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Archive for March, 2012

Huge multitudes had gathered in and around Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover.  As Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey there was a feeling of expectancy and excitement in the air.  Some of those accompanying Jesus took off their outer clothes and spread them on the dusty road in front of Him.  Palm branches were also spread in His path.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” is how they hailed Him.  That is who they strongly believed Him to be.  He was the anointed One of whom the prophets had spoken and for whom Israel had been waiting for centuries.  He was the Messiah whose mission was to bring peace and justice to a world where no peace and little justice existed.

Prior to entering Jerusalem Jesus had healed the sick and restored sight to the blind.  The things He had taught made sense out of life.  Those who were with Him as He entered Jerusalem celebrated the occasion as a moment of triumph.

When the Pharisees heard that He was approaching the city and that those who were with Him were hailing Him as “Blessed” and as “King,” they were totally outraged.  They interpreted this to be blasphemy of the worse kind and told Jesus to shut them up.

Jesus replied by saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”  He knew that beneath the surface of the events that were taking place a deep darkness existed that would later engulf Him.  That darkness still exists.

The Gospels do not mention often that Jesus wept, although He on more than one occasion had a valid reason to weep.  As He rounded the bend in the road and rode up over the crest of the hill known as the Mount of Olives He saw the city of Jerusalem lying before Him, and His tears began to flow.  With a broken heart He cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:33).

Jesus did not weep for Himself, or for the fact that He would be crucified.  Instead He wept for the city of Jerusalem.  “Would that you knew the things that make for peace,” He said.  “For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another; because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 23:43-44).

Jesus wept because He knew Jerusalem would be destroyed.  Indeed, some forty years later, in 70 A.D., the Romans totally destroyed the city.  But who can believe that it is not also for every city, town, or village in the world that He still weeps?

I believe He weeps for every place on our very troubled planet where darkness still exists, for every home where children have no food, and for every place where homeless people sleep wrapped up in newspapers to keep out the cold.  I believe He weeps for the rich who have comfortable homes, but cannot find a place in their hearts to be concerned for the poor and broken people in the world, and for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness but do not know where it is found.

At the bend of the road leading to where each of us lives Jesus still weeps.  He weeps because He sees the countless millions in our world who have never heard the good news of God’s love.  He weeps because he sees so little concern for the lost on the part of those who gather in churches on Sunday.  He weeps because He sees a world where wars constantly take place.

“Would that even today we knew the things that make for peace!”

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Harry Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, with the name of Ehrich Weisz. He was one of six children and the son of Rabbi Mayer Weisz. In 1876 he immigrated to the United States with the dream of a better life. Later that year the remainder of his family joined him here in the states. When he was eight years old his family moved to Milwaukee. At the age of seventeen he became interested in magic and became known as Harry Houdini.

Through the years, Houdini gained fame after repeatedly escaping from police handcuffs and jails. After making his name in the United States, he toured Europe, where he expanded his repertoire by escaping from straightjackets and coffins. Eventually, he was able to accomplish his dream of having a full show dedicated to his magic. He claimed he could be locked in any jail in the country and set himself free within minutes. Indeed, he made good on this claim in every city he visited.

One time, however, something seemed to go wrong. Houdini entered a jail cell in his street clothes. The heavy metal doors clanged shut behind him, and he took from his belt a concealed piece of strong, but flexible metal. He set to work on the lock to his cell, but soon realized something was wrong. He worked for thirty minutes without success. An hour passed. This was much longer than it usually took to free himself.

Houdini, who had known only success, began for the first time to sweat and pant in exasperation. Still, he could not pick the lock. Finally, after laboring for two hours, frustrated and finding it difficult to hide his sense of failure, he leaned against the heavy jail door. To his amazement, the door swung open! It had never been locked in the first place!

Houdini learned a lesson that day that every person should learn. How many times have challenges seemed impossible simply because we thought they were? When we are faced with what seems to be an impossible challenge or task, there are only two ways to respond: (1) we can throw up our hands, accept defeat, and admit to the world that we are whipped, or (2) we can refuse to accept failure, ask God to give us strength and wisdom, and dedicate ourselves to the task of finding a way to move forward.

Thomas Edison dedicated himself to the goal of inventing and designing the electric light bulb. Every time he experienced failure, he refused to think his goal to be impossible. Instead, he said, “I have found another way it cannot be done, so I must try other ways to achieve my goal.” He kept trying until he succeeded. If he had adopted the philosophy that it can’t be done, he would never have been successful. That which you believe you can’t do, you won’t do.

When we focus our minds and energy on goals that initially seem to be impossible and strike the word “can’t” from our vocabulary, impossible tasks are almost always transformed into attainable goals. For example, the apostle Paul was chosen by God to carry the good news of God’s love to a Gentile world. Such a tremendous task might easily have been accepted as impossible for one person. Beaten and left for dead, involved in a shipwreck, and facing countless obstacles that would have made most men throw up their hands and quit, Paul refused to think the task impossible. “Can’t” was not a word in his dictionary. Instead, he said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Is there a goal you have set for yourself that you have not yet achieved? If so, have you failed to achieve it because you think it to be impossible? Do you believe it is beyond your ability to achieve? If so, ask God to help you strike the word “can’t” from your dictionary. Your goal will continue to be impossible as long as do not believe it is possible. The greatest failure is not to try and fail; it is to believe it can’t be done.

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.

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One of the courses every aspiring young minister is required to take in seminary is called homiletics. In a homiletics class you are taught the art of sermon building. People who have never tried to preach a sermon may think it is easy, but it isn’t. This is especially true when you consider that most ministers have to prepare at least two sermons every week, week after week, and year after year.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines a homily as: (1) “A religious discourse usually delivered to a congregation: SERMON: an informal exposition of Scripture; (2) A lecture on moral conduct.”  That describes what a sermon is, but it doesn’t tell you how to prepare and deliver a sermon in a way that will gain a desirable response. You have to learn that by hard work and lots of experience.

My homiletics professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1950’s was Dr. M. Ray McKay. Every aspiring pastor was required to prepare and preach a sermon in class.  Following your sermon the other students were given the opportunity to evaluate what you said and the way you said it. Then Dr. McKay would add his comments and suggestions. When you had worked diligently on what you were going to say, and the way you were going to say it, you went to class on your appointed day and anxiously for your name to be called. After you had done your best, you listened to the criticism and hoped that it would be mostly constructive.

Obviously the first objective in preaching a sermon is to base what you say on Scripture – every sermon should be a message from God. Second, the sermon should address the issues people face every day. It should find them on the street where they live. Otherwise it would be a speech, not a sermon. And no sermon will find lodging in the hearts of listeners until the minister delivering it has allowed God to prepare his or her own heart.

I remember a particular sermon I preached many years ago when the National Aeronautics Space Administration propelled our first astronaut into space. It was an exciting time for our country. Everything about the space age had captured my imagination. I wanted to preach a sermon that captured the thrill of mankind entering the final frontier. I did lots of reading dealing with the space age and all that it would make possible in the future for mankind.

I entitled the sermon “Conquering Inner Space.”  My purpose was to use space age terminology and apply it to our effort to deal with our personal spiritual problems and needs. I had worked long and hard on the sermon, and I was proud of it. However, when I delivered it, it blew up on the launching pad. Why is this true? My pride in what I wanted to say, and the way I wanted to say it, caused it to be a total flop. It was a valuable lesson I needed to learn, and one every minister should learn: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

Sherwood Eliot Wirt, in The Book of Joy, tells the story of a young preacher who had been called to a small rural church and appeared for his first sermon on Sunday morning. To his dismay he found that one of the parishioners had brought his dog to the service. He spoke politely to the dog’s owner and asked if he would kindly remove the animal. The man obligingly took the dog out, and then returned to his seat.

After the service, one of the church deacons rebuked the new preacher for insulting one of their best members. They pointed out that the dog made no trouble and that he had been accompanying his master to church for years. He had, in fact, attended church more regularly than many of the members.

That afternoon the young preacher called at the home of the dog’s owner and apologized.

“Don’t worry about it, Reverend,” the man replied, “It all worked out. I wouldn’t have had my dog hear that sermon for anything in the world.”

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God has no limit to the number of ways He can speak to His people. The trouble is that we are not always listening. If we won’t listen to God through prayer or when we are meditating on His Word, He sometimes uses more creative means. Take, for example, the time He spoke through a donkey.

The story is found in the Old Testament book of Numbers (22:21-34). It is one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible. Balaam got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey and went to meet the princes of Moab. But God was very angry at him for going, and sent an angel to stand in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her and told her to get back on the road.

When the donkey saw the angel she pressed close to a wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. Balaam, not seeing the angel, beat the donkey again. The donkey lay down under Balaam’s weight. At this point the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to make you beat me these three times?”

Balaam does not give evidence of being nearly as surprised as I would have been, for he answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me!  If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The donkey replied, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

“No,” he replied. At this point the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he also saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell with his face to the ground. God had gotten his attention.

There are a number of incredible things about this very unusual story. The most obvious one, of course, is the talking donkey. What also fascinates me about this story is Balaam’s reaction. The guy is angry at his donkey for crushing his foot against the wall, but he doesn’t even miss a beat. He jumps right into conversation with his donkey without stopping to think, “Good heavens! This is weird. What’s going on here?”

Another thing important in the story is that when God couldn’t get Balaam’s attention any other way, He chose to speak to him through the donkey. When Balaam did what displeased God, He rebuked him in this most unusual way (2 Peter 2:15-16). Has God been trying to get your attention lately? And, if so, were you listening? Don’t wait to hear what God is trying to say to you until He has to talk through a donkey.

There are many things that cause us to turn a deaf ear to God: the pursuit of material possessions, alcohol, drugs, burning the candle at both ends, climbing the ladder of success, having what is called “a good time, etc.” Husbands and wives allow things to pile up in their lives until their marriage is on the rocks, their children are on drugs and uncontrollable, their friends all turn away, and stress builds up to the bursting point. Yet they never stop to say, “Hey, wait a minute! I must be on the wrong path. Maybe God is trying to tell me something.”

When we come face to face with obstacles, we usually react exactly like Balaam. We strike out at whomever or whatever is closest to us. We’ve got an agenda to pursue and we resent anything that stands in our way. And here is an irony worth pondering: we pray for God to remove the obstacle in our path, when it may be that God is the one who put the obstacle there. The next time you ask God to change your circumstances, stop and think. Maybe God doesn’t want to change your circumstances. Maybe He just wants to change you.

If you ever hear a donkey talk, I recommend that you give rapt attention. It just might be God trying to say something very important you need to hear.

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Twenty-five years ago along highway 421 both north and south of Clinton, N.C. vegetable stands sprang up each summer where local farmers sold the vegetables they had grown in their gardens. On one occasion my wife and I stopped at one of them to purchase home grown tomatoes and other things. The owner of the stand was talking with another man who had also stopped to purchase some things. It was obvious from their conversation that they were neighbors and were members of the same church.

The thrust of their conversation made it clear that their church was deeply troubled by dissention. Neither of them liked their pastor. The man who had stopped to talk to the owner, finally said, “I told them how to get rid of the preacher – get the members to stop giving their money.”

Since I was a pastor, and since I had been dealing with various church problems for nearly fifty years, it was about all that I could stand to hear. So, I said the man: “If you would like to get rid of your preacher I know a far better way to do that than the one you have suggested. Would you like to know what it is?”

“Certainly,” he replied.

“Here is how you can get rid of him,” I said, “Pray for him. Pray that God will make him successful. Get every member of your church to pray for him. Join him in finding God’s vision for your church. God will make him so successful that some other church, probably much larger than yours, will come along and take him off your hands.” At that point my wife and I got into our car and traveled on down the road.

I could almost hear him saying as we drove off, “Who was that guy?” He had given no indication that he was the least bit concerned about whether or not his church fulfilled the mission Christ had assigned it. He only wanted to get rid of his pastor. I pray that my suggestion found lodging in his heart, but I doubt it.

Churches have problems when they take their eyes off Jesus Christ and begin to focus on each other, or on other things. By focusing on the wrong things they lose sight of the main thing – which is to genuinely worship God and share the good news concerning His grace with others. Prayers become “Not thy will but mine be done!” Church members become mere spectators rather than fellow soldiers in the army of God.

The church described above was like the one where the pastor was extolling the virtues of teamwork, and he used a football team as an example. “We have in our church,” he said, “some quarterbacks, halfbacks and fullbacks. But, unfortunately, we also have some drawbacks.”

Dr. Billy Graham several years ago in one of his sermons was emphasizing the need for church members to have enthusiasm. He related the story of the time when a fire broke out in a small town church. When the fire truck arrived on the scene, siren wailing, the minister recognized one of the firemen. “Hello, there Jim” he said, “I haven’t seen you in church in a long time.”

“Well,” answered the sweating man struggling with the fire hose, “That’s because this church hasn’t been on fire in a very long time.”

How about your church? Is it on fire for the Lord? If not, why not? It certainly can be, for it is God’s will that it be on fire with enthusiasm. God stands ready to meet you and every member of your church family in worship every Sunday. It can happen, and it will happen – that is, if you adopt the attitude of the Psalmist, “I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells” (Psalm 26:8 NIV).

The Postmaster in my home town in Georgia more than sixty-five years ago placed a poem on the Post Office bulletin board that I still remember. I recommend that you consider its wisdom:

Whenever I go past our church,
I stop to make a visit,
For fear that, when I’m carried in,
The Lord might say, “Who is it?”

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