Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Preacher's Thoughts on Easter

When I think of Easter I think of growing up and hunting eggs with my family. I remember all of those Sunday mornings I woke up to see my new candy-filled, Easter basket on the kitchen table. There are pictures of me sitting out in our lawn in California in my diaper eating a huge hollow chocolate bunny. They are horrific. I think the only way they got me clean after that was by hosing me down. I remember going to our friends’ house one Sunday after church and playing with a new rabbit they had received as a gift after we had eaten lunch and searched for eggs. I remember an 88 year-old widow lady from our church, my secret pal when I was about 10, who had bought me a new shirt to wear for church one Easter Sunday. I wore it and sat next to her. I was so thankful for her and for the shirt. Easter for children is about candy, egg hunting, and fun times with family and friends.

When I grew up and got behind a pulpit, Easter took on a different meaning for me. It was the day I could expect the biggest crowd of the year in our building. I began to think of ways I could make the biggest impact on visitors and the people in the church who were not faithful in their attendance. I learned each year by trial and error how to preach meaningful lessons that would hopefully bring people back another Sunday. I have been excited, nervous, stressed, and have felt just about ever other human emotion you can imagine in anticipation of the pulpit opportunity an Easter Sunday brings.

Easter is different for the preacher. The reality is that after the largest crowd of the year in the morning, the lowest crowd of the year is that evening (see also Mother’s Day). It is ironic that this man-made holiday, which supposedly seeks to elevate the Christ, is really more about people, their families, and their traditions. If you are a preacher you really have a choice to either be happy that you had an opportunity to preach the gospel to more people than usual, or you can let yourself be disillusioned by the people who are somewhat disingenuous. You could become depressed when you see Christians who are usually faithful Sunday nights cater to their unfaithful families for a day because you know they are just trying to keep everyone happy and together.

I am personally confident that there is a reason why God never ordained specific religious holidays for the New Testament church. For one thing, God knows that man’s nature is to change the original intent of any religious observance to suit himself. The Israelites did this with every holy day in the Mosaic system at one time or another. They were often disciplined for it, and eventually God completely wiped the old covenant away by bringing His Son to the cross. It is merely my own opinion, but I believe that in the Christian age God has refused to give men an opportunity to celebrate a specific religious holiday regarding Jesus. He knows man will always abuse it and change it. In the meantime, we have made new religious holidays anyway. And for each person, these holidays mean something different.

What you need to know about Easter, or Christmas, or any other religious holiday that man has created, is that you are not obligated to observe it. At the same time, you need to respect what these holidays mean to those who observe them and respect their right to act according to what they know. Romans 14 teaches us that while we know certain days mean something to some and nothing to others, we ought not to offend anyone who esteems one day greater than another. Trust me, whenever I have written or taught about man-made religious holidays I have always approached the subject with trepidation. I am hugely in the minority. My views on Easter and Christmas and other religious holidays are largely unpopular. I understand that teaching what the Bible says about those things is going to be an eye opener for many. It may even offend them or cause them to struggle to understand the point I am actually wanting to make. And when this happens everything else I may have been trying to accomplish with those I want to influence for Jesus and the church can be lost in the shuffle. Even today, if I post this some people will have to argue with what I have said here. They are too convicted in their own thoughts about it. They won’t be able to stand it. These struggles I face are all a part of being different from the world.

But Bible facts are Bible facts. There are no “high days” for Christians. Not when everything we do or say is supposed to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:17). Not when every Sunday has been set aside by God for worship and the commemoration of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Not when there is zero authority from the text to observe a day that is not in the text. Not when the apostles never observed them. Not when the church of the Bible never observed them. Not when God never asked for them to be observed.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE Easter. Though instituted by man, it is to me a reminder of what my Lord did for me, and I am thankful that a great portion of the world is still remembering that, even if it is just for a day. This holiday also ushers in the spring, warmer temperatures, and the beginning of new life after several months of death, and no doubt this is spiritually analogous for people in the northern hemisphere as to what God can do on the other side of the grave. Did I mention I also LOVE jelly beans? Easter is jelly bean season! There is a whole aisle in Walmart dedicated to different kinds of jelly beans! And beyond all of this I am going to have an opportunity to talk to people about Jesus for a Sunday who I might otherwise never get to meet.

I remember years ago in my younger preaching years talking to a man who rarely attended church services. He had just gone to an Easter service the week before at a neighboring congregation. He said the preacher got up and berated all the people who only come twice a year. The visitor’s response was that he was never going back again. He said, “And he wonders why I don’t come! Well who would want to come and hear about what is wrong with them all of the time? I need encouragement. I already know what is wrong with me. I don’t need the reminder the one time I actually get up enough courage to come to church.”

Funny, isn’t it, how we humans are? The reality is that we desperately need God. We need His word every day. We need to be faithful. And we need to actually be able to distinguish between man-offered religion and God-ordained religion. Easter is a true reminder that we are struggling in this world as a people to follow God. In the background is the remembrance of the event that changed the world, and in the foreground is the fact that many people don’t even know that God never asked us to celebrate Easter at all. It could be said that the world has not been changed by the death, burial, and resurrection as much as it needs to be changed. Jesus died that we might all die to ourselves, and yet because of our lack of attention to His Word and our desire to do things our way, we still find ourselves in a place of confusion as to what we are actually supposed to be practicing in the name of the Lord.

As I look to this Sunday, I am promising myself that I am going to be thankful. I will not concentrate on local Easter gimmicks from big city churches. I will not be cynical and judge the hearts of the people who I may not see again for 6 months. I will not be a 21st century scribe and pretend that I have everything figured out when others do not. Instead I am going to take this opportunity to love God, and to love people, and to pray that this one day will lead to many other days of faithfulness to the One who bled and died for all men.

Easter, even if it is man-made, definitely does one thing that is absolutely undeniable and beyond human comprehension. It reminds us that God’s love cannot be quenched. In a world lost and spiraling away from God in the sickness of sin and death – there is still a day remembered – yes, even set aside because Jesus died and rose again. It is an absolute fact. Jesus came. He lived. He loved. He died. He arose. He ascended. And the world knows it. And the world, as long as it remains, will always know it.

“He is not here, but is risen…”- Luke 24:6

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Believe the Best

God believes in people. He believes in people even though they sin against Him, reject Him, and ultimately fail to be like Him. But God believes in people because He created them. And a Father always wants to believe in His children.

We tend to be the same way with our children. We give our children a longer leash than anyone else in our lives. We do this because we know they have to grow and we understand that in their maturation process they are going to make mistakes.
What if we took the same approach to believing in others as we take with our children? What if we allowed people to have their own personality, their own weaknesses and strengths, and their own opinions about those things which were not matters of faith? If we could do this the church would be better, happier, and more love and peace and joy would abound in our fellowship.
Unfortunately we often don’t practice brotherly love. One of the last things Jesus told His disciples was, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.”  Jesus knew that not only was this best for the hearts of all believers, it would be what distinguished them from the world.

Why is it then that we seem to judge our brethren more harshly than anyone else? While Paul taught the Corinthians to work out matters amongst themselves, and to examine themselves individually and collectively and to deal with sin in the church, the overtone of the whole experience still expressed the need for humility and grace and love. Why is it that from time to time we stereotype our brethren, think the worst of the best people, and tend to write off the people with whom we worship as soon as they do something we don’t like or approve?
The church everywhere could be benefited with a heaping dose of humility. In a world so full of sin and strife the church is supposed to be a refuge. We can stand for truth without being hall monitors. We can preach the saving gospel without always making the worst kind of assumptions about people, especially when we have scarcely sacrificed any of our time and energy to truly understand them.

If you want the church to grow, if you want it to be full of peace and comfort, if you want it to be a place where joy and love abound – then you need to believe in the people. Don’t go to church, be the church. Don’t be a part of a click, but get out of your comfort zone and fellowship with the whole body. Learn about your brethren, their lives, their circumstances, their dreams, and their challenges. See how God is working through them, and look for something in them that you know you need yourself.

Sitting next to you in the pew or across the building somewhere are the people who are the salt of the earth. They are the best of this world, so believe the best about them. They are the blood-bought people of God. They are the faithful followers of Jehovah. They are the people who truly make up your spiritual and eternal family. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. They deserve your love and affection. They deserve your time and effort. They deserved to be loved with the love of Christ.
To my church family: I love you.  I believe in you. And I am happy to call you, “brethren.”

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” – 1 John 4:7

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Committing to the Covenant

God is a covenant making God. He is good. He blesses. He promises. He delivers. In fact, God is so perfectly good and so completely holy that it is sometimes hard to fathom why He would be willing to make covenants with mere men. God is not like man (Num. 23:19). He never breaks a promise. He never fails to keep His part of the covenant. Nevertheless, because He is a loving God He makes covenants. He has not only made covenants with men, but He has even made covenants with all of creation (Genesis 9:9-17).

Since God offers covenants in benevolence and mercy and love, they ought to be embraced! It is  time for the rest of us to realize that God expects us to accept our part of the covenant. The truth is that we struggle with covenants because we know upfront we are going to break them. We know we are fragile and weak and many times we even fail to please our own spirit. So we look at God's contractual offer and we often turn away, feeling that we'd better not commit to anything like a covenant, especially when it involves the One who is going to judge our souls. But to err on the side of caution - is still to err!

There are two common examples of our failure to commit that can be seen in every day living. They both involve the two greatest commitments a person can make during their lifetime. They are the two basic forms of marriage, spiritual and physical. We have the spiritual marriage of making a commitment to Christ through obedience to the gospel. We have the physical marriage that involves the public exchanging of vows to be once and for all obligated to our mate. In these two cases there are some common denominators that describe each individual's fear of commitment:

1. We are afraid we will regret the decision to give ourselves up completely.
2. We are afraid things will not turn out as we had hoped, that our expectations won't be realized.
3. We are afraid we will fail in our duties to the one to whom we have made the promise.
4. We are afraid we don't have enough experience or knowledge to perform our commitment as we should.

Remember this - God knows how weak we are. He knows how sinful we are. He knew Jesus would have to die for us even before He made us. He made us anyway. He wants us anyway. He loves us anyway. He is a gracious and merciful God! Do we not understand that God is not as interested in our ability to perform as He is in our desire to love Him completely?

Noah agreed to a covenant and then committed an egregious sin that broke up his family. Abram agreed to a covenant and then lied about who he was. Moses agreed to a covenant and then failed to give God the glory. David agreed to a covenant and then committed adultery and murder. All of these men broke the covenant, but they repented and turned back to God and God restored them. They are considered spiritual giants! God was willing to be patient and let them learn and grow until they could love the way He loves. God will do the same for us.

If we needed to be perfect to enter into a covenant with God, we would forever be lost and cut off from His holiness. God simply wants us to know the means by which we can enter the covenant, and then He wants us to enter the covenant with our whole heart. The rest we will figure out as we go. And if we stay humble, His grace will be there for us.

Stop making excuses about why you can't make a promise. Realize that it is in the covenant alone that love and hope and salvation and joy and relationship exist. Without covenants, without relationships, our lives would be meaningless and loneliness would abound. God saw that it was not good for man to be alone. So He made covenants. Now it is your turn. Make the commitment! Walk by faith! Enjoy the blessings of the covenants God has made available! Live your life in praise and glory to the God who offers covenants!

"Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments." - Deuteronomy 7:9

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Control: Some people think they have it, and most people want it. Well, forget about it. You never had it and you never will. The weather this past week humbled us all and reminded us how small we are. As I watched tree limbs crash in the woods behind our house, as I saw people slip and slide on the roadways, as I continued to get reports of people losing their electricity, as I called a friend each day who is sitting up at the hospital with his wife waiting for a better day for her and getting no answers from the doctors – I kept thinking about how powerless we all really are in this world.
We have created for ourselves straw houses that we believe are made of bricks. We have a false security, a carefully constructed fa├žade. When it comes to sickness and death and tragedy, we pretend we are removed from it, that it will never happen to us. When it comes to future plans we make them as if nothing is going to change our ability to make them realities. When it comes to spiritual matters we put them on the shelf, falsely claiming that our sins aren’t that bad, that they don’t need to be dealt with immediately, and even if they are ruining our lives and our eternity we still will have plenty of time to deal with them later.
Wake up, people! God is in control! “He sends out His command to the earth; His word runs very swiftly. He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes; He casts out His ice like morsels; Who can stand before His cold?” (Psalm 147:15-17). This weather event was nothing to Jehovah. As we slept and wondered if trees would fall on our homes, the majority of the rest of the world wasn’t even aware of any danger. And then there is our God, who somewhere through the vast expanse of space exists in His heavenly home, having created the entire universe with the breath of His mouth.
And yet it is God who cares the most. It is God who has visited us in our time of need. It is God who looks down from heaven and considers our ways and our thoughts and the meditations of our hearts. And the ironic part is that He is wondering when we will ever stop trying to have control and let Him be in charge when there has never even been one second in time when He wasn’t on the throne.
And so I will stand at the invitation song again this Sunday, if Sunday ever comes. And I will look out to several hundred people who either have the illusion that they are in control, or are simply just unwilling to stop trying to have control. This must be the case. Otherwise we would have revival. Otherwise we would have restoration. Otherwise we would have responses. Otherwise we would have repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.
It is time that we stop pretending. “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God…” (1 Peter 4:17).
“Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust…” – (Psalm 40:4).
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” – (Isaiah 12:2).

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sowing All Over Again

January is usually a rainy season in the south. The fields are wet and muddy. The water table is recovering. The hope of spring is still several freezes away. But it is not too early to start getting ready for new growth.

A new year sparks evaluations and resolutions. Many assess the past year and consider their ways. People usually don't go into the year saying, "I am hoping to have the worst year I have ever had." They think about opportunities and challenges and they dream that everything is going to be great. They want success, and happiness, and peace. But how can they help it happen?

Our lives are like fields. They primarily contain weeds. We do not just come up producing strawberries. Sometimes we try to mow the weeds, cutting our problems down on the surface. But if we really want to bear fruit we must go deeper. We need to get under the soil. We must plow the field and sow all over again.

This year, you will bear fruit if you...

1. Plow up the weeds of anger and resentment you have and remove them from your life. Did someone hurt you? Did you get a raw deal at work? Are you unhappy about some circumstance? Are you holding something in your heart? Such weeds will dominate your field and leave little room for growth. Forgiveness is one of the main ingredients to success in life. It is an attribute of God (Psalm 86:5).

2. Plow up the rocks of idleness. Most people bear no fruit because they sow no seed. Christians are supposed to be living stones built upon the foundation of Christ (1 Pet. 2:5). But many are just cold hard rocks taking up space. Jesus explained that people cannot belong to Him of they do not bear fruit for God - "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples" (John 15:8). We cannot bear fruit alone. We need Christ (John 15:4).

3. Plow up the old, dead ground. You have to cultivate the soil. You have to add nutrients to your field. The best additive to your field comes from above. The farmer knows that nothing is better than good seed and the rain from heaven to water it. The Word of God is the seed (Luke 8:11). The rain that we need will come from God if we patiently and confidently wait (James 5:7).

"Father in heaven, thank you for today. Thank you for a new year. Thank you for hope. Be with us and help us. Help us to grow closer to you. Help us to sow all over again. Help us to glorify your name. In Jesus name, Amen."

"But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully." ~ 2 Corinthians 9:6

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Nice List

This past week has been a very nervous one in our home. My two youngest children have been concerned about what Santa might bring. One of them said that Christmas Eve was the most stressful night of the year. When you are a kid you have a lot invested on what may happen on Christmas morning. This is the magic of the holiday - the joy of innocent imagination and the laughter of experiencing the reception of realized dreams.

And then my daughter said something to me, tonight, December 23, that really made me think. She was talking about whether or not she was on the nice list. Her anxiety about it brought her to tears. She knew her cousins were soon arriving and that she had one more day to be good. She said she would be good all day and share her toys and make sure that Santa would know that she was a nice person and that even though she wasn’t always good she surely wanted to be good. Being on the nice list matters to my daughter! It matters enough that she is deeply sorry for anything she might do to remove herself from it.

There was a time for all of us when being on the nice list mattered. It was when there was someone watching over us whom we considered more powerful than us – who held the key to our happiness. We did not want to disappoint him. But when we grew up and our innocence was lost there were many of us who no longer cared about our presence on the list.

A lack of genuine kindness is usually an adult problem. We become cynical, impatient, and we get distracted with things that are not important. One minute we are volunteering at a soup kitchen and the next minute we are cutting people off for a better parking spot at a busy holiday shopping mall. One minute we are delivering a fruit basket to a widow and the next minute we are cross with the waitress who isn’t serving our every whim. Kindness spent on others is often lost on our spouses and children. Patience we extend to a person for whom we have compassion is often shortened for anyone we don’t respect. And the scariest thing from all of it is our general justification for our bad attitude. We just don’t cry at the idea that a nice list might be something on which our name would not be found.

Jesus’ appearance to the earth was not just for salvation, but for peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Titus tells us that the kindness and goodness of God toward man presented itself in the person of Jesus Christ. This is when grace came that taught us how to respond to love of God. Nice should not be a stretch for a people visited by the Son of God who willingly spilled His blood and forgave His murderers while still hanging between heaven and earth.

My child taught me a great lesson this evening. She reminded me I should always want to be on the nice list. She reminded me that the very thought of not making it on the list should reduce me to tears.

“But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” – Titus 3:4-5

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jesus and the 21st Century Sabbath

It was a three and a half year sticking point: Jesus and the Sabbath. In John 5 Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath. From then on it was all the unbelieving Jews could think about. The very next week His disciples were found plucking the heads of grain and eating them, again, on the Sabbath. Jesus spoke about the Sabbath on several occasions and expounded on why the Rabbinical teachings on the Sabbath were out of line. Jesus never violated the Sabbath. He simply exposed the Pharisees’ improper interpretation.

Two statements from Mark 2:27-28 basically explain why Jesus acted the way He did from Sabbath to Sabbath. “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” The first statement explains that God set aside the Sabbath to teach man a spiritual lesson. It was not just about the obedient resting, it was about learning what God had done. The second statement is a call to understand that Jesus was involved in creating the material universe, and every holy law. He had the right as having the divine nature in Himself to change any law He created without being questioned.

God ordained the Sabbath as a holy day for the Jews because He wanted them to remember His creative work. The Sabbath was a reminder of the fact that God had ceased from that work. But Jesus explained later (John 5:17) that since day seven the Father and the Son had continued working. Jesus had not taken a day off since day seven. When He came to earth He was doing the work of God seven days a week.

If one were to closely examine everything Jesus did during His human life on the Sabbath, it would be impossible to prove that he had in any way broken the commandment. The Jewish Mishnah, (a Rabbinical commentary on the law), had come up with 39 specific activities that were unlawful to do on the Sabbath. Jesus certainly broke many of them, and in the meantime encouraged others to do so. He knew it did not matter, because the Mishnah was an addition to the Law of Moses. It was therefore not binding, and in fact it was causing people to miss the entire spiritual purpose of the commandment.

We can learn some very important things from Jesus’ treatment of the Sabbath: 1. God’s law is for a purpose, it is divine, and men must do it. 2. We are not supposed to do more or less than has been commanded. 3. It is important for us to see why the law is there as much as it is important for us to follow the law. 4. The only one who has the right to make adjustments to the law or set it aside altogether is God.

Jesus shocked the people by what He did on the Sabbath. But He never broke it. They were just doing it wrong. Which makes me wonder, if Jesus came into our churches each Sunday, what we He do differently? Would we realize it was us, and not Him, doing it wrong? And would we accuse Him?

“For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:8