Adjusting Your Focus

Where do I go for help?

This is a question we will ask from the cradle to the grave. Life teaches us that we do not have all the answers to the questions that confront us. This is the question the people of Israel were asking.

Our text is Psalm 121. I have read this psalm hundreds of times to the people of my congregation when they were looking for answers to crushing problems. I only wish that I had some thoughts that came to us as we prayed and listened to what God was saying to us. Let’s walk through some glorious thoughts in this part of God’s Word.

“My help comes from the Lord.” Israel, in its weaker moments, lived as an independent spirit. Yet they were to be pitied, for they believed they didn’t need any help. However, when they were honest, Israel sang that their help came from the Lord, and He was the maker of heaven and earth.

Does this not also describe us? How often we feel self-sufficient. We believe we have the answers and the strength to deal with our problems. But then come those hours when we do not know where to turn. This is where I as their pastor helped them search the scriptures for answers.

One such time was when a child had gone astray. It was easy to get angry with him for bringing disgrace to the family. And then God spoke in his Word: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). His parents had brought him to church and Sunday school where he was taught the Word of God. Now he was like the prodigal son described in Luke 19. Was it too much to believe that their son would return to the Savior?

The father then reasoned, “I never shared verbally with my son what Christ means to me, because I have no personal relationship with Him. I know about Him, but I do not know Him personally.”

It was a marvelous opportunity to help this dad with his own relationship to the Lord, for he was now experiencing how helpless he was to aid his son. I could share with this man, whose heart was now open to how he needed a personal relationship with Christ. It was also a thrill to tell him that once his own life was in order, he could share this relationship with his son. Although he should have done this years ago, according to God’s calendar, it is never too late.

This is just one example of how, as Christians, we need to adjust our focus from self to the Lord, who watches over us. He neither slumbers nor sleeps. Our cares and concerns are often more than we can carry. Why not take them to Him in prayer and then follow his Word?

Another verse from this Psalm is, “He will keep you from all evil.”

The temptations of life are great. We send our children out into a world that cares little about the Lord. Don’t you wonder some nights, as you lie in bed, where they are and how Satan has tempted them in this day? How easy it was to tuck them in bed as children and know where they were. We could provide them with a protective environment. That is no longer possible, nor should it be, for we are in this world, but not of this world. And we wonder how they can remain faithful to the Lord and enjoy the abundant life that God offers his children.

Well, God has given us a will that permits us to walk away from him. Yet he has also said that if we will let him, he will keep us from all evil. If we are focusing on our own strength, the day can be very frightening. However, we find great security in knowing that we do not have to walk alone.

We are aware that temptations come, not only to our children, but also to us for whom the end of this life draws near. God has not promised to spare us from all pain and suffering. We see that as our loved ones lie in hospitals and hospices awaiting death. However, they do not wait alone, for God has promised us grace to endure until the end of our earthly journey, and then a home in heaven. All this can be ours, because Christ has died for our sins and given us a promise that, if we trust him, all is well. We are in our Father’s hands. The doctors can do no more. They have prolonged our lives and made it possible for us to be free from pain. However, the time will come when we hear the words telling us that no more can be done. It is then that our Savior tells us, “I will keep you.” Then we need to adjust our focus from the human to the divine.

All this is ours in Jesus Christ.

Israel sang this psalm in their places of worship. Consequently we who live on this side of the cross can focus our eyes on Jesus and sing, “I come, I come.”

A Lesson From History’s Best Financial Adviser

My friend, who works in the investment business, tells me that it is not the easiest time to be a stock broker. Our unsettled economy makes us uneasy about the safety of our savings, investments, and pensions. We are dependent on these financial resources for a comfortable retirement.

This concern is not unique to our day. People living in Jesus’ times had the same concerns. This is seen in the request of a man who asked Jesus to tell his brother to divide the inheritance with him. Jesus denied the request, but took the opportunity to give them words of warning concerning the dangers of money. This parable is a warning. In summary the parable says that money can become our God and rob us of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, both now and for all eternity.

The parable in Luke 12:16-21 is about a farmer who was an aggressive person. He worked hard and set goals for the future. These were good qualities. Jesus was not criticizing him for making good use of his talents. The point of the parable is to give a warning concerning the effect of the love of money on a person. Jesus said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

This is a sad picture. Often, when someone dies prematurely, we will say, “It was too early. Just when this couple was going to enjoy life by traveling and relaxing, one of them is taken in death. How unfair.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you live in a person relationship with Jesus Christ, he will empower you to be in control of your money and not let your money be in control of you. This is an important piece of advice, and it is why I have entitled this sermon, “A Lesson from History’s Best Financial Advisor.”

Let me tell you another story.

As a child, this man lost his mother in death. As a youth, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge where thousands of men were killed. Following World War II, he returned to his hometown and met two people who had a strong influence on his life. One was a minister who took a great interest in his life. The other was a woman, old enough to be his mother, who rented him a room in her house. However, she was far more than a landlord; she spent good times with him. She also introduced him to a young Christian woman, who later became his wife. It was at this time that I became a part of his life, because I had the privilege to officiate at their wedding.

God blessed that marriage with two children. They were raised in a home where the Bible was read regularly. The father led his family in prayer and taught them biblical truths, like the right use of money. He taught them that out of every paycheck they should return 10% to the Lord, save 10%, and use the remainder of their check wisely.

He was a busy person building a profitable business and raising his family, but my friend always had time to serve the Lord. He was a leader in his church and, although he had little formal education, he was chosen to be a member of the board of regents of a private college with a high academic standing.

Now life was getting easier. The children were raised and educated. His business was successful and well established. One afternoon, after he finished mowing his lawn, he headed to a celebration at the college where he was a regent. On his way to that celebration my friend had a heart attack and died at 64 years of age.

Now why do I tell this story? It bears witness to how God can guide a believer in the use of material possessions.

Jesus Christ was this man’s Savior, and he lived in a personal relationship with the Lord. He was a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. God guided him to the abundant life while on earth and an eternal life in heaven through this relationship. I am sure he would have loved to live a few more years, enjoy some of his wealth, and watch his children and grandchildren grow up and find their places in life. But the Lord called him home. He laid down his earthly possessions to inherit a place in the eternal mansion, which was a complete gift from God. He had the best of both worlds.

When properly used, money can bring many blessings. However, it can also be a destroyer of the human being, who was created to live in fellowship with his Creator. This is why Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

The love of money can destroy relationships with God, family, and friends.

Money can cause covetousness. How sad to be possessed with a thought that says, If she can have it, why shouldn’t I have it?

Money can destroy happiness. A person says, “I hate my work. It’s only money that keeps me working.”

Money becomes the world’s measuring stick for success. How sad, because nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, money is a tough subject to deal with in an affluent society. Therefore, we need the world’s greatest financial adviser to guide us. Who is he? Christ Jesus. Take his counsel and make your money a blessing, not a curse.

He Doesn’t Turn Anyone Away

It was evening. Jesus was off praying in the hills somewhere. The disciples had experienced another unusual day following Jesus. Supper was over, and they were sitting around a campfire telling stories, discussing events of the day. The conversation seemed to run out, so they just sat and stared at the fire.

After a long pause, Philip said, “Doesn’t he turn anyone away?”

Someone asked, “What do you mean?”

Philip replied, “I was thinking about that Canaanite woman who chased us down today.”

Judas snorted, “Now I’ve seen everything. Helping Canaanites Ð our enemies! I don’t get it!”

Peter responded, “Yes, he surprised me today, too. But now that I think about it, Jesus has never been very picky about the people to whom he ministers.”

James chuckled, “I’ll say! What about that prostitute that he was with the other day? That got the Pharisees excited.”

“And what about the other riffraff he’s made time for?” added Bartholomew.

Somebody else chimed in, “Yeah, like that centurion soldier with the sick servant? I was shocked by that one.”

Andrew said, “Yes, he does seem to be interested in all kinds of people, no matter what their background.”

Matthew, a former tax collector himself, quietly added, “I, for one, am glad he is.”

At that, everyone got quiet again and just stared into the dancing flames of the campfire, pondering what they had seen and heard that day with Jesus.

He doesn’t turn anyone away.

That is the good news that jumps out of this story from Matthew. Christ’s love and mercy know no boundaries or borders. A Savior without borders. Who you are and what you have done or not done with your life does not seem to stop him from caring about you and acting with mercy as you turn to him in faith.

Let us look at the episode again. Jesus and his disciples were off for some R & R in a foreign land populated by non-Jews. These people had a long history of being bitter enemies of Israel. They worshiped the fertility gods, were considered unclean, and were referred to as “dogs” by the Israelites. A woman in this country came to Jesus, knelt before him, and expressed humble faith in him as the Messiah. She received mercy.

An interesting conversation takes place between Jesus and the disciples in front of that woman.

I cannot understand the mind set of Jesus as we look at his initial non response of ignoring her, and then his harsh words. There are many thoughts on this conversation:

¥ Some scholars suggest that perhaps Jesus was in a personal conundrum over whether it was time to minister to non-Jews at this point in his ministry. Earlier on, when he sent the disciples out, he said, “Go only to the house of Israel.” Perhaps he was thinking aloud to himself. Perhaps he was looking to the sky and praying aloud to the Father.

¥ Others think Jesus used the occasion to teach the disciples a lesson. By first ignoring her, his words Ð which are rather harsh Ð mirrored the disciples’ own prejudices and unloving attitudes toward non-Jews.

¥ Some suggest he was testing their compassion level as they listened to the howl of a suffering mother asking for help for her very sick daughter.

¥ Still others suggest that Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. How long would she hang in there? Jesus seemed to think she passed the test with flying colors as he exclaimed, “Great is your faith!”

I do not know which of these is right. Truth could be found in all of them. I do, however, know the story and the actions of persons involved. While the disciples wanted to get away from this Canaanite woman as she shouted in faith for attention and in behalf of her daughter, Jesus did eventually respond to her cry of faith. And he helped her.

I also know that God had a plan all along. According to the Old Testament, since the time when God called Abraham and Sarah, he wanted to bring his blessing to the nations of the world Ð Jews and non-Jews alike. Isaiah the prophet talked of Israel being a light to the nations. He said that the Temple would be a house of prayer for all nations, and that God cares about the whole world and about all of us.

In the New Testament Jesus made it clear that he has come for the entire world:

¥ All were created in his image and precious in his sight.

¥ All were created to live in a personal relationship with him.

¥ All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

¥ All need a Savior.

¥ All were redeemed on the cross at Calvary.

¥ All are offered the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.

So, when a person turns to Christ Jesus in faith, he is not turned away.

If you are carrying around a load of regrets from your past, Jesus Christ will take it from you and forgive you of your sins. That is why he died on the cross.

Years ago, the headlines in some large newspapers carried a story about a Long Island garbage barge that meandered around for 6,000 miles searching for a home to leave its load. The smell must have been unbearable!

I have run into many people who are carrying a barge-load of guilt and shame they do not know what to do with. Miserable! Bring it to Jesus Christ. You can leave it at the foot of the cross. Confess it and walk away, clean and forgiven, with a new future. Come to him and say, “Lord, I have made a mess of my life. I am lost and confused. Will you lead me into a new life and teach me how to live as a citizen in your kingdom?” He will not turn you away, but instead will welcome you, lead you, and show you what makes a life work.

God is merciful and good. This is what many discover that, as they call upon him in their sorrows and hurts and ask for his strength and presence.

I find this episode of Jesus’ ministry to be a lovely snapshot of Jesus and the wideness of his mercy! No matter what your past is, or what false gods you have been worshiping in your life, if you turn to him, he will not turn you away.

Are you someone needing Christ’s help? Has life gotten out of control? Have you discovered that you do not know what makes it work? Turn to him and know he loves you. He died and rose for you, and he will not turn you away Ð no matter what your past has been. God’s grace and forgiveness are greater than any sin.

I imagine that the friends of Jesus got stretched that day and their preconceived notions were challenged. As a friend of Jesus, this picture stretches me.

If our Master, Jesus, loved and helped all kinds of messed-up people, can I do any less?

Peter had to relearn this lesson later on after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit opened his eyes in the home of an Italian soldier to see that God cares about all the people of the world. Jesus is for everybody! Peter responded to this eye-opener with these words, which we find in the book of Acts, chapter 10:34-36: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality . . .”

It changed the church from being a Jewish Messianic sect to a world movement inviting all nations and all people to hear the good news of God’s rescue through Jesus Christ, and to be saved by placing their trust in him.

People will cross our path, even approach us, who are difficult to love and be ministered to. We have our boundaries, our own prejudices, and our own borders.

This story is meant to stretch you. Will you love them in Christ’s name?

In his book, “Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness,” Pastor Jerry Cook tells the story of an angry phone call he received from a pastor of another church in his area. This pastor was upset because some members of his church were leaving to go to Cook’s church. Cook let him speak his mind. In the course of the conversation, the pastor hinted that the people who were going to Cook’s church were only those who had been beaten by life. They had been broken by their sins or personal tragedies and would probably never contribute much of anything to the life of Cook’s church.

Then, near the end of this conversation, he said, “You know what you are out there? You are nothing but a bunch of garbage collectors!” Then he hung up.

Cook mentioned this in a sermon one day, and a man came up to him after the service. He owned the local garbage company. He said, “Let me tell you something about garbage. For ten years, we dumped garbage at a landfill near here. You know what is there now? A beautiful park!”

Jerry Cook concludes this story with a question: “Where else is God going to send the garbage for recycling if he can’t put it on our (the church’s) doorstep?”

Good question.

Many people are in need of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Some are very unlovable. Their sinful histories may be different from our own. We may consider them write-offs in our minds. Yet, they need Jesus Christ in their lives. As they may cross our paths by seeking answers and help from the church, we remember that, according to Scripture, each of them is loved by the same Jesus who has loved us. Where else is God to send them for rescue and restoration, if not to his own? That is something to think about.

A Lesson From a Party

Jesus was a people person. He loved people Ð all kinds of people. He was comfortable with the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the religious and the wayward. He was also a social person, and he loved a party. In his parable of the prodigal son, Jesus teaches us that there are times in our lives when we need to celebrate.

It is a general policy that a parable teaches one lesson only. However, when we look at this parable, we see so many thoughts that it is a temptation to pass them by. In this story, Jesus’ main message is to tell us that our Heavenly Father is always anxious to welcome us back home. A prodigal can be converted and his life can be changed. When this happens, it is time for a party.

The prodigal son had it made. He lived comfortably in his father’s house. However, his soul was restless, and so he decided to leave home. The father honored his wishes and gave his part of the inheritance. Soon he was off to the big city where, according to the Bible, he squandered his life in wild living. Soon the money was gone, and there was a severe famine in the whole country. Now he was in need, so he went to a farmer asking for work where he was given a job feeding the pigs. His pay was to eat what the pigs ate. It didn’t take long until he came to his senses. He planned to go to his father and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am not worthy to be called your son; make me one of your hired men.

Arriving home, his father had compassion on him and threw his arms around him. After hearing his son’s confession, the father said to the servants (and this is the text for my sermon), “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. . . . Let’s have a party, because my son was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.

This is another of Jesus’ great stories. We learn that when a person comes into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it is time to celebrate. As Jesus says in John 3:7, “He has been born again.”

People occasionally ask me, if I had the opportunity to live my life over again, what would I do differently in my ministry?

Many things come to mind, but the most important is that I would spend time urging Christians to share their testimonies of what Christ has done for them. It could include great stories such as living in their baptismal covenant and telling of the spiritual awakenings that brought them closer to the Savior as the years went by. Others could tell of their conversion experience when as an adult they received Christ as Savior and Lord. What an experience that must have been! Still others might share how Christ had been their counselor, comforter, and strength in times of crises.

I am amazed at the wonderful stories about people’s personal walks with Jesus that lie silently buried in their souls. These stories need to be told. They call for a celebration of at least a cup of coffee.

Think of it ladies! You are sitting at the coffee shop listening to the day when Jean received the Lord as her Savior. She knew little about the Bible. Her husband’s spiritual background was much the same. Then one day her neighbor invited Jean to a Bible study. After meeting for a long time with the group, Jean asked Christ into her life.

Until that day at the coffee shop, Jean had never told her faith story. However, it was no surprise to the ladies, because Jean had always been so kind and gracious. But like many others in the group, she had never shared the greatest day of her life with Christ. It deserved a party.

We often have a reception for a group of new members in our congregation. That is nice, but what about a celebration for those who have had a spiritual awakening or conversion? Doesn’t that call for a party also? What would it do for our congregations and our relationship with those new brothers and sisters in the faith? It could help free us up so we would talk openly about Christ and our own life.

That is the lesson we learn from Jesus and his story about the prodigal son, who once was lost but now was found. If you are living in the Word, your life is full of great stories also.

A Lesson From the Garden

Last week, we used as our sermon theme, A Lesson from the Kitchen. Jesus evidently had watched His mother add leaven to the dough as she made bread for her family. From this parable, Jesus taught that, just as leaven transformed the dough, so God’s Word is the leaven of God’s Word that can transform a human life.

Today we have a lesson from the garden. We can well imagine that as a boy, Jesus may have been sent into the garden many times to pick fruits and vegetables. Let us suppose that in the midst of the garden area, there was a large tree. Jesus had watched his father plant a mustard seed. It was a small seed, but it soon began to grow. It grew until it became a large tree, where the birds could be found perched in its branches. Later in His life, recalling that tree, Jesus saw a lesson that would help people better understand how God’s Kingdom would grow. So he taught that the Kingdom of God had a small beginning, but as it grew, it included people from many nations. Now, it is the greatest Kingdom on this earth and will continue to be, for it has no end.

This parable also gives us an opportunity to ask these questions:

1. Who are these spiritual giants that make up this Kingdom?

2. How did they become spiritual giants?

The history books reveal some of these great people of God. Let us take a look at three of them who are well-known.

Augustine (354-430) is one of the greatest church fathers. The seed of God’s Word was sown in his life when he was a small lad. However, as the years went by, Augustine rejected the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. He was an extremely intelligent person and felt he didn’t need the Gospel. Yet God was not done with Augustine. The Word was still alive in his soul; and his mother, Monica, was still praying for her wayward son. Furthermore, he was listening to the strong preaching of God’s Word by Bishop Ambrose.

Finally in 386, Augustine was converted and was baptized the following year. As the days went by, he grew to become a spiritual giant. History tells us that all western Christianity was to become his debtor. It was the power of the Word of God, which Jesus talks about in the parable of the mustard seed, that produced this spiritual leader.

A second great example of the power of the Word is seen in the life of Martin Luther (1483-1547). He was the son of Hans and Margarethe Luther, who were living in Germany. Luther became an Augustinian monk and longed for the peace that only the Gospel of Jesus Christ could give him. Though the story of Luther’s conversion is longer than we can tell in this sermon, we know it was while he was preparing his lectures on the book of Romans in his study that God spoke to him. He read, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ÔThe righteous will live by faith'” (Romans 1:17). The Word was working in the monk’s life.

From then on, Luther was captured by the Gospel Ð we are saved by grace alone through trusting Jesus Christ who has suffered, died, and been raised for our salvation. The Protestant Reformation had begun. This is what Jesus is teaching us in this parable. The power is in the seed, which is the Word of God.

Now let’s take a look at an entirely different servant of Christ, who is still living. He is not a great scholar of the Word. He has never attended a theological seminary. But this man has preached God’s Word to more people than any other Protestant who ever lived. It is said that 2.5 million people have answered his altar calls, which he gave at the conclusion of his sermons. I refer to Billy Graham, who was born to William Franklin Graham and Morrow Coffee on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. He was born in 1918 and converted in 1934. During those years leading to his conversion, Billy was a rascal and considered by many to be a person who would amount to nothing. However, God had other plans. His hand was placed on Billy, and although his ministry is coming to a close, this man has preached to two billion people and served many Presidents of the United States. This is the power of the seed, which is God’s Word.

These are three of the internationally-known servants of the Lord. Now let us turn to others like you and me, who are known only by a few people, but whom God has used. I witnessed a whole church full in Parkersburg, Iowa, where I had the privilege to preach in recent weeks.

A tornado had swept through Parkersburg five weeks before I was preaching to the congregation. One third of the city was literally carried away with the wind. Six of their citizens had perished in the storm, and yet I heard these people sing, “A Might Fortress is Our God.” The last words in that hymn written by Martin Luther are, “What though they take this life, goods, honor, child, and wife; their hatred still is vain. They have no lasting gain, we still possess the Kingdom.” These were people of faith. It is just one more picture of what the Word can do when sown in the minds and souls of people.

One member of the flock, Herman Luhring, who was not a member of the congregation where I was preaching, had told his story of the tornado to the media. He and his wife were huddled in the shower stall in the lower level of their house. Soon they heard a BOOM Ð the house was gone. When Herman looked into the face of his wife, he saw no response. “She never said a word, so I think she went to be with Jesus right there,” were his words to the media. That statement was the fruit of the tree that Jesus talks about in the parable of the mustard seed.

Yes, we are born sinful, weak people. But never underestimate what the power of God’s Word can do in the lives of people, your own included.

In order to grow, we must be fed. What are some of these great truths that shape the minds of spiritual giants?

¥ God created us in His own image (Genesis 1:27). We, as human beings, are the crowning work of His creation. If we live with this truth, it will have a great effect on our whole understanding of life and our part in it.

¥ We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. However, we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23). Look at the old rugged cross and see that Jesus paid the price of sin for the whole world. All of this was done so that we might be restored to fellowship with our Heavenly Father. Faith in Jesus makes us the redeemed children of God.

¥ I am weak, but “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). I can face all of life’s hardships victoriously, when Jesus Christ is within me.

¥ And we are aliens and strangers on this earth . . . we are longing for a better country, a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13-14) We are mortal people given an eternal life through Christ. Because we know this, we live accordingly.

¥ While we are citizens of this earth, Christ has commissioned us to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). What is our role in life? If we are going to be a spiritual giant and a part of this unending Kingdom, God has a primary task for us: to be His witnesses at home and abroad telling the story of the Lord, Jesus Christ himself.

Think of what believers are becoming. Note the progressive tense. God is not done with us yet. He is still at work in us through His Word.