Who Are Our Leaders?

If you were starting your life’s work over, are there certain things you would do differently?

I would! For one thing, I would schedule regular retreats for leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.

You might ask where I got that idea. Maybe it came from some new book I read recently?

No, it comes from Jesus, and it is discussed in our text today.

Jesus was with his disciples on a retreat. The text says, “They (Jesus and his disciples) . . . passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.”

Our Lord wanted to be alone with the disciples. He had preached to crowds of people telling them who he was and what his mission was on earth. He knew they could not understand all that was being taught to them. But the leaders Ð the Twelve Ð had to be aware of what was going to happen, so this was our Lord’s agenda on their retreat. He told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But even with time alone, the disciples could not comprehend what he was saying. Our text reads, “They did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”

It had to be a disappointment to Jesus when, the next day, he asked them what they were arguing about on their way to Capernaum. They were too embarrassed to tell him, as well they should have been. While Jesus had just announced the days of suffering that were before him, these self-centered disciples were arguing about whom among them was the greatest. Jesus gave them an answer: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

You have to feel sorry for the disciples. They just had no understanding yet of what Jesus was teaching them. They had all the head knowledge they needed; however, they had not yet experienced who Christ was or what his death on the cross would mean for the world.

Was the retreat in vain? Not at all, for when those days came and they saw Jesus being falsely accused by the religious leaders and sentenced to die in Pilate’s court, his teachings became reality. When he was led to the cross and they all fled for fear that they too would be crucified, the retreat took on meaning. And when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection, his mission and their part in it began to make sense.

I dream of what could happen in a congregation over the years if, annually, twenty leaders and prospective leaders would go on one of these retreats. It would be hard workÑno golf clubs or fishing poles would go along. Only Bibles.

We would be giving in-depth training to those who would lead our congregation. These people would be our Sunday school teachers and church council members.

What would be the agenda? The basics.

First, the heart of the Gospel. Who is Jesus, and does he live in you? What is the

mission he has given to us? We would talk about telling this story whenever God gives us an opening and the assurance of salvation. We would come to a place where each one would give his or her faith story to the group. Does each one have the assurance of salvation? (Could you imagine people teaching in our Sunday school and serving on our church council who were not in a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus?) The best-trained teacher and the strongest businesspeople might not be ready to serve as leaders in our congregation.

Also, the retreat would include a biblical study of society focusing on the issues the Church is struggling with at the present time. In the 1950s it was the matter of divorce. In the 1960s we wrestled with women’s place in the church. Today it is the sexuality question. What will be next? Where are the passages in the Bible that deal with a particular subject? It matters not what our culture says. Rather, what does the Word of God teach?

I have been asked many times about the sexuality question. My answer has always been that my answer is not important. What does God’s Word say? Deny or adjust that and you no longer have an authority. Can you imagine leaders in the congregation without a strong biblical conviction on the subjects that are plaguing the Church?

Christ knew that the people who were to hear him say, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) would face hardship. All but one would die for their faith. They had to know him personally. I believe the Church of Jesus Christ is facing difficult times, and they will become increasingly difficult. Our society is moving further and further from God. The Church must have well-trained leaders who have a personal relationship with God.

Where are these leaders? They are right in our congregations each Sunday morning. Many are willing to lead, but they need training. They need a retreat where the biblical teachings can become very personal as they ask themselves where they, as a leader in the congregation, stand in their relationship with God.

The Word Makes a Difference

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Dr. Erik Klinger from the University of Minnesota did a study and determined that we make between 300 and 17,000 decisions every day. These decisions are big and small, range from routine to major, and affect personal and business matters.

Making decisions can be difficult. So we sometimes find ourselves making gut decisions, rash decisions, bad decisions, and uninformed decisions that we later regret. As Christians who have been touched by God’s grace in our lives through Jesus, we want our decisions instead to be prudent, wise, and God-pleasing.

Our text for today testifies that God helps us make decisions as we go through life as God’s people. Let’s have a look at it. It is a portion of a psalm that praises God for his law and his Word:

“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long,” reads the first line. Love for the law? How can this be? Obviously the songwriter isn’t familiar with Paul’s letter to the Galatians that talks of living under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10).

Whether you view the law as praiseworthy or as a curse depends on the angle from which you view the law. If you view it as a means to salvation, then it is going to be experienced as a curse as you try to earn your way into a saving relationship with God. You can’t do it! However, if you view the law as an expression of salvation, it is an entirely different story. Then your attitude toward the law is similar to when you love someone, or are grateful to someone who has done something for you, and you want to know what will please them so you can show your love and gratitude.

In this particular setting of our text, the psalmist is a member of God’s chosen people. He is one of the people of God’s covenant, made when Israel was saved from slavery in Egypt. This is a privilege! God said of them, laying down the law, “This is how my people will live . . .”

Another word for the law is Torah, which encompasses not only the commandments and ordinances by God to his chosen people, but also the history of what God has done for them.

The psalmist says, “I love your law,” your very Word, Lord, that tells me how much you have done for me and how I can live in your sight, for your good pleasure. He adds to that love statement: “It is my meditation all day long.” He studies it, ponders it as he reads it, and tucks it into the core of his being. He follows it in his decision-making, his relationships, and every facet of his life.

Let’s look at the rest of this passage and see why he loves God’s law.

“Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me.

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.

I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.

I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.

I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me.

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. “

Did you catch why he loves it so? He sounds like a satisfied customer. The law has made a positive difference in his decision-making life!

There are a couple points in the text that we should examine more closely.

First, when he writes, “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,” it gives him an edge over his enemies Ð those who do not follow God’s ways. God knows what makes a life work best; he invented it, so he ought to know.

Next, notice the repetition of the word “understand.” He says he has “more understanding than the elders,” that he “gains understanding from your precepts.” Here in God’s Word, our songwriter says he has gained understanding. Understanding of what?

¥ Understanding of God. He made me, and he loves me; he wants to have a relationship with me and lead me through this life.

¥ Understanding of self. I need God, because without him leading me I make a mess of my life with my sinful, self-centered ways.

¥ Understanding of his will for my life as a follower. My ultimate goal in life is to glorify God with my ethics, my behavior, my attitude, my words, my witness, and my actions. That is God’s ultimate goal for your life and mine: to glorify him and enhance his reputation before a world that needs him badly.

By the way, the psalmist is not knocking teachers or the elderly in our text. He is simply pointing out the supremacy of God’s Word in a person’s life over that from all other sources.

Finally, the writer points out that the Word of GodÑthe lawÑkeeps him out of the trouble which he is prone to get into without it’s guidance. He writes, “I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.” He is saying, What you have given me, Lord, is keeping me on the straight and narrowÑand I’m loving it!

Now the last statement: “Therefore I hate every wrong path.” What is he saying here? I’m sticking with your Word, Lord. I pledge allegiance to studying and keeping your Word in my life. In other words, he’s going to keep at it and let it be his compass for life.

A good question for us to ask is, Why did the Holy Spirit save these words all these centuries for us? For what purpose?

The purpose is to point the people of God toward the benefit of knowing God’s Word and submitting to it in our lives. It’s an encouragement to study and apply it in our daily decision-making.

Is this encouragement only an Old Testament teaching? Absolutely not! As Christians, we know and follow the Word made fleshÑJesus Christ!

The Bible tells us, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . The word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, glory as of a Father’s only Son full of grace and truth. . . From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:1, 14, 16).

Jesus Christ entered our world and died upon a cross to rescue us from sin and give us eternal life. Listen to his command for his followers: “If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). The key word is “continue.” Know it and hold onto it as your authority in life’s decisions.

Listen also to what he later said to his followers: “Those who love me will keep my Word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). This, too, illustrates how very important it is to keep and live by God’s Word.

Years later, an older Christian named Paul testified to a young Christian, whom he was encouraging, to stick with the Word of God: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Paul had learned the value of continuing in the Word of God.

Some of that enthusiasm for God’s Word has been lost in parts of Christendom today. Biblical illiteracy is a phrase sometimes used in describing the struggles in the church. People don’t know their Bible very well. Some of this stems, I suppose, from a skepticism regarding the Bible’s authority and its relevance for our lives. Another reason may be that people do make attempts to study the Bible, but find it is difficult. Indeed, it does take discipline and time to get at what God is telling us in the Bible.

Whatever the reason, many people are missing out on the wisdom and understanding that our psalmist describes for us today. The Word of God will make a big difference in the lives of those who will give themselves over to the endeavor of studying it and applying it to their decision-making. We need the Word in our lives!

Martin Luther wrote, “Nothing is more perilous than to be weary of the Word of God. Thinking they know enough, a person begins little by little to despise the Word until they have lost Christ and the Gospel.” Losing the Word means losing Christ entirely.

In another comment on the importance of God’s Word in our lives, Dr. Billy Graham was recently asked in an interview what he would do differently if he had his life to do over again. He replied, “One of my greatest regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking, when I should have been studying and preparing.”

The psalmist was right. God’s Word makes all the difference!

You might ask, How do I get started becoming acquainted, or re-acquainted, with God’s Word?

Set aside time each day to read and study it. Read slowly, a little bit at a time. If it’s one of the New Testament letters, read a paragraph and then stop. If it is a story, read to the end of the narrative and stop. Think about it. Use some observation questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? To slow you down as you ponder, ask yourself, What do I learn here about God and his will for me?

Use the tools that are available. Usually at the beginning of each book of the Bible you will find an introduction that will give you things to look for as you read. Bring a submissive attitudeÑnot just to submit to knowledge, but also to submit to God’s living Word and apply it to our lives.

If you do this, you will discover that God’s Word is wonderful! “Sweeter than honey to my mouth,” as the psalmist wrote. And it does make the difference in a life that is filled with decisions.

Are You Confused?

I cannot remember a time when people have seemed more confused about life than they are today. Maybe this is to be expected because our world, including the Church, seems to be more complicated than ever.

An elderly woman, who has been a pillar in the church, was talking with a friend recently and voiced how confusing life is in our day. Her friend tried to comfort her by saying, “We can thank God that our Christian faith is as simple as it ever was.” She replied, “Is it? Sometimes I wonder if I am saved.”

I wonder if this confusion in the church is unique to our day. It seems that the disciples of our Lord had questions about their faith until after Pentecost. Let’s take a look at our text.

Jesus was on a long walk with his disciples from Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi. During those days, the Scripture says, “He began to teach them that He must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

When they received this news, there was confusion among the disciples. Jesus had called these people from all walks of life. They had left families and friends where they lived comfortable lives and were financially secure. Never had they expressed regret about following Jesus. Life was exciting as they saw people flock to Jesus. He healed their sick, raised their dead and brought joy to many people. When he taught, they listened carefully to what he said. Jesus spoke as one with great authority. The Scribes and Pharisees often made life difficult for Jesus, but he knew how to handle them.

The disciples seemed not to mind that no compensation came with their work. Some, such as James’ and John’s mother, thought they should have places of prestige when Jesus came in his Kingdom.

Jesus had told the disciples, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), and they could not expect anything more. In this respect they could have been called the street people of that day.

But now Jesus’ latest word to his disciples was that he was going to suffer and die, rising again after three days.

This was too upsetting for these men. Peter immediately took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Peter knew the effect this announcement would have on the Twelve. They were already confused about some of his teachings and this would make it even worse.

But what did Jesus do? In the presence of his disciples he said, “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33).

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38).

Don’t you think there was confusion in their midst upon hearing that challenge?

John, who was visibly upset, could have felt that Jesus’ statement was not what they expected when he called them to follow him.

Judas may have agreed with John, adding that they were on a dead-end mission.

Perhaps Thomas agreed with Judas, adding that they needed to give their future some consideration.

Andrew, the encourager, might have rebuked them a bit by saying that Jesus was tired and reminding the group what a strain Christ was under.

Philip might have thought that some would turn from following Jesus and gone out to recruit replacements for those who might leave the Twelve.

James, the quiet one, could have chimed that this was a bigger challenge than he could handle.

Well, this is only an illustration of what could have been going on in the lives of those disciples. We must remember that they were people like us. People become quite confused when things do not go exactly as they had anticipated.

Now let’s take a look at Christianity today. We confess that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the authority in all matters of faith and life. Doesn’t this statement cause confusion? Why do we need a statement on sexuality in our church? Whoever would have thought that committed Christians would endorse same-sex marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals?

A world missionary has said, “Once we went to the mission field to save the heathen. Today we go to dialogue with these people. We wonder if Jesus is the only way to heaven. Are we confused about our prime reason for going to the world with the Gospel, or do we now have another mission?”

These are the larger topics. Learn what is going on in some congregations, and the people are quite confused about unimportant matters. I was raised in a congregation that was divided over the question of whether it is a sin to eat in the church basement. Changes in worship styles have also been topics of confusion in churches.

Will there ever be complete agreement in the Church? Human beings, frail individuals, give us the answer. No, a part of our fallen nature is confusion. But it is interesting that in the midst of the confusion, Jesus asked two basic questions. First, “Who do people say I am?” (Mark 8:27).

The disciples replied, “John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (v. 28).

Then came the most important question: “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (v. 29).

To this Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 29).

And Jesus replied, “Blessed are you . . . you are Peter, and on this rock [Peter’s confession] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17-18).

This is the central teaching of the Christian faith. When we are clear on this truthÑ that Jesus is the Christ and Savior of the worldÑ we have unity no matter how confused we may be on other confessions of the faith.

We find peace and oneness at the foot of the cross. In this one confession I can live throughout my earthly stay. On this there can be no confusion.

The Praying Mother

Throughout history the Kingdom of God has been strengthened by millions of praying mothers. Let me tell you of such a mother.

For many years I witnessed a car drive into our church’s parking lot. A very distinguished man helped his mother out of the automobile and saw that she was safely in the building. In about an hour, he would return to get his mother. He was a university professor who somewhere along the way had left the faith.

On a visit to her home, I asked the mother if I should visit with her son. However, to my surprise she discouraged me from doing this, saying with tears in her eyes, “God is not done with him. I pray for his conversion daily. The Word has been planted in his heart, and it will not return void.”

Our text today talks about another praying mother. Let’s see what the Bible has to say about her.

Jesus was in the vicinity of Tyre. He didn’t want people to know He was there, but this was an impossibility. The mother was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. Her little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit, and so she came to Jesus, falling at his feet and begging him to drive the demon out of her daughter.

Now Jesus put her faith to the test. “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” He was telling her that the Son of Man came to minister to the Jewish people, but she was a Greek.

That statement could have been offensive to her, but she was not interested in a racial argument. She knew Jesus could heal her little girl, and that was her first priority. Her reply was brilliant: “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus also thought the reply was brilliant, but more than that, they were words of faith. So he said to her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

What does this text say to those of us who are living in the twenty-first century?

I was in our supermarket getting a few groceries, and I met a mother whose son has cerebral palsy. She was trying to care for him and get a few groceries from the shelves at the same time. It was a challenge, and the pain in her soul revealed itself in her face. I believe she was asking why her son can’t walk and play like other children do. While she was a stranger to me, I wondered if she had not asked God to make her child well.

Many parents grieve over the spiritual condition of their children. These parents brought them to Sunday school and worship services. Church was important. However, the years went by and their daughter stopped attending church. Soon she openly admitted that she did not believe, even though she had been taught as a child regarding Christ and the way of salvation.

The parents’ hearts are broken. They love their daughter, and she has brought many joys to their life, but now they are praying, “Lord, bring her back into a personal relationship with you.”

If you are wondering what to do about your child’s conversion, remember that the Word has been in her heart. She knows the story of forgiveness in Christ and the assurance of the heavenly home when death comes. Use every opportunity to bring out these eternal truths with your daughter. However, do it when the time is right.

When grandma dies and leaves this world trusting in Christ, you find an appointed time to have a meaningful visit with your daughter. Let her know that grandma is in heaven because of what Christ has done for her. She has not simply passed into oblivion as the humanistic philosophy would assume. The most a humanist could offer for eternal comfort would be the worn-out universalistic thought that we all are going to be in heaven. Right now your daughter, who loved her grandmother very much, needs to hear the Gospel. This could be the day of her return to faith.

Mothers, do you pray faithfully for your children, no matter how old they are?

A high official in our government has described his mother by saying, “On Christmas my mother might drag me to church, but I was to understand that religious sampling required no commitment on my part to any religion.”

Not much of a spiritual foundation for a person who would lead millions of people in a confused world. He might be listed as a “spiritual orphan.”

Sons and daughters, if you are breaking your mother’s heart because of your estrangement from Christ and his Church, when are you going to get serious about your own relationship with the Savior?

Fathers, we purposely did not mention you specifically in this sermon, because the text talked about a praying mother. However, you are not exempt. Walking hand in hand, mothers and fathers should be praying for their family. James says, “The prayer of a righteous man (or woman) avails much.”

The prayers of faithful parents have led millions of sons and daughters into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They are builders of God’s Kingdom. God grant that, as our culture throws one attack after another at our homes, the prayers of faithful mothers and fathers for their children will be heard by the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings.