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Archive for October, 2020

Recent surveys have shown that nearly four out of five Americans describe themselves as “Christians.” Though we love to call attention to our Christian allegiance, we have an unimpressive record in the area of worship attendance. On the average Sunday maybe 50 percent of the resident members of most churches are present. Many who regularly attend church admit they frequently leave church without having experienced God’s presence. And this is not just the Easter-and-Christmas-only church attenders.

Singing two or three hymns, listening to an anthem sung by the choir, placing money in the offering plate, listening to a sermon, and bowing your head to hear a benediction, does not guarantee that you have worshiped God. Worship that is real enables us to enter the presence of a holy God who deals with our sins and needs in a powerful way (see Isaiah 6:1-8). God gave us worship so that we might become partners in His highest purposes. We become partners with Him when we place ourselves under His kingdom rule. 

One of the most profound statements about worship came as Jesus offered the woman at the well an opportunity to empty her cup of loneliness and brokenness and have it filled with His love (John 4:3-26). This passage shows us that worship involves an exchange between God and those who worship Him. Healing and joy flow into our lives from heaven as we offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).

To genuinely worship God is to become willing to serve and meet the needs of other human beings. Worship, which can be either corporate or personal, has little or no meaning in a spiritual sense when any of the following characteristics are present: (1) If it is used as a self-serving tool; (2) If the vision or meaning of worship has been corrupted; (3) If God is expected to jump through a series of hoops to meet human desires.

Life-changing worship not only invites God’s power and presence into our lives, but also into the lives of others with whom we are engaged in worship. It also draws non-Christians to Christ. Though such persons have previously not yielded their lives to God, they can sense the power of His presence. In a very real sense, worship is a powerful key to evangelism. It satisfies the hunger and thirst of men, women, and children.

The Pharisees turned the Sabbath into an impossible system of ritualistic observances that prohibited joyous participation. For successful worship to occur, our own modern traditions must be confronted, examined, and if necessary, adjusted. When traditional worship becomes a mere formality, chances are that those who need to worship will lose contact with God. Good preaching alone will not bring people completely into God’s presence. There must be teamwork between the Holy Spirit and God’s Word. The Spirit softens the hearts of worshipers as the Word opens their eyes.

Just as the apostle Paul proclaimed that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (I Corinthians 1:18), the power of worship does not make sense to a world that operates solely in terms of dollars and cents, numbers of people, and life’s everyday responsibilities. God, on the other hand, moves among those who believe in Him through the power of praise, sacrifice, and humility of heart.

The most important thing a Christian can do is to genuinely worship God. A sincere and vibrant worship life will glorify God, edify the faithful, and impact the lives of those who seek Him. May I suggest that before each worship service in your church begins that you bow your head in prayer and say, “Lord, my heart is open to You. Speak to me in ways that meet my deepest needs. I want to leave church today with a song in my heart and with a commitment to do your will.” Do that and you will be spiritually prepared for the week ahead.

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The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is one of the most unusual structures in the world. Built of pre-stressed concrete sheathed in shining stainless steel, the arch rises 630 feet above the Mississippi riverfront. Several years ago when my wife and I were in St. Louis to attend the Southern Baptist Convention, we rode an elevator to the top of the arch and looked out at the surrounding landscape. The view was astounding. If you are ever in St. Louis, be sure to ride the elevator to the top of that unique landmark and experience the view. Looking to the west you can see the city of St. Louis. Looking east you will be able to see the broad Mississippi River.

Before this unique monument was constructed, engineers wrestled with unprecedented problems. Since the slanting legs looked as if they might collapse, a scissor jack was inserted near the top of the arch to keep them from collapsing and falling.

The keystone, which was to round out the highest curve, was eight feet long, yet the space into which it had to be inserted was only six feet. The architect had not made a mistake. It was the way he had designed the arch.

When the time came to insert the keystone at the pinnacle, workers put pressure on the jack, forcing the legs farther apart. When the eight-foot distance was achieved, they hoisted the last stone into place and eased the legs together. The arch is held up by inward force – it leans on itself! Engineers call the principle “dynamic compression.”

Since its earliest days, followers of Jesus Christ have been united by a kind of spiritual dynamic compression. Christ is the keystone, and as the people of God lean on Him, they support one another. Is there a better way to describe what a church is when it is all that it should be?

Every person who is involved in this process must first receive the gift of salvation. There is no other way to enter the Christian life than to repent of your sins, and accept Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as Savior and Lord. However, the Lord never intended for those who make that all-important commitment to remain in isolation from one another. We ideally are to lean on each other.

Without the support of other Christians, the spiritual life of new converts will wither. They will become a mere shell of what God intends them to be. That is why the early church emphasized so strongly the importance of what is called “fellowship.”

Fellowship was an unmistakable mark of the early church. Immediately after the events at Pentecost, we are told that those early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

They met regularly for worship. They shared their meals in one another’s homes. Soon, it was written that “all the believers were of one heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). They enjoyed such close fellowship, and responded to each other’s needs with such concern, that “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). This made a tremendous impact on the world.

For the first time in history, a society existed where traditional distinctions – race, social standing, educational level, etc. – did not exist. They left these barriers in the empty tomb where their Savior had risen to life, and went out to tell the whole world of God’s love. They had a flaming fellowship that nothing short of death could quench.

Is that kind of fellowship possible in our churches today? Absolutely! But this is only true to the degree that the members of the individual church lean on Christ, love and support one another, and are directed by the Holy Spirit to achieve a common purpose.

The Apostle Paul describes in I Corinthians 12:12-31 the way Christ designed His church (an individual church or the church universal) to function. He says, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body” (verse 12). What will make your church, or any church, all that Christ designed for it to be is explained in verse 26, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it”.

Could you use those words to describe your church?

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Hello, God

“Hello, who is this? God? You must be kidding! Are You telling me that You are the God who created the entire Universe, the One who . . . . . Holy Catfish! . . . . . . What do I mean by “Holy Catfish?” It’s just an expression, honest! . . . . What I mean is, I certainly didn’t expect to be talking to You on the telephone . . . . Why do You answer your own phone? I have known a lot of people in my almost ninety years of life on planet earth who aren’t nearly as important as You are who don’t answer their own phone.

“In my work as a pastor I have had secretaries to answer incoming calls, then buzz me on the intercom and tell me who is calling. Don’t You have a secretary in heaven? You don’t? Really? That surprises me. Surely, with all the things You have to do You have an official receptionist?. . . . . Of course, I should have realized that this would be Simon Peter’s job. It may have sounded to You as though I was serious, but I was just pulling your leg . . . Oh my goodness, that isn’t what I intended to say . . . please forgive me.

“Since there are billions of Christians in our world You must get a tremendous number of telephone calls . . . Really? You don’t? I thought more people would talk to You than that . . . What? And this is the first time I have talked to you in several days? Now, God, You didn’t have to mention that, did you? . . . . Yes Sir, I mean, yes Lord, you have every right to mention it.

“Let me get back to why you don’t have a secretary. You enjoy answering the phone? . . . Really? . . .But God, You could have any secretary You want . . . There are some super secretaries down here. All You would have to do is zap up any secretary You want, and our church has one of the finest . . . . but I don’t think Brenda is ready to leave planet earth just yet. . . .What? You didn’t think that was very funny . . . Ha Ha . . .See, I’m laughing. Yes, of course You are right. Brenda would not appreciate my joke.

“What’s that? . . . . You say You have a Bookkeeper? . . .. And among the things you keep on record is how often church members attend worship, and how much they give in their Sunday offerings to support the work of your Kingdom in our community and around the world. . . . .Really! . . . . You are saying that EVERYTHING WE DO and EVERYTHING WE DON’T DO THAT WE SHOULD DO is being recorded in your books? . . . Wow! . . . . And You say that the Internal Revenue Service would be surprised at how little some of our church members give to support your work? No kidding!

“Lord, would you like for me to tell the members of Temple Baptist Church about the books You are keeping? . . . You would? I will be glad to do that, and I’ll get back to you later to let you know if our attendance for Bible study and worship on Sunday increases. Oh, I forgot . . . I should have realized that You will already know that without me having to tell You.

“And You say that on Judgment Day the books you are keeping will be opened and made publicly known.. . . . Really? And that a lot of people are going to really be surprised?. . . and embarrassed? I can certainly understand and believe that.

“Come to think of it, Lord, now that You have reminded me that everything recorded in your books is one day going to be revealed, I’ve got to run and get several of the things done that You asked me to do that I either forgot or ignored. I have let them slide far too long already.”

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Have you ever wondered what it is like for a preacher to have the responsibility of preparing and delivering sermons every Sunday 52 weeks every year? It is both an obligation and opportunity, but it is not as easy as you may think.

Henry Ward Beecher, the famous New England minister, entered his pulpit one Sunday morning. Awaiting him was an unmarked envelope. Opening it, he found a single sheet of paper on which was written the single word, “FOOL.” After chuckling to himself, he held the paper up to the congregation and said, “I have known many instances of a man writing a letter and forgetting to sign his name. But this is the only instance I’ve known of a man signing his name and forgetting to write his letter.”

Brooks Hayes, former Arkansas Congressman and loyal church member, tells the story of a young preacher who was called to be pastor of a church in Kentucky. He wanted his first sermon to be memorable, and he decided on a fiery denunciation of horse racing. When the worship service was over, one of his deacons rushed to tell him that the church was in an area known for its fine horses and that many of the church members raced their horses.

He took the hint, and the next Sunday he preached a strong sermon on the dangers of smoking. The deacon warned him that farmers in the area raised tobacco, and that part of the pastor’s salary depended on money made by raising tobacco. On the next Sunday he warned about the dangers of whiskey. The deacon promptly reminded him that the town had a distillery where many of their church members worked.

“Well,” the frustrated young preacher said to the deacon, “What should I preach about?” The deacon replied, “Why not preach against heathen witch doctors? We don’t have any of them within several thousand miles of our church.” Whether or not the story by Brooks Hayes happened exactly as he told it, it demonstrates only one of the many dilemmas preachers face. Church members tend to believe that the preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted, not afflict the comfortable by presenting unpopular truths.

I read recently about a church reception given for a young man being installed as pastor. A woman went up to him and said, “I do not understand how you dared attempt the task of pleasing seven hundred people.” Quick as a flash, the young preacher replied: “I did not come to this city to please seven hundred people. I have come to please only One, and if I please Him all will be well.” Well said, young man!

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had absolutely no doubts concerning what the topics should be on which a preacher of the gospel should preach. He said, “Give me a hundred men who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I will shake the world: I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; and such alone will overthrow the kingdom of Satan and build up the Kingdom of God.”

One of Christianity’s greatest preachers and teachers, the Apostle Paul, asked his friends to do something for him that you can do for your preacher: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray . . . . . that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (Colossians 4:2-4).

Serving as an ambassador of the King of Kings for more than seventy years has been for me a genuine joy. I have just two bits of advice for any young person who feels called by God to become a preacher: (1) “If you practice what you preach you will have to put in a lot of overtime”; and (2) “Every time you enter the pulpit you should pray this prayer, ‘Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff, and nudge me when I’ve said enough.’”

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Carl Sandburg once wrote, “We all want to play Hamlet.” Another way of saying the same thing is, “Everyone wants to lead the parade.” It could also be called “The drum major instinct.” The drum major ostentatiously struts ahead while the band marches in unison. One might think that the drum major is the leader and the members of the band, who actually produce the music, march behind in anonymity.

We humans begin early in life to demand attention. The first cry of a newborn baby is an effort to get attention. It doesn’t take long for growing children to learn cute and clever ways to get the spotlight. They do not hesitate to disrupt a serious conversation in order to get the center of the stage for their childish bid for importance. All of us, regardless of age, enjoy and reach for the approval of our peers, don’t we?

If we cannot get prestige in the harsh world of reality, we seek it in the land of fantasy. We see ourselves as Tom Sawyer, the delightful character created by the pen of Mark Twain. He played almost to the standard of perfection his drum major ambitions. However, he lacked the self-discipline to qualify for that role. So, he would revert to daydreams in which he imagined he was someone important – a victorious military general, the center of attention in a parade, waving to his adoring public. The drum major instinct continues into adulthood. The trait is called pride, and to some degree we all have it.

One negative impact of pride is that it makes us lose our sense of sin. Proverbs 12:15 says: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes.” God created us with the ability to rationalize. We pervert the ability to rationalize by explaining away our sins. We soften the word “sin” by using such expressions as, “I sowed a few wild oats,” or “I made a little mistake,” or “everybody is doing it.” Such rationalizations cause us to excuse ourselves. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

You have probably never realized this but the sin of pride first appeared in heaven. Satan, an angel, was filled with pride and rebelled against God. He is described in Revelation 12:9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” John Milton, in Paradise Lost, describes this scene (see also Jude 9 and Revelation 12:7).

The real tragedy of pride is that it is the root of other sins. It was pride that caused Adam and Eve to fall. “You will be as God,” Satan promised them. The sin of pride caused the Tower of Babel to be built. Pride caused the generation after the flood in the day of Noah to declare independence from God. The spirit of self-sufficiency made them blind to their limitations, their perils, and their needs. Pride affects us that way also.

Ultimately, the sin of pride has the power to keep you from coming to Jesus Christ who, on Calvary’s cross, took your sins in His own body, that you might be saved. Pride accomplishes this by causing you to believe you do not even need Jesus. What you want becomes more important than what you need.

Christ at Calvary demonstrated that love is the antidote to pride. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Corinthians 13:4-8a).

Calvary’s cross is the ultimate symbol of love. Surveying the cross on which the Prince of glory died will pour contempt on all our pride.

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