Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Time to Get Real: Love God

One of the teachers of the law came and... asked [Jesus], “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” "The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:29-31

If you can get this one thing right, then everything else will fall into place. If you can fall madly, passionately in love with God, then everything else in your spiritual walk will eventually work itself out. I have often prayed and continue to pray on a regular basis that God will help me love Him more. I even pray that He would woo me and cause me to fall more deeply in love with Him. Now that may sound strange but Scripture often uses romance as an analogy for our relationship to God (Isaiah 62:5, Jeremiah 2:1-4:4, Hosea 2, Matthew 9:14-17, Revelation 19:6-9, many believe that the Song of Solomon is an extended metaphor to this point.). It even goes so far as to call the body of believers the bride of Christ. So, as a bride in training, let me ask you, how in love with God are you?

Notice what Christ asks of you- heart, soul, mind, and strength. That doesn't leave a lot of room for you to run after other lovers. God expects of us what any good spouse does, total faithfulness. Yet, we often find ourselves putting other "loves" ahead of Him. Consider how you spend your time. How much of your time does the Lord get in a given day or week? What is it that you spend more time on?

I encourage you (at the same time as I encourage myself) to check the status of your heart. What do you love more than God? What interests in your life have begun to dethrone your heavenly Father as first priority?  Is it your beauty? Is it your spouse, or your child, TV, sports, music, or friends? Return to your first love today (Revelation 2:4). Cling to Him and love Him. Pursue Him with all that you have and ask Him to reveal Himself to you and to help you fall for Him again.

So take a moment right now to spend with your God. Sit quietly and contemplate His might. Or serenade Him with the praises that He deserves (perhaps you could sing your favorite worship song). Open His Word and remind yourself of His goodness. No moment spent in prayer, or worship, or adoration of your Lord is wasted. Give Him all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength. Renew your vows. Take a moment and love God.  

For further reading...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Time to Get Real: Be Different

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
James 2:14-19 

Becoming a Christian changes everything. Scripture says that when a person gets saved she becomes a “new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The gospel has the power to change your life. In fact, that is what the gospel does. The gospel changes lives. You can’t have the Holy Spirit of God living in you and still be the same sinful person that you always were. Jesus puts it this way. “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit"(Matthew 12:33). In other words, apple trees produce apples and fig trees produce figs. An apple tree will never produce a fig or vice versa. It is the same with people. Christians haven't merely been forgiven, they have been changed. Who they are has changed, the Holy Spirit of God now lives in them and they produce good works in keeping with their new identity and relationship with God.
The sad truth is that although this should be the case most surveys and studies find that American Christians on the whole aren't as different from their non-believing neighbors as they claim to be. Divorce rates are roughly the same. Christians don't really give much more money to the poor. Half of evangelical pastors admit to a struggle with pornography. And generally speaking non-believers don't have too high an opinion of Christians because they see our behavior. They know that we aren't really that different. The question is, "Why aren't we different?"
I think that much of the answer lies in the above passage. It says that even the demons believe there is one God and shudder. The implication is that such faith is not enough. It is not enough to simply believe that God and Jesus Christ exist, or even to believe that Jesus Christ is God. This is a dead faith. You need a living faith to be saved, and this living faith produces good deeds and a changed life.
Let’s look at how you get a living faith. Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth [that] 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The word that is used for "believe" in this passage and all throughout the New Testament does not mean to simply believe something intellectually; it means to believe it physically. It is positional. For example, intellectually you might believe that a chair or a tree limb can support your weight, but until you sit in that chair or climb out on that tree limb you do not believe it in the New Testament sense of the word.
Many of us “believe” that Jesus is God and that He died on the cross for our sins, but we have not BELIEVED in Him and put our weight on Him. We confess that He is Lord, but we don’t confess Him to be Lord of OUR life and we don’t give control of our life to Him nor do we live our life for Him. A living faith, a faith that saves, is a faith that puts its weight on Jesus. A living faith says I am going to live my life for Christ because I believe that He died on the cross for my sins and that He rose from the dead. It is not simply a matter of intellectually accepting this to be true in the way that you might accept the answer to a math problem. It is about placing your faith in it physically and positionally. Until you do that you don’t really believe it.
Let me be clear on one thing. We are saved by grace! We do not earn God’s favor by doing good deeds. Praise God, and hallelujah! Because I know that I could never measure up to God’s holiness. If I had to please God by my good deeds, then I would fail. In fact, the Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). So we are saved by faith and not by doing good things, but true faith produces good works in keeping with repentance. Have you believed in the physical sense of the word? Give your life to Christ today.
The good news of the gospel is that in spite of our sins God loved us and made a way for us to receive forgiveness through Christ’s death on the cross. But Christ did not stay in the grave. He rose from the dead, defeating death so that we no longer have to fear it or be enslaved to sin. Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead and you will be saved.
For further reading...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Time to Get Real: Count the Cost

And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish...’ 

In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Luke 14:27-30, 33 
There is a great story in the Old Testament about three young Jewish men who were taken into captivity by the Babylonians when Babylon defeated Judah in 587/586 BC. These three young men were taken with Daniel into the king's household and raised there because they were the cream of the crop from the Jewish exiles. These three men were named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. But those were their Jewish names. You probably know them better by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These three were in a nation that did not worship the God of Israel. They worshiped idols that were made of gold and other substances. The people in Babylon wanted Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and all the other exiles from Judah to conform to them and live life like they did. They refused. 
In Daniel chapter 3 we read the story that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are known for. King Nebuchadnezzar made a huge golden idol and decreed that everyone in the kingdom had to bow down and worship it on command. These three young men refused to do so. Since everyone else was bowing down at the command and they were standing, it was pretty obvious that they were not doing what everyone else was. Now the penalty for not worshiping the king's idol was being thrown into a fiery furnace. But the king liked these men so he called them forward and gave them another chance. Instead of bowing down, they made one of the best speeches in all of Scripture:
King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18)   
I'll let you read the rest of the story in Daniel 3 to see what God chose to do, but I bring these three men up today because I believe they help give a clear picture of not only the potential cost of being a believer but also how we need to be living that out today. You see, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you live in a nation that is not Christian. Many of the people in your life at work, or school, or in your neighborhood, or clubs do not worship God. Instead they worship the things that they, pornography, TV, money, and any number of other things. These people want you to be like they are. They want you to follow the crowd...and many of you do. Many Christians live their life just like the world does. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not compromise. They didn't try to serve two masters. They didn't bow down to God and the idol. They chose their God. For that reason they stood out. They made a difference.
Being a Christian means that Jesus is your only Master. It means that you will live differently than the vast majority of the people in our world because you are living your life for Him. Sometimes this upsets non-Christians. They get angry that we won't blend in and they persecute us and even kill us. Over the centuries thousands upon thousands of Christians have chosen death rather than to deny Jesus. Even today Christians all over the world are imprisoned, beaten and even killed for their faith. They endure this; they refuse to serve the world, because Jesus is their Master.
I want to ask you a simple question: "Who is your Master?" Before you say that Christ is I am urging you to count the cost. You can't serve two Masters (Matthew 6:24). You must either choose to serve Christ or some other master. If you choose Christ then you need to be willing to pay the price that Jesus outlines in the above passage. "In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples." Choosing Christ as your Master will cost you everything.
It's time to get real about your faith. It's time to get serious. It's time for us to stop playing at being Christians, to stop pretending to be something we are not. It is time to stop living two lives. It's time to choose who you serve. Some of us have been playing at being a Christian for so long and have been surrounded by other people who are playing at it for so long that we have forgotten what it actually looks like to be a Christian. We don't remember what it looks like for a person to live their life for God. Over the next six weeks we are going to look at what it means to be serious about living out our faith.  But today, to start, I want you to count the cost. I want you to choose once and for all who you serve. I want you to commit. It would be better for you to admit you don't really believe than for you to keep living life however you want to while claiming to be a Christian.
For further reading...
  • Daniel 3- Catch the whole story.
  • Luke 14:25-35- read the passage in context.
  • Revelation 3:15-16- See how God feels about people who ride the fence.  
  • Prisoner Alert- There is a ministry called Voice of the Martyrs that ministers to the persecuted Church worldwide. One of their ministries is to put out prisoner alerts about Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. Read one or two of these. It is easy for us to think this doesn't happen anymore, but it does. Through this website you can actually write a send a letter to these imprisoned Christians and encourage them in the Lord.
  • Jesus Freaks- A while back a Christian band named DC Talk teamed up with Voice of the Martyrs to put together a book of martyrs spanning from the ancient world up to today. You can check it out by going to this website and clicking the excerpts option.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Angry God?

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
   the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The LORD takes vengeance on his foes
   and vents his wrath against his enemies.
The LORD is slow to anger but great in power;
   the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.
Nahum 1:2-3a

On a whim I started reading the Old Testament book of Nahum last night. Nahum is one of the Minor Prophets, i.e. the shorter books at the end of the Old Testament that are hard to understand and that, unfortunately, we tend to ignore. As I began reading, these first few verses jumped out at me because they cut across the grain of what our culture says is true about God. Our culture says that God is not filled with wrath. He is never vengeful. And because I am so affected by this modern view of God and not influenced enough by the Bible's view of Him, these first few verses make me feel a little uncomfortable too. Maybe you feel that same way. I would like to take just a few moments and give a defense for the Biblical view of God expressed in Nahum 1:2-3.

First, we need to know the background. Nahum is a vision and an oracle written about God's impending judgment on Nineveh. At this time in history Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. Assyria had conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel and carried them into exile and they were persecuting and imposing heavy taxes on the Southern kingdom of Judah. The Assyrian empire was well known for its cruelty in war. If the city of Nineveh sounds familiar to you, it is probably because you know it in relation to a much more popular Bible story from another minor prophet, Jonah. The book of Jonah details events that we think happened roughly one hundred years before Nahum received his vision. In Jonah the Lord sends a Jewish prophet to preach to the Ninevites so that they may repent and be forgiven. Jonah ran from this assignment because he hated the Ninevites (even then they were Israel's enemy). But God intervened and gave Jonah a one-of-a-kind transport to the city where he preached and the Ninevites repented and were spared from God's judgment. Now, probably a hundred years later, the Ninevites have turned their back on God again. They have attacked His people and His name and this time He will not relent in bringing them punishment.*

It is hard for us to  be unbiased in these matters. All our lives we have been surrounded by a culture that has force fed us one view of God. It is hard for us to step outside of our culture and give the Biblical view a fair look. Our culture would say that God is loving and patient. This is true and this is taught by Scripture (I John 4:8, 16, Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 144:2). The problem is that our culture says that God is never angry or vengeful. He is never filled with wrath. But the Bible says differently. The modern view of God is lopsided. Many in our culture and even many of us would be more than happy to strike the above verses from Scripture. You see, we don't merely want a God who is loving; we want a God who is only loving. We don't merely want a God who is patient; we want a God who is only patient. The problem here again is that this creates a lopsided God. A God who could not be angry that children are molested would be deficient. A God who did not exact justice on rapists would be of no use at all. A God who did not protect His own name and repay those who attack His people would be weak and not worth taking note of.

The classic example of the need for a just God is the Holocaust. A God who looks down on Hitler with only love is not more glorious because He loves so much. This God would be deficient. And a God who looks down on Hitler and decides to vent His anger and bring justice to this man is not less divine for doing so. A good God should be angry in that situation. Just because God has the character traits of love, patience, vengeance, and wrath in Him does not mean that they are all there in equal proportions. Nor does it mean that He experiences these emotions in the same way that humans do. God is not overcome by His anger like we are. His anger could never cause Him to act brashly or regretfully. His anger is always perfectly balanced by His love. Yet all of these traits need to be there because sometimes it is right for God to be angry and vengeful. There are some situations in which God would be less God if He wasn't angry. Just because God is sometimes angry however, does not mean that He is an "angry God." He is much better defined by His love and grace. He has gone through great lengths in His Son, Jesus, to show us these traits.

The fact of the matter is that it doesn't really matter what we want to be true of God. He is the way He is. Even the very name God gave Himself when He spoke to Moses at the burning bush means "I am who I am" or some translate it as "I will be what I will be." I think both renderings are true of God's nature. God is what He is. And He will continue to be what He will be regardless of what you or I think about it. He has revealed Himself to us in Scripture. This leaves us with a choice. We can either search out and accept the full, complete, and balanced view of God's nature revealed in Scripture, or we can create an image of god in our own minds that fits what we think should be true about him. This image of god will be non-threatening and comfortable to us because it will reflect all of our imperfections and misgivings. There will be no need to fear this god. Nor much reason to obey him since at the end of the day he will be just a creation of our own minds.

So embrace the mystery of God! Praise Him that He is too big and too great for you to fully understand. Praise God that He is both loving and jealous. He is both forgiving and just. He is slow to anger but He is also wrathful and ready to avenge His name and His people. All of these qualities are present and necessary in a holy God. Praise God for being holy.

For further reading...
  • Jonah- It's only four chapters.
  • Nahum- It's only three chapters.
  • Isaiah 55:8-9- My ways are higher than your ways.
*I have an ESV Study Bible that gives historical and biblical background to the Bible and I have found it to be extremely helpful. The historical information in the above post is based off of the "Introduction to Nahum" in that study Bible.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

God Brings the Harvest

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.
Mark 4:26-29

There were many things a farmer in the first century could do to try to ensure a successful crop. He could prepare the earth to make it receptive to the seed. He could prevent weeds from invading the gardens and choking the seedlings. He could even fertilize his plants. But in the end, the farmer knew all too well that the success of his crop depended on many factors that were out of his control. He couldn't control the rain or the heat or the cool. He couldn't control whether bugs ruined the crop. In fact, he didn't even really know how seeds grew. He didn't have the science to know. He was painfully aware of the fact that the success of his harvest depended more on the kindness of God than on himself. He sowed the seed but God made it grow.

The same is true when it comes to sowing the seed of the kingdom. The seed is the word of God, the gospel. We do not know how God will use that word planted in people's hearts to bring them to salvation. And sometimes we look at the seed and we think, "This is just a small thing, it won't make a difference. How could it ever amount to something so big in their life?" But that is how the kingdom of God works. It starts small, but our God has a way of making it grow quickly in fertile soil.

Sow the seed and trust God for the results. I know that you are scared to talk to other people about Jesus, but it's okay to start small. Just try to work the name Jesus into your conversations. That is powerful. Or try to work some scriptural truth into your interactions. It may seem small and insignificant but throw it out there anyway. God will do with it what He pleases. If it should grow, He'll make it grow. Remember that if it is God's word then it will accomplish the purpose that God sent it out for. (Isaiah 55:10-11).

You are called to make disciples of the whole world (Matthew 28:19). That is your first calling, your number one job as a Christian. You may not be Billy Graham, and that's okay. God isn't asking you to save people. That is His job! All you have to do is scatter seed. Some people do not know that when the Great Commission says "Go therefore into all the world and make disciples," that it can actually be translated "as you go." I think that is a very helpful way of thinking about it. You don't have to be on a mission trip to share the gospel. As you go through life, wherever you find yourself, plant gospel seeds. If your attempts at sharing Christ seem small and like they won't amount to anything, take a minute to look at a mustard seed and remember that our God uses small beginnings to bring about big changes. God wants to use you to rescue souls from Hell and all you have to do is sow little seeds. So...sow!

For further consideration...
  • This week instead of further reading, here are some ideas I have gathered from a number sources (some are even from teens) about ways that you can sow gospel seeds.
    • Invite people to church.
    • Speak the name of Jesus every chance you get. There is power in that name.
    • Bring Scripture up in conversations by comparing real-life situations to stories found in Scripture.
    • Put Bible verses up in your workspace, on your car, on your desktop, or on your stuff.
    • Put Scripture up as your Facebook or Twitter status.
    • Hand out gospel booklets that explain the plan of salvation.
    • Write out a verse of Scripture on a 3x5 note cards and give them to cashiers whenever you pay for anything. 
    • Do an Evange-letter. Take note of all of the addresses in your apartment complex or on your street. Develop a form letter that is personable and explains the gospel. Once a week, take five minutes and hand write one of these letters, pray over it, and mail it to one of your neighbors. You don't even have to know their name. All you need is their address.