What’s Behind the Smile?

Sometimes we are too analytical when viewing other people. I am. In a conversation with a person, I sometimes wonder what they are really thinking, or what their true feelings are about the topic being discussed. A few weeks ago I taught for one week at a church camp. When we arrived at this beautiful camp, one of the first people to greet my wife and me was a woman with a pleasant personality and a smile that got my attention. I wondered what was behind her smile. By the week’s end, I knew. She was doing an excellent job at covering up a lot of hurts. Many of these feelings came out as she responded to my teaching, and our group became a family.

We learn through the years to cover our feelings with a smile. One of our friends decided that she is too old to drive her automobile and is going to sell it. Her lifestyle will change. She can no longer come and go as freely as she once did. Yet, she covered her feelings very well with a smile.

I am sure this was true in the life of the person who wrote our Psalm, which serves as the text for this sermon. Today he gives us a look at what is going on in his soul. Let’s examine some of his statements, which are emotional.

He writes, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” (vs. 1) What is he saying? “Life has taught me that God alone can satisfy my greatest needs.” Without God’s presence, he was an orphan. There was a vacuum in his life, an appetite that only God can satisfy.

You can be sure that the Psalmist did not run around telling his friends that he had these feelings. The author could present himself as a spiritually strong person. He could have given the impression that he was adequate for all things, but such was not so. There might have been a smile on his face, but what was behind the smile?

Millions of people walk in their society giving the impression that they have no needs. Money has provided them with all of the luxuries and necessities that a human could hope to have, and yet an intimate conversation with them tells you how burdened they are. Material possessions cannot satisfy all of their needs. Their souls pant for a personal relationship with the living God, and yet they do not know this to be true. They are looking for something, but they do not know what it is.

It is the task of the Christian to point this person to Christ, who alone brings peace for what they long. Real peace comes from within. I am convinced that many of these people wait for their Christian friends to talk about the Savior.

Let’s move on and talk about another feeling. The Psalmist was depressed. He was suffering from nostalgia, and he thought back on the “good old days.” “These things I remember as I pour out my soul; how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.” (vs. 4) He had led the procession in the temple on a festive day. All eyes could have been on him, but now these days were over. He could sit and watch as others led the multitudes into the place of worship.

If you are an older person, can’t you identify with these feelings? Life is not over because some of our earthly duties have been passed on to others. Our working days were but one chapter in our lives. Now God has something else for us to do. Maybe it is to sit back in the bleachers and cheer the next generation on as they minister to their peers with the same Gospel we used in ministering to our friends and relatives. Just to sit back and see how God is working in the lives of people becomes very interesting. It is surprising that life can go on without us, isn’t it?

As the Psalmist continues revealing his feelings, he tells us that depression leads to some funny thoughts and questions. In verse 9 he writes, “I say to God, my Rock, ÔWhy have you forgotten me?'” First he calls God his Rock, and then he accuses God of forgetting him. It doesn’t make sense, and some of our questions don’t make sense either, do they? When God has blessed us with health, family, the necessities of life, and the promises of His presence with us while we walk on this earth as well as a heavenly home, why do we complain? Why do we use a superficial smile to cover up the unhappiness that dwells in our souls? Sometimes these feelings of depression and unhappiness break through the smile and our friends who are not Christians ask, “Where is your God? Doesn’t your religion help you in times like these?”

he Psalmist knows the answer for his emotions. “Put your hope in God.” These are the words repeated in the Psalm. What does it mean? Let’s spell it out. To put your hope in God means:

¥ That Jesus Christ is your Savior and Lord, and you live in a personal relationship with Him.

¥ That you read the Scriptures daily and let God give you a word that will sustain you through the day.

¥ That you will make your requests known to him in prayer many times during the day.

¥ That you will join with His people, the Church, and worship Him on a regular basis.

Let Christ dwell in you and there will be a peace in your soul and a smile on your face that no sorrow can take away. Then the smile will be genuine and all people will inevitably know that God has put it there.

An Undivided Heart

“Religion has been the cause of more wars in the history of humankind than anything else!” This is a common statement. A physician from another part of the world was visiting with one of his patients about his early years. When God became the topic of conversation, the man said, “I have nothing to do with religion. In my country religion is the primary cause for all of our controversies.”

I have a friend who says, “Religion can make you a captive, but Jesus Christ can set you free.” This person was raised in a legalistic home. The family emphasized the Law of God, and when that was not enough, they spun one of their homemade rules off the commandments. Religion to these people was heavy and very strict. When the young man left home for college, he forgot the Church and did not return until his wife introduced him to Jesus Christ. In Christ he saw religion as freeing. In Christ he met a loving God. Experiencing the daily forgiveness of his sins, he began to understand God’s grace. The Gospel was cleansing and put a song and peace in his heart before which he had never known.

The real difference between being a “religious person” and being a Christian is walking in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

I start my sermon with a couple of questions. The first one is: What did the Psalmist mean when he prayed, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name”? The second question: Is it possible that we can have uncompromising Christian convictions and yet be respectful of others without compromising what we believe is based on God’s Word?

Let’s look at that first question. God’s Word is not something that I adjust for the circumstance I am presently in. It is unchangeable, whatever what our culture says. You can work no deals with God. The Church in Laodicea described in Revelation 3 tried this and failed. The Bible says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm Ð neither cold nor hot Ð I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This church thought they needed God up to a point. Beyond that they could take care of themselves for they were wealthy, educated, and quite self-sufficient. However, they wanted some measure of faith so they could turn to the Lord when all else failed. The culture molded their convictions and lifestyle.

This type of relationship with God is practiced repeatedly by most, if not all, of us. We have a “divided heart.” In some decisions we follow God’s Word; in other decisions we follow what culture dictates.

I recently heard a theological professor tell us that, when deciding on the rights or wrongs of the homosexual lifestyle, we must be aware of what Scripture teaches. However, we must also listen to the dictates of our culture. Hearing this, a layman in the audience challenged his statements saying he had always been taught that the church is to influence culture and not culture influence the church. The professor then went on to say, “But it has not worked that way in the past, and it will not work that way today. He took us back to the days when we took divorce much more seriously than it is today in the church. For example, no divorced person could serve as an ordained minister in the church unless it was some very unusual circumstance. When divorce became acceptable by our society, the church began ordaining divorced people. Culture influenced the church.

Once our Lutheran Church did not ordain women. When the women’s movement was successful in getting a more elevated role for women, the church began ordaining women. We were affected by the same culture. Some will go on to say there were other reasons than that, and I share this opinion, but we have to admit that the feminist movement had something to do with this change in the church’s policy of ordaining women.

Today culture is in the process, if it has not already arrived, of accepting the practice of homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle. The church is now studying whether or not we will ordain practicing homosexuals. We are also considering the acceptance of same-sex marriages, which is contrary to Scripture. We are letting our culture affect what we believe and practice.

The question is, what changes are next in the church? If we let culture interpret the Word of God for us, how long will we exist as a church, and should we exist? Do we have any great contribution to make if our authority of the past, God’s Word, is no longer the final word?

Do we not need to pray with the Psalmist, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name”? God, your Word has spoken, and I will remain true to it. Your Word is truth. Sanctify us in Your truth.

Now for the second question Ð is it possible to live with a divided heart and still be acceptable to the Lord?

I can hear someone say, “Of course that is possible. My mother taught me to do everything Ð eat, play, work Ð in moderation, and this list includes religion.” From this you can deduce that there are times when you are more Christian than others. It sounds terrible, but isn’t that the way we live as members of the church? Do we live with the old philosophy that the end justifies the means? Are there times when a lie is justified in furthering the Kingdom of God? Why are there so many disturbances in the church when Jesus tells us to love each other, and the catechism tells us to “apologize for our neighbor, speak well of him, and put the most charitable construction on all that he does”?

If our Christianity is to be practiced in moderation, it is difficult for us to identify with those people who claim that religion makes us slaves. We do not understand what they are talking about. “Why would any teaching have such a hold on us that we would not make some adjustments to preserve our freedom of thought?” Such a person could not understand his neighbor whose daughter was pregnant out of wedlock and they did not know how they were going to handle this situation. For the person with a “divided mind,” abortion is the most practical solution. Case closed. Scripture is not considered in this case. How sad! These people claim to be Christian. How can it be?

Nevertheless, you say, “This is contrary to what God’s Word says, and, as a Christian, I am not going to act contrary to what the Bible teaches.”

Your neighbor replies, “That is where you are more Christian than I am. Regardless of what the Biblical teaches, I am going to do what I think is best for me and mine.”

That same neighbor may not be able to understand the opinion that religion causes war. He would not argue that it does cause war and we are in the middle of such a war right now that has strong religious overtones. However, he would ask why people permit their religious convictions to have such a hold on their behavior?

Forget going to war. In a much less extreme situation they would ask, “Why would anyone let their convictions cause them to lose a good friend?”

This is a hypothetical case. Mary and Bob were close to Sally and Dick. They shared many of the same convictions, but they also had their differences. Sally and Dick introduced Mary and Bob to a larger circle of friends who, from day to day, lived respectable lives. However, a couple of times each year they went out to celebrate. Mary and Bob were invited to one of these celebrations. The weekend consisted of drinking to excess, profanity, and shady stories. Mary and Bob felt uncomfortable, and let their feelings be known. Sally and Dick were offended. They accused Mary and Bob of being narrow-minded. Bob sarcastically said, “There is a time and place for everything, and this was a weekend of partying. I can make a few adjustments in my Christian convictions without offending some very good friends.” Can we? Did the Psalmist wrestle with this problem, and is that why he prayed, “Give me an undivided heart, Lord”?

We need the spirit of Christ to convey our convictions to others. This spirit is not being self-righteous, condemning, or playing the role of God by sitting in judgment of others. It is simply saying, “God’s Word has spoken, and to this revelation I must be true. I am bound by Scripture. I have an undivided heart.”

The Christian is called upon to make decisions daily. Will we make these decisions based on the teachings of the Bible or what our culture is dictating? Let us join with the Psalmist and pray, “God, make me true to you with a heart that overflows in love for your Word.”

Meditation

During the last few days we have celebrated Independence Day, a holiday where we are reminded of our national freedom. Did you take a little time to meditate on what a blessing our freedom is? Perhaps some of you did, but I wonder if most of us were so busy with picnics, family reunions, and different forms of recreation that there was no time left for mediation.

But let me ask, do we know how to meditate?

I remember my grandfather, who was at the height of his delight when he could sit in his rocking chair with the Boston Globe and a White Owl cigar. He worked on that paper for a long time giving serious thought to some of the articles he read. Grandpa’s roots were in southern Denmark, close to the German border. His father was a Dane and his mother, a German. It was in a “border town” between Germany and Denmark that he lived for the first few years of his life.

The year was 1934, and Hitler was coming to power. While I was only 10 years old, my grandfather would talk to me about Germany’s problems and his concern about what would happen to his family and friends who lived there. It was evident that this man, with little formal education, knew how to meditate in his not-so-busy world.

His grandson, even in retirement, spends little time in meditation with the newspaper. He is part of a society who does well to glance at the headlines and skim only those articles that have special interest to him.

Do we know what it is to meditate? Meditation plays a vital role in the Christian’s spiritual growth. The Bible counsels us to meditate on God’s Word. The Psalmist writes, “On my bed I remember you. I think of you through the watches of the night.” (Psalm 63:9) Let us meditate on Psalm 65.

David is the author of this Psalm. Remember, David was a shepherd boy who lived in the hills tending the flock and marveling at God’s creation. Later in life, when he saw himself as a helpless sinner, he meets God as the One who forgives him and walks in a personal relationship with His child. All of these truths are mentioned in this Psalm.

David writes, “When we were overwhelmed by sin, you forgave our transgressions.” Look at the word overwhelmed. Think about it. When we are crushed by our sins, God forgives us. What kind of sins would these be? Might it be my unkind treatment of a loved one, or my poor example to the children and grandchildren when they saw my temper explode?

Meditate on the kind of person I really am. Some would say that is unhealthy, but God’s Word tells us it is absolutely necessary if we want to understand God’s grace Ð that He will forgive.

In this meditation, we should spend a little time not just thinking about our behavior, but the motive behind our behavior. It was not a mistake in neglecting to do some deed of kindness that would have helped an old friend, but it was my motive behind why I didn’t help him. I came up with an answer that I had been waiting for years to get even with this person, and now I have my chance to retaliate.

Wow! This kind of knowledge is hard to accept. Then I can confess with the Psalmist, “I am overwhelmed with my sin.” The Holy Spirit has been speaking to my soul, but in the midst of my depressed state of mind, I hear the words of God, “In Christ you are forgiven.” John says it so well, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sin.” (I John 1:9)

Meditate on your sinfulness and God’s forgiveness. God will give you a spiritual bath in His grace.

Move on in the Psalm and you read, “Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts.” David is referring to the Levites who had been chosen by God for a special relationship. You can read all about them in Numbers 3. This relationship with God was more personal for the Levites than the rest of the populace.

Today these “special people” are those who have received Christ as their Savior. These are the people who live with the assurance of their salvation. They know that when they die, there is a heavenly home prepared by Christ for them. They also live securely while in this life, because God holds them “in the palm of His hands.”

Isn’t this unfair for God to have favorites? Well, God is God, and He can do as He pleases. However, He loves all people and wants to be in this personal relationship with them, but those who want this relationship must first receive Christ as their Savior and Lord.

Here is another place to set aside time to meditate on your relationship with God. God has chosen you in Christ. He has initiated the action to have a father-child relationship with you. Have you accepted His invitation to come? Remember, God’s Word says, “Whoever comes, I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:3,7)

And then in this glorious time of the year, what an opportunity we have to meditate on God’s creation. If we are driving in the mountains or walking by the sea, we experience God’s power. David writes, “You formed the mountains by your power having armed yourself with strength. You are the one who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves. You are the one who cares for the land and waters it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide people with grain.” (vs. 6-13)

Where does this summer time find you? On this particular Sunday, I am in the state of Maine where it will be my privilege to walk beside the Atlantic as it throws its waves at the rocky coast. Last week I taught at a Bible camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There I saw the majesty of God’s power in those mountains. On Tuesday of this week, I will be back home right in the midst of the rich soil that is capable of producing enough grain and feeding enough cattle and hogs to feed the world.

Isn’t it time to meditate? This is our God, who has done all things well. Only the fool will deny that there is a God. To those who struggle with how this all happened, turn to the Scriptures. There you will learn that your Heavenly Father is the Creator. He hasn’t told us how He did it. But He does say, “I’ll let you try to figure out some of the answers. But in the meantime, realize it is only after you get to heaven that the answers will come, and the only way you can get to heaven is through trusting my Son, Jesus Christ.”

God has a word for us. He says, “Take some time every day to be alone with Me and meditate on what My Word. Then you will be adequately prepared to face life in a broken world.”

Courage

“Spiritual gifts” was the topic for a woman’s Bible study. We talked about the gifts mentioned in I Corinthians 12 Ð the gift of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, distinguishing between the spirits, and the list continues. Our study manual mentioned that the Biblical list of gifts was not intended to be a complete list. So we began to think about other personal traits that were gifts from God. One lady mentioned courage as a gift. Another person asked, “Is courage a gift?” Do some have it and others do not? Courage is defined as “the mental or moral strength to venture out, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Having concluded that courage must be a gift that not all people have, at least to some degree, we spent the rest of the hour in a lively discussion on how God gives us a courageous heart and how this gift is needed in our day.

Some of the examples of courageous people mentioned were interesting. One person mentioned Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who filed a letter that, according to Time Magazine, accused the bureau of deliberately obstructing measures that could have helped disrupt the September 11 attacks. Did others have some of this information? Probably. Why didn’t they make what they knew known? Did Coleen Rowley have a special gift that not all others have?

In the 16th century Martin Luther blew the whistle on the corruption in the Church. This brought much hardship to Luther, including the threat of being hunted and killed so that his friends put him in hiding for months to protect him from his enemies. Did Luther have a special gift of courage that others did not have? Was he the only one who understood that our salvation is a gift from God, and that it is received by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone apart from good works?

Let’s look at Psalm 46. This was one of Luther’s favorite psalms and the basis for his hymns, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” This Psalm teaches that God brings comfort in the time of trouble. God’s people have always experienced persecution when they remained true to His Word. Here the Psalm says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear . . . The Lord God is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

The Word of God calls for courage on the part of those who are his children. We see the courage of Jesus as he stood up to the Pharisees and High Priests of his day. They were so angered at Jesus’ teachings and actions that they had but one desire, and that was to kill him. Their threats did not intimidate our Lord. He stood courageously before them never concerned about His own safety.

As Jesus trained his disciples, he reminded them that it would be necessary for them to take up their cross and follow him. He assured some of them that they would die for him. These prophecies were fulfilled. The early followers of Jesus were imprisoned and tortured because they courageously said, “We must serve God rather than man.”

A courageous church is needed today. We need voices from the pulpit declaring, “Thus says the Lord,” even though our culture is teaching something else. We need this same message coming form committed Christians in the world of work and play when people flounder to know what is right and wrong.

All too often we remain silent, defending ourselves with the thought, “What good does it do to irritate our world? It only gives us a lot of enemies.” Our goal is all too often not to irritate people, which is impossible if we remain true to the message of the Christian faith. When truth is not spoken, bad things happen. This is what Coleen Rowley is saying about September 11, and the FBI’s part in it. This is what Luther was saying about the Church of his day Ð clean it up or people will not have a clear understanding of the Gospel, but will think Christianity is just anther law religion.

This is why the Roman Catholic Church today faces serious problems, because inappropriate behavior on the part of some clergy was not dealt with at the proper time and in the proper way. That is why many churches in Protestantism have little influence in society. Little by little theological error crept into the teaching institutions of the Church. In the name of scholarship these theological errors were accepted and soon the basic teachings of the Christian faith were rationalized, and the Church had no authority on which to stand for the Bible was not subject to the interpretation of the learned theologian who, in some cases, had little or no personal relationship to Jesus.

A couple of examples might clear up what I am saying. In some mainline churches the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is denied. The Scriptures clearly teach that He was raised, but it just didn’t seem possible to some that anyone could have come froth physically from the tomb. Rationalism replaced faith and the resurrection was reduced to some kind of a spiritual resurrection. What does that church really have to offer its community in terms of what God’s Word teaches regarding victory over death unless it is some nice psychological pep talk? The message of Easter has lost its punch, and the Church has lost the historical message of New Testament Christianity. Is it any wonder that such a congregation has empty pews?

Today this same method of interpreting the Bible continues. The subject now is the practice of homosexuality. Open up your Bible to Romans 1 and you will read clearly that the practice of homosexuality is sin. However, this does not go along well with the culture of the day, so maybe we now have to change this in the church. Learned men will come around and instruct parish pastors of new understandings based on what they call “the best scholarship,” and some pastor buy this line of thought for they have great loyalty to their seminary professors. Some in the laity like the more liberal message while others are angered by it. The results are division in the church. It is in this setting the church must look seriously at the clear teaching of the Bible and courageously say, “Thus saith the Lord,” and “On this truth we stand. Do with us what you will.” It is time, it has always been time, for the Church to speak if it wants to be God’s agent in this world.

Certainly we are to be peacemakers and not make an issue out of things that are not essential to our salvation and Christianity. But we cannot say that it is peace at any price. Remember, the Bible makes it very clear. “In as far as it is possible, live at peace with all people.”

Courage comes when convictions are strong. A timid soul can become a courageous person. The Apostle and is a good example of how God can take fear away replace it with courage. He who denied Jesus because of his timid became the one who, two months later, said to the enemies of Christ, “We must obey God and not man.”

Walk with the Lord Jesus in his Word and you will become a loving, kind, and forgiving person. At the same time, He will put courage in your heart and make you a forceful voice for him.

Is courage a spiritual gift? My Bible study with the women that afternoon convinced me that it is a gift that needs to be exercised by the committed Christian today.