Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Morning

Christmas is a time of - well, fill in the blank. For the Christ-follower, it is pregnant with meaning. Our understanding of Christmas takes us far beyond the sentimental, yet, superficial notions of secular thinking at this time of the year. As much as we would love peace and should do all we can to work toward it, Jesus reminded us that there will be wars and rumors of wars until the end of this age.

But, because of what this day represents - the Incarnation, God becoming one of us to ultimately pay the penalty that is demanded of all humans because of sin, yet a penalty that no human is capable/eligible to pay unless He also be God - causes our hearts to soar. Jesus, God in the flesh, died that we might live eternally.

At this time of year, joy is intensified, as is pain. It is thus that our family recognizes all we have lost this year as we buried Linda Faile Talley on March 3, and yet we are equally aware of how very blessed we were (and are!) to have her in our lives for so long. We will see her again - because of Christmas, and, because of Easter!

One of my warm reflections this season is how very well Linda fulfilled her obligation as a godly wife to respect and honor her husband. You cannot imagine how much she positively impacted my life. Well, she would have considered it a privilege rather than an obligation, although there were many times I failed to live up to the level of respect she extended to me. I was so blessed that I feel compelled to write to all the husbands and wives - and, husbands and wives to be - who may read this space. The reason I write is not because we were experts, but because God allowed us (or, caused us) to figure marriage out over the years. So many of our early years were less than pleasant, but when we realized that we were not attacking each other but rather that we were speaking different languages, we began to understand how God had designed us to compliment one another. We had thought that our lives would be spent in a state of controlled conflict, but complimenting, completing one another was a blessed discovery, indeed!

How do you get there? By getting over yourself, first of all! That is the essence of a Christ-follower, isn't it? Death to self in a day when we are encouraged toward everything, but. Husband, your wife is the most beautiful lady on earth! Tell her so, loving her as Christ loved the church, listening, caring deeply about her issues. Quit trying to fix all of her problems - just listen. Just hold her. Find out how she receives love - and love her!

Wife, your husband is the greatest guy on earth. Treat him like he is! NEVER tear him down in public. OK, so you are both kidders. Kidding is one thing, but the line where kidding becomes insult and lack of respect is very thin, indeed, and is easily crossed. Build him up, especially in front of others. What if he is lazy or not as thoughtful as you? I don't think the option of disrespect is to be found in Ephesians 5 or anywhere else in Scripture.

Women need to be loved and men need to be respected. Linda and I were given a gift of being deeply, madly in love with one other. We both recognized it as a gift - from God. He is waiting only for you to look to Him and obey His brief, yet rich and far reaching comments about marriage. Do what you are supposed to do, whether you feel like it or not. And, don't expect results overnight. It may take years, in fact, but it will come if you are both committed. The result will be wonderful beyond anything you can imagine.

So, on this Christmas morning, thank God for the gift of Jesus and the gift of eternal life available to those who will confess their sins and believe Jesus' death on the cross as payment for their sins. Thank God, also, for the loved ones in your life. I have written about marital love, but love for anyone will require the same starting point - death to self and concern for the other. God bless you. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, when hope springs again in our hearts.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Encounter Jesus: Hope for the Hopeless

The transcript of the message that follows is part of our Advent Season at Grace Community Church. It is not too long, if you are interested!

Encounter Jesus:
Hope for the Hopeless

Have you ever felt hopeless? I am not talking about getting to the mall and realizing that every store is sold out of the one item you just had to buy for your loved one. I am talking about the kind of hopelessness that finds you three months behind on your mortgage with the bank warning you to either pay your bills or get out of the house. Or, maybe someone you loved very dearly began to change – and then, walked out. Somewhere in the world today there are people who have not eaten in two days and prospects for sufficient nourishment are dim. Somewhere else, a young teenager wanders aimlessly after having watched from a hiding place as her parents and siblings were hacked to death by crazed men. What made the horror even worse is that the men were family friends only a few years ago before war broke out between two tribes.

After that cheery introduction, let’s sing a Christmas Carol. Hey, while pain is relative, it is much more intense for some than for others. Why? Who knows? But, I do know that there are times when we feel hopeless. And the joy of Christmas seems to amplify the hopelessness we feel. Maybe that’s why the suicide rate is higher at Christmas than at other times of the year, right? Well, actually that’s not true. You may have always thought that, but it isn’t true. Suicides actually go down in the winter – the highest rate of suicide is in the spring.

Christmas usually does brighten my spirits. One of my favorite secular Christmas songs is a Dave Koz number that is sung by Kenny Loggins – December Makes Me Feel This Way. The chorus goes like this:

The world is new and precious as a baby,
Life is sweet as children at play.
Love is truly there in every heart.
December makes me feel this way.

You know what? Even though that is a secular song, there is something about the spirit of Christmas that caught Dave Koz’s attention. He may not know that it is Jesus that causes hope to stir in our hearts, but he recognizes that there is something about this time of year that brings hope in spite of our circumstances.

I know that some of you feel as down as you have ever felt in your lives. I am sorry this is such a difficult time for you. My heart’s desire is that you will find a measure of hope this morning that will lift your spirits considerably. The shepherds were some of the most hopeless people in all of Israel. They were despised by most, not allowed to participate in polite society, banned even from giving testimony in a court of law because they were so distrusted – their word was considered unreliable. If ever there were losers in the first century, it was them – yet, lowly, common, hopeless shepherds were the first to be told about Jesus’ birth. And they were told by the angel of the Lord! Hope for the hopeless!

Jesus’ appearance on the scene and His profound ministry to the hopeless had been foretold some 700 years before by the prophet Isaiah. Let’s read those words of hope in the 61st chapter of the book that bears the prophet’s name. Isaiah 61:1-3. Would you please stand as we read God’s word together?

1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion – to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.

During Linda’s illness, there were a few books that ministered deeply to me. One was a book by Mark Buchanan titled Things Unseen. In this excellent book, Buchanan reminds us that nobody anticipated the coming of Jesus more than John the Baptist! In fact, before John was even born, he leaped for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary, who was bearing Jesus, came to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Years later when John was quite popular as a preacher, the instant he spotted Jesus he said with a loud voice, “Behold, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” When Jesus came to have John baptize Him, John told Him, “I need You to baptize me, and do You come to me?” John had already told his disciples that he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ shoes. When some of John’s disciples got jealous because people were beginning to follow Jesus instead of John, the prophet put everything in perspective for them. “This was the plan all along,” John said. “In fact, He must increase from this point forward and I must decrease.”

John got it! Jesus was the hope of the nation – He was, in fact, hope for the hopeless. But, just like the Pharisees we talked about last week, John the Baptist expected Jesus to throw off the yoke of Rome and establish a world-wide Kingdom that would be centered in Jerusalem. Hey, the disciples thought the same thing even after Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, so don’t chide John for thinking otherwise.

What a shock it must have been to John the Baptist when he was arrested by Herod for preaching things Herod didn’t want to hear. John was not in prison because of His stand for Jesus, but the way John preached had everything to do with Who Jesus was. Yet, John was in prison. And, his faith wavered. He was on the verge of losing hope when he decided to send some of his disciples to ask Jesus if He was really the Messiah, or had John somehow been confused and gotten the wrong guy – because circumstances argued against Jesus being the One.

After his messengers left, John waited. Waiting is often the most difficult thing, isn’t it? The doctor says the tests will not be back until next month. The calendar cannot move fast enough when your loved one is with the Army in Afghanistan. The job search goes on and on and – nothing. Does God even care anymore? What must it have been like for John in Herod’s prison cell, waiting for his disciples to get back and report from Jesus? Listen to Buchanan’s speculation about those difficult days and see if you identify. Quote:

“They (John’s disciples) leave. He waits. The waiting is terrible. A waiting like that is an unfortified city, begging for vandals, plunderers, ghosts. John tries to sleep, but he is too anxious and too weary for it. So he waits.”

Matthew 11:4-6 records Jesus’ answer.

4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see;
5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”

Do you recognize those verses? Jesus was sending the message that He was, indeed, the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah 61, the text we read at the first of the message. That should do it. That would be all that John needed to hear, right? I suppose it could be that John said, “Well then, that settles that!” But then, Jesus did not tell John that He would get Him out of prison. In fact, all indicators would now point toward John’s execution. I have all ideas, though, that Jesus’ words comforted John and helped Him to rest in spite of his circumstances.

That’s our need, isn’t it? Rest in Jesus. Some of you may as well be in prison with John, emotionally, awaiting the executioner. And, all that Jesus says to you in your pain is, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” Hope of the hopeless? Really? Yes! Because what we see in this world is not all there is to life. But in order for Jesus’ words to mean anything to you, you are going to have to believe Jesus. You are going to have to rest in Him.

You may feel like you are miles away from that right now. You may feel angry – or, you may feel guilty for not resting. We did not finish the story in Matthew 11. After John’s disciples left to take Jesus’ message back to John, the Savior talked to those around Him about John. Instead of rebuking John, Jesus’ praised him. In fact, when John made his worst remarks about Jesus, Jesus made His finest remarks about John. “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (v 11)

Just because you doubt does not mean you are not deeply loved by Jesus. Do not despair, no matter your current situation. Jesus loves you and has not abandoned you. His response to your struggle may not be what you want, but do you really base your relationship with Him on what happens to you? Rest in Jesus. He is, if you will believe, hope for the hopeless.

One last time, let’s look at Isaiah 61:

1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion – to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


My daughter, Autumn, is pregnant with her first child!  Or, as younger types would say, Brian and Autumn are pregnant with their first child! Either way, Autumn and Brian are quite pleased and it makes this grandpa very, very happy.  I already have the three greatest grandchildren in the world - soon, it will be four.  Autumn is due July 13.  So far so good - please pray for her as you think about it.    

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Christmas Reflections

In the form of a sermon! This season has been the oddest mix of sorrow and joy for me, and I know that some (many?) of you experience the same odd juxtaposition of wondrous and joyous truth residing alongside the raw reality of life with its pain. The sermon that I will preach this morning at church addresses the paradox of life for the Christ-follower, so I will share it for those who would like to reflect on these mysteries along with me. Should you decide to take the time to imbibe, I would suggest that you have an open Bible, preferably a Study Bible, and to be more specific (as you will read again), one of the new ESV Study Bibles. May God's richest blessing - Jesus - be yours this season!

Encounter Jesus:
Son of Man
Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:6-9

I had not wanted to use power point this month. There is no way, though, that I would subject you to this morning’s message without power point. One of the reasons I am using it is that I want you to take notes so that you can come back and study our topic more fully on your own. We will just get our toes wet this morning in the ocean of what Jesus meant when He called Himself the Son of Man.

There is not anywhere near enough time to explain that name fully, nor is there time to define all of the terms we will encounter today. In fact, I am going to talk about the first Adam and the last Adam as if you know what I mean, even though I know some of you do not know. So I want to issue a challenge to you this morning. If you are introduced to truths and ideas you have never heard before, or that you have heard but do not understand, write down terms, Scripture references, and questions, then commit to learn this week about the Son of Man. A good place to start would be to purchase the brand new ESV Study Bible, a resource that is most helpful if you want to go further in your understanding of Scripture.

Before we get into our study, I want to tell you that it has been a rough start to the Thanksgiving/Christmas season for me. It is a sad time, I can’t deny that. That is not to say it is a bad time, though. In fact, this Christmas, while quite painful, is also perhaps the richest Christmas I have ever experienced, with deeper meaning than I have grasped to this point in my walk with Jesus. It is not that I have learned more about the facts surrounding the Christmas story, it is just that I get the whole thing more deeply.

Christmas is a time of joy. If you are a Christ-follower, Christmas is a time of joy – period! It does not matter whether or not there is sadness in your life, even sadness at the loss of a loved one. In fact, the loss of a loved one who was a Christ-follower should bring us to a far greater appreciation of Christmas than ever before.

Christmas is such a spiritual time – but it is wrapped in the ugly brown paper of the raw human condition. That’s the way the first Christmas was, right? The rawest conditions possible greeted the Savior at His birth. But, there was rejoicing! Shepherds came to tell Joseph and Mary what the angel had told them and about the angels’ jubilant praise for God because of Jesus’ birth. Joy to the World is, as a Christmas carol, a wonderful expression of the happiness of that night.

Some 40 days after Jesus was born, when Joseph and Mary took Him to the temple in Jerusalem for their purification, as was prescribed in the Law, they were confronted with somewhat of a reality check. A devout man, named Simeon, approached them and took Jesus in his arms. Luke 2 records his prophecy:

28 He (Simeon) took Him (Jesus) up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now You are letting your servant depart in peace, according to Your word;
30 for my eyes have seen Your salvation
31 that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”
33 And His father and His mother marveled at what was said about Him.
34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed
35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
“A sword will pierce through your own soul, also.” That’s the problem with Christmas, isn’t it? No matter what joy there is, bad news is in every person’s future. But the bad news is mitigated because Jesus has come. Before Jesus, bad news was disastrous. It was final. Now, because of Jesus’ appearance and work among us as the God-man, bad news is only temporary for His followers.

Do you know this Jesus? Our theme this Advent season is “Encounter Jesus.” Today we will do well to encounter Jesus as the Son of Man, Jesus’ favorite name for Himself, one that He used over 80 times. Our initial text does not come from the gospels, though; it comes from 2 short readings in the first and second chapters of Hebrews. Part of the Hebrews 2 text is quoting Psalm 8, bringing light to the prophetic nature of that Psalm. If you will get the ESV Study Bible, it will help you make the connection between Psalm 8, Hebrews, and Jesus. Enough said. I am almost out of time, and we haven’t even read our text, yet. Would you please stand as we read God’s Word.

Hebrews 1:1-3

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,
2 but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world.
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Hebrews 2:6-9

6 It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the Son of Man, that You care for Him?
7 You made Him for a little while lower than the angels; You have crowned Him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under His feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to Him, He left nothing outside His control. At present, we do not see everything in subjection to Him.
9 But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.

Why did Jesus refer to Himself as the Son of Man? His listeners would have been familiar with the term. It was used in the book of Ezekiel over 90 times referring to the prophet Ezekiel. In Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, however, it clearly refers to a divine being who lived in heaven, though somehow this never crossed the Jews’ minds. Daniel 7:13-14:

13 I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, and He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him.
14 And to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him; His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

In Daniel’s vision, the Son of Man came on the clouds (indicating his home was in the heavens), He was given a kingdom by the Ancient of Days, clearly God the Father – and it was a kingdom that would be absolute and eternal. The Jews expected a Messiah, there is no doubt of this. Their conception of the Messiah of OT Scriptures had really only been worked out during the 100-200 years before Jesus’ birth, and it was done so in the context of the deep sorrow that resulted from their oppression under the rule of one nation after another. They were looking for a military ruler. It never occurred to them that God would come to earth and live as a human. So what did the Jews expect in a Messiah?

For starters, they expected a human being – and a human being only – but one who would be recognizable as a leader who would throw off the yoke of Rome. This individual would likely be someone with great military skills, but would also be imbued with supernatural powers. Those powers, given directly by God, made the hope for Israel’s deliverance plausible in the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees, even though it would be like a country today such as Hungary defeating the United States and then conquering the world. Such a Messiah would surely be recognizable! The Jewish leaders absolutely did not expect the Messiah to come as the son of a poor carpenter from Nazareth! Yet, when Jesus called Himself the Son of Man, the Jewish leaders knew that He was claiming to be the divine one of Daniel’s vision.

In calling Himself Son of Man, Jesus emphasized both His divinity and His humanity. Often when using that term, Jesus claimed to do things that only God can do, as in Luke 5:17-26 when He forgave the paralytic’s sins. The Pharisees who were present were scandalized and said, “Who is this that speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Jesus replied, in essence, “You need to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then, Jesus healed him and he got up and walked away. The Pharisees, amazingly, were unimpressed.

The Jews were looking for the Messiah to come from the line of David. They were looking for a son of David. Jesus was a son of David, and, if you will read between the lines in John 8, they knew Jesus’ heritage well enough that they should have given Him a closer look. In Matthew 22, Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ contention that the Messiah must be only a human with no divine essence.

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question,
42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to Him, “The son of David.”
43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls Him Lord, saying,
44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand until I put Your enemies under Your feet?’
45 If then David calls Him Lord, how is He his son?”

The Pharisees had no answer. Jesus had the same kind of exchange with the Pharisees in John 8 about His relationship with Abraham. We will not take time to go there, but I would encourage you to study it on your own. Jesus was a son of Abraham – but, greater than Abraham. Jesus was a son of David – yet, greater than David. Over and over, Jesus called Himself the Son of Man, but often claimed divine attributes when calling Himself by that title. Jesus was 100% God and 100% human. He was the Son of Man.

It was necessary for Jesus to come because we messed up in the very beginning of our time. In Romans 5:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 15:45-49, the Apostle Paul tells his readers that Jesus represents the last Adam, fulfilling the role for humanity that God had intended in the first Adam. We forfeited the place God had designed for us. We were a mess. Perhaps that’s why Jesus’ birth and life were so messy, even though He lived a perfect life. He had to take on human flesh and frailty in order to be a legitimate sacrifice for sin. One of His reasons for coming was to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)

So, where are you in your relation to the Son of Man? When you stand before God, some day, you will either be there as a son of the first Adam or as a child of God, redeemed by the Son of Man. If you have never trusted Jesus’ death on the cross as payment for your sins, please do so today! You can do so at this very moment, or if you need more understanding, please talk with me or with any of our elders or staff or with the person who invited you here today. If they can’t answer your questions, they can get you in touch with someone who can.

As I told you at the beginning of our time together, I am sad this Christmas. It’s OK, though. There is more than enough pain to go around, but Jesus tasted death for us so that we might live! I want us to read the passage in Hebrews 2 one more time. Let’s read it out loud, together. Would you please stand?

6 It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the Son of Man, that You care for Him?
7 You made Him for a little while lower than the angels; You have crowned Him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under His feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to Him, He left nothing outside His control. At present, we do not see everything in subjection to Him.
9 But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Gratitude on a December Morn

Though it may seem more like a confession (in the contemporary usage of the word): Forgive me, Father, for thinking I am something special when I am nothing.  Forgive me, also, Father, for thinking I am nothing when in reality I am someone very special to You.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How Suffering Makes Us Like Jesus

Last Sunday I preached about suffering. Not because I have so much experience with it this year, but because it fits in the series on Spiritual Formation that we have been following this fall at our church. I told a friend that I was going to publish the manuscript of that sermon on the blog and then move away from that topic when I write in the future. My friend wisely told me not to limit what God may want to do in this space. It is true that whenever I speak about suffering, everyone is touched in some way. And why not? We are all touched by suffering, and a word from God is a good word in a time of difficulty.

So, the sermon follows. When I am preaching on Sundays, the text is usually on the screen above me, so I do not always refer to it in the manuscript. If you are compelled to read further, it may be helpful to open your Bible to 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 and follow along. I almost always preach from the English Standard Version, which is the translation you will find below. God bless you!

His Image:
Spiritual Formation through Suffering
2 Corinthians 1:3-11

Have you ever heard of the poem, “New Year 1945?”

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain,
At Thy command, we will not falter,
Thankfully receiving all that is given
By Thy loving hand.

These poignant words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancĂ©, Maria von Wedemeyer from a German Concentration Camp. A little over three months later, Bonhoeffer was brutally executed in Flossenburg prison, with his torturers using meat hooks and piano wire to hang him after stripping and torturing him. Bonhoeffer’s execution occurred one month before Nazi Germany surrendered. One month.

Bonhoeffer suffered greatly for his faith, and for his part in an attempt on Hitler’s life. Regardless of whether or not you think his participation in an assassination attempt on Hitler was biblically justified or not, Bonhoeffer placed his fate in the hands of God and accepted whatever may come to him.

Bonhoeffer understood the risks of following Christ. His famous book, The Cost of Discipleship makes clear that serving Jesus is not for the faint of heart. Bonhoeffer’s great desire was to be like Jesus, no matter the cost. Since the book was first published in 1937, when Hitler was already in power, Bonhoeffer had a sense of what may come for disciples of Jesus.

We have been talking for nearly three months about spiritual formation. Today will be my last message on this topic, which, defined, is “the process by which God the Father transforms Christ-followers into the image of Jesus, individually and communally, as the Holy Spirit leads them into devotion to Christ and obedience to God’s Word.” Does it surprise you that God uses suffering in this process of making us more like Jesus? I doubt that it does surprise you because I am certain all Christ-followers would say that they have matured in times of suffering. I would imagine many of you have also thought, though, that a particular time of suffering might overwhelm you.

One of the problems we face when looking to the NT to know how to handle suffering is that it does not deal directly with most of the issues that cause us heartache. Almost all of the teaching about suffering in the NT is in connection with suffering we endure for the cause of Christ. So, does Scripture have anything to say about the suffering more common to our lives? Absolutely! The Old Testament is replete with stories of people who struggled in ways that are very much akin to struggles we deal with in our daily lives. As I have said several times these past few years, the story of Job shows us that there may be much more going on in what may appear to be quite natural circumstances that bring pain to your life – there could be a great unseen spiritual battle occurring as a result of your walk with Jesus. So, it is certainly appropriate to apply the passages about suffering for the cause of Christ to the pain that occurs as a result of living in a fallen world. If we respond in trust, as we are called to respond, God will use suffering to mold us into the image of Jesus.

Our text today is one of the most direct teachings about suffering in all of the NT. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 is quite familiar to many of you. I hope it will be a source of strength to all of you after today. Would you please stand as we read God’s Word together?

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
4 Who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.
7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.
9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God Who raises the dead.
10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.
11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay. Suffering is inevitable. It is our response to suffering determines whether or not it ends up working for good or for evil in our lives. A relationship with Jesus changes everything. There is never cause for a fatalistic outlook for a Christ-follower. That is why, when talking about suffering, the Apostle Paul could begin his comments with a blessing to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.

We were not created for trouble. We certainly were not created for death! We were created for Paradise, or, rather, Paradise was created for us. But, we sinned and death, trouble, taxes, and elections came as a result. How do we deal with such an unnatural turn of events? We need comfort, but others can only comfort us so much because they are dealing with difficulties of their own. We turn, thankfully, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Who is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. And, when we turn in faith, we rest. Much, much easier said than done, but it is a promise we can rely on all the way to heaven.

When I say that suffering is a result of sin, I am not suggesting that suffering you may be experiencing now is related to a particular sin, though sometimes that is the case. Suffering in this world is a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, which was, in effect, very much your sin and my sin. If they had not messed it up, do you think there is any possible way we would have avoided messing it up? At the very least a Dallas Cowboy fan somewhere would have sinned. Anyway you look at it, suffering is a consequence, in general, of sin.

But for the believer, suffering arrives as far more than just desserts for imperfection. It arrives with opportunity. It brings purpose to our lives. It arrives, we may be so bold to say, as a blessing that we can impart to others. When God comforts us, we, in turn, are able to impart comfort to others when their time of suffering comes. Why? Because we share in Christ’s sufferings.

Now, a bit of an explanation. Our suffering does not have any redemptive value in the way that Jesus’ suffering on the cross did. Our suffering does not make us worthy of heaven. Faith in Jesus’ death as a substitute for our sin is the only basis for a relationship with God. So, what is meant in verse 5 when we are said to be sharing abundantly in Christ’s sufferings?

For starters, Paul was speaking apostolically. Suffering was actually used as proof of his apostolic credentials, but we will not go there. The application we draw is that when one follows Jesus, suffering will follow him or her. And the progression is just as true with us as it was with the Apostle – we suffer, Jesus comforts us and we in turn comfort others who are suffering.

Comfort follows suffering, for the Christ-follower. Is there anything we can do to prepare for suffering? Well, yes, but please do not go looking for trouble of any kind. It will find you soon enough. We should, though, realize that a life committed to Christ is not going to be an easy life. In fact, we can prepare for troubles by expecting the worst and putting all of our trust in God, not just turning to Him as a last resort. Let’s look at verses 8-10:

8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.
9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God Who raises the dead.
10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.

One of these days I would like to preach a message from this text and title it Dead Man Walking. The situation was so bad that Paul and his companions had come to the conclusion that their lives were over. But, that doesn’t mean they gave up. They simply put their trust in the one Who can do anything, even raise the dead. Paul said, “He delivered us from that particular situation, I am confident He will deliver us again in His sovereign plan and ultimately, all who follow Jesus will be delivered to eternal life.”

When suffering comes our way, we can easily make one of two mistakes, or both, that could be eradicated if we would follow Paul’s example. The first mistake we make is to try and hang on to this life to the point that we rarely put ourselves in harm’s way. It is impossible to share the gospel like we should and stay completely out of harm’s way. But, even with suffering that is the normal kind of suffering we experience here, our hope tends to be in this world and we do everything we can to ease the pain and improve our circumstances. I am not saying it is wrong to pursue options that will make our lives better. I am saying, though, that any hope we place in this world is misplaced. Better that we count ourselves as dead and then thank the Lord for every blessing He gives to us.

The second mistake we make is to give up when times look really bad. You have been there, haven’t you, even with small issues? You are just tired of trying to do the right thing and having it put in your face, or trying to please Jesus and failing – so, you just want to quit. Paul didn’t do that, even in the face of death. He put His trust in the God Who still performs miracles to this day.

Then, why didn’t He heal my wife? I can’t say. I cried out to Him as did countless others of you that were persistent in asking for God to deliver her. He did deliver her, ultimately, but why didn’t she live? Again, I don’t know, but I know that God is good. And I know that He still performs miracles on many levels, and nothing would give me greater pleasure than for Him to perform a miracle in your life! So if your problem this morning is physical or financial or business related or involves a relationship that is seemingly irreparably damaged – don’t you dare give up! Count yourself as dead, absolutely, but don’t give up! God is able to deliver you! He will do so as He sees fit in His good plan for you.

One more principle that I want us to glean from this text is the role that we play in the success of others, particularly in the lives of those who are struggling. Verse 11: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” This was the Apostle Paul, for goodness sake, and he was imploring the Corinthians to help him in prayer! In some ways we have come full circle in our understanding of the way God forms us spiritually. We started, two and a half moths ago, by talking about the significance of other people’s involvement in our lives to help mold us into the image of Jesus, and we are right back where we started. We need each other, brothers and sisters! We especially need to pray for those who are suffering.

I want to close this morning with an excerpt from Fenelon, a priest who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. This will be the third time we have heard from our French friend in the last 5-6 weeks, and it will be our last exposure for some time. If you haven’t ordered this book on-line yet, there is nothing more I can do for you! This book, The Seeking Heart, is a compilation of letters Fenelon wrote to friends he was mentoring. The great value of this book is that he says things you really need to hear. In a book. From someone who lived 400 years ago. You wouldn’t want your best friend to tell you this stuff, but you really need to hear it. The excerpt is a bit lengthy, but I think you will be glad I shared all of it. Let’s get started:

“Do you wonder why God has to make it so hard on you? Why doesn’t He make you good without making you miserable in the meantime? Of course He could, but He does not choose to do so. He wants you to grow a little at a time and not burst into instant maturity. This is what He has decided and you can only adore His wisdom – even when you don’t understand it.

“I am awed by what suffering can produce. You and I are nothing without the cross. I agonize and cry when the cross is working within me, but when it is over I look back in admiration for what God has accomplished. Of course I am then ashamed that I bore it so poorly. I have learned so much from my foolish reactions. (Have you?)

“You yourself must endure the painful process of change. There is much more at work here than your instant maturity. God wants to build a relationship with you that is based on faith and trust and not on glamorous miracles.

“God uses the disappointments, disillusionments, and failures of your life to take your trust away from yourself and help you put your trust in Him. It is like being burned in a slow fire, but you would rather be burned up in a blaze of glory, wouldn’t you? How would this fast burn detach you from yourself? Thus God prepares events to detach you from yourself and from others.

“God is your Father, do you think He would ever hurt you? He just cuts you off from those things you love in the wrong way. You cry like a baby when God removes something or someone from your life, but you would cry a lot more if you saw the eternal harm your wrong attachments cause you.

“Everything in you that is not already a part of the established kingdom of God needs the cross. When you accept the cross in love, His kingdom begins to come to life within you. You must bear the cross and be satisfied with what pleases God. You have need of the cross. The faithful Giver of every good gift gives the cross to you with His own hand. I pray that you will come to see how blessed it is to be corrected for your own good.

“My God, help us to see Jesus as our model in all suffering. You nailed Him to the cross for us. You made Him a man of sorrows to teach us how useful sorrow is. Give us a heart to turn our backs on ourselves and trust only in You.” End quote.

Well, there it is, isn’t it? Suffering is either going to turn us inward or turn us toward Jesus. Grieving in suffering is normal. It is natural. If we did not grieve, we would not really be suffering. But, there is a point when our hearts and eyes need to turn toward Jesus. This whole series has been about becoming more like Jesus. Suffering gives us a unique opportunity to commune with the Savior. In fact, suffering allows us to commune with Jesus unlike anything else – if we will accept it as from God’s hand. Let’s pray.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our Hope . . .

. . . is in Jesus. It is not in the man or woman you voted for yesterday, whether your guy won or lost. Jesus is our hope. As wonderful as our particular political system is, our hope is not in democracy. If you have lost your patience with our particular brand of democracy, though, see if you can book your next vacation in North Korea. Perhaps a week or two in that land will give you a renewed appreciation for what God has given us here.

But, wait. I do not mean to connect America with God any more than is proper. I do believe that God has given us the blessings we have enjoyed for these many years. But, there is this: Jesus is not America's hope. (Oh, I can see the color rising in your cheeks even now!)

Please allow me to explain. Jesus is the hope of the Church, the hope of all who trust His sacrifice on the cross for salvation and who follow Him. And while it would be our great desire for every person in America to trust Jesus as Savior, His description of the narrow road and broad road in Matthew 7 helps us to understand that our desire will never be fulfilled.

Please move to the next paragraph if you feel yourself bogging down in this one - but, I think these words are important. If you have been tempted to muse about this world getting better and better so that we can, in essence, usher Jesus into an awaiting Kingdom, may I encourage you to move beyond that delusion. (more color in more cheeks) It was a popular belief about 100 years ago, but World War I put a serious dent into the idea. World War II ended it - for quite awhile. It is back as a reaction to the fatalism so evident among Dispensationalists who don't mind societal decline because it means that Jesus is coming soon (shame on you if you are not involved in making your community a better place b/c you want to hasten the return of Jesus!), but a belief in the goodness of man (necessary for a Postmillenial View) is no more plausible today than it was in 1944 when millions of Jews were being slaughtered in German concentration camps, to name only one of many atrocities being committed worldwide in that year.

If you checked out for the last few lines, that is OK. Please wake up, though, for the biblical definition of hope. Almost every time you see the word hope in the New Testament, it is referring to eternal life with Jesus that is ours when we embrace a personal relationship with Him. It is a calm and certain assurance of our future. The modern American use of the word hope carries an entirely different meaning. We consider hope more a possibility than a sure thing. So, when people say that Jesus is America's hope, they mean He is the only way out of the mess we are in today. The best thing you can do for America is not to pursue political activism (though I am extremely grateful for Christians who are politically active - not the contradiction it may seem, in my mind, at least), but to spread the gospel message - Jesus is Lord!

There is no biblical way to tie America directly to God in the same sense that Israel was connected to God in the Old Testament. (some cheeks are now crimson) It is true that when individuals or nations follow biblical principles, they will find blessing and success, such as is available in this world, that is. Of course, the problem of evil calls even this general truth into question. I do believe that we are in trouble as a nation because we have reached the place where we unashamedly call evil, good, and good, evil - a clear violation of biblical principles. Even if we turn away from our wickedness (not likely without a major revival), Jesus will still not be the hope of our nation.

He is your hope, though, if you are a Christ-follower! Not only am I concerned about the future of our nation (the immediate economic future as well as the long-term moral decay and our place in the world), but I very much want things to remain as normal as possible - I confess that I appreciate the freedom and affluence we enjoy. I do not long for persecution to come to our land so that we can see who the "true" Christians are. Should destruction and persecution come to our fair country, though, Jesus will be our hope. He is now. Live like it!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Thanksgiving List - November, 2008

Not that my list is any more important than yours, but perhaps my prayerful reflections will spur you to write your own list. In fact, would you do that in the next week – make your own list and thank God often for each item on your list all through this Thanksgiving month of November. After all, a thankful heart creates a positive perspective/outlook on life. If our gratitude is specifically directed to God, true joy becomes a reality in the heart of the Christ-follower. Without further ado:

I am thankful that God chased me down in 1972. For some time my testimony implied that I found the Lord. Through the years I began to realize that God found me! Only one month before graduating from high school, Jesus became the Lord of my life and the focus of my attention. Thank You, Jesus, for dying for me. Thank You, Father, for protecting me in those years of reckless behavior just before bringing me into Your family. Thank You, Spirit, for showing me my sins, then leading me to repentance and faith in Jesus.

I am thankful for God’s Word. Oh, what it means to have guidance in this dark and painful world! God did not save me and then say, “You are on your own – hope it goes OK for you!” He told me exactly how He wants me to live. He prepared me for good times and hard times. In this season where Christ-followers are reminded of God’s gifts, His Word has to be one of the finest gifts ever given to mankind. It is so good to be part of a church that has great respect and appreciation for Scripture.

I am thankful for thirty-one and a half years of marriage to an incredible lady – God’s gift to me: Linda Faile Talley. What can I say? The first years of our marriage weren’t great (Linda would have told you the same thing), but we were committed to God, and thus, to one another. I recognize that commitment is not always enough – but, this is my list. Somewhere along the way, we figured it out. We stayed together long enough that God took our marriage from acceptable to good to fantastic. Tennyson was right as he articulated the best we can find in this life: “Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” Oh, thank You, Lord, for beautiful, sweet Linda!

I am thankful for my family. Three incredible kids and their incredible spouses, three perfect grandchildren, a mother who is with the Lord and a father whose mind has him between here and heaven but still loves us deeply, a step-mother who loves me dearly and whom I love dearly and is better to my dad than any of our family deserves, two great sisters and their families, an extended family of many Failes who continue to love me and keep up with me, uncles, aunts, cousins and many more. Why should I be so blessed?

I am thankful for Grace Community Church. Linda and I had dreamed and prayed about being a part of this wonderful church for a year before we actually began our time in harness with our dear brothers and sisters in Christ at Grace. GCC has grown considerably in these last ten years, so the family of dear brothers and sisters in Christ continues to grow. I am so grateful. Could anyone have sensed more love than we did during our great trial? No. That’s the only conceivable answer I can offer. Thank You, Jesus, and thank you, Grace Community Church Family!

I am thankful for elder-rule. Our church is made up of several pastors, not just one. It would be impossible for me to tell you how much of a blessing that is to me. I have strong opinions – and, I can be indecisive. Elder-rule is a protection against both extremes, but allows for the best ideas to proceed while the worst ideas end where they belong – in file 13. That is not only true for me, but for all of the men our church has chosen to lead here. I say every year that the most important decision we make as a congregation is who we will ask to serve as an elder at GCC. When you realize that every person on the elder board is a pastor, you recognize the importance of the decision. (BTW, we will soon begin the process of bring new elder(s) into service at our church) I am especially grateful that the elders allowed me to serve my wife and family (and you, reading on the blog) this past year by filling the gap that my attention to Linda created. I am also extremely grateful that the elders encourage me to make teaching God’s Word my first priority (see above about Scripture).

I am thankful for the staff at GCC. There are too many blessings on this point to enumerate. We are saying goodbye to our office manager of nine plus years on the day I write this article. Becky Brisson has blessed so very many of you at Grace. For those of you (on the blog, maybe) who do not know her – I am sorry that you never got the chance to interact with a godly woman who has served the Lord for most all of her 83 years. The image you have in your mind of an 83 year-old woman working in a church office is wrong – Becky Brisson is in better health and more active than you can possibly imagine! Well, I have to move on to say that KJ, David, Bill, Keisha, and Shaun are family to me – true brothers and sisters in Christ. The ways that they served our family and our church during Linda’s illness and home-going cannot be adequately described. No one deserves such love and care as I have received from these guys – I LOVE EACH ONE OF YOU!

I am thankful for you. Whether you are reading this in the church newsletter, on the church website, or on my blog, I want you to know that I thank God for you! It is impossible to place a value on friends. Some of you are a part of my life while there are some of you I have never met. I know you care about me, though, and it is most likely because of your relationship with Jesus. He brings us together and molds us into one family. As we move toward the Advent Season, let us lift our hearts in unified praise and gratitude for/to the one Who humbled Himself, left heaven and came to earth (talk about downward mobility!), kept all of the law and lived a perfect life, was mocked and put to death, but rose from the dead that we might have eternal life for all who will believe! It is a “foolish message” to the world, but it is life to us who believe – and I am grateful!

Monday, October 20, 2008

As Promised . . . At Long Last!

I have promised for some time to publish a paper that Linda wrote several years ago when she applied for a certificate program as a teacher of English as a Second Language. This paper was read today at the school where Linda taught when a bench was dedicated in her memory. It was a wonderful service, though tears were mingled with smiles as we remembered Linda's love for children, her love for teaching, and her love for all people. Her impact on teachers and parents equaled the influence she had on the students she loved so dearly. It was a great day, but I wanted to wait until after the dedication to share this paper with you.

So, with a great deal of love and pride, I present the words of dear Linda:

My Professional Goals

I grew up in a home where books, reading, and learning were highly valued. My mother was a teacher, and my father a minister, so books were everywhere, our schools and teachers were supported, and a night of “Scrabble” was considered as much fun as television. My father encouraged us to tell him words new to us from his sermons, to increase our vocabularies. I always wanted to be a teacher, and some of my earliest memories involve “playing school” with friends and younger siblings.

In college, I studied Elementary Education, but did not actually finish my studies and graduate until after raising my own three children to school age. Instilling that same love for books, reading, and learning into our children was a very high priority for both my husband and me. Besides parenting, my school experiences including volunteering, substituting, and serving as an instructional assistant for three years, until I finally became a teacher with my own classroom in 1996!

For six years I have taught first or second graders, and have enjoyed it so much. There is no thrill quite like teaching a child how to read, or watching children learn to love books, words, and just learning about the world in general. Unfortunately, my voice has not cooperated: if overused, such as projecting for a large classroom of children, it tires and strains easily. Last year, I took a break from the classroom to rest my voice, but was able to tutor students privately all through the year, so I did not totally stop teaching.

When I was approached about the opportunity to teach ESL students, it seemed just right for me. I have always felt drawn to my ESL students, and they have always had a special place in my heart. Not only will there be smaller groups of students, which will be much easier on my voice, but I will be able to be a true advocate for them, creating a safe, comfortable place for them to learn.

Even though this is a brand new field of study for me, it is actually just a different way for me to continue reaching my own professional goal-to instill a love of books, reading, and learning in children. Even though the methods may be different, and the group of children I will be serving may be different, my goal is still the same-just in a dimension and with a depth I have not yet experienced. I am very excited about taking this new step professionally!

Linda Talley

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Who Do You Love?

The much anticipated letter from Linda will have to wait one more day - our family (including Linda's parents) will be attending a special presentation at North Harnett Primary School on Monday morning, October 20th where a bench will be dedicated in memory of Linda. There is a possibility the letter will be used there. Whether it is or not, I will publish it the first chance I have after the ceremony - hopefully, tomorrow afternoon/evening.

The Lord showed me a few things about my perspective on life this week that rather surprised me. I wanted to share them with you, but the best way is simply to publish the sermon I preached this morning. It is the sixth message (David Calvert led one of those) this fall on the topic of spiritual formation. If you have time/interest . . .

His Image:
Spiritual Formation through Self-Denial
Luke 14:25-33; 9:23

Our economy is in a mess. Somebody needs to be held accountable for this mess! In fact, I know who is to blame. It is somebody else. I cannot name names, but I can absolutely tell you that it is not my fault! It may be your fault, but it is not mine! Well, actually it is my fault. And, it is your fault. Our problem is greed, and not one of us is immune to the promise and lure of “more.”

If you use a credit card, in some way you have contributed to our current crisis. The average American household owns 13 credit cards and 40% of them carry a balance. Oh, I know that you pay your bills on time, but just the idea that we can purchase what we want today and then pay for it over time along with exorbitant interest rates lends itself to a dangerous mindset as a nation. You do understand, don’t you, where the 700 billion dollar plus bailout went? A lot of it went to financial institutions so that they could keep loaning us money. Our economy runs on credit.

When you think about it, credit is a way to realize otherwise impossible dreams – and it is a way to live in a false world for awhile. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against borrowing money. It would be almost impossible to buy a house without credit, and most of us couldn’t even drive a car without credit. If debt is used responsibly, businesses and nations will prosper. So, I am not against credit, but I am against borrowing money on a whim, or without careful thought and prayer. That’s not the way most of us borrow, is it? We think, “Oh, I will go ahead and borrow money for that and I will pay for it with my bonus this year, or that raise I might get.”

Of course, when you are talking about necessities, you just have to borrow, don’t you? I am talking about necessities like new carpet or a new car, or the newest line of clothes, or just treating your family to a holiday cruise – necessities that you deserve. That’s where we are as a nation. And we will be paying the price for our excess. It was predicted, you know. Not by Obama or McCain, but by Solomon. Proverbs 28:19: “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.”

It is not that we have failed to work our land in this country, but we have chased fantasies, possessing goods before we pay for them and ultimately allowing the goods and the lenders to possess us. Eventually, though, the time to pay arrives, and pay we will as a nation over the coming months, and maybe the coming years.

The way out of this mess is to take control of our foolish spending, which means, of course, to change the way we think about our lives. We need to get back to self-discipline. That’s what the message is about today, self-discipline. Actually, it is about much more – the message today is about self-denial, as called for by our Savior.

Today’s text is Luke 14:25-33, then we will flip over to Luke 9:23 that will guide us in understanding how God forms us spiritually through self-denial. Would you please stand as we read God’s word together?

25 Now great crowds accompanied Him, and He turned and said to them,
26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.
27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.
28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,
30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’
31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?
32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.

And then, Luke 9:23: “And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’”

As we do every week while we are in this series on spiritual formation, we will review our definition: “Spiritual formation is the process by which God the Father transforms Christ-followers into the image of Jesus, individually and communally, as the Holy Spirit leads them into devotion to Christ and obedience to God’s Word.” That will be on the screen for just a moment, so if you want to write the definition down please do so now. The emphasis today is going to be on our response in obedience to Christ’s call on our lives, found in God’s word. I have taken great pains to emphasize the Spirit’s role in our spiritual formation. We will not be spiritually formed simply on the basis of a routine we devise and follow. It is equally true, though, that God will not cause us to grow apart from our response to Him, and one of our responses involves self-denial. Next week we will talk about spiritual disciplines, but we will begin today with Jesus’ call for sacrifice in our commitment to follow Him.

We call ourselves “Christ-followers.” You have heard me use that word often in the last year or two. It is the latest designation for a Christian. Not long ago it was “believer” and before that it was “disciple.” “Christ-follower” is perhaps the best description yet for a Christian. If you ask Americans whether or not they are Christians, they would likely answer “yes” in pretty high numbers. If you then asked them whether or not they are Christ-followers, without doubt the numbers would decline significantly. But Jesus’ call is unmistakable. Look again at Luke 9:23:

“And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”

Ah, you say – we need to make a distinction between a Christian and a disciple. Please show me that distinction in Scripture! There are carnal Christians, to be sure, but one who is mostly uninterested in following Jesus seems to lack a relationship with Him. That is intended for inward reflection, by the way, not for judging others. What is required of a follower of Jesus? Three requirements are listed in Luke 9:23 – deny yourself, take up your cross every single day, and follow Jesus.

Deny yourself. That fits right in with our culture today, doesn’t it? In fact, our culture is about as far from self-denial as you can get. “Indulge yourself,” is the cry of our day – but that may well change in the near future.

The kind of self-denial called for by Jesus goes far beyond a commitment to diet, to exercise, or to control shopping sprees. The self-denial Jesus called for goes to the very core of our beings. It is the kind of attitude embraced by John the Baptist when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In other words, Jesus’ claim on my life, my plans, my desires, my schedule, must become the focus of my life and I must give up – either temporarily or permanently – those things that are not necessarily wrong in and of themselves, but that distract me from Him.

When you think about it, how can spiritual formation occur in our lives when we are constantly indulging our every desire? Oh, of course we go to work, we study for class and generally do things that we would rather not do, but at the first opportunity, we are right back to pursuing pleasure, or at the very least to pursuing fulfillment in life.

This past week, my son, Michael, went for some tests because of stomach problems he was experiencing. On Tuesday, a CT scan was scheduled for Thursday with the results expected no later than Friday. Two weeks ago, Michael almost had his appendix taken out, but the decision was made to wait. The pain continued, but there was a growing suspicion that his problem was more significant than appendicitis, thus the CAT scan. It hit me for the first time on Tuesday that Michael’s problem could be somewhat serious.

I have to tell you, the death of my wife has been difficult for me – far more difficult than I anticipated. I trust God completely, but I find myself struggling when I hear other people’s bad news. When I read in the paper that someone has a brain tumor, or cancer, I am intensely sad. So, when it first hit me that Michael may have Colitis or Diverticulitis, the dark cloud that is rarely far from my emotions grew darker still.

It was then that the Lord began to speak to me. Now, you must know that He spoke to me on the basis of my knowledge of Scripture, so when I tell you how He engaged me, ultimately it was through His word. A question formed in my mind even as deep discouragement fought for control of my mind. The question was simple: “Is it possible that you love your life too much?” It stunned me to realize that my problem is not that life is now dull for me, but rather than my love for this life has increased.

The question that formed in my heart is a legitimate question for all of us, isn’t it? Is it possible that you love your life too much? That may seem like a strange question, but think about it. We are Americans. Until we really suffer, we tend to feel entitled to a problem-free life, even those of us who cry out against the entitlement mentality in our society. And, the longer life goes well for us, the greater the temptation to feel entitled for an unending idyllic life for me and mine.

In Mark 8, Jesus elaborated on His call for self-denial.

34 And calling the crowd to Him with His disciples, He said to them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.
35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

It really boils down to whether we love our lives – that is, life in this world – or, Jesus. And the irony is that when we seek to establish ourselves here, even if our goal is simply to build security, we ultimately lose. But, when we give it all to Jesus, we gain everything, regardless of what we have or do not have! It is not that Jesus is saying we shouldn’t plan and pursue careers or obtain possessions. He is saying, though, that He must be first. After all, a Christ-follower ---- follows Jesus. And His plan may not be our plan. In fact, His plan may seem to be contrary to what is good for us, though His plan is always the absolute best for us. We dare not forget that taking up our cross involves suffering and also the shame identified with a life committed only to Jesus and His will for us.

All of those things went through my mind this week when I thought about Michael. On Friday he called and said that the CT scan revealed all the signs of Crohn’s Disease. Further tests will confirm it, but the doctor is reasonably sure it is Crohn’s. Hey, it’s not stage 4 cancer, but Crohn’s can be tough. Ask Tom Ray. Tom is a great role model for Michael – he handles his difficulty with grace.

For Michael to be diagnosed with Crohn’s is almost the same as if I had received the diagnosis myself. Of course I will not live with the physical implications for the rest of my life like Michael will and like many of you live with Diabetes or other conditions, but emotionally it almost felt like I had received the news myself. And if I love this life, this news is pretty tough. But, if I love Jesus, difficult though it may be, I can rest in Him and trust that He knows best. If I am following Him, and if Michael and Laura are following Him, this is the path down which He is leading us. And it’s OK, because if I will lose my life now, I will gain it in the end.

This message has taken a far different path than I anticipated. I planned to talk about spiritual disciplines of denial, but I very much felt led to talk about dying to self, which is one of the primary principles behind disciplines of denial. Next week we are going to talk about the value of spiritual disciplines and also about how to incorporate spiritual disciplines into our lives while being careful not to be legalistic or dependent on the flesh. I want to end this morning, though, by visiting some specific ways in which we are called to deny ourselves that will lead us to a life wrapped up in, and led by, Jesus. I will not go to any specific Scripture to support this list, but I feel certain you trust me enough to know that I would not suggest something that could not be backed up biblically. Indeed, biblical principles abound to provide a foundation for these areas in which we say no to self in order for Jesus’ life to shine brighter and brighter through us.

Probably the first area of self-denial that would come to mind would be the practice of fasting. Because of time, we will look at that discipline next week, but I wanted to include it in our list.

Denying self is about giving up rights. We are going to either allow Jesus to be in charge of our lives, or we will be in charge. In addition to being willing to deny ourselves food from time to time, we should be willing to give up the right to our possessions. Do you see your possessions as something you deserve because of your hard work, or do you see the things that belong to you as gifts from God, and even your ability to work as a gift from God? It is not wrong to have nice things. But a Christ-follower must be willing, if so required by the Lord, to give up all that he has.

We must also be willing to give up our right to fill every minute of our day with activity and noise. Now, I know some of you would love more quiet time. The truth is that we plan for very little of it, but that does not mean we do not need it. Self-denial? Yes, because sometimes the only way we can get quiet time is to forgo some recreation that seems very important to us.

When it comes to our interaction with other people, we need to give up the right to be right all the time. There will be times when you need to stand for your belief, but you don’t always have to be right. In fact, you don’t even have to be heard all the time, nor do you need to always be the one to decide the evening’s activities. Learn to hold your tongue. Scripture promises great blessings for those who do.

And while you are holding your tongue, hold your bottom lip in, would you? Deny yourself the pleasure of pouting when things don’t go your way. Even if no knows you are brooding, God knows and these disciplines of denial are between you and Him anyway. He wants to mold you into the image of Jesus.

This list could go for quite a long time, even if we didn’t take the time to elaborate on the various ways we can obey Jesus’ command to deny ourselves. I suppose the content of this particular list may reveal something about the nature of my own struggle for righteousness. Ah, but here is good news – I do not have to struggle in the flesh. If I yield to the Lord, He will guide me and empower me to deny myself, take up my cross daily, and to follow Him. Would you yield yourself again to Him this morning?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Melancholy Days of Autumn

For those of you who are still checking this site, I would like to express my gratitude and I would like to apologize. To both of you. That means Cyndi (who responded to the blog recently) and the other one (whoever you are) still checking! Of course, a few more may be reading because I promised on August 16 that I would publish a paper that Linda had written in application for a program to gain certification as an ESL teacher. Alas, I will delay that document yet again as I write about other matters tonight.

I mentioned in my last post that one of the benefits of moving from Buies Creek to Fuquay-Varina was the easing of painful memories that were associated with the home where we spent almost 10 wonderful years together. We loved living in Buies Creek and I did not want to move away from there – but I did want to move to Fuquay. It has been so nice being closer to my parents – my father is not doing well and it is good to see him, along with my dear stepmother, more often (though not as often as I would like) than I was able to see them before. It is also good to be closer to Autumn (my daughter) and Brian. The early days in Fuquay were filled with new focus and the business of settling in.

Well, I am more settled now, and the pain of loss has crept back into my soul. It came with the melancholy days of Autumn. WAIT A MINUTE! Autumn is overwhelmingly my favorite time of the year, so “melancholy” as an adjective before Autumn is radical for me! I cannot tell you how much Linda and I loved the crisp days (OK, the occasional crisp mornings and evenings so far) and the newness of the year for us – school and church both begin, for all practical purposes, in mid-August. And, therein lies part of the problem. We loved the fall. Oh, I still am happy to be in this time of the year, but the ache that accompanies the memories of my sweetheart adds the bitter to the sweet.

I have friends who have told me (one tonight) that you just never get over losing someone you love so dearly.  I already knew that to be true missing my mother, who went to be with the Lord in 1995, but losing my spouse was another level of loss.  Just when you think you are doing OK, the pain is just as fresh as ever. As I have said so many times (though not necessarily this way), better the pain of lost love than the pain of regret. I do have regrets, but very few. Pain, I have, aplenty.

That is why I picked up a book at the Christian Bookstore tonight that I am very much looking forward to reading – A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, by Michael Card. I have long appreciated Michael Card’s gifts as a songwriter and a theologian. I cannot wait to jump in, but I wanted to connect with you, first.

Have I mentioned here that Christianity is the only religion in which the language of complaint is found in its sacred Scriptures? Have you ever thought about that? Do you know why? According to John Ortberg (I am remembering this from a conference where I heard him speak, so I hope I have this right), it is because we know that God cares about our troubles and we know that He can do something about our ordeal. Can He bring Linda back? Well, of course he could, but He will not. Can He bring peace to my broken heart? Yes, and the language of lament in His Word guides me in my sorrow. He is sufficient, but I am not sure we learn that until we recognize the desperation of our situation. All of Jesus’ followers may need to learn about His sufficiency in the coming days if our economic crisis in this country deepens – and, it will affect those of you reading around the world, also!

Thank God for His love and tender care, so often realized in the embrace (metaphorically speaking, you know) of His children, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Thank you for continuing this journey of unexpected twists and turns, mountains and valleys, rive – oh, I am sorry. Anyway, thanks! I love you!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Settling In

Well, settling in - sort of. I moved into my new home in Fuquay-Varina on August 16 with help from an incredible group of men and women! My daughters and a couple of their friends got everything in boxes and ready to go. A group of men packed it all on a truck (including furniture) and moved me into my new home (with a few additional male and female workers) all in four to five hours. A great deal has been unpacked, but there is much that remains to be done, including furnishing a good bit of the house. Fortunately, my cousin Phyllis Lane, is helping to decorate with input from Liz and Autumn.

One of the benefits of moving has been the partial dispersing of the cloud of sorrow that has hung over me since Linda graduated. Well, I did not intend the irony of the last sentence, but once written, it was immediately apparent. There is NO more sorrow for Linda! Sorrow continues to linger for all of the rest of us (children, parents, siblings, other family and friends), but it has lifted a bit for me with this move. It is not gone, mind you, but it has been mitigated to a degree. I was not aware of the sadness associated with the Buies Creek house. It was home for us for ten years. I continue to struggle with memories of the last 13 months of Linda's life here with all the suffering she endured in that time. Of course I remember the days before her illness, but thoughts of wheelchairs, shots, and doctors' visits are the most prominent memories in my mind.

I did not move because of the difficulty of living in the home I had shared with my bride for so long, but so far it has been a good move. The benefit of less sorrow was unexpected, but much welcome. Of course, the easing of sorrow could be partially due to the passing of time, though the process may have accelerated due to the move. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be the same once I am fully settled and life slows back down to the terrifyingly fast pace (you should be on the ride, now!) that I normally keep.

I would like to say that I have drawn (or, been drawn) closer to the Lord during this time. That ultimately is the desire of my heart, but the sense of loss has left me, as I have told you before, lethargic. Maybe the best way to describe the way I have felt for much of these past (almost) six months is a numbness in my soul. Relationship with the Lord suffers in such a state. The only thing I know to do in such a place is to be faithful to reading God's Word and praying - even though I feel as though God is distant. It would seem to me that faith is at its best when feelings are absent. The problem with confirming such a notion is that there is little pay-off in the immediate. One thing is absolutely certain - GOD IS FAITHFUL!

In a few days I hope to publish (here) a paper that Linda wrote in her application to an ESL certificate program. Autumn recently found Linda's paper - a good time of the year to talk about teaching children!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I'm Moving!

I will be moving this month, from Buies Creek to Fuquay-Varina. Before I go any further, let me say that I WILL NOT be seeking a change in ministry! Grace Community Church is my family, and as long as they will have me, I will be there! I know it is wise to "never say never," but I have absolutely no intention of leaving Grace Community Church before I retire.

That said, please allow me to address this move. I am not changing my address because of an emotional reaction to the loss of my lovely wife. Linda and I had talked for years about moving to Fuquay-Varina. Our church has a number of families that live in Fuquay. My father, who is struggling with dementia, and his wonderful wife live in Fuquay - it will be good to be closer at hand. I will also be closer to Brian and Autumn (my son-in-law and daughter) who live in Raleigh. When all the children and grandchildren come to visit, the new home will accommodate the family much better than the current one. God allowed me to sell my house in Buies Creek and I am set to close on the Fuquay house on August 15 - at an extremely good price, I might add. Please pray that no snags will arise because if the loan falls through, I will have to come live with YOU (and that would be quite a commute if you live in Michigan)! Family and good friends are already gearing up to help me design and decorate the home, making it ministry ready and friendly.

I am continually amazed that so many of you continue to check this site. Perhaps I will be able to be a more consistent blogger when I settle into my new home. The energy that has been required for this move (that is being accomplished in record time) and for numerous church activities and issues has allowed (forced?) me to be less focused on grief that at any time this year. I anticipate more times of extended sadness, but God has allowed me a bit of a respite from overarching (and at times, overwhelming) sorrow. Thank you for continuing to pray!

Even though it will take almost a month to get settled - during one of the busiest times of the year our church experiences - I will do my best to update the blog as the Lord gives me insight to share. God bless you!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Creeping Along

I have never been one to live in the past. It is not that I had a bad childhood or young adult life, but I have always tended to be far more interested in the present and curious about the future than attracted to memory lane. Alas, I am stuck in the past. And it is the oddest mixture of sweetness and pain. It is not as though I live in a fantasy land where all is right in the world. While I fully expect to be reunited with Linda in a place where life will be realized at its fullest capacity, I have no illusions about the particular life we shared together being over.

Even as I sit, this morning, at the kitchen table around which we shared so many wonderful moments together, I remember my lover. But, to my dismay, I remember the days of sickness more than the days before. I will be so glad when the sick days fade from my memory and thoughts of the salad days come flooding back. Even so, reflecting on the times we shared this last year bring fond and sweet memories, such as thinking about the pleasure Linda received looking out the window watching the birds dancing on the rail of our back deck.

All in all, it is OK in this place. Even though I recognize the enormity of my loss – well, it is good to know the loss was so great, isn’t it? I look back at how good life was with my bride, how she made me SO much a better man and I give thanks to the Lord. And, I cry. I know the pain will ease and I imagine life will take on its more pleasant hues once more, but that day is in the future.

I met with Linda’s parents last week. Linda’s mother said “I want to get past this pain and I don’t want to get past it.” I know exactly what she means. It is not that it would be a betrayal of a loved one to laugh freely again, but you want to hang onto those memories, and indeed, memories consume a disproportionate part of my day. It is especially out of balance since it is my day (b/c of the way I am natured).

I suppose the most difficult aspect of my current state is that life is slowly creeping along. Life has always moved at a rather quick pace for me. On my side of the hill, in fact, life can really roll! But, it came to a screeching halt a little over four months ago. Everyone else moves on, and though I can see you and I can interact with you so that you think I am keeping pace, in reality I am rather stuck. Once again, it’s OK.

As children of the Enlightenment we tend to want life tied up into neat packages that can be fully comprehended and explained. Since God will never be confined in the manner we desire, we construct new explanations for the circumstances that do not fit in our neat and tidy world. We say things like, “God sometimes does His most important work in our lives when we sense His presence the least, when we are in our darkest moments.” I agree! Sometimes it seems, though, that we love to hear the stories of those who have learned this truth – in the past. We are not as good at allowing people to go through such times – in the present. I suppose our reluctance is due to the reality that such a place constitutes an ugly package under the tree in our pristine world.

PLEASE do not think this is my situation. My brothers and sisters at Grace Community Church and all over the world are very patient with me as I walk through this long valley. But, there may be some in your world that is in another valley that looks a good bit like the one I am presently traversing. If so, please be patient. Also, walk with them for a bit. Even though you cannot experience the level of pain they feel, you can ask the kind of questions that allows them to process their experiences and helps you to understand their struggles at a deeper level – if so, everyone benefits! This topic is fodder for a future post – but in the meantime, ask the tough questions. People want to talk about their loss more than you might think they would.

So, time creeps along. There are moments when I think that I am coming out of the valley only to discover my ascent was only a small hill along the way and I have far to go, yet. It is not the way I want it to be, but there are blessings all along the way. I am confident the old “Footsteps” poem is in play! So, if God wants this time to creep, let it creep. Thank you for slowing down long enough to enter my world for a spell.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Peace That Doesn't Make Sense

Thank you for coming to this spot. I will be posting something new in the next few days. For the meantime, I wanted to publish the sermon I preached earlier today. The truths found in this particular text have been a significant help to me these last several days. God bless!

Peace That Doesn’t Make Sense!
Philippians 4:4-9

Have you ever needed to be in two places at once? Of course you have! There was your child’s sixth birthday, but there was also a business commitment or opportunity that was almost unavoidable. Or, you couldn’t decide whether to go with your friends to the beach for the weekend or go to the concert of the year at Walnut Creek. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Well, I need to be at two places this morning. First, I need to be preaching this message. I have studied and prepared and our text today is a great one – this is good stuff. At the same time, I need to be sitting with you – I need to hear what I am going to say this morning.

I suppose the most prominent emotion or state of being that I find myself engaging during this period of grief is lethargy. I wrote on the blog several weeks ago about The Many Faces of Grief, and I will not review what I said there, but I still feel pretty much the same way I did when I posted my thoughts then. I am still lethargic. It is like I am seeing black and white in an HD world. What is it going to take to get beyond this joyless place in my life? Two things, I think.

The first is time. As much as I would like to cast off my sorrow and move on, it just takes time to get over such an incalculable loss. In spite of all that I know and believe about God’s promises, it takes time for the pain to ease when a loved one is lost. We do not grieve as the world grieves, but we grieve, nonetheless.

The second portion of the remedy for grief is Scripture. Just because God’s promises do not eliminate the sorrow of losing the one with whom God fashioned you as one flesh, they do mitigate the pain, when believed, and God’s Word certainly brings eternity into focus. Our text this morning, Philippians 4:4-9, speaks of a peace that surpasses all understanding, or a peace that doesn’t make sense. God is, of course, the one Who provides such peace. If you are familiar with this text, you may tend to think of prayer as the only vehicle of consequence in securing God’s peace. The verses surrounding verses 6 and 7 have their place in the process, though, and if you are willing to apply what you see in Scripture this morning, I can assure you that this will be a good day for you! We will not be breaking a great deal of new ground, but the truth that we already know will take us to a place of peace. Would you please stand as we read Philippians 4:4-9 together?

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;
6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

In this letter to the Philippians, over and over the Apostle Paul emphasizes the importance of unity for the sake of the gospel. In the familiar verses we will examine today, our hearts and minds immediately go to one’s personal relationship with Jesus. While that is certainly a primary focus of the text, even here Paul ties his teaching to our relationship with one another. We will, though, concentrate primarily on the way we relate to the Lord as individuals. There is a threefold formula that allows us to receive this divine gift of perfect peace. We are, first of all, called to:

I. Rejoice in Jesus’ blessings

Well, it makes sense right away, doesn’t it, that rejoicing in the blessings we receive from Jesus will improve our state of mind? Paul says right at the beginning of his new thought, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice.” This verse does begin our new section – but, it also completes the section we have just finished that began in Philippians 3:1. You will recall that Paul started that section the same way he concludes it: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.” If there is a theme of Philippians 3:1-4:4 it is JESUS! It is to the Savior we first look as we consider the peace that doesn’t make sense and that is promised in verse 7.

When Paul uses the term “Lord,” he is almost always referring to Jesus. So, we are being told, here, to rejoice in Jesus. And why wouldn’t Paul say that? He had staked everything on his relationship with Jesus. As we have read in our previous section, the blessing of salvation comes through a relationship with Jesus. The blessing of intimacy with the Divine comes through Jesus. The blessing of purpose in this life comes through Jesus. The blessing of a future that not only brings an eternity with Jesus, but also brings complete and permanent deliverance from the sin to which these lowly and fleshly bodies subject us, comes from Jesus. The blessing of unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ come through Jesus. So we should rejoice, right?

Well, that depends on whether you understand the practice of rejoicing from a biblical perspective or from a worldly one. Most people tend to think of rejoicing in the same way they think of love – as a feeling. But, like love, God’s Word teaches us that rejoicing in Jesus is a commitment and an attitude that does not depend on circumstances, but rather is our response to God’s promises, which inform us of all the blessings that are ours because of our relationship with Jesus.

The Philippians were going to need to rejoice in spite of circumstances because they were facing persecution. In verse 5, Paul tells them to let their reasonableness – or, gentleness – be known to everyone. Much of the bulk of Paul’s letter has been to encourage the Philippian Christ-followers to get along with one another in Jesus. Now he says for these Christians to make sure that the on-looking world sees a gentle response to the mocks and taunts that are unloaded on them. How can one rejoice in the midst of persecution? On the basis of the knowledge that “the Lord is at hand.”

The Lord is at hand, or the Lord is near – does that mean that Jesus’ presence is near or that His return is near? It appears that Paul has both meanings in mind! He intentionally uses this double entendre as a transition from one thought to another. In the first place, we can endure persecution because the Lord’s return is near. Believers have expected Jesus’ return for two millennia, beginning with the members of the first churches in Jerusalem and around the Roman Empire. Since Jesus has not yet returned, should we look for Him only half-heartedly? Absolutely not! A heart that expects Jesus to return at any moment is a heart that has an eternal focus, thus enabling one to look beyond the painful present to the hope of eternity with Jesus. That’s what it means that the Lord is at hand. But, it means more, as we will find in our second point in which you will be encouraged to:

II. Give your troubles to the Father

On the one hand, we are to look for Jesus’ return when our hope will be realized and we will live with Him for eternity. But when Paul says that the Lord is near, he also means that the Lord is quite near in heart and presence to our current difficulties and will respond to our prayers for help. What a comforting encouraging promise we find in verses 6 and 7:

6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

“Do not be anxious about anything.” That’s a tall order, isn’t it? I mean, just look at the economy and the price of gas. That’s enough to keep you awake at night and those concerns are not nearly as troubling as some of the issues in your life. Everyone is worried about something. But, not everyone has a relationship with God. Those who do are invited to bring their troubles to Him.

Notice that Paul switches from “Lord” to “God.” He moves from focusing on God the Son to a focus on God the Father. Does it surprise you to learn that the NT almost always directs us to pray to the Father rather than to Jesus or to the Spirit? We pray in Jesus’ name and the Holy Spirit helps us in our weaknesses as we pray, but we direct our petitions to God the Father. We will look more specifically about how our prayers are directed when we get to our study about the Trinity.

Paul uses three different terms that essentially mean the same thing – prayer, supplication, requests. He is not trying to be clever or to be precise about different aspects of prayer, he is simply telling us to bring our troubles to the Father. To pray is to acknowledge our absolute dependence on the Lord. But we should not come moaning and groaning. We are to bring thankful hearts. Thankfulness is an element that is often missing in our prayers. Oh, we may express our gratitude for God’s provisions, but our words are often more obligatory than heart-felt.

When we pray with a thankful spirit, we look back on all of God’s blessings, expressing our appreciation for being a part of His family. That is very much the way it is for the Christ-follower. When we understand what a privilege it is to be God’s child and a part of His family, it automatically causes us to see our troubles in a different light. Since Paul always has the community in mind, that is part of the truth, here.

When we are willing to bring our troubles to the Father, He, in turn, gives us a peace in our hearts that does not make sense. It is a peace that the world can never understand, but one of which the world takes notice and leans ever closer to believing in a God they cannot see. Even though they cannot see this God, they see evidence of Him in the lives of those whose hearts are focused on Him and who have peace when they should not, according to a secular mindset. In fact, the hearts and minds of those who pray in this manner are guarded, protected by the peace of God.

It is clear that this peace first blesses the hearts of individuals, but it is doubtful that Paul was ignoring peace within the community. Paul often wrote about the peace of God, or about the peace of Christ, or about the God of peace, as we will see in verse 9. We will not take the time to look at the different places, but trust me when I say that whenever he used those terms, unrest in the church was not far from Paul’s readers. It certainly fits here since Paul had just finished admonishing Euodia and Syntyche to get along and to quit disrupting the unity of the church with their bickering – let peace prevail, Paul said. But, it would not be a humanly engineered peace; it would be from the Father.

I know that you would be grateful for a peace that passes understanding. God has promised it when you rejoice in Jesus’ blessings, when you are willing to give your troubles to the Father, and last of all, when you:

III. Yield your mind to the Spirit

Now, granted, our text this morning does not specifically mention the Spirit of God, but the NT clearly indicates that if are going to think in a biblical manner, then our minds will have to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. There is no way we can think, love, and live as we should if we seek to do it in our own strength. Verse 8 reads like a list of the fruit of the Spirit. It was actually, interestingly enough, a list of moral qualities held in the highest esteem in Greek and Roman cultures. The end of verse 8 and all of verse 9 tell us that Paul viewed these qualities in light of the cross. You will remember that when Paul told the Philippians to imitate him, he meant that in addition to following his behavioral patterns, they should also believe and promote the doctrine he preached, and in that, the cross was the center of everything. Look at verses 8-9:

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Whatever is true – not from a humanistic, secular understanding, but from a biblical worldview. There is no question that a biblical worldview helps bring peace to the heart and mind because we learn that God is sovereign, in control, and that what we see is not all there is.

Whatever is honorable – that which is of a noble character and worthy of respect. Christ followers should aspire to such a lifestyle.

Whatever is just – or that which is right according to God’s standards. We do not think and act based on how the world operates, but according to what God has designated as just.

Whatever is pure – not just sexual purity, but all areas of moral purity in thought, speech, and action.

Whatever is lovely – not just moral loveliness, but also that which is aesthetically beautiful, from a beautiful sunset to a symphony to caring for the needy.

Whatever is commendable – the kind of conduct that brings the deserved admiration of others.

To conclude Paul’s admonition for right thinking, he moves the command from a cultural mandate to a biblical worldview when he says if there is any excellence, if anything worthy of praise – to God, of course – then, think about these things. A mind controlled by the Holy Spirit will help to guard our hearts and minds with a peace that is beyond comprehension.

Paul concludes his remarks on this subject, and for all practical purposes, he concludes his remarks in the body of the letter in verse 9. Once again, he calls for the Philippians to imitate him. Paul is challenging the Philippians to live out their faith. Why? Because Christianity in theory only was not something that Paul could support. Instead, Paul wanted them to practice truth, honorableness, justice, purity, loveliness, and that which is commendable – and then, he promised, “the God of peace will be with you.” There is as much about living as there is thinking in these verses.I think all followers of Jesus long for that – for the God of peace to be with them. That’s what you want, isn’t it? That is certainly what I want! It will happen when we rejoice in Jesus’ blessings, bring our troubles to the Father, and yield our minds to the Holy Spirit.