The past several weeks have been very challenging for us with several recent deaths. With every death we are reminded of just how short and precious life is. Each breath we take is truly a gift from God. There is much that we take for granted, there are lots of sins that we commit, and there are decisions we will regret. But God’s love is powerful, and he loves us anyway.
When our beloved friend, deacon, and brother in Christ died this past week, I was honored to be able to read Psalm 86 at the graveside. Bill had a love for both the psalms and music. Before his death he was working on a project to have a composer write sheet music to turn Psalm 86 into an A Cappella arrangement. Psalm 86 was one of Bill’s favorite psalms. It certainly has deeper meaning now, for sure.
Psalm 86 is about pleading for God’s mercy and receiving it because of God’s love: “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am godly; save your servant, who trusts in you–you are my God. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day” (Psalm 86:1-3 ESV).
In this prayer of David, he recognizes how small he is in the presence of God, and that he is in desperate need of God’s mercy. It is because of God’s steadfast love that David received mercy, and David is giving thanks to God: “I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (vs. 12-13). It’s important not only that we recognize God’s steadfast love, but that we extend it to others as well.
Last week we spoke about the importance of giving thanks always-to not expect thanks, but rather to give it. Paul breaks a little in 1 Thessalonians from giving thanks always (time) to giving thanks in everything (circumstances). The difference may seem inconsequential, but it is not. Giving thanks in every circumstance is incredibly challenging when storms of life are crashing against us.
Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV). Paul, of all people, knew how difficult life could become. He was routinely beaten, stoned, arrested, and hunted by people who much preferred him to be dead. In addition to the physical harm, there were always people attempting to undermine the Gospel message, spreading lies about Paul and preaching a message counter to the saving message of God. Many people hated Paul and desperately wanted him shut down.
Imagine attempting to preach when you are constantly shouted down, chased out of cities, and hated by the very people you are attempting to save. To say it would be depressing is an understatement. It would be incredibly difficult, if not near impossible, for any of us to go on. At some point, the opposition would take its toll on us. But not only did Paul prevail, he thanked God along the way. Paul knew his blessings, and he urged the church in Thessalonica to know theirs too.
Sometimes it becomes difficult–even tedious–to offer thanks to God when we least feel like it. Some people are plagued with bad heath. Others with financial woes. Still others are grieving immeasurable loss in their lives. But God still blesses those of us who are struggling. In fact, it’s in those darkest moments when we see God emerge victorious. His will for us is to offer thanks in every circumstance. We have much to be thankful for, even when we suffer.
If ever there has been a trying year for large numbers of people, 2020 certainly has delivered. From the pandemic, to economic strain, to race relations, it has been a very taxing year. It’s no surprise that many people are stressed out and on edge. As Christians, we are called to be the light in this world. The way we live our lives and treat others matters. Thanksgiving is an important time when we reflect on our important history and give thanks for all that God has blessed us with.
Paul urged the Ephesian church to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2 ESV). Paul also urged, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (verse 15). How the Christians behaved in the midst of unrest mattered. It mattered then, and it matters now. Paul warned them to flee from sexual immorality, avoid drunkenness and debauchery, and to instead be filled with the Spirit.
Christians were to be different from the world, singing and making melody in their hearts, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vs. 20, 21). It’s easy to be ungrateful, angry, disappointed, and mean-spirited towards people. But as Christians, we need to set an example in word and deed, thanking God the Father for everything he’s given us. When we do this, we live as an example of Christ, who died for our sins.
Peter was writing to a group of Christians who were suffering. He told them to be fully prepared to endure suffering and persecution for the name of Jesus Christ. He urged them to not repay evil with evil but instead to bless others. He urged the elders among them to shepherd the flock well, and to do so willingly.
And he also urged the Christians to use whatever gift God gave them to serve one another. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies–in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:10-11 ESV).
Jesus told the parable of the talents, where the master gave each servant a number of talents according to his ability. In the end, the one who buried the talent in order to preserve it for his master was called a “wicked and lazy servant” by the master. God does not want us to squander our gifts. Both Jesus and Peter are clear that we are to use our God-given gifts to serve others. We need to put them to work to produce fruit for the kingdom.
When we use our gifts to serve others, they are blessed and we are offering hope and light.
Jesus could have preached any message he wanted. As the son of God, he came with authority to preach the word with all power. We often pay attention to what Jesus did in his ministry, but we also need to pay attention to what he said. The word of God is a double edged sword. It is powerful and effective.
So what did Jesus preach? We tend to focus on the blessings that Jesus spoke about. But what was the actual content of his sermons? Matthew records the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it started with the arrest of John the Baptist. Just prior to this, Jesus was baptized then led into the wilderness to be tempted. On the heels of that, John was arrested.
Then Matthew records, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus preached repentance wherever he went. Repentance is the central theme of the New Testament. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost was a message of repentance. It’s also important to note that Jesus’ message was combined with actions. He had mercy on the oppressed, poor, and heavy burdened. Jesus did not shrink back from condemning people, but neither did he hesitate to help those in need.
While we Christians need to help those in need, we also shouldn’t shrink back from a message of repentance. Repentance is essential for salvation. We should be willing to speak hard truths and call people to repentance while we model it ourselves.
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We are in a very charged political season this year, and it is causing a lot of division. This is nothing new. If you want to divide a room, shout out your support for either presidential candidate. Matthew records that the Pharisees “went and plotted how to entangle him (Jesus) in his words” (Matthew 22:15 ESV). The Pharisees sent both their followers and the Herodians, a sect of the Hellenistic Jews who were loyal to Herod Antipas, a Roman tetrarch in Galilee.
Their question was attempting to divide Jesus’ loyalty between God and the Roman emperor. They said, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:16-17).
Jesus was not falling for their trap. Jesus’ loyalty was to God. But that loyalty doesn’t mean that believers were exempt from Rome’s tax. Jesus asked them to pull out a coin. They did, and Jesus asked who’s image was on the coin. It had the likeness of Caesar on it. Jesus answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s” (vs. 21). In answering, Jesus was remaining neutral. His allegiance wasn’t about to be pledged to Caesar. At the same time, Roman law required all citizens to pay taxes. And those taxes were very high. It put a strain on the poor.
We can still remain loyal to God and neutral towards political leaders. Our identity is not tied to any one political candidate. Regardless of who “Caesar” is, God is still God.
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There are a lot of distractions in life. As I study deception techniques that abusers use, I learn how complex their techniques are to keep people distracted and fooled. Satan is very good at distracting us, especially when we think that we are good at paying attention. Paul warned the Philippian church about people who deceive and steal away: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV).
We need to look out for them because they are incredibly sneaky. They worm their way in and pretend to be righteous. That’s why we’re so easily fooled by them. At the same time, we are easily distracted. Our minds are not as attentive as we think they are. So Satan will use different methods for tripping us up, and we don’t even know it’s happening.
Paul’s focus is forward, looking to heaven: “. . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13, 14). Straining is accurate. It is not as easy as setting the cruise control. Forgetting what is behind us and focusing on heaven requires an incredible amount of focus and energy. It requires help from the Spirit of God. It’s not easy. But we absolutely have to press on. Otherwise we will fall into the trappings of the devil.
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