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.
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.
Paul wrote to the church in Colosse, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” (Colossians 2:1, 2 ESV). There is something special about being together with people, face to face. Paul recognized this multiple times to multiple Christians. He often longed to be with people in person, and that was a two way street. When the Ephesian elders met Paul at Miletus, “there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:37, 38).
These encounters went well beyond just a surface-level friendship. To be sure, Paul wanted the church at Colosse to know how great a struggle he had for them and those at Laodicea. Paul labored for the people he knew. He struggled for them. Paul made it clear that he did not want to “rob” the Christians he served. He was a tent maker. He did not ask for money, because he felt that would hinder his ministry. Consumerism was not of any interest to Paul struggled, and gladly so, for the sake of his fellow man.
It does Christians well to work hard–even to struggle–for the sake of others. It communicates that our relationship is not shallow and that the other person is worth struggling for. But most importantly, Paul emphasized that, “though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (Colossians 2:5). We struggle for others to ensure the firmness of their faith. This is (and should always) be motivated by our love of God and love for others.
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Yesterday Thom Rainer published a blog titled Six Reasons Your Pastor Is About to Quit. As a preacher, the title caught my attention. Thom Rainer has been gathering statistics and has consulted with churches for decades and is one of the most respected statisticians on church trends. In the article, Thom says, “The vast majority of pastors with whom our team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches. It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime.” This ought to make us pay close attention. This is happening right now, at unprecedented rates.
As I read the reasons why these ministers are considering quitting, it became abundantly clear that their churches are incredibly on edge, worried, and angry. The assumption from church members is that their preachers are sitting around enjoying a vacation while the rest of the country suffers. Additionally, churches are dividing over what rules to follow to keep members physically safe. Ironically, while they divide over how to keep physically safe, there is a rapid spiritual decline. Christians are shouting, pointing fingers, and acting ugly. This is in stark contrast of what the Bible clearly teaches.
Romans 12 is one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament. I spent two years preaching themes from Romans 12. Paul is blunt and uses clear directives: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9 ESV). Compare that to the way many Christians are attacking one another. Romans 12 is pregnant with references to how we should position ourselves towards one another: “Outdo one another in showing honor, contribute to the needs of the saints, live in harmony with one another, never be wise in your own sight, do what is honorable in the sight of others, live peaceably with all, never avenge yourselves” (Romans 12:13-19).
Now is the best time for Christians to turn this around. We can either complain about the evil and problems, or we can do something about it. For Paul, there is no question what he is asking of the Roman church: “Do not be overcome evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
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God is a God of revival. He takes the broken and renews and restores it. We often don’t think about the struggles and sacrifices Abraham faced throughout his life, but he endured a lot to become the father of the Israelites. He left his homeland and wandered for many years. He entered Egypt because of a severe famine. He and Lot parted ways. He witnessed the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah. And he impregnated Hagar at the urging of his wife Sarah.
Finally Abraham and Sarah had a son of their own, born in their very old age. He was, by all measures, a miracle child–a gift from God. They named him Isaac, which means laughter. God promised Abraham that through Isaac a blessed nation would rise. Then the unthinkable happened. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Was this a mistake? Was God just messing with Abraham? It’s tough to imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind.
When Abram and Isaac reached the spot, Isaac asked where the lamb was for the burn offering. Abraham responded, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 ESV). Abraham trusted God because he had a lifetime of reasons to trust. Abraham didn’t know what God would do, but he knew God would do it.
In the end, God spared Isaac and provided a ram for the sacrifice, because God is a God of revival.
Themes are a great way to walk through the Bible with a different lens and they help us focus in on something that’s really important. I like annual themes because it makes sermon writing have purpose and direction. As I thought about where we are as a congregation and where our culture has shifted over the last few years, it became abundantly clear that God was whispering that people need to be loved so they can see Jesus!
With so many stories about abuse, sexual exploitation, and the dramatic rise in drug overdoses and sex scandals, the church is in the absolute best position to reach out to their neighbors. While some are bent on preaching about the woes of the world, Jesus took a different approach. He lived out the greatest commandments–loving God and loving your neighbor. The command to love is as old as time. Jesus told us that all the law and the prophets are hinged on these two commandments. I’d say that makes them pretty important. . . the most important!
I love how blunt John was when he makes the distinction between children of God and children of the devil: “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).
In 2018 we will commit to practicing righteousness and loving our brothers and sisters. There will be no excuse for not doing so. We will share testimonies of lives that are transformed, and we will let God do his miraculous wonders!