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Archive for December, 2015

One of the most interesting characters in the Old Testament is Abraham. God promised him that his wife, Sara, would have a son to be his heir, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky at night. But when Abraham was 99 years old and Sara was 90, the heir God had promised had not yet been born.

Genesis 15 describes Abraham as sitting in his tent “with the flap rolled down.” He was shrouded in gloom, a prisoner of despair. All the air castles he had fashioned in his mind about his role in founding a nation had come crashing down between his feet. And he was saying to himself: “I have become a first-class failure. I had thought to found a nation. But old age is upon me, and my dream is gone. I am childless, and the future offers nothing but a grave.”

It was at this point that God invaded his gloom. He threw back the flap on the old man’s tent and said: “Abraham, come outside your tent and look up toward heavens and count the stars?” Abraham had forgotten that the God who had created the entire universe was still in control of his destiny. In essence, God said to Abraham: “Look up and dream again!” So, he looked up and saw the stars. He realized that the world was bigger than the patch of ground on which his tent was pitched. He was given again a sense of the far horizons, and his soul revived. He went out to claim his destiny.

As we move into another new year, millions of people in our country can identify with Abraham’s experience. They live in their tent with the flap rolled down. They are living defeated lives because it has been a long time since they looked up to see and count the stars. First of all, there are those who are lonely. They have lost loved ones and are living alone, and have not readjusted their lives. Others are pessimists. There are still others who have given up on life. Like the prophet, Elijah, they are “sitting under a juniper tree.”

Where is the boundary of your world? How far can you see as you look out toward your horizon? One of Satan’s greatest victories is when he can succeed in convincing a Christian to spend his days with the flap on his tent rolled down. How easy it is to live just for today, for the gratification of the moment! How easy it is to measure things by what is nearest, and to lose the beauty and glory and majesty of the far horizons!

A few years ago there was a sign over the door of a little cabinetmaker’s shop in London, England which said, “LIVING ABOVE.” It was there to remind his customers that if the shop was not open, they could find him in his apartment on the second floor above the shop. God’s message to each of us is the same as it was to Abraham: “You can live above your work – if you have faith enough to dream, enough wisdom to look up and count the stars.” You may live amidst the clods and clutter of the earth, but you can still live above. You can still look up and count the stars.

To live with a short horizon shortens everything. It shrouds us in gloom. God so made each of us that we need a sense of far horizons. Why live our lives down in the valley among the shadows when we can live on the top of the mountain? Why spend our days among the trees along a winding road that constantly moves steeply upward – especially when you can persevere through faith until you reach the clearing at the top where the horizon is as far as you can see?

God always stands ready to give us a sense of distant horizons. As we move forward into a new year, do you need to roll back the flap on your tent and look up so you can see the stars? If you are tired, discouraged, or defeated, God challenges you to lift the curtain so you can see the bigness and glory and endless possibilities of life.

Do you need to grow in Christlikeness – for example, in your prayer life, in your attitude toward others, in becoming a faithful steward, or in the goal of sharing your faith with others? God is still in the business of giving a sense of the far horizons. Why not roll back the flap of your tent? Look up . . . and dream again!  

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Called to be family

Part of the greatness of America is the value the culture places on the individual. No two of us are exactly alike. Every person is an individual and has merit as an individual. An overemphasis on individualism, however, can cause us to devalue the importance of the group.

Individualism often leads to “looking out for number one,” to the measuring of all values in terms of personal values, and to thinking, “If it feels good, do it.” This does not bode well for our nation. Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War patriot who was hanged while spying behind British lines, and who said on the scaffold just before his death, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” would be regarded by many today to be a fool. Today’s cry might be, “I have but one life. It is mine, and I will spend it on myself.”

Selfish individualism is never pretty, wherever it is found, but it is especially ugly when it is found in the family of God. When individual Christians insist that things be done in a way that serves their own ends, division results and the mission that Christ has assigned to the church is put on the back burner. The mission Christ assigned to His church is not just given to individuals. It is given to the entire family of faith.

It is no accident that when Christ’s disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He taught them a corporate prayer replete with plural pronouns like “us” and “our,” not “me” and “my.” It is also no accident that immediately after He taught them to pray, He emphasized the importance of having a proper relationship with others. He wanted them to see the connection between believing and the power that flows from relationships.

Our individualistic, American viewpoint misses how often the Bible talks about covenants – covenants that are generally made between God and a group of people, not just between God and an individual person. God did more than call Abraham to a personal relationship with Him. He called an entire nation to that relationship (Genesis 12:1-3). Over and over again the promises found in the Bible that believers apply to themselves are, in reality, promises God made to a nation of people.

The point is this: When we accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we came into a family. It is a family so totally connected that the Bible says the one thing to which it can be properly compared is the human body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Within that body, my tears ought to create a lump in your throat. When my heart is broken, you will bleed. When you are afraid, my hands will shake. When I am lonely, you will feel my pain. When you are sick or have a need, I will immediately go to stand by your side. When you are in trouble, I will be there to aid you in any helpful way I can.

I know. I know. This isn’t the way it always happens, is it? There is nothing worse than a church going through a civil war – individuals trying to get their own way at the expense of others. Overnight, normally congenial church members who are in church almost every Sunday are raising their voices at each other and almost coming to blows. I have seen it happen, and so have you. Jesus said that the world knows that we are His disciples by the way we love one another.

Though some churches do an inadequate job of demonstrating that their members love one another, there are, thankfully, many churches that do an excellent job. By loving both God and each other, they are growing steadily and sharing the good news of Christ with the community around them in an effective way. Why do they genuinely love one another? They view themselves as being members of a loving family.

 

 

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The gift has arrived

Perhaps you have heard the story of the woman who waited one Christmas until the very last minute to send Christmas cards. She rushed to the store and bought a package of fifty cards without even looking at them. Still in a big hurry, she addressed forty-nine of them to her friends and signed them. On Christmas day she glanced at the one card she had not sent and noticed, for the first time, the message it bore: “This little card is just to say . . . a Christmas gift is on the way!” She suddenly realized that forty-nine of her friends were expecting a gift from her – a gift that would not arrive!

There are more than fifty prophecies in the Old Testament where God promised to Israel a Messiah. Unlike the lady’s forty-nine friends, the people of Israel were not left waiting for a gift that never arrived. God’s gift was delivered to a Bethlehem stable. Unfortunately, not many people in Israel were willing to accept as their Messiah a Galilean baby living down the street who a few years later as a boy would work in His father’s carpenter shop. God’s gift of His Son was rejected for three primary reasons:

First of all, He was not born in the way people believed the Messiah would be born. Whoever heard such nonsense as a stable and a manger and shepherds and wise men from afar? Christians around the world today are thrilled to hear again and again the story that never grows old. But to the people in Israel two thousand years ago Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting. God could have arranged for His Son to be born in Caesar’s palace surrounded by pomp and splendor. eHeh hHe must get a great chuckle out of the joke He played on humans, for we are impressed by outward appearances. The King of Kings born in a stable? Only God would have thought of that.

Second, Jesus did not act in the way people believed a Messiah would act. We want our leaders to look, act, and talk like leaders. We normally vote into office those who talk and act like leaders, and vote out of office those who demonstrate they do not know how to lead. We admire leaders, for they turn weaknesses into strength, obstacles into stepping stones, and disaster into triumph. Isn’t it interesting, however, that the only king who has ever lived who had absolute power humbled Himself and became a servant? He was not above washing the feet of His disciples.

Finally, Jesus did not die in the way people believed a Messiah would die. Even as Christians around the earth today celebrate His birth, we are aware of the agonizing way He died. You may be familiar with the Holman Hunt painting called, The Shadow of Death. It is a painting of a young man in the carpenter shop in late afternoon rising from a cramped position where He has been working to stretch out His arms to relax them. As He does this, the sun casts on the wall behind Him his shadow in the shape of a cross. His mother, Mary, is standing nearby, and her face is filled with terror as she looks at that shadow. Hunt imagines her intuitively aware that her Son will meet a tragic end.

It was an enormous obstacle for first century Jews to believe the promised Messiah could die like a common criminal upon a Roman cross. In allowing this to happen, God confounded human wisdom so that no one would ever be able to boast of having enough virtue to merit salvation. Only one thing saves us, and that is faith in the crucified, resurrected, and living Christ. You and I would have done it another way.

Yes, God’s gift has arrived. It has your name on it! But no gift can be truly yours until you accept it!

 

 

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It is very interesting to me that when the King of Kings arrived on our planet in bodily form, having the highest and most authoritative position in the universe, He said that He had come to serve.

Knowing that people in the world were obsessed with personal significance, Jesus spent three years training His disciples to adopt the perspective of a servant. They were much more interested in sitting around discussing who would hold the highest position and have the most influence in Christ’s kingdom.

It was an instructive moment when Jesus took a towel and pail of water and washed His disciples’ feet to demonstrate the importance of serving others. It was a lesson they needed to learn. It is also a lesson that you and I need to learn – often over and over again.

In another context, where greatness was clearly the goal of all twelve disciples, Jesus said to them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

To the Christian church at Philippi the apostle Paul wrote, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; so not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others . . . etc.” (Philippians 2:3-8).

The final compliment that Jesus will pay to His followers when we all stand before Him on Judgment Day will not be, “You worked hard and accumulated a lot of wealth while you were on earth!” It will be, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

The men in the Promise Keepers movement understand the importance of servanthood. This outstanding organization has been so successful in recent years that it has received lots of attention from the secular media. Men from all across America gather periodically to worship God and commit themselves to basic biblical principles.

A television documentary a few years ago was devoted to the Promise Keepers movement. It included an account of the opposition by gay rights activists, abortion proponents, and a few representatives of the women’s liberation movement. Their opposition was based on the fact that they did not understood what the members of this outstanding organization believe about men being the spiritual leaders of their homes.

In the documentary one man was interviewed. He was shown in his home with his wife and children. He said to the interviewer, “While I am the spiritual leader in my family, I am also a servant to my wife.”

One news anchor, in his wrap-up discussion at the end of the documentary said, “I thought that was very interesting that he said he was the servant of his wife. Isn’t it an anomaly that one can be both a leader and a servant?” Yes, it is . . . especially if you have the mindset of the world in which we live. But if you know Christ, then you know that is exactly who He was in the days of His flesh – a servant. And it is to the goal of being a servant that He calls every single Christian. Service is best defined as love in work clothes.

The paradoxes in the Christian faith seem strange to many in our world. It is because they see them as contradictions. Believe it or not, the paradoxes taught by Jesus are true. For example:

Do you want to live? Die! (That is, die to selfishness and an over-sized sense of self-importance).

Do you want to be great? Become little!

Do you aspire to rulership? Become a servant!

If you are a dedicated and knowledgeable student of the Bible, such paradoxical truth will sound perfectly understandable. If you have no knowledge of how Christ lived or what He taught, it will likely sound strange or even borderline deranged.

How does it sound to you? Perfectly sensible? Strange or even borderline deranged? Your answer will reveal a lot more than you realize about what your priorities are.

 

 

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He was the ultimate mystery man – so reclusive, in fact, that getting a picture of him would probably have been as difficult as getting a formal portrait of Bigfoot. During his later years he never saw outsiders, so his appearance was not important to him. His hair and unkempt beard curled halfway to the floor. His nails were long and twisted, and he seldom bathed.

A homeless alcoholic or drug addict? No! It was Howard Hughes – one of the world’s wealthiest men before he died in 1976. He had been a titan in the airline industry, but he had become totally isolated from the public. His coffers were overflowing with wealth, but his life gave evidence of being totally empty. He had withdrawn from public life into a protective cocoon of loneliness.

Hughes was afflicted with what Dr. William Alexander Hammond in 1879 described as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – he was afraid of germs. Individuals who have this fear believe they must scrub their hands every time they shake hands with anyone. Hughes refused to see people because they carry germs, and germs cause disease. He spent the last years of his life trying to escape germs, but he died from one of the world’s most common diseases anyway – the loneliness disease.

The story of Howard Huges in one particular way reminds me of the time when Simon Peter, James, and John hiked up a high mountain with Jesus. Upon reaching the peak, something very unusual happened. While Jesus was praying, His face began to shine as brightly as the sun, and His clothes dazzled with a supernatural brightness (see Matthew 17). Moments later, Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah.

Peter was so impressed with the miracle that was taking place before his very eyes that he could hardly contain himself. Only he and two other disciples were privileged to witness the unusual sight of Jesus with Moses and Elijah. “What a tremendous honor,” he must have thought to himself, “to be chosen to witness such a mountaintop experience.”

“Lord,” he blurted out, “it is a high privilege to be here!” Translation: “Thank God it is us and no one else.” At this point he volunteered to build a mountain lodge so they would never have to leave such a sacred spot. They could stay there – just them – where they would never have to go back down in the valley. Down in the valley difficulties must regularly be faced, needs are numerous, and challenges demand lots of time and energy. If they could stay on top of the mountain they wouldn’t have to deal with these things. It would be germproof living!

Jesus did not reply to what Peter suggested – but God did! Speaking from a cloud He, in essence, suggested to Peter that the wisest thing he could do would be to zip his lip. This scared Peter, James, and John so badly that they fell to the ground with their eyes closed. Jesus came over, touched them, and told them not to be afraid. When they opened their eyes, they saw only Jesus. Moses and Elijah had disappeared.

I suspect that most of us have had times when we could identify with both Howard Hughes and Peter. We hoard our privacy, hiding behind locked doors – and not just physical ones. We shut people out of our lives in so many ways. Listening to their problems and dealing with them can take so much time and effort that we would not have time for the things we want to do. We find it easy to hang out in cliques of one kind or another that separate “us” from “them.”

The call by Jesus for His followers to be “salt” and “light” and “leaven” in a world that needs Christ can be both messy and demanding. It requires that we alter our schedule in order to meet the needs that others have. That is perhaps why we, like Simon Peter, would rather stay on the top of the mountain where we can keep on praising the Lord. It would not require that we get our hands dirty. That, however, was not God’s plan two thousand years ago – and it still isn’t His plan. He takes us to mountaintops for one reason: to prepare us for the work He wants us to do in building His kingdom down in the valley.

Ask yourself the following three questions: “What work does God have for me to do down in the valley where I live? What specific need does He want me to meet in His name? What person do I know who needs to be introduced to Jesus?”

They are good questions. Perhaps you will discover that God is calling you, just as He called Isaiah. If so, you can respond in the same way the prophet did – by saying, “Lord, here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

 

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