How Do We Minister?

Little or nothing is accomplished by a strong religious argument. It is nearly impossible to argue a person into a living relationship with God. Instead, arguments can hurt friendships and make those who are involved very uncomfortable. Strong arguments have even divided congregations. Does that mean it is best to be apathetic and say nothing? No, but we should instead state what the Scriptures say in love and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.

This is what Jesus is demonstrating to us in the text today. The Pharisees wanted to argue with Jesus about why His disciples broke ceremonial law by eating without washing their hands. They wanted to know why his disciples did not live according to the traditions of their people.

Jesus did not argue this question with them. Rather He challenged them to turn their attention to a more important topic for discussion: the nature of man. “What comes out of a man is what makes him Ôunclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man Ôunclean'” (Mark 7:20-23).

Jesus did not paint a pretty picture of the human being. However, he also has good news. Paul tells us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Our lives can be cleaned up. Why argue some traditional practice in the Church with an unbelieving world? Instead, tell them the Gospel.

These words should be taken seriously by the church in any generation. Tell the story of Jesus. Invite people to ask Christ into their hearts, and let your words and life bear witness to the power of God making important changes in your life.

What are some of these changes for the new Christian?

It is Sunday morning. Your family once pitied your neighbors for having to attend church; now you join them. In that church you experience the fellowship of a different crowd. Joy is in your hearts and you feel a union binding you together.

One of the best times of the day is when you are alone for awhile and have a conversation with God. It has been a tough day. At times you slipped back into the old way of thinking and acting. Your arrogant spirit was very offensive to those around you, and your ability to pepper your conversation with lies, profanity, and slander still came naturally.

Now, alone with God, you place the day and all its sins before Him, and hear him say, “If you confess your sins and trust me, you will be forgiven.” What a load off your soul! Your prayers have an earnestness knowing that the God who has forgiven your sins will also give you power to change your spirit and attitude. You look back on your life and see God at work. You see the change that has taken place in the last year.

Tough times come that you never thought would happen to you, and you are devastated. Perhaps a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As the illness progresses, it becomes more difficult. If only he could communicate with you! Instead he asks the same question ten times a day and your patience is wearing thin. People are quick to give counsel. They mean well. Is it time to place him in a nursing home? Can you afford it? Didn’t you promise to be with him in sickness and health?

But then comes your quiet time as you have your conversation with God. Prayer is not a monologue where you do all the talking. While you do place all your feelings before your Father, your prayer time is also His time to speak. You open your Bible, through which He speaks. You look at a concordance and are directed to passages that deal with care, lonesomeness, and helplessness, and hear his voice speak.

The next day you recall some passages you have committed to memory. One is, “. . . as your days, so shall your strength be” (Deut. 33:25); and another, “ÔMy grace is sufficient for you . . .'” (2 Corinthians 12:9). You sit quietly and listen. A picture of Christ on the wall makes the conversation more personal. Time passes and other things are left to be done. The problems and hard questions are still there, but you have gained new strength and insights through God’s promises.

I have just finished reading a book called Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Boose. It is about his time as a student at Brown University. Students at Brown are encouraged to spend a semester in another culture giving them the opportunity to expand their world. Most of the students go to a foreign land for this experience; Boose, however, chose not to leave the United States but to attend Liberty University. Liberty, like Brown, is highly academic. However, it is different from Brown in that the Ivy League school is secular, while Liberty is centered on a very legalistic type of Christianity. When Boose enrolled, he was given a 43-page book in which the lifestyle for students at Liberty was clearly stated.

Boose was an undercover student. He did not reveal his true reason for attending the university, and the fact that he was not a Christian, until the last days of the semester. He then thanked the university for the semester and what he had learned of another culture, which had been completely foreign to him.

When he returned to Brown, little had changed in his life. He had not received Christ as his Savior and Lord. However, his experience showed him what a difference Christ could make in a life.

If it ever happens that Boose becomes a Christian, it will not be because of all the arguments the students at Liberty University had about tradition. Instead, it will be because, in the midst of traditions and legalism, the Lord Jesus Ð Savior, true God and true man Ð was standing there. He is the world’s only Savior.

Arguing religion can be very divisive and unpleasant, but sharing Christ can be exciting and joyful. This is how we should minister.

More Than I Want to Know

My computer has become a good friend. I use it for e-mail and keeping in contact with my friends all over the country. And it requires no postage! The Internet gives me information on almost any subject known to man; and it has games for me to play for relaxation. What would life be like without a computer?

When our children and grandchildren come for a visit, they often bring a laptop. They show me all the wonderful things they can do on their computers, like talking to Sam in Liverpool, England and Bob in Peru. And it is all free!

Seeing my interest, they say, “Let us show you how to do it. It is so simple.” At that point I throw up my hands and say, “No thank you. I like what I can do on my computer, but learning more about what it can do is more than I want to know.”

That is something like our Christian faith. When we get beyond the basics of Christianity in a Bible class, some people say, Keep it simple. You are telling me more than I want to know.

That is how the Israelites reacted when Jesus taught in their synagogues. As long as he taught truths that the human mind could comprehend, such as the ethical teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7), they were interested. However, now Jesus was taking them to a step higher, and they did not want to know that much more about him.

Who could deny that Jesus was a great teacher? Yet when he declared, “I am God” or “Just as I have a home on earth, so I also have a home in heaven,” it was more than they wanted to hear.

In fairness, we might ask how we would have responded to his teaching had we been one of the Jews sitting in the synagogue in Capernaum when he spoke the words of today’s text. Listen to what he is saying:

“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:53-58).

This was more than they wanted to know.

Tom Wright, an English theologian, has written, “He broke a hole in their world view with which they were cozy. Now they were uncomfortable. This is not the kind of Messiah or Savior they had in mind.”

Is this a picture of our culture? Many church members in our day are comfortable when they read the Sermon on the Mount. However, when the scriptures speak of Jesus as being the incarnate Son of God and that he paid the full price on the cross for our sins, they have problems accepting this teaching. After all, such teachings must be received in faith, and this is more than they care to accept in a rationalistic culture.

So what do they do? They walk away from the faith or find a church that does not present Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. An increasing number of people like this are found in our cities. Seminaries are graduating many of these people to fill the pulpits of our land. Soon the faithful leave those churches. That is one reason mainline Protestantism is on the decline.

Jesus then asks us this question: “Will you also go away?”

This was his question to Peter. The apostle answered quickly with the confession of a believer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It is so thrilling to hear a believer find his comfort zone in knowing that Christ is far more than an ethicist. He is Lord.

A few weeks ago I was asked to visit an old friend in the hospital. His 95-year-old heart had worn out, and he lay just waiting for the Lord to come and get him. When I arrived at the hospital, his two sons were there with their dad. We gathered around his bed, and I read these great passages from Hebrews 13:5-6,

“ÔNever will I leave you;

never will I forsake you.’

So we say with confidence,

ÔThe Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.

What can man do to me?'”

Then, with his two sons standing beside me, I asked their dad, “Roger, are you afraid to die?”

“No,” he replied.

I continued, “Roger, we have talked often about eternity. You lie now on your death bed. Tell me, why aren’t you afraid to die?”

He spoke only one word: “Jesus.”

I turned to his sons and said, “Take a mental picture of what you have just seen and heard. Your father, an educated college graduate, is not trying to figure out God’s plan of salvation. This he received in faith and has just told us that Christ was the One who has the words of eternal life.”

We have many inventions to enjoy in this age of technology. However, when their many uses are explained to us, we often say, “That is more than I want to know.” Not so with Jesus. We live in his Word and let him lead us higher and higher. Let him blow a hole in your little world and lead you into his presence until, through faith in him, you stand in your heavenly home and see him face to face.

The Old Rugged Cross

What is the central teaching of the Christian faith? We can find the biblical answer to that question in our text.

Life had been tough for the people of Israel who were on their way to the Promised Land. They became impatient and asked God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21:5).

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ÔMake a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it upon a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived” (Numbers 21:8-9).

John used this Old Testament incident when he wrote: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

He used this Old Testament incident to show it was the saving power of God Ð not the bronze serpent Ð that saved the Israelites. In the New Testament, the cross points to the death of Jesus showing that, like the bronze snake, the Son of Man (Jesus) had to be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him would have eternal life.

Tom Wright says it well: “Humankind has been smitten with a deadly disease, and the only cure is to look to the Son of Man dying on the cross. This evil, which was in the world (sin), was allowed to take out its full force on Jesus. It was not a messy accident. The cross stands between earth and heaven.”

But we must be involved in this matter of salvation. Note John 3:16b. It reads: “. . . that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Christ died for us, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we must receive him into our hearts. God has provided the way of salvation. Christ’s vicarious suffering and death paid the price so that our sins can be forgiven. This forgiveness brings the believer into a new world to be lived out until God calls us to our heavenly home. Our salvation is the complete work of God, and he offers it to us as a gift. However, we must receive this gift of Christ Jesus or the salvation is not ours. It is a rejected gift.

Tom Wright again says it so clearly: “You do not have to be condemned. You do not have to let the snake kill you. God’s action in the crucifixion of Jesus has planted a sign in the middle of history. That sign says: Believe and live!”

If a person’s salvation is the central message of the Christian faith, why has the cross and the resurrection lost its place in many churches? A common answer to this question is the message of the cross is offensive to our culture.

This raises a question: Is there a relationship between the decline in church attendance and a departure from proclaiming Christ as the way to heaven?

Another question could be raised: While there might be a need for a change in the order of worship to interest people, do external changes build the church? Will it replace the message of God’s Law and Gospel?

Here are two practical questions that we must answer if we are at all serious about the Christian faith and preaching the message of salvation to the end of the earth:

1. Could a person who is not a Christian and does not confess Jesus as Savior and Lord expect to hear about Christ dying for their sins in the sermon at your church service next Sunday? If your answer is no, then why go to that church? Is it simply tradition? Is it to meet a great group of friends? We need to evaluate the congregation where we worship with this question in mind: Is Christ’s death and resurrection the church’s major message? If the pastor will not preach Christ crucified and raised, it is short lived. The Church’s basic message is to proclaim Christ through whom we have the forgiveness of our sins. Depart from that message and the church has little to offer a person who is concerned about the eternal destiny of his soul.

2. If you invite non-Christian friends to your church, could you be sure they will hear the Gospel? Why otherwise would you invite them?

These questions are asked out of a passion for the lost and the life of the Church where we live.

What is the central teaching of the Christian faith? That was our introductory question. We cannot let the cross and resurrection be minimized in our Christian faith and proclamation. There is a danger that this is happening in some parts of main-line Protestantism. Of course, the Christian faith has social applications, and these must also be our concern. However, they are only dealt with in the light of the cross.

Don’t stop singing about the old rugged cross. This cross that stands between earth and heaven.

God Serves No Junk Food

Twenty-five years ago, James Masse, a great black preacher, opened his sermon by saying, “My mother never served her family any junk food.”

He pictured his mother in the kitchen preparing a dinner for her family Ð meat, potatoes, vegetables, and salads. This food would build healthy bodies.

Today, with our busy schedules, running from one appointment to another, we eat a lot of junk food. Examine our grocery carts and notice the foods that only have to be warmed up in the microwave. Some are good and others would come under Mrs. Masse’s definition as junk food. These foods are appealing to our taste buds and do not require much effort to prepare.

Well, Jesus turns our thoughts to food in the text. But the food he talks about is spiritual food for our souls. We remember that we are not only bodies that require nourishment, but we are also souls that must be fed.

This leads me to wonder who we are. There is no agreement on the answer to this question. Listen to St. Paul describe humans in Romans 5:6-8: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Paul says we are powerless, ungodly, and sinful. Our culture says we are strong people who, in spite of our mistakes, are morally pure and basically good. With these strong differences, we find no agreement on our spiritual menus.

Let’s take an illustration from the newspaper. Recently Bernard Madoff was found guilty of stealing from hundreds of people and sent to prison for 150 years. An older witness testified at Madoff’s trial that he had lost all his life’s savings plus his home.

After his sentencing, Madoff said he lives in a tormented state now knowing all the pain he has created. “I have left a legacy of shame,” he said. His wife is quoted as saying, “I ache over the stories heard and read.”

Madoff fed his soul on junk food when told he was a powerful man. He believed he was helping people economically, even though his method of attaining the money was stealing. I believe this man basically believed he had done a lot of good, but was fed the wrong food.

Jesus pleads with us to let Him feed our souls. Turn to His word where He will feed our souls. He points us to life lived in relationship with Him and reminds us of another life in heaven where we will live with Him eternally. He assures us that, if we will turn to Him, our lives will be different.

We are sinners. However, Christ assures us that, by grace through faith in him, we can be forgiven. He tells us that we are powerless, but he can give us the power to resist Satan and his angels. We can turn from evil and be a blessing to many.

Had Madoff listened to Jesus’ words and received him into his life, he could have used his talents to be a blessing to many people. It all depends on who is feeding our souls. Are we living on the junk food that often comes to us from our culture?

Harry Emerson Fosdick tells this story about Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton.

“None ever treated Lincoln with greater contempt than Edwin Stanton. He called him a low-cunning clown, the original gorilla. Lincoln said nothing, but made Stanton his war minister. When Lincoln was asked why he had appointed him his war minister after he had said such evil things about the President, Lincoln replied, ÔHe was the best man for the job.’

“When Stanton saw Lincoln in his casket, he said, ÔThere lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.'”

“Somewhere along the way, God had fed Lincoln’s soul with the bread of life and made him a spiritual giant. He has done this for many people.”

Who is feeding us spiritually? This is an important question that calls for an answer from our souls.

Really Old Hymns: God Is With Us – Psalm 46

I love the old hymns. Some of them have power to lift my spirit when I’m down and give me a new perspective for keeping on. Today I want to share with you a really old hymn that has ministered to many souls over the centuries; and it can minister to your soul when life is beating you up Ð Psalm 46. Let’s have a look. We’ll break it up into three stanzas,each ending with the word selah.

Stanza 1 of this hymn (vs. 1-3) describes God and declares faith in him.

In these first three verses our writer describes God and why we do not fear with God. First, God is our Ð his people’s Ð refuge. A refuge is a shelter, a fortress for protection. He also describes God as our present “help” in trouble. He is present to help as we face the tight spots of life. The writer goes on to say, because he is our refuge and our help, we don’t fear. “Therefore we will not fear” even when life seems out of control or we’re under attack.

The second stanza (vs. 4 – 7) tells why we won’t fear: God is with us.

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” The writer is talking of God’s presence (see: Psalm 36:8 and Ezekiel 43:47). God is with us and will help us against the raging nations who are attacking the holy city. Then he writes, The Lord of hosts (heavenly hosts – army) is with us, the God of Jacob (Israel) is our refuge.

Selah

Finally, the third stanza of this song (vs. 8-11) describes God at work. It proclaims, “Look at God’s powerful work!”

Verse 8 says, “Come, behold (gaze upon discerningly) his works his desolations Ð what he has laid to waste. “He makes wars to cease; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.” Some biblical scholars believe that the story of Hezekiah and Sennacharib in II Kings 18 is being referred to in this verse. God the warrior fought for Israel and laid the enemy to waste. Verse 10 is God speaking to the foes of Israel, “Be still (cease striving against me) and acknowledge me as God.” And then again the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

This Old Testament hymn has been handed down to us to minister to our souls. It was transposed for us into a new key with the arrival of Jesus that first Christmas.

Emmanuel, God with us, who has done battle with the power of sin, death and the devil staked his claim. On the cross he experienced the exact opposite of this psalm Ð God not with him Ð so that we could have a restored relationship with God and his promise. God raised him on the third day. Listen to Emmanuel’s promise: “Lo, I am with you always, till the end of time.”

Why is he with us?

To be our refuge as we withstand the attacks.

Attacks by whom?

We are still under attack and will always be in this world until Christ reappears. Luther knew it. Read his words of “A Mighty Fortress”:

“A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious.

He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious.

The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe.

With craft and dreadful might, he arms himself to fight.

On earth is not his equal.”

Peter knew it. “Like a roaring lion your adversary – the devil – prowls around looking for someone to devour (I Peter 5:8).

Paul knew it. “Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12).

One of Satan’s tools to destroy us and our life with God is adversity.

Bad things do happen to God’s people. For instance, God’s people are getting beaten around the globe. They are being persecuted, even martyred. I recently read of the atrocities being exercised against the Christian community in the Congo.

Even in the western world the church is sometimes finding itself subtly silenced or afraid to speak up for fear of being labeled as narrow or intolerant.

Bad things happen that shake us at our foundations within the church. And we can hear Satan whispering, “Are you sure he is worth believing in?”, in an attempt to break us.

In America the attacks more often for us are in typically subtle ways. You are with a companion from church who asks you about someone who you are not on friendly terms with and has hurt you in some way. The door is open to run that person down and perhaps gain another ally making you feel a little bit better about yourself. Satan whispers in your ear, “Go ahead; revenge is sweet.”

You’ve had a regretful past, but now you are a Christian. You’ve heard the absolution Ð Your sins are forgiven. Yet late at night when you’re alone old memories began to come back, and a condemning voice whispers, “You’re such a fraud! God’s forgiveness has limits. How can you believe that God can forgive you after all you’ve done?”

And then there is Satan’s most effective tool: our prosperity. When we live usefully or uselessly for self or for God, our values get so easily out of whack. We hoard; we play it safe and live for self and security. We don’t grow spiritually, and the abundant life isn’t experienced. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” We are rendered useless for the kingdom of God.

I once came across this statement: “Satan does not operate publicly as an evil character. He does not walk around with a large placard across his chest stating, I AM SATAN. LET ME TEACH YOU HOW TO SIN AND DO REALLY BAD THINGS. No, instead he operates as an angel of light with a pleasing smile on his face. He invites participation in his way of life with the philosophy: ÔCome let me teach you how to live life to the fullest. Nothing lacking in respectability, of course. Nothing that will get you into trouble with the law. You owe it to yourself. You are number One.’ Don’t you want to make it to the top and enjoy all those things success can make available to you?

“The Bible says little about Satan’s appearance. However, it says much about his footprints across peoples lives. It is not necessary for Satan to persuade people to lead openly wicked lives. He need only persuade them to lead useless lives. His motto might well be, Harmless Ð and all for you.” Harry Wendt, Divine Drama.

The attacks will go on until the final day when Christ reappears. We know from Scripture that God never promises us to be exempt from suffering attacks. In fact,

Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation. But fear not! I have overcome the world.”

The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge!

The Apostle Paul, writing to a church in Romans, chapter 8, talks of hard times for the children of God: “I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth; nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.

It’s true, trials and tribulations will come. But take comfort and be of good courage. The Lord of hosts IS with us. He is WITH US.