The Sermon That Won’t Let Me Go

Maybe it is because of all the snow, ice and cancellations that have allowed me to spend more time thinking quietly to myself, but a sermon that I preached a few weeks ago will not seem to leave my mind. Now I suppose I need to preface that statement by telling you that most of the sermons I preach are locked into the back of my brain by Sunday afternoon. This happens because I must move on to the next thing. Sunday evenings I speak to teenagers, and by Monday afternoon I need to have a general outline of the coming Sunday’s sermon. Usually, the concepts from last the previous sermon are placed into my long-term memory until the next time I speak on the same topic or text.

There is one sermon that I cannot seem to escape. It was the first sermon in my series from the gospel of Luke. Each lecture in this series focuses on a story from the life of Jesus from the beginning at his baptism to the point of his entrance into Jerusalem before his crucifixion. The first message was on the temptation of Jesus.

I have had the opportunity to speak on this story several times throughout the years. The original plan for my preaching was to stay with the old familiar outlines and ideas. Normally I focus on the three types of temptation that were offered to Jesus and remain the same for us today. Jesus was tempted with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Those are the same tactics the devil uses on all of us to separate us from the work of God in our lives. Unexpectedly, this time something struck me that I had never noticed before when I prepared to teach on this passage.

Each of the temptations of Jesus was the offer of a shortcut to a positive end. The devil tempts Jesus to turn stones to bread. Jesus was hungry, and it is a reasonable request. The problem is that it bypasses Jesus doing any work. The second temptation (in Luke) is for Jesus to bow down to Satan and he would receive power over and authority over the whole world. Jesus will get those things at the end of his ministry, but only after he goes to the cross. The final temptation is for Jesus to throw himself down from the temple; if he does that, then everyone will see that he is God’s chosen one without him having to perform miracles or rise from the dead. In each case, the temptation is to reach a desirable goal by using a shortcut to God’s plan. The end does not justify the means.

For me, I cannot get two ideas out of my head. First, the way of God is long. There are no quick and easy routes to get to where God wants you to go. It will take more than three years for Jesus to accomplish the things Satan is proposing that could happen in an instant. Second, I am struck by the repeated fact that there are no shortcuts in God’s plans. You cannot have God’s will in your life entirely by Friday. There are no three easy steps to immediate transformation. The work of the Lord in my life and the world required a concerted effort over the long haul.

There are no shortcuts on the narrow way. The journey of faith takes a lifetime. God is with you for the duration, and I wonder, are you in it with him until his plan is accomplished in and through you. We want our spiritual life to be easy, and it just isn’t.

Making a Major Decision

There are times in life when you need to make a significant decision that will impact the rest of your days. It can range from a job change to moving, to a relationship adjustment clear to taking on debt. These moments can alter a lifetime and need to be taken seriously by everyone but especially by Christians.

Years ago, I heard a piece of advice that I have practiced and preached throughout my ministry. The concept is simple and has Biblical connections. The idea is to take your calendar and count out forty days and then circle that day as “decision day.”

First, the idea of using forty days has some Biblical precedent. Moses was on the mountain getting the law of God for forty days. Jesus was in the wilderness fasting for forty days before his temptation. Forty days seem to be the amount of time needed for preparation and completion. I also find it gives you enough time to process the situation, ask questions and think clearly about an issue.

Second, I suggest you take those forty days and pray at least once or twice daily about the decision you need to reach. Ask God to open doors and close doors of opportunity. Seek God’s will in your life and earnestly ask him to enlighten your soul.

Third, this plan gives you a day in which you reach finality. This keeps you from jumping to make a quick decision and from dragging it over months and months. When the day you circled arrives you say a final prayer and make a decision.

Finally, I tell people that the final step is to ask God to give you peace about your decision. Allow your answer to stand with no regrets and second-guessing.

Personally, I have used this tactic in my last three jobs and house purchases. Each time God has opened avenues for me to go forward and closed other possible paths. He has sent people into my life to affirm the decision and help push me in the right direction.

Maybe you have a decision you need to make right now, and this concept will work for you immediately. If not, I encourage you to put the idea in the back of your mind, and when the next big opportunity comes to you, then you will be ready to seek God’s will for your life.

When Other People Fail

Last week I wrote about my reactions when I hear that a member of the Christian community sin has become public. This week I am processing how a Christian should react when a non-Christian (or at least not publicly) fails.

How does a Christian respond when we hear about the sins and failures of other people who do not claim to follow Jesus?

1. Sadness. All sin is outside the will of God. It breaks Gods heart and put Jesus on the cross. I find no joy in the failure of anyone even if I disagree with that person’s views or lifestyle. Personally, I think it is wrong to find humor or joy in any form of sin.

2. Prayer. I really do ask God to break into that person’s life and show them the love of Jesus in some way. What would happen if every Christian asked God to do amazing work in the life of the person who failed?

3.Quietness. I refuse to share any articles, posts or gossip regarding anyone about sin. First, I do not know the true story and usually very few people do know the truth. Second, what if I share something that is wrong and hurtful and the story I shared is false? Finally, those two reasons are why the believers in the New Testament are told not to gossip and following Jesus requires me to remain silent.

4. Labels. I will refuse to label that person or anyone like them. Jesus did not see a tax collector who worked for Rome and was a crook. He saw Levi. He was a person created in the image of God whom Jesus came to redeem. He did not see prostitutes and sinners; he saw individuals in need of grace.

5. Speak. Speak the truth. I do not speak about the situation itself (see #3), but rather I use this as an opportunity to explain why we all need Jesus. We are all seeking to fill a void in our hearts that only Jesus can fill. The reason they committed this sin is that they were searching for fulfillment in ungodly ways. Now more than ever they need the grace and mercy of God combined with the love and compassion of his followers.

I get a little angry (and sad) when I scroll through social media and see what some people say and share about current news stories involving sin. One difference seen in being a follower of Jesus is that we meet sin in a constructive way rather than destructive. Where sin abounds, grace should abound all the more.

Moments That Change Your Life

As of today, I have been soda free for 8 days. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal to some of you, but for me, it is the first time in my life I have not consumed soda for a week.

The reason I tell you this story is not so that you will pat me on the back and tell me that I am doing a good job. No, I write this because of the dynamics behind this change.

Back in January, I visited the doctor for the first time in 18 years. I did all of the standard tests, and he told me that I have high cholesterol. This puts me at a greater risk of a heart attack. If you combine that with my dad having a heart attack and a series of strokes, my chances are also significantly increased. Then two weeks ago I read a new scientific study that showed people who consume two diet sodas a day are almost 75% more likely to have a heart attack. Immediately a light went on for me. I can’t control my genetics, and the doctor can prescribe medication to help with the cholesterol, but I can 100% control the liquids going into my body. In that very moment, I decided that I was done with diet soda forever.

The process of change has always fascinated me. So I began to dissect this event in my life. My wife has tried to convince me to drop the diet Mt. Dew for years. She has almost begged me and I would not do it. I have read other articles about the evils of soda and ignored them. This time it was a perfect storm of my stage in life, a doctor’s report, and a timely article that changed my mind. Everything came together, and all I needed to do was act.

I tell you all of this for two reasons. First, some of you have experienced God working on and in your life. Maybe it is time to follow him. I pray God will bring everything together that you might step forward in faith.

Second, some of you have been working with people you love, and they are resistant to ever changing. Don’t give up. With prayer and the power of God, one day everything may come together. You never know when that day will come so keep persevering in your effort to help.

I never dreamed I would give up my diet soda, but here I am. Who knows what God will do in your life and the lives of the people you love.

The Way in Which You Live

After reading a line by another writer, I took his thoughts and crafted my own sentence. I scribbled in my notebook, “You choose not only who you want to be but also how you want to be as that person.”

I firmly believe that God created us with free will. He is so powerful that he can limit his sovereignty over our choices, thus allowing us to love out of our own hearts. We can choose to follow him or reject him. We can walk the way of Jesus or the way of sin.

Once we step out in faith and become a disciple of the Lord Jesus, then we have a secondary choice. How are we going to live as a believer? Are we going to be an overachiever always pushing for greater success? Are we going to be passive and do very little for the kingdom of God?

One line that has adjusted my thinking is in Paul’s letter to the Church at Thessalonica. There he says,

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (New International Version 2011)

Paul’s instructions for the believers in that city and all believers are elemental. Work hard. Earn your keep and don’t depend on other people to pay your bills. Then, when you are done working. Mind your own business and take care of your needs at home. Do what he calls “leading a quiet life.”

You do not have to be busy all the time. You do not have to work non-stop. You do not have to fill every minute of your life with noise and distractions. It is enough to work hard and take care of your own family. A life like that is so rare that people will see it outside of faith and they will respect you.

Your life is the result of the choices you make. You chose not only who you want to be but also how you want to be that person. Chose wisely.

Hearing a Negative Story About Christians

Almost daily one of my news feeds shares a story of something negative that some individual or group did who call themselves Christians. Lately, they have ranged from sexual abuse to adultery to a misuse of power. Whenever I hear these stories, these are the five words that go through my mind.

1. Sadness. It breaks my heart to every time I hear that a Christian has tarnished the name of Jesus by some sin. It doesn’t surprise me, evil is real and seeks to devour us. Humanity is sinful, and we chose to break God’s law repeatedly. Still – it makes me sad every single time.

2. Thankfulness. I am thankful for God’s grace and mercy in my life. I mean this in two ways. First, except for the grace of God, there go I. Honestly, I am one bad choice away from messing up my life and leadership. Two, I am thankful am forgiven. The sins I have committed are covered by the blood of Jesus.

3. Suspicion. When I hear stories of failure by Christians, I always check out the source. Frequently, they come from very non-Christian places from people who are trying to hurt the name of Jesus intentionally. The reason these stories spread like wildfire is that they damage the Church. It reminds me to be careful with what I share.

4. Reality. I have heard of three stories of different types of moral failure lately. All are terrible. Three ugly stories of sin doing damage. Honestly, that is three too many, but it is only three. When you consider there are over 300,000 Churches in the US alone. Those Churches represent millions of people, and that is just in this one country. The truth is that the vast majority of believers are living with grace and only a few bad apples make the news.

5. Goodness. For all the bad stories that make it to social media, there are thousands of positive stories that go unreported. One of the sinful situations I read about recently was perpetuated by two men in a foreign mission. It was disgusting. What the story did not tell you was all the good this organization did with its numerous volunteers besides those two evil men. Unfortunately, a group of Godly people feed, cloth, and educate thousands of people and we only hear of these two sinful men. There is far more good happening in the name of Jesus than evil.

I hate sin. I hate it in my life. I hate it in other people when it damages the cause of Christ. As long as men have free will, evil will exist. People will sin, and negative stories will circulate. I hope you will pray for Christian leaders so that they do not fall and also for the people who have sinned. I hope you will view these stories in the proper perspective. Otherwise, we will grow cold and cynical instead of reflecting the joy of the Lord into our dark world.

Preaching to the Choir

One of the preachers I heard speak when I was a boy used to say something like, “I know I am preaching to the choir.” At first, I had no idea what he meant, but over time I learned that he was saying something we already believed and with which we agreed.

Throughout my ministry, I have tried to avoid sermons that were just preaching to the choir. I wanted to say things that challenged our thinking or forced us to question our assumptions. Occasionally, despite my best efforts, I end up doing exactly what I have been trying to avoid. Last Sunday was one of those times.

Let me give you the whole story, so you understand what happened. I am in a series of sermons from the gospel according to Luke. The second sermon in the series focused on the calling of one of Jesus twelve disciples named Levi. My goal was to explain the text while trying to invite people who feel like outsiders to follow Jesus. Well, the sermon was prepped and ready when we had to cancel worship on account of ice. I held onto the message and planned on preaching it the following Sunday. Little did I know that the next week we would also have snow and ice. We decided to meet, knowing that many people would not be able to attend. Finally, when I stood up to preach, I looked out at about a hundred people who I knew was mostly committed Christians. That was not entirely unexpected, only a person with a strong commitment to Jesus would get out to worship on such a lousy day.

There I stood with one thought running through my mind, “Today I am just preaching to the choir.” These people already know and believe everything I am going to say. My next thought was to change or adjust everything at the moment to make it more challenging to those in attendance. I did add and adapt a little of the information, but the basic message remained the same.

After I was done preaching several people commented that the sermon was good, inspiring, and enjoyable. At the precise moment, God spoke into my soul and reminded me that we all need to hear about the call of Christ to sinners over and over. The followers of Jesus must be continually reminded of their sins and the grace found in him. Even the choir should hear about the mercy and compassion found in Jesus repeatedly.

Perhaps today you would call yourself a believer who is trying to follow Jesus, and you need to be reminded of grace. You need to hear that Jesus loves you in spite of what you have done. These words that are so familiar to you can still touch your soul in the place you most need it. Sometimes the message we need to hear the most is the one with which we already agree and have merely forgotten.

What are the Characteristics of a Disciple?

Yesterday I attended a conference workshop designed for smaller Churches at my alma mater. It was an inspiring day filled with great information from some gifted speakers. One of the men addressed how our Churches are called to make disciples, a topic I have been discussing with our Church leadership for the past two months.

During a question and answer time near the end of the day, one person asked this speaker a great question. They wanted to know, “What are the characteristics of a disciple?”

I appreciate the question as I have been researching and teaching on that exact topic. I usually point to Matthew 28:18-20 or what is referred to as The Great Commission. There Jesus tells his followers that they are to make disciples, baptize them and teach them to obey everything he commanded. I then emphasize that a true disciple follows Jesus, is baptized, obeys Jesus and then goes to make more disciples. It is a solid biblical answer that is still very helpful.

The speaker took the idea and went a different direction with it that I have never heard or noticed. He went to Matthew 4:19, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (New American Standard). He then explained that there are three characteristics of a disciple.

1. They follow Jesus. Jesus calls, “follow me.”

2. They are being transformed. He focused on the phrase, “and I will make you.” Jesus is making us into his image.

3. They are fishers of men. A disciple cares about other people’s salvation and growth.

These are the marks of a true disciple of Jesus.

I think that is a great response. It pushes me to grow in my faith while demonstrating it with my life.

If these are the characteristics of a disciple, then I must ask myself if I am a disciple or just a Church attendee.

This is My Church

It was one of the most interesting criticisms I have ever received. A man brought his small house church to join the new church I was leading. We had been meeting for about four years at the time, and things were starting to go well.

One day this man contacted me and said he wanted to talk. We met, and he told me that one of my recent blogs was troubling him. I inquired as to what was bothering him so much. He proceeded to show me a blog post and said something like, “read through this and see how many times you write ‘my church.’”

Unsure of what point he was trying to make I read through the article and answered his question. Then he said, “That is the problem, you think this is your church.”

I paused in shock and then questioned him more specifically. He said something like, “This is not your church, it is the Lord’s church.” I responded, “Okay.” He then proceeded to question my leadership and my pride as a leader.

Honestly, this was the first and only time I have ever heard someone complain that I thought it was “my church.” I responded in two ways to home. First, I explained that I had moved my family to Iowa to start the church, raised the money to make it happen and spent countless hours making things grow from my family to over 100 people meeting each week. As a result, I did feel a sense of ownership. I apologized if that came off as arrogance, but this was my baby, and I was happy with what God had done through me.

Second, I offered a sense of personal reflection. This is my church. Not in the sense that I own or control, rather, in the way that the woman I married and the kids she bore are my family. I do not possess them, but I am connected to them in a deep and meaningful way. My heart is given to them, and they are family to me. So, I said emphatically, “It is ‘my church,’ and I am proud to be a part of it. I hope you would come to consider it as your church too.”

One of my goals in ministry is to see people find a place to call home with people they see as family. The church is not just a place of which you are a part or attend worship regularly. It is a collection of people united in Christ and committed to one another. These are my people, and I hope they are yours too.

Weekend Reading

Here are some of the best articles and posts I have read over the past few weeks. Enjoy

Putting the Basket in the Water: Trusting God in the Next Phase of Your Child’s Life

Four Words that Describe Today’s Pre-Teen Girls

3 Reasons Why We Need Godly Men Serving in Children’s Ministry

Why You Should Try Assigning Seats at a Fellowship Meal

5 Common Mental Errors That Sway You From Making Good Decisions – I found this fascinating.