Category Archives: Biblical Commentary

How To Make Sure We’re Blessed

This is the manuscript from a sermon I preached on November 5, 2017

We who live in the Upper Ohio Valley are blessed. With all the natural disasters that have happened in the last few months, if you don’t feel blessed, there’s a good chance you aren’t paying attention. Five hurricanes, two earthquakes, wildfires, and we’ve been safe. We get very little flooding and tornados and blizzards are rare. Why are we so blessed? Is it because we’re better people? Does God love us more?

I really don’t think so. These hills we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with protect us from the severe weather, and we live too far away from the ocean to get much trouble from hurricanes. I believe we are weather blessed because we have positioned ourselves in a place to be blessed.

And it’s really the same way with the Christian life. Everyone wants to live under the protection of God’s blessings, but very few want to move to a place where they can be blessed. Yesterday when I was reading my devotions by John Wesley, he pretty much said we shouldn’t even tell people about God’s blessings until they are ready to live where God is blessing. He said, Those who “pour out their souls before God . . . these are the person unto whom we are to apply the great and precious promises. Not to the ignorant [those who are knew to the faith] . . . Much less to the impenitent sinner.”

So, our job is to make sure we aren’t “ignorant.” We have to learn how to position ourselves so we can receive all of God’s blessings.

God started telling people how to be blessed from the beginning. Adam and Eve just had to stay away from that one tree. The tree seemed innocent, but God knew it wasn’t good for them. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve didn’t trust that God knew what was best. They didn’t love Him enough to obey and get the blessing.

Over and over God told His people how to be blessed. In the bulletin, I put a list of just some of the Bible verses that tell us how to be blessed. Listen to what He told people about being blessed.

12 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. 13 He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and olive oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. 14 You will be blessed more than any other people – Deuteronomy 7:12-14

God starts out talking about the Ten Commandments. If we honor Him, worship Him, Trust Him and Him alone; if we don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t murder and more then we will be blessed. And it extends to other commands God gives us. But did you catch verse 14?

14 You will be blessed more than any other people

And God repeated this several more times in Deuteronomy.
Then 100’s of years later King David wrote about what it means to be blessed.

1 Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the LORD does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit. – Psalm 32:1-2

One of the cool things about King David is that as far as I can tell, He was the first person to truly repent. He was narcissistic and deceitful. He committed adultery and schemed to kill a friend to cover it up. Up until King David, everyone just made excuses for their sin, including Moses and Abraham. David however, was the first to say, “I have sinned against God.” He made no excuses, he repented and God said, “You are forgiven.”

I’m not sure whether David wrote this before or after his encounter with Bathsheba, but either way, the man knew the best way to be blessed. He understood that the one who was forgiven was blessed. The one who has no deceit is blessed. That’s what John Wesley was talking about. “Those who pour out their souls before God are the ones who the promises are for . . . “ When we are obedient and repentant we begin to experience the blessings of God.

But there’s more ! Jeremiah 17:7 says:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. – Jeremiah 17:7

Do you fully trust in God? It’s a difficult thing to do, to just put your life in the hands of Jesus Christ, but that’s what it takes if you want all of the blessings of God.
One way to tell if you are fully trusting God is to see how you handle your finances. That’s one of the most difficult places to trust Him.

But it says in Malachi:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. – Malachi 3:10

Do you trust God with your tithe? Can you bring 10% of your total income into the house of the Lord? Tithing is a measure of trust. We don’t tithe because God needs our money. We tithe to learn to trust God, to show Him we trust Him. And God promises that when we trust Him enough to give bring 10% into His house He will pour out so much blessing there won’t be enough room to store it.

And that’s just in the Old Testament. You’ll recognize these verses from the New Testament

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5: 3-11

That short passage can be a whole sermon in itself. But in a nutshell . . .
You are blessed when you realize you are spiritually poor, when you grieve because of your spiritual poverty and when it humbles you. When you can’t get enough of scripture, prayer and growing in Christ, you are blessed. When you have mercy for people who used to cause you to judge and when you are considerate of others so there’s more peace, you are blessed.

Blessed doesn’t mean problems won’t come. We still have to live on this earth, so we’ll still face troubles. But James tells us:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. – James 1:12

When you keep going even during the trials and trust Jesus to get you through them, you are blessed!
And James 1:25

But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. – James 1:25

James goes right back to what we talked about at the beginning. God needs us to obey the law. He knows that the rules He’s created are for our own good. Everyone whose ever taken care of a child has set down a rule that the kid didn’t like, but it was in the child’s best interest. That’s what God does for us, and when we obey His rules, when we don’t forget the things He’s told us, we have freedom and we are blessed.

There are times you won’t feel blessed even when you’re completely devoted to following Christ. But we can’t trust our feelings and sometimes we have to look for the blessings.
We also have to remember that sin has consequences, and sometimes the consequences follow us. Even King David, the man after God’s own heart, faced the consequences of his sin until the day he died. And his sin effected his children.

Disobedience steals your blessings and it effects those around you. In fact some of the trials you face are the result of someone else’s sin. Sometimes when we feel less than blessed it’s because those we’ve positioned around us aren’t walking in a way that God will bless.

I want to be blessed and I want you to be blessed. One of the things I’ve become convinced of as I read scripture is that if we want to be blessed we have to be obedient. The more I trust Christ, the more I receive blessing. And as John Wesley said, if we’re ignorant about what God’s requirements are, all of those promises Christians brag about aren’t for us. We need to know what the scripture says if we want to be really blessed.

The Bible is clear. Salvation is for everyone who asks, and you can lived the “just saved” life and probably make it to heaven. But it’s still a hard life . . . not the one God intended for us. We were created to walk in the Garden with Him. Sin messed that up, but more than anything else God wants to have a relationship with us. Jesus died so we can have more than just heaven. He came to restore our relationship with the Father.

Whose side is God on?

Joshua 5:13-14a Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

I’ve often wondered about these two verses. The angel of the Lord is on neither side. How can it be the messenger of the Almighty is not by default on the side of the Israelites? They are, after all, the chosen people of the living God!

But the angel is clear . . . he’s not there to take sides.

Yet, if the angels didn’t take sides, how did the walls of Jericho fall so easily? Why did nearly every battle in the book of Joshua fall to the Israelites without much of a fight?

Tonight I had this thought . . .

Ephesians 6:12 tells me my “struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” As much as humans disturb me, fight me and seem to be against my Father, my struggle is not against them. God is not “against” any of His creation. How could He be? How could anyone purposely be against something they created in perfection with their own hands? And even if you and I could, does that really fit the description of the perfect, complete and Holy God we’re getting to know more and more every day?

Even in the Old Testament, the place where the “wrath of God” seems so evident, God did not take human sides. Our Father’s battle has always been against the one who set himself up as the enemy, Lucifer, AKA Satan, the accuser, the devil. The Holy Trinity was fighting against Satan even then.

Here’s the thing . . .

Just as in war here on earth, in the Spiritual realm there are unwitting casualties of war. People who align themselves with the losing side out of misguided loyalty, false promises, the quest for power and more are lost in battle while the leader who started the whole thing sits in his comfy war-staging room and watches the battle play out.

That’s what the enemy has been doing all along. The people of Jericho had aligned themselves with our enemy. They didn’t even realize they were on the side of evil. The enemy had spewed lies to them just like he does to his followers today. It sounds good, but they have no idea they’re pawns in his little game.

When Israel took Jericho, it was only because the “evil of Canaan had reached its fullness.” The enemy had taken control of the area, and the spiritual power he wielded there had to be wiped out. We read about the ground battle in the book of Joshua, but I wonder what the heavenly battle looked like. It happened over and over again in the Old Testament. It continues to happen today. Even when the enemy thinks he wins by destroying the human flesh of one of God’s children, he’s lost. Because the only thing he does by taking the human life of someone who loves Christ is to prematurely allow that person to be in the presence of the Almighty. And the beauty of that thought is those who are human casualties on the side of the Lord of the Universe don’t lose! They just get their ultimate reward!

God doesn’t take sides . . . not the human kind. The Creator’s only enemy is the one who continually tries to usurp the Sovereign’s power. God is on your side. Will you be on His?

angel
The angel of the Lord does not take sides

Sermon from Pentecost 2016

Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost. It’s the anniversary of that piece of history we just read in Acts. Most of you already know it’s my favorite holiday on the church calendar. And a lot of you have already heard my Holy Spirit story, and the rest, if you ever want to hear it, just ask, I love to share. But to give you an idea of why I believe the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is so exciting, let me tell you a little about what has happened since that day.

You see it was the Holy Spirit took a disciple who denied Christ and feared for his life into the very first leader of the world wide church. It was the Holy Spirit that took one of the first and most famous persecutors of the early church, a man named Saul, and turned him into Paul, the most famous Christian preacher of all time, the man who wrote the majority of the New Testament. It’s that same Holy Spirit that took a young shy girl, one who would never stand up in front of a small group, let alone a large one and put her in front of you today.

It’s the Holy Spirit that takes all Christians from, as Oswald Chambers puts it, “Saved from hell to saved for a purpose.” I believe it’s the absence of the Holy Spirit in churches and Christians that is causing churches to die and Christians to lose hope. Without the Holy Spirit Christianity is hard work. Being a Christian without the fullness of the Holy Spirit sometimes doesn’t feel worth it. In fact, my confidence in Christ and my relationship with Him comes from allowing the Holy Spirit to move in my life.

Here at Sycamore Tree, we focus a lot on John 10:10: “The enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus came to bring abundant life.” A lot of people read or hear that verse and live like it’s the only verse in the Bible. And because they pick and choose which part of the Bible they want to live by, they wonder why they miss on out Abundant life.

Jesus came to give us an abundant, full, rich life. But in order to live an abundant life, we have to reach out and take hold of it. It’s our responsibility to live in such a way that allows the Holy Spirit to live within us so we can take hold of that abundant life.

At least nine times in the New Testament Jesus tells us the things we have to do to live in the abundant life that He promised in John 10:10. This is just four of those places.
Romans 6:63 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.
Romans 8:2 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
Romans 8:10 . . . the Spirit gives life because of righteousness
2 Corinthians 3:6 . . . the written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life.

The scripture is clear that if you want the abundant life Jesus promised, you need the Holy Spirit. He tells us that the things we do in the flesh are worth nothing, and trying to work your way to heaven brings death. But it consistently tells us that life comes from the Spirit. Galatians 5 tells us how to get peace and joy, but these are the fruit of the Spirit.

The truth of the matter is that as much as people want abundant life, most don’t really want the fullness of the Spirit. I know it’s a little scary, but it is so worth it.
And just in case you’re wondering what I mean by want it, let me use a couple of illustrations you’ll be more familiar with.

For example . . . I would love to be fit, but I just don’t want it bad enough. I want the benefit of exercise, but I am not really willing to do the work it takes to get fit.
Sylvia can tell you stories of students who WANT good grades, but they don’t want to do the homework it takes to GET the good grades.

It’s the same way with the Holy Spirit. You have to WANT abundant life enough to be willing to put yourself in a place where the Holy Spirit can work in you. But the Spirit, being a part of Christ, will never force Himself on you. The Holy Spirit is a gentleman, so if we want the fullness of the Spirit, we have to want it. Luke tells us we have to ask for it.

It can be a scary endeavor. It makes people afraid to ask for the Holy Spirit. But like me and Peter and Paul, once you allow the Holy Spirit to work in you, you will never be the same. Don’t worry, Jesus seldom changes your basic personality. After all, that’s the way He created you. But like a rock in a polisher, the Holy Spirit will often smooth of our rough edges so that the most beautiful part of you is more visible to the world.

Most of the steps that we have to take to allow the Spirit to work in us Steve has talked about over the last twelve weeks. You see the more we grow in our faith, the closer we are to Christ and the easier it is for us to allow Christ’s Spirit to work in us. Those little plants we took home two weeks ago give us a great example of what to do to make sure we can grow in the Spirit.

Prayer will always be the #1 means to access the Holy Spirit. Steve asked you every week if you’d prayed for your plant. And the truth is, praying for your plant wasn’t that important, but for most of us, if we only talk to God as often as most of us prayed for our plant, our relationship with Jesus will be failing. Luke makes it clear, we have to ask the Holy Spirit to work in our life.

The second thing you have to do is make your faith yours. I’ve found it amusing these last couple of weeks the stories we’ve heard about people who let someone else be in charge of their plant. Most times it didn’t go so well. The same is true of your relationship with Christ, and the ultimate relationship is the Holy Spirit because that is Christ living inside of you. No one but you can make that faith grow. Others can encourage you and help you, but you are the only one who can make room for the Spirit of Christ to grow inside of you. Steve can’t do it. I can’t do it. TEENS, your parents can’t do it. You are not too young or too old to begin to take responsibility for your faith and allow Christ to grow in your heart.

One of the top three things you need to do to experience real life in the Spirit is nourish your faith. Your plant needs water and sunshine and even a little Miracle Grow from time to time. Your faith needs nourishment too. And like your plant it needs it OFTEN and REGULARLY if you really want it to grow. You can’t just give it nourishment when you have time or remember. If you don’t feed the Spirit within you, it will shrivel. Paul compared it to a fire when he wrote to Timothy. In II Timothy 1:6 Paul told the young preacher to “fan into flame the gift of the Spirit.” What happens to a fire when you stop adding wood? The same thing happens to the Spirit within you when you quit feeding it. God’s Word is the food. If you aren’t reading or listening to it every day, you are letting the fire die. And in the 21st Century, there’s really no excuse. Besides the fact that Bibles are easy to come by, almost everyone has a smart phone, and there are at least two free Bible aps that will not only allow you to read scripture, they’ll also read it to you! Nope, no excuse!

Finally, and the most serious problem I see with most people who say they want to grow in Christ, you have to make it a priority. People say they want abundant life in Jesus Christ, but their priorities speak a different message. Just like being fit is not a big enough priority for me, faith is not a big enough priority for most.

A priority is something that is important to you. It’s something you put ahead of other things in your life. And truth is making a list of priorities and putting God at the top doesn’t automatically make it so. Your actions tell the world what your priorities are. I have been told that if you want to see what your priorities are get out your calendar and bank statement and make a list of the things you think about all day. No matter what you WANT your priorities to be, these three things will tell you what they really are.

If growing your faith and having life in the Spirit really are your priority, then it will be reflected in
• Your Church attendance
• Your tithing
• The time you spend in prayer and Bible reading (or listening) and study
• The gifts you give above your tithe to organizations that share Christ
• Your thoughts and the way they change as you grow
• Your language
• The Changes in the way you feel about things
• The people you spend time with

The Holy Spirit was first given to all believers on Pentecost right after Jesus’ resurrection. Before that only a handful of people got to experience the Holy Spirit the way we do now.

If you are a believer then the Holy Spirit has already been planted in you like those seeds Steve planted at the beginning of lent. But whether it stays in the ground or grows past a seedling is completely up to you. You have the opportunity to grow the Spirit into a huge tree that spreads out to comfort others and produce fruit, but what that seed becomes is completely up to you.
To paraphrase Joshua, “Choose for yourselves this day whether or not you want an abundant life through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. As for me . . . I want it all.” I praise God that when I make the effort, His Spirit grows in me and I know life . . . real, true, abundant life.

So you want to hear God’s voice . . .

I get that from folks all the time . . . “If I could just hear God’s voice, if I only knew exactly what He wanted me to do . . . ”

Today as I contemplated that phrase, even in my own life, I sort of heard God’s voice! But what it said won’t be too impressive to most who aren’t hearing Him speak right now. Because what I believe I heard the voice of God say is, “Why should I say more to people who don’t listen to what I’ve already said?”

That really smacked me right in the face. In those times when I feel like I can’t hear God, how many of those days am I ignoring something He’s already told me. He gave us this wonderful book with all kinds of instructions and life lessons. There are stories to show us how NOT to live our life as well as so many that demonstrate the right way to do it. There are bold instructions on living throughout the entire book, how much do I ignore?

And what about those people who don’t even bother reading it? Why does one think they will hear the voice of Christ when he or she doesn’t even bother to read the things our Father has already entrusted us with?

God wants us to have the best life possible. He came to bring life filled up to the top and running over, but we can’t have it if we aren’t listening to the One in charge give us the full plan.

I encourage you to get into the Word this week. Find some of the things in there you aren’t quite living up to and just do it! Then do another one next week. Don’t forget to invite the Holy Spirit to help you with each thing you do (or you’ll be doing it in vain). And remember that the number one thing you have to do to hear God’s voice is to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. Until you do that, that’s pretty much the only message you’ll hear.

The Woman’s Head Covering

Every year I read 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Most years I read it more than once, and every time it bothers me. As a woman should I wear a head covering. I see those denominations that wear doilies on their head and I wonder, “Do they have that part right?” The thing is, I’ve never felt convicted about it as I pray. Not once have I ever felt the Holy Spirit telling me to cover my head. It’s just when I read this passage or see someone from one of those churches that I wonder.

So today I read it again. But this time instead of stopping at verse 10 and then starting again at verse 11 like it was something new, I read it all together. And today this is the message I saw.

In verses 1-10, Paul is describing the reason that a woman wears a head covering in ancient Israel (and probably the reason they wear the head covering in the middle east today). It’s these verses that make me wonder, “should I cover my head?” In verse 11 Paul start, “But in the Lord . . .” He’s telling us something new, something that would have been foreign to his readers. They were just beginning to learn about what it was like to be “in the Lord.”

Before the Lord, Jesus Christ, the people believed that woman was completely dependent on man, “that is why she should have a symbol of authority on her head.” What if there should be a paragraph break between verses 3 and 4? What if Paul meant for us to know that the man should submit to Christ, the wife should submit to the husband and God is the head of Christ, but verses 4-10 are a description of what was happening during that time?

But in the Lord we are not independent of one another. Everything comes from God, so we are really all dependent on God, and God gave us our natural covering, our hair. Then Paul says that there are some that will still want to argue about this. Bottom line is that the argument would have come from the good “Jews.” They probably had a problem with women coming from other cultures without a head covering. The Jewish leaders were often trying to get Paul and the Twelve to convince new converts to follow Jewish customs. He’s not telling them to change their customs . . . I think that’s why it’s so vague. But he is telling them to pray about it. Each person should decide for themselves if a head covering is important.

It’s definitely not an issue that I anticipate fretting about. It’s a “rule,” legalism. I refuse to argue about anything other than Jesus Christ death being the only payment for salvation . . . and even that I don’t really argue . . . I’d really rather show love, pray and let the Holy Spirit convict those who need to change their views.

So you want to be blessed . . .

All the time I hear from people that they don’t believe in God because they see too much evil. Others want God’s blessings, they don’t understand why God isn’t giving them more because they believe and pray.

Most Christians understand that salvation is a free gift. Even the ones who appear to be working for it. You can check out Revelation 22:17; Romans 5:15-17; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8 and more. Christ died for you, no strings attached . . . you just have to open the gift.

But what about blessings? So many folks think that blessings are guaranteed, like God is a great big in the sky Santa Claus. Blessings won’t come because you share memes on Facebook. But the Bible does say that God wants to bless us.

Deuteronomy 11 is one of the most obvious chapters that describe blessing. In verse 13 and 22 God says, “If you faithfully obey the commands I’m giving you . . .” verses 26 and 27 tell us, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse; a blessing if you obey . . .; a curse if you disobey.” God’s chosen people, the nation that Christians have been grafted into (Romans 11) were told that blessings come with obedience. Why do Christians today think that will be different for us?

Matthew 5 and Luke 6 give us some of the most famous ways to be blessed. Nearly every Christian has heard of the Beatitudes. And while some translations, use the word “happy” rather than blessed, I don’t believe the two words are synonymous. These promises of blessings aren’t one we like to hear. Blessed are the pure in heart, the poor in spirit, the hungry, the persecuted, the merciful and more. Most folks don’t want to live in any of those categories if that’s what blessedness requires. Additionally, the “blessings” Jesus mentions aren’t the same as the list of the prosperity preachers. There’s no mention of financial abundance in this list, only that we’ll be satisfied, comforted, filled and shown mercy.

2 Corinthians 9:8 tells us that being blessed means we’ll have enough. James tells us we are blessed when we persevere. John 13:17 says we will be blessed if we do the things that Jesus has asked us to do.

Throughout the centuries people have twisted the Words of God. They picture God as a genie forced to do whatever His followers command. They take John 10:10’s promise of abundance and assume Jesus meant rich. Unfortunately for those pursuing wealth and the perfect life as a Christian, they will be disappointed every time.

Jesus promised peace and mercy. He promised an abundant life, but what if that means a beautiful life worth living. He promised if He is my shepherd, I’ll have everything that I need . . . not everything I think I want.

In Luke 11 Jesus said that we are blessed when we obey. 1 John 2:5 tells us that Jesus knows we love Him when we obey. In Jeremiah 7:23 God says that “Obey me and I will be your God. . . walk in obedience and it will go will for you.” Over and over our Heavenly Father is clear that obedience brings blessings.

Fortunately, He is a loving and gracious God, so we are sometimes blessed even when we aren’t obedient. God is faithful even when we aren’t. But to expect blessings without obedience is to be an ungrateful and rebellious child. That is the story of the prodigal son.

If you are waiting for God to pour out His blessings, I recommend you obey. Start with the obvious things He talked about in scripture, things like the big 10. Find a place to worship each week with a group of believers so you can “not give up meeting together” and obey Hebrews 10:25. Read His Word daily so you can be obedient to the many verses that tell us to obey His Word. You can’t obey what you don’t know. God is waiting to bless His children, but He only gives us what we can handle. Fortunately, He doesn’t give us what we deserve. He loves you and wants to bless you.

Born with a Deadly Disease

There are a lot of questions in Christianity that have no really great answers. I think God describes the reason for this in Isaiah 55:9: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The biggest problem with the questions that we have is that we try to find answers from a human perspective rather than a Kingdom perspective. Plus, we just don’t have the mind of God. We can’t fathom all that He knows and understands.

For instance, one of the great questions of the faith is this: “Why does God condemn “good” people to hell?” and “What if they’ve never heard about Jesus?” A lot of these questions begin with “If God is a loving God . . .” These are good legitimate questions! And while we can’t possibly know the complete and full answer (because my mind cannot fathom the knowledge and wisdom of God), the scriptures do give us some clues.

Isaiah 64:6 says that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” That puts our “goodness” into perspective. What looks good to us as humans does not look good to God. In fact, it still looks filthy. Romans 3:23 reminds us that “all of us have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” I guess if the only requirement for heaven was “goodness,” heaven would end up looking a lot like earth. Even with all the descriptions in Revelation, and Jesus’ word pictures in the Gospels, we really don’t understand the beauty and perfection of heaven.

There’s a phrase someone came up with that goes, “God doesn’t send people to hell, people choose to go there.” That’s really a very true statement. 2 Peter 3:9 says that God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. He wants everyone to repent. I picture Jesus looking like He must have when He stood outside of Jerusalem almost in tears. In Matthew 23:37 He said, “How I have longed to gather your children together . . . but you were not willing.”

Just the fact that Jesus was willing to die to “make us white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18) should be evidence enough that God doesn’t “send” anyone to hell. As for those who have never heard of Jesus . . . I don’t personally know anyone like that, and the truth is I can’t personally worry about that. All I can do is try to make sure that everyone I meet hears about Christ, and since God said He doesn’t want any to perish, plus He said that because of the beauty of creation men are without excuse (Romans 1:20), I trust that God will take care of anyone who truly never had the opportunity to know about the Savior. How God does that is none of my business. I think that’s part of the reason Jesus told Peter “If I want John to live forever, what business is that of yours? Just follow me” (my paraphrase of John 21:22) It’s not my place to worry about who gets in and who doesn’t. It’s only my job to concern myself with following Jesus, and while that will often entail helping someone discover “the way,” I need not worry about who will and who won’t find Him.

Perhaps a human way to understand it would be to realize that everyone is born with a disease. It’s a disease that eventually kills. It’s a slow death, and the life here on earth with the disease, like most diseases, can sometimes be agonizing. On the other hand, there are those with the disease who feel so good, they won’t acknowledge they have the disease. No one would even believe they have it until it takes them. Either way, their fate is the same. Whether a person has lived a good full life or an agonizing, pitiful life, he or she will end up eternally dead.

However, there is a cure for the disease. Anyone who takes the antidote will live forever. Everyone on earth is made aware that they have the disease, and everyone is offered the antidote. But some don’t want the cure. They don’t believe they have the disease or they do, but they are afraid of the antidote. Some just want to tough it out, while others believe they can overcome the disease on their own. The good news is the antidote works even at the very last moment! The bad news is some refuse it even as they take their last breath.

The One who created the antidote mourns for every single person who won’t take it. He literally gave up His life to create this cure for the most deadly disease known to mankind. He is heartbroken at the thought of losing even one person to the disease. You see, He gave up His life to create the cure because He loves every single person more than we can imagine. He thinks of each one as His best friend.

This is the condition of mankind. We are all born with a deadly disease called “sin.” No one is exempt. In order to get to heaven, it’s necessary to take the “antidote” for the deadly disease. That would be accepting the blood of Jesus Christ as the “cure” for your deadly disease. God does not “send” anyone to hell. He weeps over those who refuse the cure. He mourns for those who refuse His gracious gift. He offers it freely to everyone, but many refuse His free offer.

Slave or Son

Friday morning I was reading Luke 15. It’s a familiar story, one that most of you know already. It’s often called the “Parable of the Lost Son” because it follows the stories of the “Parable of the Lost Coin” and the “Parable of the Lost Sheep.”
Let me read a bit of it for you: READ Luke 15:11-20

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

So, how many of you have heard this story before. While some sitting here KNOW for a fact, they fit the bill of the younger son, many of us can’t imagine being like this. That’s pretty bold, asking for your inheritance while you father is alive and well. And according to those who know more about ancient Israeli culture than I do, the boy should have been stoned to death or at least disinherited because he was basically saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.”

But just like the sons in this story represent you and I, the Father in this story represents God, so this father was a man with extravagant love. He loved bigger and better than most fathers, so he gave his son the inheritance he asked for. 1/3 of all of his father’s possessions were now in the hands of the younger son. Did you notice the father was pretty wealthy? Giving this son 1/3 of his estate didn’t seem to put a dent in his way of living.

But the son did what most spoiled kids will do. He didn’t know how to handle his instant wealth, and it didn’t take long for Him to squander it, waste it, basically throw it away. Before he knew it, this wealthy young man was living on the streets. Jesus even tells us it was worse than just being homeless. He had to feed pigs (much like you and I being forced to feed and keep alive rabid dogs), and either he was still wasting his funds or his wages to feed those pigs was pathetic because he was so hungry he wanted to eat their slop.

When he finally comes to his senses, he realizes that if he was a servant on his father’s estate, he’d have a better life than the one he’s gotten himself into. So he packs up and returns home. All the way home he’s hashing his apology over in his mind. Over and over again, he plays the scene. He’ll grovel at his dad’s feet. Let his father know how sorry he is, and relinquish his status of son. He definitely doesn’t deserve to be called a son anymore after his bad behavior.

But every scenario he played out on that long walk home didn’t prepare him for his father’s reaction. Picture it. He’s a good ways off, starting to regret his decision, wondering if he should just turn around and walk back the way he came. He looks up one more time before deciding whether to go eat crow in front of his family or return to the pig slop, and he sees something. Someone is running. His first thought is that something bad must be happening. Is the barn on fire? You see, Israeli men with any kind of status didn’t run.

And then it dawns on him, his father is running toward him. This man who has already shown extravagant love by giving him his share of the inheritance is running toward him. Running! No, it can’t be. He’s already disgraced his father enough. The young man is now in tears because he knows he’s going to be welcome. When his dad reaches him, he realizes he should have met his dad half way, but he’d been so stunned to see his father running, he’d just stopped in his tracks. When his dad hugged him, he didn’t even return the embrace right away. With tears in his eyes, he slowly puts his arms around this man who has shown him nothing but love all of his life, a man who has gone out of his way to bless him, and he is even more humbled than before. In the midst of his weeping, they begin to walk back toward the house. Finally just before they get to the front door he remembers his little speech, and he says to his dad:

21 . . . ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But dad says nothing, just commands the astonished servants to prepare a banquet in the son’s honor. And they get it ready fast! There’s already a huge party going on before the older brother gets out of the fields for the day.

That’s the son we hear about the most. And that’s because every one of us has been that son. We’ve all needed to see our Heavenly Father run to us out of love. Some of us haven’t wandered quite so far from home before we returned to Abba’s arms, but each of us who have accepted Christ as our Savior have fallen into those arms of love regretting the way we’ve wasted the blessings of our inheritance.

If you’ve never accepted Christ, or asked him to be your Savior, but never realized how much He loves you, I encourage you to read that story in Luke 15 over and over until you realize that God, the Father is running to meet you. He loves you more than you can imagine, and nothing you’ve done can keep you from Him if you’re willing to humbly return to Him.
But today, I want to focus on the second son, the one who stayed at home. I think that even more of us sitting here today are like this second son. Let’s pick up the story in verse 25

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

The older brother isn’t quite as excited about the younger brother coming home. Some might think that it’s because the younger son was always spoiled while the older brother always was made to do all the work. But the father in this story is God, and God treats us all with the same love, he is just and good.

As I read this passage in the New Century Version this week, I began to realize the older son’s problem. In the NCV verse 29 says

“I have served you like a slave for many years.”

And I knew that was his problem, and the problem of many in our church today. There is a lack of passion and love in the church today. Not just this church, but churches all over the world, and the problem is the condition of the younger son . . . people are serving God like a slave instead of a grown son . . . the kind of child who has matured and become a friend.
Have any of you adults ever worked for your parents? I did for a while before and after I was married, and I never felt like a slave. We were almost partners in business. I worked like the business was mine and did whatever I could to make it better. I never felt as though I was being mistreated or like I had to do something I didn’t want to do. And I’m confident this son in the parable was treated at least that well.

But too many times people inside the church act like they are slaves. They forget that Jesus said

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. But I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I heard from my Father.

No wonder those outside the church don’t want to become Christians. Who wants to become a slave? But if we lived more like we are friends of Jesus, people might want to meet our friend. Earlier in the service you sang, “I am a friend of God.” But do you act like a friend of God or do you live like a slave.

I’m guessing the older son was more worried about getting the work done than spending time with his Father. He said that he obeyed all of his Father’s orders. Did you notice? He considered all of his father’s instructions to be orders. Is that how we look at the Word of God, as a book of orders instead of a letter full of love and encouragement from our extravagant Father?
He complained that his father had never given him even a young goat to celebrate with his friends, but I wonder if he ever gave his father an opportunity to suggest a party. Did he ever laugh and joke with his dad, make friendly conversation? I have grown children, and I don’t treat them like they are my kids anymore. Now they are my friends. And if you think about it, obviously his dad had this calf in the barn that he was saving for some kind of celebration. He didn’t even know for sure the other son was coming home. So that calf wasn’t being saved for the younger son.

What if that calf had been the one the older son was supposed to use to celebrate, but every time he talked to his dad it was all business? By the time he’d finished, his dad had forgotten to even mention the calf in the barn just waiting for a party.

The whole story forces us to evaluate our relationship with our Father. What does it look like when you talk to your heavenly Father? Do you talk to Him like a friend or servant reporting in for the day?

What does your Bible Reading look like? Do you read the Bible like it’s a love letter from your best friend, or do you read it as if it’s directions from your commanding officer?

Why do you serve? Why do you behave the way you do? Do you “try to be a good person?” Or are you like a child who loves and respects his father so much he wants to imitate him?

Today is World Communion Sunday. There will be a lot of people who are celebrating communion today as an obligation. Many think that if they miss communion they lose their place in heaven. Others think of it as something that just makes the service too long. Those folks have chosen to be like the older son, the one that had opportunity after opportunity to become best friends with the Father, but chose instead to be the slave. They don’t realize that communion is a celebration, a meal with the family that represents the father running toward us with open arms.

Communion is the celebration that the younger son accepted and the older son rejected. Jesus is the lamb that was killed for this celebration, and our return to the Father is the reason for the celebration. When we take the bread and the juice as if the Father just broke protocol and left all His dignity behind to run and meet us on the road with a big hug, then we are entering into communion the way it was intended. Just like the younger son, we need to confess. But the story tells us the Father blew right past the confession and on to the party. That’s because like the father in the story, God has already forgiven you and is running toward you with open arms.

I invite you to come to the party today, the celebratory meal that reminds us of Jesus’ death on the cross and gift of unconditional forgiveness. I hope that today you will not be like the older son and reject the Father’s invitation. Did you know that you can come forward to take the elements and still be refusing the Father’s invite if you aren’t coming out of a sense of friendship and gratitude? The Father loves you. He gave His Son in your place, and He is celebrating because He’s so happy you are His friend!