Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cosmos, Commands and Cleansing

Psalm 19 is all about the great and wonderful gifts of God; many of us take them for granted.  Israel’s poet, King David pulls out the shopping list of these gifts and holds them up as a prayer of praise and adoration to Yahweh.  It’s a wonderfully appropriate prayer for us; today we can bring this prayer to the table to offer our thanks.  It’s first, a prayer of thanks for
His Cosmos; a sermon without words
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.    2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; 4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.  In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, 5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.  6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.   Psalm 19:1-6  (NRSV)
God’s world is awesome.  If asked, there wouldn’t be many of us who couldn’t tell of some time when raw nature gave us a powerful and lasting memory.  I am always moved by mountain scenes.  I’ve stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls in Africa.  This magnificent world is, in the words of Eugene Peterson, God’s glory…on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.  (TMSG)
This world is a sermon of God’s majesty, this cosmos.  Without speaking a word that we can hear, God broadcasts to every living thing, that every living thing outside of God is not God!  We do well to remember frequently that only God is God!
We humans tend to congratulate ourselves for our phenomenal wisdom and sophistication every time a new version of Windows, or a more powerful Mac tablet hits the market.  But we’re confused at best, because it’s God who is the Creator – we are the creatures.  We mess around with, and rearrange HIS creation – often badly – but it is God who established everything we see.  King David also wrote these words – from everlasting to everlasting THOU art God! (Psalm 90:2).  I would have added….and not me!
Our prayer of thanksgiving begins with the cosmos – God’s universe, a sermon without words.  And then we also give thanks for…
His Commands; words with life
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.  
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.  11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.      Psalm 19:7-11  (NRSV)
Often people want to debate that God’s Word is just a bunch of “rules” that oppress certain groups.  But that is the blind side of human beings.  By nature we all have a rebellious side; nobody enjoys having to follow rules.  To be sure, even a lot of Christian believers want to know just how little they can believe and behave, yet still qualify for the train to heaven.
But, if you view God’s Word rightly, you can see that it is really a lamp for your pathway through God’s world – a light that shows us how to find real joy.  His commands are words that lead to life!
Jesus said that his words were truth, life and the way to the Father; anyone who would come near to Jesus and trust him as the guide through this life, would not only find heaven, but know deep down inside that they really belong with God.
So we come to the table giving thanks for God’s cosmos – a sermon without words, God’s commands – words that lead to life, and…
Our Cleansing; God’s forgiveness for what truly ails us
12 But who can detect their errors?  Clear me from hidden faults.  13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.  14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.   Psalm 19:12-14  (NRSV)
“Clear me from hidden faults” is what God’s supper table is all about.  At this table is cleansing – not just the outward washing that may be necessary when you roll around in the mud; it’s the inward cleansing of your heart, your life…that part of you we call the soul.
Now, the bread and cup are not like some automated “scrubbing bubbles” that cleans your heart like a porcelain bathtub.  We don’t pour it in and feel it effervescing inside as the sins melt away.
Rather it is like the mortar that binds us to Christ in faith.  And Christ is the brick mason; he is the only one who can do this job.  When you come to faith in what Christ has done for you on the cross, Jesus takes your life and builds your relationship with the Father.
The prophet Isaiah wrote that all of our righteousness – all our attempts at taking over this business of cleansing our sins – is like claiming you’re wearing a new outfit, when, in fact, you’re wearing torn and filthy rags.   (Isaiah 64:6)
King David’s life fell apart.  He was the most powerful man in the world and was loved by both God and humans.  But he had this secret; he’d gone against God’s design for his life and his sin was really bad – first degree!  He tried to cover it up by plotting an innocent man’s death; he even had other people carry it out.  The thing was somewhat hidden from humans, but God saw it like an HD movie on a 75-inch plasma screen TV.  David had it together on the outside.  But the outside was like makeup on dark circles, or a band-aid on cancer; on the inside David was coming unglued.  And he knew it – just like you and I know it when we’ve sinned against God.
What did David do?  He ran to God with confession on his lips.  Listen to how David recorded it in his diary.  He wrote it down, and later we labeled it Psalm 51.  Hear how it sounds in today’s language when a king repents; listen to David getting honest with God:
1Generous in love—God, give grace!  Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.  2Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry.  3I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down.  4You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen it all, seen the full extent of my evil.  You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair.  5I’ve been out of step with you for a long time, in the wrong since before I was born.  6What you’re after is truth from the inside out.  Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.
7Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean, scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.  8Tune me in to foot-tapping songs, set these once-broken bones to dancing.  9Don’t look too close for blemishes, give me a clean bill of health.  10God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
11Don’t throw me out with the trash, or fail to breathe holiness in me.  12Bring me back from gray exile, put a fresh wind in my sails! (1)
When David got honest with God, God came – and then, there was cleansing.  That’s what God is like – and you don’t have to be a king.  You don’t have to speak a special language – you do have to pour out your heart to Him!
So do that; and then come to the table.  Let God do what God does; he’ll cement your life and His together.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

(1) Eugene Peterson, The Message

Sunday, September 18, 2011

God's Grumbling People

2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  Exodus 16:2,3  (NRSV)
Today’s story follows Moses and the children of Israel leaving Egypt for the Promised Land.  They left in April, now it is May and the food the Israelites carried on their backs is gone.  It’s a forced march with empty backpacks; except for the heavy gold and jewels they got from the Egyptians (and none of that is edible).  And there is not a Winn-Dixie or Food Lion in sight; just sand!  We find the children of God trudging towards the Promised Land, but looking back over their shoulders to the abundant food they left in Egypt.  The talk on the trail may have been of freedom, but in their mind’s eyes, Israel’s children were still slaves.
They talked freedom, but thought slavery.... Canaan and Egypt were in the same valley but in extreme opposite directions. To reach one, you had to turn your back on the other...[1]
There were really only two choices (besides laying right down there in the dust and dying).  Choice number one was to return to Egypt.  Not a good choice; Pharaoh would have killed half of them and made the other half do twice the work.  The other choice was to trust God. 
The Israelites understood hardship, pain and death; after 430 years as a nation of slaves to the Egyptian dynasty, they knew suffering.  Now they were following a prophet carrying only a stick and promises from some God you couldn’t see.  They were travelling towards a never-seen land supposedly “flowing with milk and honey” – these slaves were nervous about the future.  They had no food, no direction, no hope, and the dust and heat were on their last nerve; who knew what was going to happen?
Fear Turns to Grumbling
Their fear turned to grumbling – complaining, if you will.  So God sent manna as a test to see if the complainers would then begin to follow Him if their bellies were full; they didn’t!  As soon as they got the bread, they complained there was no peanut butter to go on it (well, almost – see Numbers 11 where they longed for the fish and onions).
That’s not too different from church congregations; many of them today are not growing, fading away to nothing.  They call a pastor to lead them, and then complain about everything he does.  Then, if the church doesn’t grow in spite of their complaining they blame the new pastor for not having vision.  That’s a bit different from how Paul saw it:
17Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.   Hebrews 13:17(NRSV)
The people of Israel blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt to “die in the wilderness”.  That wasn’t a fact – they survived.  But they were afraid, and fear turns to complaining about what leadership is doing. 
Complaining is a form of blaming others for what you don’t have, or what you didn’t get, or for just plain not being happy; it’s usually not rational…A cartoon showed an irate woman at the church door:  Don't you offer to shake my hand, preacher, until you're ready to apologize for not having the sensitivity to know what I'm offended about![2]  
Complaining is a sure sign of amnesia, when people have forgotten how God has provided for them.  For the children of Israel freedom was losing its shine when the cost of that freedom became their reality – they had to learn to trust and follow God rather than their familiar slavery patterns back in Egypt.  It is much easier to accept a little certain misery rather than an unknown freedom. 
One other thing about complaining, it is contagious.  Notice verse 2:
2And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness:  the WHOLE congregation!
Just a few weeks before Moses was their hero, leading them out after four centuries of slavery; now everybody’s mad.  It is no wonder that later God just wanted Moses to stand back so He could incinerate the bunch. 
I don’t think there is a single thing that causes a church to bog down quicker than a spirit of complaining.  It is amazing how it affects reasonable people.  People begin taking sides – the technical term is “polarization”.
If you’re tempted to complain about the leaders in this church, just consider that your complaining will be dividing people, polarizing God’s church – then remember this part of Solomon’s proverbs:
16 There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, 19 a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family. Proverbs 6:16-19(NRSV)
That thing about sowing discord among the brethren – it is listed number seven.  That isn’t an afterthought.  Listed as the seventh indicates the height of what God hates.  God hates a person to stir it up in His family. 
By comparison God’s Word also shows how to do the opposite – how to be cooperative.  There are [at least] five cooperation points to see:
Cooperation Point #1:  Decide to Trust God.
5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.  Proverbs 3:5-6 (KJV)
When the children of Israel finally stopped banging their collective heads against the wall, this is what they did; they agreed to trust God.  It took them forty years of wandering in the desert, but it did happen, and they stopped complaining against their leadership, and they finally began to move together as a family. 
I know that not all churches or families or businesses will move at the same rate; God has not given everyone the same capabilities.  However, I don’t know of a single church that cannot grow if they band together to trust God and work at it.  I don’t know of a single individual or family that can’t make progress by deciding to trust God more and stop complaining. 
Cooperation Point #2:  Plan Ahead to Worship.
The manna was to be gathered for 6 days a week.  And on that 6th day they gathered two day’s worth.  Get the idea?  The 7th day was for rest and worship.  Beloved, I know there are folks who have to work Sunday mornings or evenings…I’ve never known a single person who had to work 24 hours/7days/365 a year.  God made a plan for our lives that includes work, rest and worship.  If you’ve got a better plan, take it up with Him – I don’t want to hear it!  I would rather trust God and cooperate with Him. 
Years ago I was going to be a career insurance executive.  My superior told me I had to work “18 days a week” if I wanted to make it big.  I was going to make it big.  I had no time for the Lord, family or rest; I was making a ton of money and a name for myself.  But my life began to fall apart; I wasn’t even thirty and my marriage was in jeopardy; I hardly saw my kids.  Business went sour for a while and the bills mounted; the kids were sick all the time.  The pressure became unbearable.
Then God got hold of my life, and I realized things were bad, not because God hated me, or I was having a run of bad luck – things were coming unglued because I would not cooperate with God.  I came back to the Lord; we began to attend church – regularly; we began to tithe and serve. 
Beloved, I don’t have a pile of money, but I eat regularly and I have dear friends within the body of Christ.  And I know love!  Worship will bring those things. 
Cooperation Point #3:  Gather Every Day – Early!
Having the promise of God is not supposed to take away your responsibilities.  In fact, it awakens the true believer as to how he should go about handling his real responsibilities.  The children of Israel had a legitimate need – food.  They could have spoken to their leaders without grumbling and murmuring.  The Bible tells us:
6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.                                     Philippians 4:6(NRSV)
Most of us don’t have physical food problems – unless it’s too much!  The real malnutrition epidemic among Christians is leaving the spiritual manna on the ground; people are starving their souls for God’s word. 
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.                                                        John 6:35(NRSV)
Make certain you have your daily manna-time with Jesus. 
Cooperation Point #4:  Don’t Hoard Your Manna.
In our text it tells us that when the people first saw the manna some of them attempted to go into the grain storage business.  God made sure they couldn’t do it.  If they tried to hold some over for the next day it rotted and turned wormy in their pots.
Our spiritual needs work the same way.  Many folks are attempting to live on yesterday’s manna.  Friends, living on yesterday’s spiritual experiences as if they are today’s adventure with Christ will starve your spirit.  It will turn your service for Christ into a wormy leftover. 
The reason God gave the children manna fresh every day was so they would learn to depend on Him daily and not wander.  It is the same with you.  Your daily dependence on Him spiritually is vital to your vitality as a servant of Christ.  You need to go to Him every day!
Cooperation Point #5:  Don’t Grumble – Eat Your Manna.
Enough has been laid before you today about grumbling.  So, without beating the horse to death here, let me share one last observation.  God’s people failed the test time and again because they refused to trust God and cooperate with Him.  In spite of it all God still provided for their needs.  That should tell us what our main choice is with our attitudes:
God’s provision for YOU in life can be either a powerful affirmation of your faith as you trust Him without grumbling
it can be a constant reminder of your fear and faithlessness.
The choice is up to you. 
Do you want to serve God cooperatively….or just grumble until Jesus comes back?
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

[1] Your Eyes Are On Canaan, But Your Mind Is In Egypt! , Kirk DeVine, on
[2] Cartoonist Gary Pauley in Leadership, Vol. 13, no. 2.

Monday, September 12, 2011


On this anniversary date of the unprecedented terrorist attack our country experienced in 2001, it is appropriate that we memorialize the events of that day.  We also should always remember to keep the issues in perspective.  That perspective (for Christians) includes the question of forgiveness for the terrorists; should we forgive, or should we not? 
There is a story told by Jewish teachers that illustrates the difference between forgiveness of something that has been done to you, personally, and that which has been perpetrated on someone else.  The story goes…
No one can forgive crimes not committed against him or her personally….In the history of the Jewish people…there has hardly ever been someone considered as saintly as the Chafetz Chaim. A Polish rabbi and scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century, he was universally revered not just for his piety but more importantly for his extreme concern for the feelings of his fellow man.
[The Chaim] Rabbi Kagan was traveling on a train, immersed in a religious book he was studying. Alongside him sat three Jews anxious to while away the time by playing cards. The game required a fourth hand so they asked the unrecognized stranger to join them. Rabbi Kagan politely refused, explaining that he preferred to continue his reading. The frustrated card players refused to take no for an answer. They began to beat the poor Rabbi until they left him bleeding.
Hours later, the train pulled into the station. Hundreds of people swarmed the platform waiting to greet the great sage. Posters bore signs of Welcome to the Chafetz Chaim.  As the rabbi, embarrassed by all the adulation, walked off the train with his bruises, the crowd lifted him up and carried him off on their shoulders. Watching with horror were the three Jews who had not long before accosted the simple Jew sitting in their cabin, now revealed as one of the spiritual giants of their generation. Profoundly ashamed and plagued by their guilt, they managed to make their way through the crowd and reached their unwilling card player partner.
With tears, they poured out their feelings of shame and remorse. How could they possibly have assaulted this great Rabbi? They begged for forgiveness. And incredibly enough, the rabbi said no. The man who spent his life preaching love now refused to extend it to people who harmed him and regretted their actions. It seemed incomprehensible. So the three Jews attributed it to a momentary lapse. Perhaps, they thought, it was just too soon for the rabbi to forgive them. He probably needed some time to get over the hurt. They would wait a while and ask again at a more propitious moment.
Several weeks passed and it was now close to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Even the simplest Jews knew that they had to gain forgiveness from their friends if they wanted to be pardoned by God. With trepidation, the wicked three wrangled an appointment and once again were able to speak to the Rabbi. They pleaded their case. Still the Rabbi said no. He would not forgive them.
The rabbi's son was present as this strange scene played itself out. Puzzled by his father's peculiar behavior, he couldn't contain himself. It was so unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. Why did his father suddenly act so cruelly? Why would he persist in tormenting people who only asked for a simple expression of forgiveness?
The son dared to ask. His father explained. "Do you really think I don't want to forgive these poor Jews before the High Holy days? If it were only in my power to do so, don't you know that I would have forgiven them when they stood before me at the railroad station? Of course I, Rabbi Kagan, forgive them for what they did to me. When they learned who I was, they were mortified and filled with shame for what they had done. But the man they beat up was the one they presumed to be a simple, unassuming poor person with no crowd of well-wishers waiting to greet him. He was the victim and only he is the one capable of granting them forgiveness. Let them go find that person. I am incapable of releasing them from their guilt."1
According to the rabbi, most of us do not have the right to offer forgiveness for the 9/11 attack.  Some would make the case that, since we are Americans, and the attack was directed at American culture and “our way” of life, that we all were attacked.  That may be so; however, you still cannot offer forgiveness on someone else’s behalf.  And….just to be sure we cover the other side…you cannot judge another’s sin either.                             Both of those are God’s territory.
But that still leaves the questions of what to do with our heartache over what happened to the victims of 9/11, and how do we grieve the terrible wrongs done in this life.  What about forgiveness?  What about picking-up the pieces of life and going forward?  What do you do?
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  There are countless examples of forgiveness in the Old Testament.  Esau forgave his tricky brother, Jacob.  Joseph forgave his nasty brothers who sold him into slavery.  In the New Testament, the Gospel is filled with forgiving.  Jesus forgave sins – he forgave Judas in advance – he forgave his executioners from the cross – he forgave Peter for his denial.
Where does forgiveness start?  The dictionary defines "forgiveness" as:  "to grant pardon, to cease to blame, to cease feeling resentment towards."  Those are verbal descriptions of what happens when forgiveness is given, however, it doesn't answer the question of how forgiveness comes about. 
Where does forgiveness begin?  The Bible answers clearly (as with every other important question of life), that forgiveness begins in the heart.  The Jews, God's very special people, wrote most of our Bible.  In Jewish thought the heart was the "hidden spring of the personal life." 
In the Jewish wisdom library we find the Book of Proverbs; 30 chapters of the collected wit, lore and God-inspired thought of the race.  In those thirty chapters are more than eighty references to the heart as the center of living.
The Jewish concept of the heart is organized into three fields:
Reason or logic is the understanding.  In Western thought we say it is the mind.  This is our mental and spiritual makeup.
Emotion is the viscera.  Much of our lives revolve around such emotions as love, anger, compassion, and instincts of self-preservation. 
Will the place of the soul.  This is that part of us which makes decisions of morality – of right and wrong.
When we understand the different concepts of the heart of man, it is then much easier to understand that, for the heart to truly forgive, all three (reason, emotion, will) must be involved.  It is the surrender of the total, threefold heart. 
Let’s unpack that this morning…
I.                           Surrender of Reason
The surrender of our reason means allowing our thinking/mind to be controlled and governed by God's Word.  Jesus told a parable where a man owed a debt to a king; the king knew that the debt was not payable.  In today’s economy it would be $10 million. 
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.                 Matthew 18:21-22
Peter knew the Jewish rule, forgive a wrong once, twice, three times, then take revenge.  He thought he was being magnanimous by more than doubling it to seven.  Jesus told him to forget his scorecard, and just forgive.  We are commanded to forgive. 
The point is reconciliation – not who is right or wrong.  Scripture tells us that’s how God acts; He…reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.  2 Cor 5:18 (NIV)  Our business as the church is the ministry of reconciling people to Christ.  We cannot imagine to even begin to talk of reconciling others to a God we cannot see if we cannot forgive and be reconciled to the brothers we can see. 
Unforgiveness hampers the work of the Holy Spirit of God in us.  There are some things that do not break our fellowship – these hardly need to be considered.  However, if there is something that continually eats away at your insides, it must be dealt with.  A good rule of thumb is:  Anything that can't be forgotten is probably not forgiven either!  It must be driven from your relationship with your brother in open, face-to-face reconciliation.
Surrendering our reason means allowing God to have final say in our thinking process.  In our text, the unjust steward, who wouldn't forgive his fellow servant (who only owed him about $20 in today’s money), didn't reason well.  He had been forgiven much; he wouldn't forgive even a little. 
Jesus said "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."  Matthew 18:35 (NIV)   We have always heard how the Father's love is unconditional; this is not the case with His forgiveness.  When we refuse to forgive, we refuse to be forgiven. 
A preacher wrote, Can you humbly beseech God, and with tearful eyes look up to Him for pardon while you have your foot upon your brother's neck or your hand at his throat?2   We must surrender our human, imperfect “reason” for God’s commands!
II.                      Surrender of Emotions
The text says the servant's master took pity (had compassion) on him.  It is not easy to surrender your emotions, especially when you believe you've been wronged or hurt.  It is perhaps the most difficult part of forgiveness to place yourself in the other person's shoes, and feel his pain. 
It is not right to fake compassion, attempting to manufacture or manipulate feelings that aren't really there.  However, The Bible demands (and integrity dictates) that we earnestly seek to surrender our emotions, and let God help us with feeling for those whom we need to forgive.  There are two disciplines we can enter into in order to help our compassion:

Remember how much you’re forgiven

The wicked servant owed $10-12 million (in today’s money).  That's a large debt!  When someone has wronged you, it will be easier to surrender your emotions if you first consider how much Jesus has forgiven you.

Imitate God’s forgiveness

 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)
The family of God is tied from individual to individual with a bond of love.  Love is verbal, visceral and visible.  To surrender our emotions to each other means we cannot be "cold fish"; nor can we be seething hotbeds of anger.  We must seek to imitate the intensity of the love of Christ. 
·        It was He who wept over Jerusalem who stoned the prophets.  
·        It was He who wept over Lazarus.  
·        It was He who groaned for each of us in the Garden of Gethsemane.
To imitate the intensity of Jesus' love is to act that way until we feel that way.  C.S. Lewis wrote,
"The rule for us all is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did...When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.  If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less."4
Surrender of Reason and Emotion, and finally…
III.                Surrender of Will
In the story of the wicked servant, the king wiped out the debt and allowed the man to start over.  A lady once told me that her family had a dozen children.  When they were grown, whenever one was ill, or had other trouble, the other eleven would band together to help with the bills.  When the trouble or illness was over, there was nothing to repay. 
This is the way God forgives us when we act in faith.  In Exodus we read of God's people being "passed over" by the death angel.  Moses had instructed the people to kill the lamb and put the blood on the door posts.  Those that did were released from their debt of sin, and the death angel would pass over that household.  Forgiveness demands that we:

Have a Passover

A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.   Proverbs 19:11 (NIV)
We need to have a Passover sometimes.  Sometimes you are absolutely right; sometimes the other person is absolutely wrong.  He hurt you, she was wrong, they should be hung!  Let it go under the blood.
I want to assure you that the details are less important to Almighty God than the relationship of your brother and you.  In the early part of this chapter the Lord said if your brother offends you (even if he's dead wrong) you go to him and begin to get it straightened out!

Make it a Priority

Experience tells us that reconciling and forgiveness require all three parts of a person’s heart. 
·        When we forgive only with the reason, or mind, it will fail us when our emotions flare up. 
·        Forgiveness that is based solely on an emotional tug of the heartstrings will fade with time. 
There must be reason, emotion AND a definite choice of the will.  When we submit that will to Christ, and humbly forgive, our prayer is heard in heaven.
Now, in the rubber meets the road department….
How Do You Do It?
How do you forgive with the mind, emotions and will, and actually make it stick? 

Five Suggestions that work with your neighbor and the tragedy of 9/11:

1.        Pray - Nothing great is ever accomplished without God.
2.        Choose to forgive, and then choose to never again be willing to hold it against your brother.  Remember, when God forgives He casts our sin into the deepest part of the sea and puts up a "No Fishing" sign.
3.        Seek for some good quality in your brother to dwell on.  Consider him your former adversary.
4.        Relax (Don’t judge)  Let your own goodness be the only thing the Holy Spirit has to use to convict your brother of his wrongdoing.  Be willing to talk to your brother.
5.        Do something sacrificial for him.
According to ancient Oriental tradition, whenever a debt was settled, either by payment or forgiveness, the creditor would take the canceled bond and nail it over the door of the one who owed it.  Anyone passing by could then see that it had been fully paid. 
Jesus did that for us.  That is exactly the meaning of the word Jesus cried out from the cross:  tetelestai – it is finished!  We should do it for each other.  We should do it now!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!
  1. Rabbi Benjamin Blech,
.   2.             2.  Marcus Dods, The Parables Of Our Lord, (NY, Fleming H. Revell Co, c.1900) 130
3.                 3.  The Bible Illustrator,  (Hiawatha, Ia, Parson's Technology, 1990) 2200-2209

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Grace Does

14In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.  15You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  16For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.  17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.  18I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  19And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  20To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.  21Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you.  22All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.  23The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.        Philippians 4:14-23 (NRSV)
Joy, that really-centered, solid sense of well-being is one of Paul’s major themes.  All throughout this letter to the Philippian church, Paul, who was sitting in a dark, stinking hole of a jail in Rome, writes to his beloved friends about how much God’s joy was in his life.  Indeed, rejoicing was his life, and it was as real as the fingers on your hand.  Had I been in Paul’s shoes I wonder if I would have been quite so positive!
There are times when “joy” hardly seems real, or even a remote possibility.  About twenty years ago I stood with a mother and father as we looked at the body of their 22 year-old son lying in a casket; it was really hard to imagine joy.  They shared with me their son's great plans for the future – getting a Master's degree, advancement, family, and his love for the Lord – it was hard to imagine joy. 
They told me how that young man worked hard every day, never late; how he went to school nights and studied hard.  It was hard to conjure-up joy amidst all the nervous stock phrases people babble-on at such times; words won't do! 
There was lots of hugging and remembering at the funeral home.  But I knew that would pass; in the morning there would be a funeral service, and soon we would be at the cemetery, ready to lower a young man into a grave, when he hadn't even begun to live.  It was not only hard to imagine joy - joy was definitely AWOL! 
And so I asked the Lord to speak to my heart so I could speak to this broken-hearted family.  Very often I'm a poor listener, so the Lord waited until I walked out on the platform for the service.  It was the faces of the young people that stopped me in my tracks.  I'd never seen most of them before.  The faces were streaming with tears, disbelief and stunned silence.  Their faces were grieving as those with no hope[1].  In that instant the Lord spoke to my heart, and the one-sided conversation went something like this:
Russell, among these young people are those who have left me out of their lives; a few have never even heard the gospel.  Tell them I love them.
What a sustaining message to my heart!  I not only rediscovered joy for that hard moment, I was downright happy!  This would give meaning to Ricky's death.  His friends were sitting there, trying to make any kind of sense in the madness and chaos of losing their friend. 
They were facing the reality that, if it could happen to Ricky, 22 years old, strong, bright and alive; well it could happen to anyone!  Ricky had plans for living; now he was in a casket.  And Ricky’s friends’ attention was focused toward the pulpit, God's sacred desk.  What an awesome responsibility and incredible joy…to share the Gospel of God’s grace!
In retrospect I can imagine more easily the joy Paul felt, sitting in that Roman jail.  He and Ricky had similarities; they were both educated, energetic and ambitious; in their respective fields they were tops! 
But Paul had lived a full life accomplishing much for the cause of Christ, and now he was in prison, awaiting a criminal’s execution all because of his faithfulness!  And in the middle of it all, Paul would say joy! 
I want you to know, beloved, there is only one thing in this universe that can make a person joyful in the midst of that kind of circumstance – it is the grace of Almighty God.  Note what grace does in a believer’s life:
Grace makes you joyfully grateful.
Paul was grateful for the gift brought by Epaphroditus.  None of the other churches had shared in the financial needs of his ministry.  Paul was joyfully-grateful because the Philippian church had a proper sense of why they were giving.  It was not just for Paul's sake – they knew they were ministering in God’s name, to God’s world, with their gifts.
I felt a sense of that this week.  I got to play Epaphroditus, delivering your backpacks and school supplies.  Each time I met with a guidance counselor and saw the smile, heard genuine, heartfelt thanks – I knew some kids were going to have their lives touched with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Maxie Dunham wrote:  we act on behalf of each other, knowing that we are acting for the sake of God.[2] 
Paul was working to see the gospel spread -- that was his call from God.  The circumstances were not wonderful, but he could see the purpose of God being worked-out, even in his misery.  What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.[3]  Paul had vision; he was able to look past the circumstances, and see God's hand at work. 
Even more important Paul knew that those circumstances are by God’s design to accomplish His purpose.  God’s purpose of grace makes you joyfully grateful!
Grace makes you a joyful giver
Giving is a touchy subject – but only for those who have not yet gotten the idea that it is a joy to give.  A farmer listened to the preacher’s sermon on why the lottery was such a devilish evil, and how it was crippling the poor.  Afterwards he approached the pastor and registered his objection:  Preacher – the lottery ain’t all that bad.  Why, if I won ten million dollars I’d give half to the church.  The pastor asked, How about if you won just a million?  He replied, I’d still give half.  Then the pastor asked, How ‘bout if you had two pigs?  The farmer held up a hand, Now hold on preacher, that ain’t fair; you KNOW I got two pigs!  Giving is never a touchy subject when the right conditions exist; there are at least two conditions:

People give when their hearts are touched

I have a friend who is a vibrant professional man; he is also a serious Christian.  He tithes 10% to his church, and also manages to put a few dollars away each month for the purpose of finding God's needy spot.  He prays about this money – that God will direct him to a Godly need.  This is a heart that is touched with compassion and enthusiasm for the gospel.  I can tell it gives him a lot of joy to be able to give. 
One church member confided in me that giving just a dollar or two above her tithe to help a needy child gave her more joy than anything else she does.  When your heart is touched with compassion for the needs of people, you give joyfully.  But then,

People give sacrificially when their hearts are transferred (to God)

There is a difference between the joy of giving, and sacrificial giving.  Paul's pride and joy, the Philippian group were examples of sacrificial giving.  One author has it, Their giving was exemplary because they gave out of 'rock-bottom poverty.[4] 
What is sacrificial giving?  Sacrifice only comes under the influence of love.  I have a coupon booklet that I treasure.  It is from my three kids.  It was given to me one Father's Day when our kids had no money because they were "U.I.S." (Under the Influence of Seminary).  So they gave me 21 different slips of paper as handwritten credit vouchers.  One voucher was good for a car wash.  Another was good for a "no-gripe lawnmower usage" And still another was for a whole day of kids being good without Dad having to remind anybody.  I want to tell you, I've never cashed a single coupon – they are too precious to me.  Those kids loved me, and gave sacrificially.  When you transfer your heart to God you will give sacrificially, and love it!  God’s grace makes you joyfully grateful, a joyful giver, and…
Grace makes you joyfully glorify God
To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.  Philippians 4:20
It seems Paul often sang the doxology, praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Considering the fact that God deserves our praise, and we are created for Him, and not ourselves, it ought to be without question that we give praise joyfully, instead of griping profusely.  It seems we ought to be a little more like Paul, and recount the blessings till we just have to stop and sing the Doxology!  God’s grace makes your attitude of gratitude grow!
Paul was a prisoner.  While most people would view that as the screeching, grinding halt to his ministry, but his imprisonment was the very thing that defined the ministry of Paul.  While others were mourning his circumstances – even the believers at Philippi – Paul saw an opportunity.  What else would a Christian do with a soldier chained to him 24 hours a day?  He began winning Roman soldiers to Christ. 
Our dog, Gracie Cotton loves to wander if she gets loose.  Since we don’t have a fenced yard, the only option is walking her on a leash...when she lets us!  She may be small, but if that dog sees a squirrel, she will get highly motivated; the human holding the leash just holds-on for dear life!  In the same way, the Roman emperor imagined he had squashed Paul’s preaching, but, as William Barclay put it, The crucified Galilaean carpenter had already begun to rule those who ruled the greatest empire in the world.[5]
What are your circumstances? 
Are you joyful over the impact Christ is making on your part of the world because of what is happening in your life?  Or are you groaning and griping every day because of the circumstances? 
Multiplied thousands of so-called unfulfilled, unhappy people would see their world and circumstances differently if they would transfer their hearts to Jesus.
The songwriter has it:
When we have exhausted our store of endurance;
 When our strength has failed 'ere the day is half done;
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources;
Our Father's forgiveness is only begun.
His love has no limit; His grace has no measure,
His power has no boundary known unto man;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth and giveth and giveth again.[6]
   Circumstances are not a choice.  Sometimes it is the Devil, sometimes the Lord's design; sometimes it is just "stuff" happening.  But joy IS a matter of choice.  You can choose to surrender your heart and life to God’s will - to know Him and His power and His salvation.  It is available by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, and the sacrificial gift of his death on the cross[7].  
It was grace, God dying for you – and when you accept his offer to know Him, there’s no limit or measure to God’s power, love and grace to bring joy unspeakable into your life!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

[1] Job 7:6, 1 Thessalonians 4:13
[2]Dunham, Maxie D., THE COMMUNICATOR'S COMMENTARY VOL. 8, (Waco, Word Inc., 1982), 320
[3] Philippians 1:12
[4]Melick, Richard R., Jr., THE NEW AMERICAN COMMENTARY, 158
[5]Barclay, William, THE DAILY STUDY BIBLE, 87
[6]HE GIVETH MORE GRACE,  Composer: H. Mitchell, Arr T. Fetke (Lillenas Publishers), 1983
[7] Ephesians 2:8,9