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Archive for September, 2019

Empty hands

In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a description of the manner in which Old Testament worshipers were challenged to approach God in worship: “No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed: Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.” (16:16, 17).

All of us, as we approach God in worship, come with “dirty hands” – hands that have been soiled with the deeds of self-centered living. We were born in sin – that is, with the DNA to look out for ourselves. How easy it is for us to adopt the standard of the man mentioned in the New Testament who, though he had more than he would ever need, tore down his barns to build bigger barns because he thought he didn’t have enough. When we recognize this tendency in ourselves, we need to ask God for cleansing and atonement.

Something that continues to cause sorrow in the heart of our Lord is that many who have found cleansing and atonement still come before Him in worship with “empty hands.” They fail to place upon His altar offerings of love and gratitude, of praise and thanksgiving. They have not learned the joy of sacrificial giving in order to glorify God. Martin Luther once said: “I have had many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands that I still possess.”

The word “steward” in the Old Testament meant “the person who is over.” A similar connotation is conveyed in the New Testament reference to “an overseer, one to whom something has been entrusted.” In practically every instance the English word “steward” conveys the idea of responsibility to another. In fact, almost every English word ending in “ship” implies relationship.

Jesus, while in the temple one day, observed how those who were present had different attitudes toward their Creator. He first saw what might be called surplus giving.Many rich people,” He said, “put in large sums” (Mark 12:42). He did not scorn their gifts and made no comment whatsoever concerning their actions. Perhaps some who gave large sums did so to attract the attention and admiration of others who were in the temple. For them the giving of large sums of money would not have been a sacrificial gift.

The second thing that caught the attention of Jesus was an example of “sacrificial giving.” He saw a woman making her cautious, timid approach to the temple treasury. Listen to our Lord’s evaluation: “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasure . . . her whole living” (Mark 12:44).

God is the master; we are His servants; God is owner; we are His overseers and/or stewards. Stewardship implies responsibility. We can only be stewards of what belongs to another. Those who recognize the importance of being a steward will try to never enter into worship with empty hands.

King Duncan, in King’s treasury of Dynamic Humor, describes a man who came close to doing that:

“Once I knew a Baptist, he had a pious look.
He had been totally immersed, except his pocketbook.
He put a dollar in the plate, and then with might and main
He’d sing, “When we asunder part, it give me inward pain.”

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The Solution to Worry

Worry is a lot like rocking in a rocking chair; it gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. However, it can lead to innumerable disorders: ulcers, colitis, rashes, facial tics, emotional disorders, nervous breakdowns, strokes, heart attacks, and even death.

An unnamed philosopher said: “To worry about what we can’t help is useless; to worry about what we can help is stupid!” And an unknown poet defined worry in this way:

“Worry is an old man with bended head,
Carrying a load of feathers
Which he thinks are lead.”

A Chinese proverb describes the uselessness of worrying by saying, “The legs of the stork are long, and the legs of the duck are short. You cannot shorten the legs of the stork, nor can you lengthen the legs of the duck. So, why worry?” That obviously is too simplistic.

There must be a better way to cope with worry – and there is. Jesus Christ addressed the subject in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and gave two very important suggestions:

First, you must acknowledge the source of worry. When Jesus said “Do not worry,” he was not encouraging us to adopt a flippant, devil-may-care attitude which sidesteps and sneers at the serious issues of life. What He is saying is this: “Do not have a divided mind, a mind torn between two main objects.” Dr. Billy Graham interpreted it this way: “Don’t try to live with one foot in the church and one foot in the world.” James 1:8 describes the person who does that in this way: “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” It is lack of faith and trust in the Lord who asks you to “cast all your care upon Him, because He cares for you” (II Peter 5:7).

Because we do not cast our care on Him, it is foolish to worry. Jesus talked about the birds of the air that do not plant a crop or gather a harvest. They do not have to maintain barns or storehouses – but God provides for them. And Jesus said we are worth more than birds.

It is not only foolish to worry, but it is also futile. As Jesus said, “Who among you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” One of our pressing problems is that we want what we want, and we want it now. We want action and results in a hurry. The Eternal God is not in a hurry, for He sees all of eternity.

We cannot nourish worry and faith at the same time. When we worry, we are in essence saying, “God, I really don’t believe You are big enough to handle my situation.” You may be thinking, “I know all these things, but I still can’t get a handle on winning the battle over worry.” If so, remember that it is not enough to merely acknowledge that the source of our worrying is double mindedness.

Second, you must apply the solution to worry. Browsing bookstores is enjoyable, but at times it can become distressing, for they are packed with volumes on anxiety, fear, stress, and worry. Most of them deal with the treatment of symptoms and not with the disease itself. So, what is the solution to worry? You must have the right priority: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

When you begin to worry remember that Moses started out as a basket case. He turned out OK!

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A lady in a town where I once served was 105 years old. I said to her son-in-law, who was a member of our church, “She must have had very good health all of her life. Not many people live to be 105.” He replied, “Preacher, she has been sick every day since she was fifty. And she has enjoyed every one of those days.”

Dr. W.F. Massey, my family’s doctor when I was growing up in Chester, Georgia in the 1940’s, told me that a lot of people enjoy being sick. Based on my observations as a pastor for more than six decades, I have found this to be true. Dr. Massey said he would occasionally prescribe to those who enjoyed being sick a placebo – in other words, a sugar pill or a bottle filled with colored water – what the patient only thought was medicine – and the patient would later claim to get better for having taken it.

For those who are not really sick, but who think they are, placebos can work as well as real medicine. I am persuaded that the “placebo effect” has applications far beyond the field of medicine. For example, spiritual hunger exists in the heart of every person, but many of them are willing to settle for placebos – none of which meet their spiritual need. The following are just three of the placebos people often try:

Wealth: Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping tycoon who married the widow of President John F. Kennedy, once said, “All that really counts these days is money. It is the people with money who are the royalty now.” Living by that maxim, Onassis lived like a king. He had every plaything and toy he could imagine. He personified on a grand scale the excesses of the so-called “jet set”. He had residences in several cities, a tropical island of his own, and an elegant art collection. He had everything money could buy. But money is a placebo, only an illusion. Sadly, it is not enough to meet anyone’s spiritual need.

Fame: Multitudes of people in our world have sacrificed their virtue, their good name, their health, their family – and everything else that is valuable – on the altar of popularity and fame. We see this played out generation after generation in the fields of entertainment, politics, and yes, even in the field of religion.

Power: Some of history’s major tragedies have been caused by individuals who had an insatiable hunger to exert power over the lives of others and over history. Millions of people have been slaughtered by the likes of narcissistic despots whose desire for power gave absolutely no thought to the value of other human beings. In the end those who sacrifice everything to gain power are found only in the Hall of Infamy.

The deepest need in the lives of human beings cannot be satisfied by settling for a placebo. It is a need that can only be found in and filled by Jesus Christ. Those who commit their lives to Him will never be disappointed. Have you ever watched the needle of a compass tremble as it seeks to find the North Pole? Have you ever watched a flower lift its drooping head slowly toward the sun? These two things picture for us what happens in the lives of those who choose Christ rather than settle for a cheap imitation, a placebo.

John 1:12 expresses it this way: “To all who received him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” If you have not yet had your deepest spiritual needs met, aren’t you tired of substitutes? Isn’t it time to move beyond placebos and meet the Person, the only Person who can truly provide healing and make you whole?

Allow me to introduce you to Jesus Christ!

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The New Testament describes the Christian life as being one of genuine joy. Judging by the sad expression on the long faces of many Christians I have known, you would think that they had just eaten an entire dill pickle. They seemed totally unaware of the fact that joy is every Christian’s birthright. To lack joy when it is available is sad.

A man in the third century who was anticipating death penned these last words to a friend: “It is a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the minds of a quiet and holy people a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are Christians – and I am one of them.”

Jesus came into the world as a messenger of joy. Many of His parables speak of the availability of joy. Joy, for example, was experienced when the lost son returned to his father, when the lost sheep was found, and when the lost coin was located and rescued from its hiding place. The presence of Jesus within our hearts, as we submit to His rule, provides the greatest joy.

First of all, joy is experienced when we repent of our sins. Repentance is the central message of the Old Testament prophets as they called God’s people to return to Him. Transformation in our lives is always brought about by God’s power, rather than by our efforts. Joy is experienced not only by those who repent of their sins and come to God, but God also rejoices when a sinner repents.

Jesus calls for those who repent and are forgiven of their sins to forgive others. In fact, God’s forgiveness of our sins is linked with our forgiveness of others. In the Lord’s Prayer are these words: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Thus, to follow Jesus means that our lives should be open to others. This is how joy becomes contagious and is shared.

Christian joy is experienced through worship. It is founded on the historical events of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the coming of His Holy Spirit, and our ongoing fellowship with Him. This is the essential spark that gives vitality to worship. Each worship experience should be and can be an occasion for praise and rejoicing.

Christian joy can be deepened through suffering. This is very difficult for those who are not Christians to understand and accept. The poet George Matheson spoke of the “joy that seekest me through pain.” The author of the book of Hebrews even links Christ’s suffering and joy: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

Joy is kept alive in our lives through prayer. Because prayer is the language of the heart, it enables us to grow in our commitment to Christ and in our love for others. Prayer is the celebration of Christ’s constant presence in our lives. It enables us to become integrated and whole persons so that faith, hope and love are able to constructively shape our lives.

The Apostle Paul linked his command to “pray without ceasing” with two other directions: (1) “be joyful always” and (2) “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Gratitude to God is the foundation on which prayer and communion with God rests.

If you can praise God even in the midst of difficult circumstances you have the kind of joy the world does not have and cannot give. It will enable you to walk through the darkest valley or climb the highest mountain with your head held high. This is true because genuine joy is a supernatural gift that only Christ can give. It cannot and will not be diminished, altered, or taken away by circumstances.

Robert Lowery expresses this thought in his poem entitled, “How Can I Keep from Singing?”

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I catch the sweet, though far-off, hymn
That hails a new creation!
Through all the tumult and strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

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