Learn From the Past

God wants us to apply this spiritual counsel to our relationship with him. He says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion during the time of testing in the desert” (Hebrews 3:7).

God speaks to us in his Word, and he wants to live in a personal relationship with us. If we also want this relationship, we must faithfully read his Word, meditate on it and pray. He needs some of our time to get our attention.

God raised up Israel to become the nation from which the Savior of the world would come. However, Israel was rebellious. They wanted to be God and call the shots on how they would live their lives.

He led them out of slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land. Yet they experienced difficulties, for they had no water. Grumbling on the way, the Israelites asked Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to make us and our livestock die of thirst?”

God heard their complaints and told Moses to speak to the rock and thus water would appear. Yet, even Moses was rebellious. Instead of just speaking to the rock, he struck it. God did give them their water, but because of Moses’ disobedience in striking the rock, God sentenced Israel to spend forty years in the wilderness, and Moses would never enter the promised land.

This incident in the life of Israel teaches us that we must obey God. He, and he alone, is supreme. The past teaches us that if we live contrary to his will, we will experience his anger. Israel was slow in learning what the psalmist wrote, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 32:12).

This lesson applies to our day: Live contrary to God’s will and he will withdraw his blessings from us.

William Barclay writes, “God makes an offer. Just as he offered the Israelites the blessing of the Promised Land, He offers to all people the blessings of a life far beyond the life that man can give to us. However, to obtain the blessings of God, two things are necessary: trust and obedience.”

We have to learn the lesson that we are not God. We are to live under the Lordship of Christ. He is the Lord of our home and will guide us in the raising of our children. He is the One who can take us to our Heavenly Home. Clearly God teaches that we do not have the power to save ourselves. We are completely dependent on Christ, his death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection if we are going to enter the Promised Land (our Heavenly Home.)

This lesson also applies to the Church.

The Church is the spiritual Israel. It is Christ’s Body. Christ spoke to his Church when he said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go and make disciples of all nations . . .” (Matthew 28:19).

This is the God-given mission of the Church. The past teaches us that we cannot substitute another mission, though often we do try. All other missions for the Church are to be secondary. They are important, but are secondary.

Congregations and denominations that hold true to this mission are vital and growing. God uses them to change lives and convert people to Christ. We learn this by studying the past.

When God looked at Israel and saw that they had hardened their hearts and did not listen to his voice, he was angry. Have we as Americans hardened our hearts to what God says in his Word? The past speaks specifically about God’s action when people turn away from him. He is a God of punishment and will withdraw his blessings from that nation if they continue in their greed and unrighteous living.

Hear then, America: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Could it be that the future of our blessed land hinges on what we do with these words? We are not God and do not have all the answers to the problems of our day.

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12). This is one of history’s great lessons.

Drifting Away

One bright Sunday morning in April a young girl came running to me before her confirmation service started and said, “My dad is in church today. He doesn’t come very often, so I hope you will preach well. Then maybe he will come back again next Sunday.” Then she walked off with a smile on her face that touched my heart.

Her family made a big event out of confirmation, and even though her dad made no profession of being a believer in Jesus Christ, he came that day. He seemed to be a nice man and was good to his family, but he didn’t want anything to do with the organized church.

A print by Norman Rockwell hangs in the building where we live. It depicts a father sitting in his slumber chair with his pajamas still on, smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper. His wife and three children are on their way to church. The mother and two daughters snub him as they pass by, lifting their noses. But the youngest child looks at him with a broken-hearted expression.

You can’t help but wonder what is going on in that boy’s head, or what his wife is thinking. Perhaps she is having second thoughts about marrying him. Although he’s been a good husband and provider, he truly loves them and is faithful to them, one thing is lacking in their marriage: a personal relationship with God.

Perhaps that print also describes the home of the young girl who came to me before her confirmation service. Statistics tell us that more than 50% of confirmands will eventually drift away.

Confirmation in our church was one of our highest priorities. Those ninth-graders were instructed in important biblical truths. They knew the Gospel story intellectually, but would that knowledge move into their souls and develop into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Could that teenage faith endure life in a godless, hard world that would give no encouragement in the faith, but instead discourage them in many ways?

In Hebrews 2:1-4, we find that God is also tremendously concerned for our spiritual health. He is asking if we have drifted away from the faith, which we have learned in confirmation class, Sunday school, and wherever else it may have been. The writer of the book of Hebrews says that if we do drift away, then we are losing our salvation, for faith in Jesus Christ is the only way we can be saved.

It is disturbing to see a person, who has grown up in the faith, walk or drift away from that faith. While he may remain a fine young man, if he has no real contact with Jesus Christ whatsoever, it is disturbing. Sometimes I think we get more upset when one of our children goes another direction politically. Whether we should get disturbed about changing political affiliations or not, I cannot say. However, when we are dealing with the issue of the salvation of people who once trusted Jesus Christ and now have nothing to do with him, it is serious for it affects us both now and for all eternity.

If God is concerned about his children drifting away from the faith, shouldn’t the Church of Jesus Christ also be concerned? It should be. It should be concerned to know that, although they may know the lesson, many people in the congregation probably do not know the Savior. While I do not know if this old world will still be standing in another generation, I do know the Church of Jesus Christ will be here, and nothing can destroy it. Many world leaders have tried to destroy it, but our Lord Jesus has given us his promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. When Christ returns, the Church of Jesus Christ will be present.

What will our individual churches be like in another generation? Only God knows the answer. We could have a real spiritual awakening in our congregations and things would just be wonderful. But if events of the future follow the patterns of the past, I am very skeptical that mainline Protestantism will continue its proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ Ð that Christ alone is our salvation and through his suffering, death, and glorious resurrection he has made atonement for our sins. That message is becoming, I believe, something rarely heard in many of our churches today.

While going to church doesn’t mean you are in a living relationship with God, a person in a living relationship with God will want to seek out the church, for if it is operating according to the command God has given, it will feed their soul.

Many things make it difficult today for the church to continue on. Life is much more complex than it was a generation or two ago. The mobility of our people is just one issue. Often times people do not have a place where they can go to hear the gospel. I have a friend who was in my confirmation class. He is a very fine engineer and has lived in China for many years. When he was home recently, I asked him where he goes to church. He explained that the believers there gather for worship in their homes on Sunday morning, and sometimes he even does the preaching!

I have another young friend who was very successful in his field as well. When I asked him where he goes to church, he told me they couldn’t find anything to suit their fancy, so they remain unchurched. This is a case of drifting away. Year after year, drifting further and further away from Christ. We live in a society that is filled with relativism, with no rights and wrongs. Everything is subjective. Our society may respect the Bible for its heritage, but its message is passŽ. When the message of the Gospel becomes passŽ, it means we have drifted away.

What can we do? We have some help. Turn to God’s word daily. If we will do that, friend, we will not drift away for the Holy Spirit will speak to our hearts binding us closer to the Savior who loves us.

The second thing to do is to surround ourselves with the brethren Ð those who love the Lord Jesus, too. I do not mean that we have to live in a little cloister, but we do need friends who know the Lord Jesus, can correct us, encourage us, forgive us, and sustain us.

We need those kinds of people in our marriages. Whom have you married? This is tremendously important. It is far more important than physical appeal, financial security, and social status in a marriage. It is a living relationship with Christ.

We need to live in a congregation Sunday after Sunday where the Word is preached. We have to go there and be together for we can drift away.

So just remember this verse, will you? I want you to know that it comes from your Lord. It’s in the second chapter of Hebrews, verse one: “We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” The Lord who loves you is calling you this day to be his forever.

The Family of God

Experience teaches us the value of a strong family. Bonds between parents and children, spouses and siblings, are built in the family circle, and those bonds can last a lifetime.

The family in which I grew up was small Ð dad, mother, and me. I often prayed that my parents would have more children, but that was not to be. I did promise myself, however, that if it were possible, my wife and I would have more than one child. God gave us three. Now those three children have multiplied into a family totaling fifteen, and they were all home for Christmas. My family traveled from Wisconsin, California, Boston, Arizona, Minnesota, England, and Iowa. What a great time we had enjoying the blessings that come from strong families. I pray you, too, had a wonderful Christmas.

However, we have other types of families, also. We have the college family, the work family, the neighborhood family, and the church family. Today I would like to visit about another kind of family that the writer of Hebrews writes aboutÑthe family of God. You can read about this family in Hebrews 2:10-18.

God’s intentional will was that all the people of the world would be united in one family. Sin separated God and humans, but God was not willing to leave it that way. So he came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. His purpose was to build the family of God. Scripture refers to Jesus as the pioneer of this new family. He walked on this earth in human form, having the same experiences that we have, though without sin.

Jesus learned the power of Satan, for he was tempted by Satan. However, Jesus did not fall. He knew humans’ fear of death. So he died in our place as payment for our sins and was raisedÑconquering sin and assuring us that, in trusting Christ, death has also been conquered for us.

These truths are summarized later in the book of Hebrews when the writer says:

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest, who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we areÑyet without sinning. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

All this leads to the question, How do we become a member of the family of God?

Jesus replies, “You must be born again.” Today in this sermon we will not discuss how a person is reborn, but let it suffice to say that in faith we receive Jesus as our Savior and Lord, believing that he has died for our sins and was raised for our justification. Along life’s way we see the need for a Savior. That Savior is Jesus.

This is more than just being a church member. Many members of an organized church do not belong to the family of God. Remember that Christ has to be a part of our lives. By grace we say, “Yes, Lord Jesus. Come into my life. I want you. I trust you.”

When we have had that experience, a new world opens for us. We have millions of brothers and sisters living all over the world in all kinds of circumstances. We see that the Church is far greater than any single denomination.

If my observation is correct, I believe the family of God will take on even greater meaning than it did for many of us in our generation. Let me illustrate.

We have a grandson who, after graduation from college, chose to move south to be free of the blustery Iowa winters such as we are experiencing right now. When I asked him if he missed his family, he immediately replied, “Of course I do. I love them. They mean everything to me. It is not that I have cut them out of my thoughts. I am in contact with them through e-mail and phone several times a week. With transportation as it is, we can see each other often over the course of a year.”

He then added, “However, I have found a wonderful church where I worship Sunday morning and evening, and during the week I attend a Bible class. I have made some wonderful friends in the church, and we spend many hours together.”

When he lived in Iowa, he had Christian friends who were his family of God. Now in Arizona, he has added to this family. His brothers and sisters are to be found all over the world.

I believe that one of the encouraging movements in the evangelical church is to see how many people, especially young people, see the oneness in Christ and do not let certain doctrines separate us as long as we hang onto Christ.

In God’s family our world becomes larger, and we see what a mighty work God is doing among us.

Preaching in 2009

If God wanted people to live obediently in fellowship with him, why did he give us a free will so that we could rebel against him?

The answer is clear. If people did not have a will that was free to say no to God, we would not have been created in our maker’s image. Instead we would be puppets. When God spoke, we would click our heels and respond obediently.

One could wonder why the Almighty has not given up on humans because of our disobedience. He is still working to make us people living out of love for him. That is what the Bible is all about.

We pick up the story of God’s redemptive act in Genesis 12. God was going to build a nation with the promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3).

From this nation Ð Israel Ð came one by the name of Jesus. We have just celebrated his birth. Yet Christmas was more than just the birth of a child in the manger at Bethlehem. It was God coming to this world in the person of Jesus Christ. He suffered and died as payment for the sins of all people. Those who receive him as Savior will be granted the forgiveness of their sins, and they will be restored into fellowship with God.

People who trust Christ as their Savior live out of love for him in this personal relationship. These people come from all parts of the world No longer is Israel the only nation offered this gift of salvation; it is now for all of us. John writes in our text, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.”

Christians thank God for his law, which tells how he would have us live. The Ten Commandments are the basis for all law. We shudder to think what our culture would be like without a moral basis. There is plenty of evidence to see what government is like without his law, and we move further away from his will each day. Free enterprise is corrupt without God’s law to control dishonesty and theft. Labor unions will fail to understand the meaning of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay without God’s Law.

The law reveals to us right and wrong, but it does not have the power to force us to live that way. This comes only from walking daily in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as he extends his grace to us.

We are now in the year 2009. Will we live this year as pagans or as God’s children? We know that the goal of those living outside a relationship with Christ is to satisfy the desires of the flesh. God’s law has little influence on their lives. Some of them will remember parts of moral teachings they received along the way believing that, to a certain extent, in the notion of right and wrong. However, they decide when and if to put these rules into effect. Humans are rebellious by nature and want to do their own thing.

The economic difficulties our country finds itself in today reveal how we can set right and wrong aside while we do our own thing, especially when we can gain something from it. Excessive salaries to reward those in control have revealed the greed that is found in people’s hearts. A government that failed to regulate financial decisions in the past now testifies it operated under the principle that people had enough love for their corporation and country that they did not need regulations. It appears this love wore thin.

Where does God’s Word enter this dilemma?

Not through church conventions sending resolutions to governments and business. Rather, it comes through Christians. Those whose lives are controlled by Jesus Christ and are recipients of his grace bring their strong witness as to the rights and wrongs of living as citizens of God’s Kingdom. This challenges all who claim Christ as Lord. It includes those in the legislative chambers of our land, in the executive offices, on the factory floors, and any other place where God’s children walk.

If things are going to be different, God has to be acknowledged. The pulpits of our churches have to preach the message of what it means for all of us to walk in a personal relationship with God. This must be the emphasis of preaching in 2009. Only then will we be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The message must be carried by individual Christians, from the general laborer to the highest executive, from the city leaders to the President of the United States. Without God’s grace, humans cannot be changed. The Bible teaches this, and the history books reveal it is true.

Will it happen? I am skeptical that it will; however, skepticism cannot hinder us from being faithful in holding Christ high as the only solution to our problems.

That is our assignment from the Lord himself to the Church. We dare not take orders from any other person or culture. He alone is the solution to our problems.

Yes, there is an answer, but we in our sinful state have turned from it.