bible says that something is a sin then it really is a sin. Of course, all sinners are welcome in the assembly of believers – the church - since we are all sinners and Christ died for all sinners. We all come humbly to Christ to have Him forgive our sin.  But Scripture says we should want to be forgiven and we should confess that our sin is sin. (1 John 1:9)
If we proudly insist that our sin isn’t sin, when the Bible says that it is, if we call our sin good when Scripture declares that it is not good, then I believe our fellow Christians are called to confront us in love. We are to love our fellow Christians who insist that their sin is good, and the Bible is wrong about calling it sin.  We are to sincerely love these Christians, because we are sinners too.  Their sins are no worse than ours. But also, we should lovingly confront them, and not accept their sin, because we love these ones and want the best for them. – and for the Church.  And, because we love Christ.  
The Bible says we should: “Speak the truth in love”. (Ephesians 4:15) When our children misbehave, we correct them because we love them, and we want what is best for them.  Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross put it like this: “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love.  And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth.”  Niceness masquerades as love, but it is exposed as a fraud if it conceals the truth in the process.  Jesus wasn’t always “nice”  to the Pharisees or to blatant sinners and we are to follow His example.    
All of us Christians are constantly in need of repenting of sins. But the world seems to define a “Christian” as a person who is “nice”. A person who never offends, is broad minded, always accommodating sin and refusing to believe Scripture passages when they are inconvenient to believe.  And when we Christians don’t fit in with that nicey-nice worldly model, then we are persecuted.  Christ warned us that we are not of this world and that if we follow Him, we will not fit into this world.  (1 John 14-16, John 15:19 and James 4:4)    
Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a long stream of rebukes for misdeeds ranging from jealousy and quarreling to incest, sexual immorality, idolatry, being judgmental, drunkenness and mishandling spiritual gifts.  Paul didn’t put up with the sins of the Christians who lived in Corinth!  Because Paul loved these Christians so much, he prayed for them and confronted them, insisting that they repent of their sins. God was able to use Paul to bring Christianity to the Gentiles and to change the world because Paul was willing to be unpopular and insist that God’s Word be obeyed.  And Paul was persecuted and martyred because he stood up for Christ.
I mentioned to my Sunday School class one Sunday that we Christians are given so much when we accept Christ as our Savior.  Along with salvation, we are given the peace and joy of Christ.  Immediately a member of our class was angry with me.  She said that I was saying that people who believe in Christ (Christians) have something that Moslems or Buddhists don’t have.  She found that very offensive that I thought I had the right Way, the only Way through Christ. Did I think I was better than others? 

Our Christian faith does proclaim that Christ is the only Way.  That He saves us - gives us salvation.  We do believe that we have something that other faiths lack.  We have a risen Savior who died for us. And lives for us. But it is true. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Christians are persecuted.  Because we are saying that Christ is the only Way.  That He is the Truth and the Life. We teach this because this is what the Bible teaches.  And we believe in the authority of the Bible.

  We are persecuted for not having a “lukewarm” faith!  But our Christian faith should never be “lukewarm”.If it is God will spit us out of His mouth. (Revelations 3:16)  Our Christian faith should always be hot!