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One of the ways Jesus conveyed truth to others was through the use of parables. One of His most instructive parables was about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) who went into the temple in Jerusalem to pray. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about his own goodness: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, and adulterers – or even like this scoundrel tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all that I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up toward heaven, but beat upon his breast and said, “God have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.”

Jesus said that the hated tax collector, not the ultra-religious Pharisee who had an inflated opinion of himself and of his righteousness, went home that day justified before God. As I was examining this parable recently I became aware of how easy it is for Christians, including me, to have a Mickey Mouse level prayer life. I began wondering what a modern version of this parable would sound like. The wheels between my ears began spinning into action. I decided that I would try to translate this parable into today’s language and culture to see how it would sound.

In the modern version of the parable I choose to call the Pharisee Baptist Bob. On a given Sunday morning he walked into his church with his head held high and his chest out. As he walked into the sanctuary he spotted the town drug pusher and troublemaker sitting on one of the back pews. He had been tried, found guilty, spent time in prison, and was recently paroled. Bob was disgusted to see such a man in his church, so he told the head usher to keep a close watch on the man. We will call him Larry Lowlife. Larry had finally realized that he needed to change the road on which he had been traveling. He desperately needed God’s help – and he was in church

At the beginning of his pastoral prayer time the pastor always gave at least thirty seconds for the congregation to quietly pray before he began his prayer. Baptist Bob’s silent prayer was more about his own goodness than about his spiritual need: “Heavenly Father, I thank You that I’ve been a deacon of this church for more than 20 years. You have blessed my business so much that I am able to give even more than a tithe to church. I haven’t missed Sunday School in over ten years — even when I was sick. And you know that I used to sing in the choir. I don’t smoke unfiltered cigarettes, drink alcohol, or cuss on Sundays. And I don’t use or sell drugs – like the drug-pushing punk on one of our back pews who has the audacity after getting out of prison to attend our church today. And please help our softball team clobber the First Presbyterian team in church softball league Tuesday night. Amen!”

Baptist Bob was so full of pride he could strut while he was sitting down. Meanwhile, Larry Lowlife on one of the back pews was praying, “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner. I desperately need your help to get my life turned around so I can go in the right direction. Lord, please forgive me, and cleanse me. I open my life to You!”

Hopefully this modern parable of Baptist Bob and Larry Lowlife will help you to enter the worship services in your church every Sunday with a desire to focus primarily upon three things: (1) the goodness and greatness of God, (2) to genuinely worship Him by focusing primarily upon your spiritual needs, and (3) to offer your life to serve Him in the ways that will bear witness of His love to others in specific ways.

In the original parable of the Pharisee and tax collector Jesus said there are two attitudes people generally display in worship: (1) “I’m proud of my goodness.” Pride loves to use the personal pronouns “I” and “me.” It seldom admits a need. It does not focus upon the needs of others. (2), “I desperately need God’s mercy”. Which of these two attitudes best describes your spirit as you enter church each Sunday morning?

If you will enter God’s presence aware of your own sins, not the sins of others, He can and will use you in powerful ways to serve others. Why is this true? You will know that service is simply love in work clothes.

 

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Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist, in one of his stories gives us a picture of the ideal ruler. He represents him as keeping open house and feeding the finest food to the citizens in his kingdom who have labored diligently, while he gives crusts and crumbs to those who are lazy. The way the ruler distinguishes between these is that when they enter the palace they are asked to show him their hands. The hands that are rough and calloused are working hands. Those with no sign of callouses are the hands of the slothful.

Picture yourself, using Tolstoy’s analogy, as you enter church next Sunday morning to be spiritually fed by the King of Kings. However, before you are allowed to enter into His presence, imagine that He says to you “Show me your hands!” Would your hands show any marks of labor for the Lord? Too many church members today lift their hands toward heaven with no callouses on them.

In my sixty plus years of service as a Christian minister I have been amazed at the number of church members who depend on the church for a Christian wedding and a Christian funeral, but who will do very little to make the Kingdom of God come on the earth in between those two dates. Christianity is a roll-up-your-sleeves religion. Christians should think twice before they sing, “Standing on the Promises” if all they are doing is “sitting on the premises.” Those who are merely sitting on the premises are like the little boy who fell out of bed one night, and when asked why, replied, “I guess I went to sleep too close to where I got in bed.”

Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). And the apostle Paul said, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58). In the New Testament the idea of service is second in importance only to the idea of salvation.

There is at least one task that every single Christian can do – pray! No church member can rightly say, “I would like to do something in the service of the Lord, but there is nothing for me to do.” If you believe there is absolutely nothing you can do in the work of God’s kingdom in your community, go to your pastor and volunteer your services. If he faints, it will be because pastors don’t get volunteers all that often.

The postmaster in my home town way back in the 1940’s loved poetry. He periodically placed poems on the post office bulletin board for patrons to read and enjoy. One poem in particular still sticks in my mind:

“Often when I pass the church,

I stop in for a visit,

So that when I’m finally carried in,

The Lord won’t ask, ‘Who is it?’”

The King of Kings wants those who serve Him to have willing hands, clean hands, and praying hands. As you enter church next Sunday and you hear Christ saying to you, “Show me your hands,” don’t be surprised. But before you show Him your hands, ask Him to show you His hands. The Bible tells us that they were healing hands, protecting hands, and serving hands. But of vastly more importance, they are also nail-scarred hands. They reveal just how far God was willing to go to prove how much He loves you.

What do your hands reveal?

 

Have you ever wondered why Jesus taught His disciples to pray to God, the Father, and to close each prayer by saying, “In Jesus’ name”? Here is why: we have no claims upon God because of any goodness or service of our own, but Jesus has infinite claims upon Him. It is because Jesus loves us that He has given us the right to approach the Father using His name. Therefore, we should pray boldly, not timidly.

When we pray in Christ’s name we pray on the ground of His atoning death when He took our sins upon Himself. Who among us can say, “Lord, because of the way I live, I have earned the right to be both heard and answered in the way I ask? None of us have earned that right. It is only as we approach God the Father in the name of His Son. The reason for this is that prayer in Jesus’ name is based on His relationship with the Father. God delights in answering prayers that are prayed in His Son’s name.

R.A. Torrey, in The Power of Prayer, told the story of a father and mother who lived in Columbus, Ohio during the early 1860’s. They had only one child, a son, who was the joy of their hearts. Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, the son came home one day and said to his parents, “I have enlisted in the Union Army.” They felt badly, of course, to see their son leave home, but they loved their country and were willing to make the sacrifice of giving their son to save the Union.

After their son had gone to the front, he wrote home regularly, telling his father and mother about his experiences in camp and elsewhere. His letters were full of brightness and good cheer, and they brought joy to his parent’s lonely hearts. But one day, at the regular time, no letter came.

Days passed, and no letter came from the front. Weeks passed, and they wondered what might have happened to their son. One day a letter came from the United States government, and in it they were told that there had been a great battle, and that their son, among many others, had been killed. The light went out in their hearts and in their home.

Days, weeks, and months passed by and they still had not heard anything further concerning their son. Finally the war came to an end. One morning as they were sitting at the breakfast table, the maid came in and said, “There is a poor, ragged fellow at the door, and he wants to speak to you. But I knew you did not wish to speak to a man like him. He handed me this note and asked me to put it in your hand.”

She handed to the father a soiled and crumpled piece of paper. When the father opened the note and began to read it, he quickly realized that the handwriting belonged to his son who had been killed in battle. The note said:

“Dear Father and Mother:

I have been shot and have only a short time to live, and I am writing you this last farewell note. As I write, there is kneeling beside me my most intimate friend in the company, and when the war is over he will bring you this note. When he does, be kind to him for Charlie’s sake.

Your son, Charles”

You can be certain that there was absolutely nothing in that father and mother’s house they would have considered too good for the man at their door whom they had assumed to be poor tramp. Why is this true? It would have been “for Charlie’s sake.”

Likewise, there is absolutely no resource or blessing in heaven or on the earth that is too good or too great that God will not supply for the meeting of our needs when it is in the framework of His will for us, and if we have sincerely prayed in Jesus’ name. Therefore, when your outlook is bad, you would be wise to try the up-look. God is never more than a prayer away.

An anonymous author penned these beautiful words:

“When God inclines the heart to pray,
He hath an ear to hear:
To Him there’s music in a groan,
And beauty in a tear.”

Days that are hemmed in on both ends by prayer they are not likely to come unraveled in the middle. And why is this true? Prayer provides power, poise, peace and purpose.

If I were to ask you to name your favorite Bible verse, what would be your answer? Many Christians would say that it is John 3:16, for it is the best known and most memorized verse in the entire Bible. It is, in essence, “The Gospel in a Nutshell.” This is true because it contains everything a person needs to know in order to become a genuine Christian. Let us divide John 3:16 into ten phrases and use additional short phrases rather than whole sentences to describe the truth that this marvelous verse contains:

For God: Eternal God! Holy God! God the Father! Creator of the universe, including every human! Giver of breath! Sustainer of life! God of reconciliation! Author of salvation! God of redemption!

So Loved: Not will one day love — but has always loved, now loves, and will always love! Divine love! Perfect love! Love demonstrated! Active love! Not just feeling love but action love! Love that wants the best, does the best, and gives the best! Holy love! Sacrificial love! Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things! Love that has never failed and will never fail!

The world: Those who are near and those who are far away! People of every color, every race, every language, every tribe, and every nation! The lost, the needy, the hungry, the devastated, the crushed, the bruised, and the broken! Those in darkness, desperation, and despair! The condemned sinner! Those who are sick and need a physician! The guilty sinner who needs pardon! The prodigal who is far from God’s eternal home that Jesus, according to John 14:2, called “My Father’s House!”

That He Gave: Freely bestowing! Giving grace! Giving mercy! Giving life! Not small portions! Not just enough to get by! Giving in abundance! Outpouring! Overflowing! Overwhelming!

His only begotten Son: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of man! King of kings and Lord of Lords! The Word made flesh! Emmanuel, God with us! Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! Everlasting Father! Prince of Peace! God giving all that He could give! God holding nothing back! The Creator coming to rescue His creation! The Lamb of God coming to willingly offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin! The Redeemer shedding His blood on Calvary’s cross to bring lost sinners back to God!

That whoever: An open door! An open invitation to anyone, anywhere, any time! Large or small, rich or poor, famous or unknown, old or young, male or female, educated or uneducated — including you and me!

Believes on Him: Not work for, not try hard, and not earn! By faith! Believing with the heart! Not a reward to earn, but a gift to receive! Trusting in His mercy! Counting on His provision! Receiving the eternal life He offers! Leaning upon His grace! Yielding to and accepting His Lordship!

Should not perish: Not lost! Not condemned! Not regarded as worthless! Not destroyed! Not cast into eternal darkness! Not separated from God! Not left alone! To live with God and the redeemed forever!

But have: Blessed assurance! Being absolutely certain! Not guessing, or wishing, or pretending! Not I hope so, but I know so! Without a doubt! I am His and He is mine!

Everlasting life: Forgiven! Saved! Redeemed! Cleansed! Possessing eternal life, Kingdom life! A glorious new beginning! Never-ending joy as the result of His amazing grace! Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

 

What measurements would you use to evaluate the effectiveness of your church? Would it be the size of the membership, the quality of the preaching, the vitality of its educational program, the strength of its youth ministry, or the friendliness of its members? These are all crucial elements of a dynamic church, but they are not the ultimate test of greatness.

The church is not just a building to which you go on Sunday to worship God – it is primarily what its members are and what they do seven days every week to honor God and serve others. It is what Paris Island, South Carolina is to the U.S. Marine Corps – a training center to prepare believers for witness and ministry. The true test of any church is whether or not it produces fruitful followers of Christ.

But what does this mean? The parable of the fig tree found in Mark 11:12-14, 19-22 tells us. It was the season for figs to be growing, but a specific fig tree that Jesus and His disciples saw contained no figs, only leaves. Jesus spoke to the fruitless tree and said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (v. 14).” The following day when the disciples and Jesus passed that fig tree again, its leaves had withered. Peter expressed astonishment, “Master, look! The tree you cursed has withered” (v. 21).

Jesus was making the point that Israel was like this fig tree in that it was bearing no fruit. Rites, rules, regulations, and restrictions had become more important than the fruit produced by personal faith. Jesus was concerned about “the weightier matters of the law – righteousness, justice and love” (see Matthew 23:23). These could not be accomplished without a dependent trust in God. It would be fine if we could end our examination of the parable of the fig tree by saying that it applied only to Israel. But the message here is timeless. It speaks truth to every church and to every individual Christian.

The danger of churches having leaves without fruit is ever-present. Today our elaborate buildings, massed choirs, structured educational programs, vibrant youth activities, and other kinds of programs mean little for the kingdom of God if they bear no fruit. But the parable also has a message that applies to every Christian. Unless our prayers, churchmanship, and activity produce fruit, we are in danger of being cut off.

John 15:4, 5 gives us the secret of fruitfulness – for a church or for any Christian: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” When we abide in Christ, we appropriate all that He has done for us. That means unreserved acceptance of His death for our sins and His resurrection for the defeat of the enemies of the abundant life.

True fruitfulness — for an individual Christian and for a church — depends on Christ abiding IN us and speaking THROUGH us. Fruitfulness is never one or the other. According to the words of Jesus found in John 15, both are necessary What Christ does IN us reaches out THROUGH us to bless and serve others.

The ultimate test of fruitfulness for any church is to reproduce the Christian faith in others. You and your fellow members may meet weekly in a beautiful building. Your church may have a large ministerial staff, and support many programs and activities. But the important question is this: How many people has your church introduced to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in the last year? In the last five years? And with how many people have you personally shared your faith in the past year? In the last ten years?

If that is the primary way churches fulfill their assigned mission, how effective is your church?

 

Psalm 23 is very personal in that there are no references to “we” or “us” or “they,” but only “my” and “me” and “I” and “you.” It is King David’s testimony of his personal experience with God. What he says in this beautiful psalm is truth, not poetic exaggeration or theoretical theology.

In the first four verses of Psalm 23 David uses the picture of a shepherd with his sheep to describe the relationship God has with His followers. He presents the picture of a shepherd leading his flock to green grass and calm waters. Then, when we get to verse 4, it doesn’t fit. The valley of the shadow of death conjures thoughts of grave danger where a sheep’s life is in jeopardy unless the shepherd is alert and attentive.

Why would a shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep lead a lamb into a valley filled with danger? There is only one possible answer: “to get to a better place!” The shepherd knows from experience that predators are likely to be faced. We, like the sheep in King David’s day, often face times of difficulty and danger. In the New Testament the apostle Paul explains it this way: “For we know that all things work together for good, for those who love God, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Psalm 23 contains the following marvelous truths:

The Lord is my Shepherd” – that is Relationship!

“I shall not want” – that is Supply.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” – that is Rest!

He leadeth me beside the still waters” — that is Refreshment!

He restoreth my soul” – that is Healing!

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness” – That is Guidance!

For His name’s sake” — that is Purpose!

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” – that is Testing!

I will fear no evil” – that is Protection!

For Thou art with me” – That is Faithfulness!

Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” – that is Discipline!

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies” – that is Hope!

Thou annointest my head with oil” – that is Consecration!”

“My cup runneth over” – That is Abundance!

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” – that is Blessing!

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord” – that is Security!

“Forever” – that is Eternity!

 

Louis Evans in his book, Your Marriage, Duel or Duet, has a chapter entitled “Finance . . . A Fury or a Fellowship.” In this chapter he points out that money can be a major problem for couples who want to be married. He says that the unwise management of money can cause difficult problems for couples who do not have a well-thought-out program of money management prior to their wedding day.

I have tried in pre-marriage counseling sessions to help couples develop a plan to use their material resources in ways to make their marriage strong, not become a problem. God designed marriage to be “until DEATH do us part”, not “until DEBT do us part.” Some of the reasons money often causes problems in marriages are:

The love of money. There is nothing wrong with owning money – even lots of it. The problem comes when money owns us, when we love money. Acts 5 tells us that Ananias and Sapphira met their death because they loved money. Judas loved money so much that he betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The bishop of a New Testament church must be one who is “not greedy for money” (I Timothy 3:3).

Misunderstanding the purpose of money. Failing to understand how money should be properly used leads to abuses. Both those who have lots of money and those who have very little of it can lack in understanding how it can be used in wise and proper ways. Using money unwisely can have serious consequences for a family.

Unwise credit buying. Buying on credit has enabled many families to have things they would never have gotten otherwise, but buying on credit more than can be later paid for creates chaos in families. Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who told his friend he had arranged for his wife to have plastic surgery. “I took a pair of scissors,” he explained, “and cut up her credit cards.” It is an idea that lots of other families might productively adopt.

Keeping up with the proverbial Jones family. We are literally bombarded by commercials every time we turn on a radio or television set. We are encouraged to covet whatever we do not have in the belief that it will help us keep up with what others have. Greed takes over and getting becomes more important than giving.

Jack Taylor, in his book, One Home under God, shares a poem by an anonymous author which describes a bride and groom’s determination that money would never become a problem in their marriage:

“The bride, bent with age, leaned over her cane,

Her steps uncertain need guiding,

While down the church aisle,

With a wan toothless smile

The groom in a wheel-chair came gliding,

And who is this elderly couple thus wed?

You’ll find when you’ve closely explored it,

That this is that rare, conservative pair . . .

Who waited TILL THEY COULD AFFORD IT.”