Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Stay Free

Liberty is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory, but is difficult to practice.

Many people will say they want liberty, but few will actually use their freedom.

Let's face it, in order to be good stewards of our God-given rights requires hard work. Connected to the idea of liberty is responsibility. In a truly free society you and I are responsible for our actions because we believe these choices will affect the direction of our lives.

This is why people tend to turn to law for guidance.

In Galatians 5:1 the apostle Paul wrote; “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” (NLT)

In this passage Paul addressed the tendency of Christians to turn to the law for guidance in how they were to live. According to Christian theology one of the weaknesses of the law is that it cannot save people from sin. This is true because once a law is broken it cannot be unbroken.

While the law cannot save, it can provide guidance.

In fact, one of the benefits of the law is that it makes the world black and white. It shows people what to do and what to avoid. The law can even be expanded in the details to bring clarification on how to keep the law.

This is one of the issues Jesus had with the Jewish religious leaders in the first century. They had expanded on God’s law to explain things like what it meant to work on the Sabbath, what it meant to tithe, and even how to wash your hands.

For them, the law laid everything out, so all a person had to do was follow it.

I believe the same tendency exists for political freedom.

The founding generation laid the ground work for a country of limited government and personal liberty.

Yet, even from the very beginning, there were people advocating for the federal government to do something: to pass a law, to intervene in state activity, or to get involved in foreign affairs.

What this shows us is that it is hard work to maintain your personal liberty. The only way for that to happen is for you to truly desire to be free.

One of the issues that we face when it comes to our political freedom is that we often have little say in what happens.

Voting offers us minimal protection of our liberties. Too many people believe that voting provides the majority with a mandate, and therefore they can steer the country in the direction of their choosing .

The result is that the Constitution, which should provide  the parameters for what the Federal Government can and can’t do, is ignored in favor of the “will of the people.”

As Christians what are we to do?

I believe we can do three things:

  1. We can pray. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 the apostle Paul wrote; “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.” (NLT) Why are we to pray for those in authority? We pray for them so we are able to live peaceful and godly lives. More than asking God to make them do our agenda, I think we are to pray that they will have wisdom to do what is right and that they will leave us alone.
  2. We can use what liberty we can. Even though the United States has become a highly regulated and taxed society, there are still opportunities for us to take advantage of liberty. This is seen in entrepreneurs as they start new business and engage in free markets. This is seen in speaking and writing about liberty. This is seen in living out your faith and sharing Jesus with those around you.
  3. We can educate people about liberty. One of the main problems we face is the fact that most people are ignorant about what true freedom is. As long as they have the ability to choose their career, to buy the newest gadget, to travel, and to spend their time in leisure activities they are happy. The majority of people don’t understand the amount of regulation that exists that effects their lives everyday.

Stay free!

Those words apply to Christians as we seek to follow Jesus and be guided by the Spirit as well as Americans as we seek to live in liberty apart from the ever growing State. It is not easy to remain free, and in the case of our political freedom, it might prove to be an impossible task, but it is a task that we must engage in doing.

Don’t take the easy way of the law, but do the hard work of living in liberty and exercising your God-given rights. Be free!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A Contrast to the Dark

Jesus taught his followers to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world".

How do we do that?

I think the mistake that we tend to make is to equate our influence in the world with standing up for the truth. When we do this, and I believe our current cultural and political climate reveals this reality, we adopt a more confrontational stance. It really becomes, "I am right and you are wrong".

Certainly, there is a time to declare truth and confront the lies of the world, but I believe the Bible reveals a much better approach. An approach that allows us to truly be the "light of the world".

This is the approach that the Church followed in the first three centuries and it allowed the early Church to turn the Roman Empire on its head (see Rodney Starks' book The Rise of Christianity).

The approach I am talking about is love. Love is what makes the Church different from the rest of the world. Love for each other. Love for our neighbors. Love for our enemies.

The world is a tough place and finding communities and families where we feel loved and accepted can be difficult. The Church is becomes a safe place because of the love we show to one another.

We discover this truth taught throughout the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount. The Apostle Peter also taught it.

Finally, all of you should be of one mind, full of sympathy toward each other, loving one another with tender hearts and humble minds. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate when people say unkind things about you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God wants you to do, and he will bless you for it (1 Peter 3:8-9; NLT).

As we ponder what Peter wrote we discover that he was talking about living in a way that was different from the rest of the world. It is living in contrast to the darkness of the world that enables us to be lights.

If we are going to live differently from the world we need to:

  1. Be of one mind. It is next to impossible to have a group of people totally agree on things.  Each person brings with them their own unique perspective which is influenced by various people and experiences. I think what Bruce Oberst wrote in his commentary on 1 Peter is helpful; “Few of us always agree on how to carry out the thousand details of everyday life. But we should strive to have the same basic goals, purposes and motives, that provide the very foundations of Christianity” (Letters from Peter; p. 81). To be of one mind is about having an agreement on purpose and goals. For instance, the purpose of the church I pastor is to be a Christian community that glorifies God. Our discussions center around how to make that happen.
  2. Show sympathy to one another. Each person has their own set of struggles and pain. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, the greatest pain in the world is the pain that we experience at that moment. I think this same concept can be applied to our struggles. This is why we need to have sympathy for one another. We may not think the struggle or pain is significant, but for the other person it threatens their faith. Rather than passing judgement, we should encourage one another along.
  3. Love one another. To love is to treat each other like family. We are to be kind and care for one another, just like what we would expect to happen in a good family. That means we bear each other's burdens, we put up with things that annoy us, and we sacrifice in order to help one another. If a Christian can depend on no one else, he or she should always be able to depend on other Christians. In a selfish world the sacrificial love of Christians should provide people with hope that is built on the love of God.
  4. Do not retaliate against those who have wronged us. To repay a wrong with a wrong is the way of the world. If we seek revenge then the Church no different than the world. Remember Jesus specifically taught that we are to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-48). When we love people, regardless of what they have done or said to us, we show the world that there is a better way to live. We also provide evidence that the way of God is different than the way of the world. If we retaliate we darken the light of love and compassion that should characterize the Church. We can only be lights if we are different from everyone else.

Peter echoed the teachings of Jesus and Paul by teaching that one of the primary ways the Church is different from the world is how we treat one another. It is crucial that there is a clear difference between how Christians live and the way the world lives.

It is this contrast that allows us to be lights in a dark world.

Jesus called his followers to be the "lights of the world". We become light when we show the world that loving people is the best way to live.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Story of the Unchanged Clothes

In a different time and place lived a young man whose life was quite different from ours.

He lived just outside the city walls of the spectacular Capital City. The young man spent his day rummaging through the huge city dump in search of food and clothing.

There were other people who lived in the dump, mostly children who had been abandoned by their parents. The young man didn’t socialize with them. He spent his time alone hoarding whatever bit of treasure he found in the trash.

One day the young man was at the edge of the dump when he heard the blare of trumpets. He ran up the hill towards the road to see what was causing the commotion.

There on the road was a magnificent golden coach pulled by four beautiful white horses. Traveling with the coach was a long procession of horses, wagons, and people. The long caravan was headed into the city.

When the golden coach passed the young man he heard a loud and commanding voice yell, “Stop!”

Instantly the coach stopped and the possession came to a stand still.

The door to the coach opened and out stepped a tall man dressed in royal fashion. The man had a great white beard and piercing blue eyes. On his snow covered heard sat a golden crown covered with jewels.

The man was the King of the country.

The King approached the young man. Kneeling slightly so he could look the young man in the eye, the King asked, “Are you hungry?”

“Yes sir, I haven’t had anything to eat today.”

“Good,” the King said patting the young man on the shoulder, “I have a feast prepared for me at the castle, come and join us!”

“Oh, thank you sir,” the young man said. “Is there anything that I have to do?”

“Just accept the invitation my son, come and enjoy the feast.”

There for all the people to see, the King and young man from the dump got into the golden coach and journeyed into the city.

At the castle the King personally showed the young man his room. On the bed in the room was a set of sparkling white clothes and in the center of the room was a huge tub of hot water.

The King turned to the young man, “Before you can come to the feast you must wash and change your clothes. I will not have anyone smelling of the dump in the Great Hall. Once you have washed and changed you can join us.”

The King then left the young man to attend to his other guests.

The young man went over to the big tub of water. He looked into the tub.

“I have never seen water this clean in my life. It would be a shame to make it all dirty. I think I will just take this rag and wash around my face and hands.”

The young turned to the clothes after he had washed, or rather smeared, the dirt on his face and hands, “Before today I never knew anything could be so white. They will make me look wonderful.”

The young man began to unbutton his shirt. As he undid the buttons he began to think about how long he had worn that shirt. He had found it in the dump over three years ago, it had kept him warm, and it was comfortable.

“I can’t give up this shirt,” he thought. “It is a part of me. I will just slip this white shirt over the top.”

The young man picked up the shirt and pulled it over the top of his old, dirty, and smelly shirt. It was time for the pants. Again the young man thought about his pants and how long he had worn them.

“I just can’t give these pants up, they are so comfortable, and I will just pull these white pants over the top.”

The white pants went over the top of the grimy, mud-caked pants of the young man.

When the young man entered the Great Hall, the crowd gathered gave out a collective gasp. There he stood with uncombed hair, a dirt streaked face, and wearing a dingy gray suit of clothes.

The King stood up and said, “Why didn’t you wash?”

“I did wash my hands and face.”

“Why didn’t you take a bath?”

“The water was too clean; I didn’t want to dirty it.”

“The water was for washing, it wasn’t supposed to stay clean. Why didn’t you change your clothes?”

“I am wearing the clothes you gave me.”

“Why didn’t you take off you old clothes?”

“They were much too comfortable for me to remove. I just couldn’t part with them.”

“My son, I want you to join the feast, but you have to obey my instructions. Go, take a bath, and throw away your old clothes. Dress in the clothes I give you, and then come and eat.”

The young man left the Great Hall, but instead of returning to the room he left the castle.

The young man continued to walk until he was back at the dump. “After all,” the young man thought, “here I can be comfortable and I don’t have to change a thing.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Experiencing God

Our relationship with God, as with any relationship, is grown through our experience with Him. 

That raises the question: How do I experience God in my life?

I believe that we experience God through obedience. As we obey God we experience His presence and witness Him at work.

The reason many people are frustrated in their relationship with God has little to do with their passion, their love, or their worship. It has everything to do with their obedience.

We will always be frustrated in our relationship with God when we approach Him on our terms rather than humbly submitting to Him.

The New Testament contains a story which illustrates this very principle.

Matthew 19:16-30 tells the story of the rich young man and how he missed having a relationship with God through Jesus.

The young man came to Jesus with a question; “What must I do to have eternal life?” The young man knew there was something missing in his life. He had wealth and at least had a desire to live a moral life, but that wasn’t enough. The young man came to Jesus for the answer, but the answer is not what the young man wanted to hear. “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.” Jesus tells the young man what he is to do, but the young man wouldn’t do it. “But when the young man heard this, he went sadly away because he had many possessions.” (NLT)

The young man wanted eternal life on his terms.

Yes, he realized something was missing from his life, but he also had his limits to what he was willing to do. Since he was not willing to do what Jesus asked he went away sad.

I have a feeling that if Jesus had asked the young man to fast for 40 days he would have done it. If Jesus had asked the young man to spend time in study I think the young man would have made his best effort. The young man had a desire for eternal life and a desire to know God better and deeper.

The problem is that desire alone is not enough.

We have a desire to know God better and deeper. We desire eternal life. We desire to have an eternal relationship with God. We can even list off the things we have done in order to have this relationship, but we still find something is missing. All our quiet times and prayers have not brought us closer to knowing God.

The reason we have missed God is because we have failed to do what He has asked. We are sad in our relationship with God because we are not willing to come to Him on His terms.

Jesus asks us to be baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We walk away frustrated because that is a “work” and we are confident that a relationship with God is built on “faith”.

Jesus asks us to invest time in the elderly couple next door. We cry out to God for His presence, but we are not willing to go next door to experience it.

What is Jesus asking you to do?

The reason men like Abraham, Moses, and David had amazing relationships with God was not because of their quiet times and fasting. Those relationships developed because their faith led to action, and through that action to an experience of God.
“Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was declared right with God because of what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, he was trusting God so much that he was willing to do whatever God told him to do. His faith was made complete by what he did—by his actions” (James 2:21-22; NLT).
Abraham was willing to follow God even if it meant giving up his son Isaac. Are you willing to part with the most precious thing in your life to be with God?

A relationship with God is not just found in the study of His Word and in prayer.

A relationship with God is developed through our obedience, as we step out in faith and experience God at work in our lives.

We need to stop coming to God on our terms and begin to surrender ourselves to His will.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Faith Without Doubting

{James 1:5-8; ESV} 

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. 

What does it mean to have faith without doubting?

It can be explained like this.

There were two men who married their high school sweetheart. The first man had a wandering eye, and when trouble began to come in his marriage he was able to spot a better situation. It wasn’t long before the second marriage was just like the first, and once again the man left to find something better. He went from relationship to relationship without finding what he was looking for, and when it came time for him to face death he faced it terrified and alone.

The second man made an oath to himself and to God that he would love his wife no matter what happened. When trials and troubles came the man talked with his wife and worked things out. Time passed and their love grew. Soon their house was filled with children. The man made another vow to himself and to God that he would always love his children. When trouble and trials arose he talked with his children and taught them right from wrong. When it came time for the man to face death he faced it surrounded by people who loved him. He died happy and loved.

The first man never made a commitment to his high school sweetheart, and so when trouble began to surface in the relationship it was very easy for him to doubt. He doubted his love for her, her love for him, her faithfulness, her goodness, and their future. Doubts arose because he was not committed to the relationship.

The second man was able to enjoy a life long love affair with his high school sweetheart because he had committed his life and heart to her. When trouble arose he was confident about his love for her, her love for him, her goodness, and her faithfulness. His confidence was the product of his commitment.

Doubting, in context to our relationship with God, isn’t about feelings of uncertainty, but it is a lack of commitment to God.

Remember we are limited in our understanding of who God is and what He is doing.

This reality leads us to have questions about God's presence and His purpose for our lives. When we are committed to God this questions will not become the focal point because we have learned to trust God.

The person who is not committed to God will allow uncertainty to carry him away. This means he will find other avenues to explain life for him.

We can see this in the person who constantly jumps from one interest to another. He has dabbled in Christianity, checked out Mormonism, flirted with New Age teachings, and tested the waters of atheism. His lack of commitment keeps pushing him from one philosophy to another, and the result is that he can never get a handle on what he truly believes.

What is important  for our relationship with is not that we remove all our questions and uncertainties, but that we commit to God no matter what happens. That type of commitment inspires confidence because it allows us to experience God at work, not only in our lives, but also in the world around us.

Our study of Scripture along with personal experience shows us that God can be trusted, which, in turn, strengthens our confidence.

Don’t worry about the questions you may have when it comes to God, and don’t think you will be able to remove all uncertainty about how God is working in the world.

Questions and uncertainty will always be part of our lives.

The only way we can overcome these things is by commitment. When we are committed to God then we will stick with Him no matter what happens. Rather than being blown around by the winds of this world, we can remained anchored to the Rock.

 Questions to Consider: 

  • Does it help you to think about doubt in terms of commitment rather than certainty? 
  • What is something we can do to help us maintain a strong commitment to God? 
  • How would you describe your commitment to God right now?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Not Voting is a Legitimate Option

In the United States voting is viewed as a patriotic duty and a sacred right. We are taught about the importance of voting starting in elementary school. The lesson we are to learn is that voting is the way have a voice in government.

Therefore it is not surprising that many of us have equated voting with freedom. 

"A free people are able to able to elect their leaders," we believe.

With this being a fundamental belief, for someone to even suggest that is is okay not to vote is viewed as heresy. 

The counter arguments are: "Don't you know people died to give you the right to vote!?" and "There is so much at stake in this election. You have to vote!"

With that being said, let me offer a dissenting view. It is okay not to vote. 

Our God -given rights are not protected through the process of voting.

In fact, I would argue that voting has been the process that has enabled our rights to be taken away. 

As Ron Paul wrote in his book Liberty Defined: "American political culture unfortunately, has come to worship at the altar of democratic majoritariansim." (p. 67)

What happens is that whatever party wins the majority, they believe they have a mandate from the American people to run the country. Rather than protecting the individual rights of citizens and upholding the Constitution, they embark on a mission to do what is "best for the nation." 

Usually this leads to unintended consequences (foreign policy blowback and crushing debt) and a larger and more intrusive government.

I believe that it is through the protection of personal liberty, following constitutions (state constitutions and the federal constitution), and adherence to free markets that create the best society this world can offer. In fact, there is a connection between freedom and prosperity .

By saying it is okay not to vote, I am not advocating laziness or disengagement from the political process, rather, I am saying "don't compromise your beliefs." 

Voting will not protect freedom and a vote for the "lesser of two evils" is still a vote for evil.

Here are some reasons that justify not voting:

  1. I don’t want to endorse the actions of another person. One of  my fundamental beliefs is that everything is spiritual. When I vote for some one I am giving that person authority, both politically and spiritually, to act on my behalf. When the candidate I voted for supports an illegal war then I am supporting that illegal war. When the President I helped get into office uses drones that kill innocent people, even accidentally, that blood is on my hands. Too often, I see people justify the unconstitutional and immoral actions of their elected officials rather than condemn them. There are also the unintended consequences of government action that lead to real life tragedy. This is seen in economy policy, for example how the housing policy promoted by the government was responsible for the housing crash of 2008. Too often politicians, and thus government, act as if they have the answers to all the world’s problems, and those actions lead to more hurt and suffering.
  2. All governments are under the corrupting influence of Satan. As Americans it is easy to think that God has uniquely blessed our country and that our system of government is insulated from corruption. To think this way is to be deceived. C. S. Lewis in his essay Screwtape Proposes a Toast has the older devil, Screwtape, addressing the newest graduating class of devils, and this is what he told them about using the word democracy; “You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate” (The World’s Last Night and Other Essays; p. 60). As a nation we do venerate the word democracy. Since we find our form of government superior we don’t  even consider that the very process of our political system could be under the influence of Satan. This isn’t about electing the right candidates, rather it is about a worldly and corrupt system. Electing the right people to office won’t change that reality. In Revelation 20:2-3 we discover that Satan is the deceiver of nations. Is it not possible to think that he has deceived us a nation? In John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11 Jesus identified Satan as the ruler of this world. Isn’t it possible that Satan uses our politics and our government to prevent us from doing what God has really called us to do? Maybe we should rephrase what Jesus told the man who wanted go home and bury his father before following him: “Let the dead govern the dead.” We don’t need politics to bring God’s Kingdom into this world.
  3. Jesus consistently rejected the way of politics. In Luke 4:5-7 we read that Satan tempted Jesus; Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me” (NLT). Satan declared that the kingdoms and the nations of the world are his and he uses them any way he wants to use them. Jesus did not challenge his declaration, rather Jesus rejected the way of earthly kingdoms, the way of politics, as the way to usher in God’s Kingdom. Again in John 6:15 Jesus slipped away from the crowds when they came to make him king. Later on in the chapter Jesus told the crowd that only in him would they find satisfaction. The satisfaction they longed for, the satisfaction that we long for, cannot be found through a form of government or the policies of government. Instead of the path of political power Jesus chose the path marked out for him by his Father. That path was the path of sacrificial love. It is seen in the lion who became a lamb and who was slain (Revelation 5:5-6). I would suggest that the way of the Kingdom is ultimately found when we reject political power as the way to change the world.
  4. Politics are of this world. Politics rely on two things: propaganda and force. We know that politicians and governments never tell us the whole truth. They always put their own spin on reality. Spin and propaganda are meant to deceive people so we will continue to support what politicians do through the government. Force is felt through the consequences of not obeying what the government says is right or wrong. Yes, God has allowed the government to carry the sword, but often government goes to extremes. Because the government carries the sword it can force you to do anything it wants. The apostle Paul taught that we should take a different approach; We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do.We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; NLT). What are those mighty weapons? They are things like unconditional love and uncompromised truth. In short it is following the way of Jesus and it is the way the early Church brought change to the world. For a detailed account of this you can look at Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity. The way of Jesus certainly changes the world.
  5. Politics distract us from our true calling. Paul told Timothy; Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them (2 Timothy 2:4; NLT). The task I have been called to do is to make disciples and I cannot do that effectively if I am concerned about the politics of the nation. One reason is because my attention and time is divided between following Jesus and promoting a political cause. A second reason, and one that I know all too well, is that politics divide. One of the goals of the Kingdom of God is to bring people together, and time and time again we see that politics causes division. I don’t want anyone to remain outside of the Kingdom because of a political stand I took. I like what Alexander Campbell wrote; “To compel men destitute of faith to observe any Christian institution…is commanding duty to be performed without faith in God and therefore ‘anti-evangelical’ or contrary to the Gospel” (The Political Ethics of Alexander Campbell; p. 46). If we are to please our commanding officer and be true to the Gospel, then our main responsibility is not getting the government to support a certain standard of morality, but to invite people into God’s Kingdom. As people mature in faith and learn how to be led by the Spirit, they are led to do the right thing, regardless of what the laws of the land might be (Galatians 5:22-23).

I am not saying voting is evil, nor am I asking you not to vote.

What I am saying is that there is no reason for a Christian to support a party or a candidate that doesn't adequately represent them.

It is also important to note that an informed non-vote is still a vote. When I don't vote I am saying, "You don't deserve to represent me."

If you feel that you should vote, go ahead and vote, but don't belittle those who have made the choice not to vote. After all, that is their vote.

The Spiritually Mature Life: Having the Fruit

On Sunday, April 7, 2024, I started a new sermon series at Bethlehem Church called A Spiritually Mature Life. This sermon series is focused ...