Thursday, November 29, 2012

Enter Boldly Where No Man Has Gone Before

Last time, we briefly touched on the phenomenal promise of 1st John 3:22, “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.”

The first half of that verse sounds like a blanket statement, with no exceptions; that is, until you read the rest of the verse. But the rest of the verse is there, isn’t it? There is no blank check for us to write on in any amount our heart desires that can be drawn on from the vast resources of the Bank of Heaven. There are requirements.

But, even with the requirements, this is a fantastic promise. Yet, we so often discard this kind of promise because we don’t always see our expected result when we pray, so we think, perhaps, the Bible is kidding.

But this promise isn’t made in isolation. In John 16:23-24, Jesus said this: “And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

We are being invited to ask God. We are being promised that what we ask, the Father will give to us (That is Scriptural truth). And we are even being promised that the answers will bring us great joy.

Perhaps the boldest promise is found in Hebrews 4:16, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

That is a beautiful invitation to us to “come.” We are being encouraged to enter through prayer into the very throne room of God in heaven. Somehow, prayer transports us right to heaven, and we have a private audience with God. Do you realize what a privilege that is?

This wasn’t available to mankind until the church. Since the fall, when Adam lost the privilege of walking with God in the Garden during the cool of the day, man has had no direct access to God. We have had to go through an intermediary.

Oh, the common person was granted access to the outer courts of the temple, but access to God was blocked. The Holy of Holies, where God’s Shikinah glory resided, was off limits. But, it was there, in the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was. It was there that the mercy seat resided. But access was blocked by a great veil. Only one person could enter only one time per year, and that was the High Priest. And he could only enter bearing the blood of the sacrifice.

But remember, one of the great events that happened concurrent with the cross was the rending of the veil of the temple from top to bottom. No human being could tear that thick, heavy veil. But God symbolically tore the veil as Christ purchased the right for us to enter. Christ purchased that right with His own blood shed for the remission of sin.

And now, Hebrews 10:19-20 says: “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh.” Amen! Amen! And Amen!

Now, as Star Trek declared, we have a “mission to go boldly where no man has ever gone before.” So, “Beam me up, Scotty, I need to go to heaven because I want to have a personal talk to God, my heavenly Father.” What beams us up is prayer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Fantastic Promise of Answered Prayer

1st John 3:22 promises: “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.”

That promise is almost too broad and vast and wonderful in its extent to be believed. So can you really believe it? Is this indeed a blank check for you to write on? Will you indeed receive anything you ask for? The answer is a resounding, “YES! Providing. . . “

Ah, I knew there was a catch. So what are the conditions to answered prayer?
There are two: The first is: “Because we keep His commandments.” In other words, we have to be obedient to the rules of our Heavenly Father.
The second condition is: because we “do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” That’s a heart willing to go to whatever extreme to please our Father

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Should a disobedient child be given whatever he wants from his parents? Should one with a bad attitude? Should one who is only asking selfishly? You wouldn’t cow-tow to your kid when he asks like that, so why should we expect God to? Even Santa Claus keeps track of who’s naughty and nice.

That doesn’t mean we earn our prayer answers by being good, but it does mean we need to pray with the right motives - with pure motives. Psalm 37:4 says: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” Do you see the key? It is to “delight yourself . . . in the Lord.” You delight to bring God glory, delight to fellowship with Him, delight to do His will. That’s the delight of your heart.

Too many people go to God with all the wrong motives. James 4:3 says: “You ask and receive not because you ask amiss that you may consume it to your own lusts.” That verse is talking about selfish motives. That attitude is “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” It’s wanting things for my own benefit.

“Yeah, God, I want to drive a brand new car, not this old clunker. I deserve it God, because, do you know how embarrassing it is for me to drive less than the best? I want to make an impression.” Why should God acquiesce to a request like that? He won’t!

But back to that first condition on answered prayer: Verse 22 said – “Because we keep His commandments.” Those commandments are partly defined in the next verse, 1st John 3:23. That verse said: “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” Wow! Back to love! We’ve gone full circle in this book again. It’s so important, John is revisiting it.

Notice, there are two parts to His commandment: The first is “that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ” That command is given in the past perfect tense, meaning this is a one-time happening that has already occurred in the past. You believed when you were saved, so that part of the command is an established fact.

As a matter of fact, obeying that command is exactly what gets you saved. We’re saved by believing, right? John 3:16 and all: “Whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but everlasting life.”

And Ephesians 2:8-9 says:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Actually belief is the primary work of a Christian. John 6:29 says: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” Whom He sent, of course, means Jesus. When we believe, we’re saved; a onetime event.
But the second part of the command is ongoing: “And love one another,” in verse 23 is in the present tense. This is what we are supposed to be doing on an ongoing basis to obey and please God.

It follows right along with what Jesus said in: Matthew 22:37-40:
“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

That really defines the Christian life, doesn’t it? Do you want to obey God? Do you want to really please Him? The way to do that is to love

That also sounds like Paul’s classic definition of Christianity in Galatians 5:6 (reading from the NIV): “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Those are the same two things – faith and love. But these are the requirements of answered prayer.

Those are also are the requirements of fellowship. 1st John 3:24 says, “Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.”

Wow! Abiding! That means living in Him, and Him living in us. That means fellowship. That means communion with God.

Here, John is using it as a test for salvation - yeah, keeping it in accord with the theme of the book. But it’s an important theme in his gospel too. John 15:7 says: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. “

See, again we find the same blank check promise of 1st John 3:22. Except this time, the condition is abiding in Christ. It is the condition of living day by day in fellowship with Christ. Do you see this cause and effect relationship?

But there’s also a condition on fellowship. John 15:10 says: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”

Oh, wasn’t keeping God’s commandments also one of the requirements for answered prayer? Oh, yes! See how all this keeps intertwining? To have our prayers answered we must keep God’s commands, and we must be in fellowship with God. But to be in fellowship with God (called abiding in God), we must keep God’s commands. Interesting? They are connected.

Oh, but keeping God’s commandments, that sounds harsh! Well, if it does, you’re thinking is all wrong. You need a new perspective. This isn’t a cowering private obeying the commands of a tough drill sergeant. You mess up with the drill sergeant, you’d better love doing pushups because he’ll have you doing a whole lot of them if you disobey a command.

If you think of God that way, you’ll always be looking up for that lightning bolt from heaven to strike you dead every time you mess up before God. That’s living in fear, and that’s wrong.

Oh, no! It’s not supposed to be that way. We obey because we love God - Remember 1st John 3:22? We obey because we want to “do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” Can you see the difference?

Well, let’s pause and reflect over what we’ve learned: Friend, can you rejoice in answered prayer? Or does the ceiling seem to bounce back your prayers to echo hollow in your ears?

If that second scenario is you, perhaps you haven’t complied with the first requirement of 1st John 3:23. Perhaps you’ve never believed on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation is the first and foremost requirement. If you’ve never trusted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, do so today. Salvation comes by simple faith. What must I do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

But perhaps, as a believer, if you’re still experiencing un-answered prayer, maybe you’re failing the second requirement of verse 23. Perhaps you are not loving one another. Failure to do that is just as devastating to your prayer life. You need to confess your sin an begin to live right before God.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting Things Right With Our Heavenly Father

Being able to point out concrete examples of the times you’ve shown love to someone results in confidence of our own salvation. But how is that confidence expressed? Part of the answer comes in 1st John 3:21, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. “

What does that mean – confidence toward God? It means we have confidence that God really is our heavenly father. Isn’t that wonderful? And that confidence gives us boldness – boldness in prayer. It is the confidence of a son going to a doting dad to ask for something as opposed to an accused man standing before a scowling judge. Do you see the difference?

Confidence gives us a freedom of speech. We can go to God boldly unhampered by fear or shame because God is our Abba, our Daddy, who loves to spend time with us and who loves to meet our very need. Why wouldn’t we go regularly? Why wouldn’t we feel free to ask Him anything? And why shouldn’t we expect His answer to be “Yes,” at least to legitimate requests?

We are even invited to come. Hebrews 4:16 states: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Do you see? Our confidence affects our relationship with God. That relationship is destroyed if we stand condemned in our hearts. We have no confidence in prayer if we have a guilty conscience. See what a hindrance this is?

Adam and Eve sure illustrated that in the Garden of Eden after their fall.
Genesis 3:8-10 tells us, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ So he said, ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.’”

When we lose confidence because our heart condemns us, we won’t go to God in prayer. We won’t have faith He hears or answers us. In fact, Jesus even tells us we have no access if we aren’t right with our brothers. Matthew 5:323-24 quotes Jesus as saying, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

We have to settle our accounts first. And if it is important to get things right with our church family, how much more important is it to get things right with our Heavenly Father?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

When Our Heart Condemns Us

Last time, we talked about 1st John 3:17 which said, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” This, we said, was a test – a test of our salvation. Those who show love demonstrate evidence of being saved. Those who don’t show love lack evidence of salvation.

“But, now pastor,” some of you will say, “We can never do enough for people. There will always be more people than we can help.”

Yes, that’s true. There are millions of starving people around the world, and not a one of us with our puny resources could make a dent in world poverty levels. We could never have enough to give away.

But, Satan is sure to make you feel guilty about your inadequacies. “You hard-hearted so-and-so, how can you ignore all those hurting, starving people? And you yourself ate well today. How can you call yourself a Christian?” He whispers that in your ear, and you feel condemned – guilty as charged.

Well, that’s where this next verse in 1st John comes in. John obviously knows that his words will cause some genuine believers to doubt, because 1st John 3:20 continues: “For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.”

How does our heart condemn us? Our heart condemns us through a guilty conscience. It pricks us and torments us for all the times we could have done more, telling us we should have done more.

The New International Version translates that verse as “when our hearts condemn us.” – No “if.” In other words, whenever we get that guilty conscience, which can be quite often. So, what do we do? We remember that God is greater than that, and He knows all things; whereas, our hearts can be wrong. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”

Who can know our heart? God can know it; and He does. And it’s His Word that says: Romans 8:1 – “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”

In that same chapter, it tells us this:
Romans 8:31-34
31 “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? 33 Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.”

There’s no need to doubt our salvation, not if there is some evidence, because God is on our side, and only He has the power to condemn - not your tender conscience. False doubts are just as wrong as false security. So take yourself by the hand and confront your doubts.

When Satan points out those millions of starving people in the world, and he wants to know what you’ve done, and he tells you it could never be enough; simply recount what you have done. Then have confidence. That’s what John wants to accomplish with this book. Trust that God saves inadequate sinners like us who never do quite enough. But at least we’re trying, so gain some confidence.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Love Brings Assurance

I just want to remind you of John’s ongoing thesis in his first epistle: It is assurance. John is trying to deal with any doubt we may have about our salvation. And that’s the way 1st John 3:19 begins: “And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him.”

By this we may know? By what? 1st John 3:18, “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” We “assure our hearts” by whether or not we demonstrate love for one another, and we demonstrate love through concrete actions, by “deed” and “truth,” not simply, by what we say.

What kind of concrete actions show our love? 1st John 3:17, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

Pretty simple, right? If you see someone has a need and you turn away, you aren’t demonstrating love. You aren’t demonstrating love even if you say, “Oh, you poor baby. I feel so sorry for you. I hope things turn out better.” What good do your words do if the person is still sitting there in the midst of their troubles?
What if he’s sitting there with no money, or no food, or sick? If they have concrete needs, your words alone won’t meet them.

Last time we talked about this. We brought up the account of the Good Samaritan. In the account, a man was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A Levite and a priest, good religious folk we are to believe, walked by and they noticed, they looked, and they might have even offered up a prayer; but they kept on walking.

It wasn’t until a Samaritan happened by (remember those despised Samaritans?), and he stopped and offered assistance. He bound up the man’s wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for the man’s care. The Samaritan alone showed love in deed and in truth.

According to John, he can have assurance of salvation. But also, according to John, for the Levi and the priest, there can be no assurance. Of them, 1st John 3:17 asks, “How does the love of God abide in [them]?” They “shut up [their] hearts” from a “brother in need.” There isn’t any assurance in 1st John for them, If they really cared to look.

Now, some ask, If John’s purpose is assurance, why spend so much time trying to shake our assurance? He seems to give us as many negative examples as positive ones? The answer is simple: John doesn’t want to give anyone false assurance. To give security to the believer? Oh, yes! But only insecurity to the make-believers.
To those whose faith is only “brain deep, but not heart deep” as shown by their life, John says, “YOU DON’T GET ANY ASSURANCE FROM ME!”

If 1st John 3:17 describes you, you deserve no assurance. If all you’re concerned about is building your bank account, or how you can get a bigger house, or car, or a faster snowmobile, yet you care little about the needs of people, you should feel on shaky ground. Are you feeling any tremors?

J. Vernon McGee calls those kind of people, “Little Jack Horner” believers. Do you remember the nursery rhyme?

“Little Jack Horner sat in a corner
Eating his Christmas pie.
He put in a thumb and pulled out a plumb
And said, ‘What a good boy am I.’”

But, Is Jack a good boy? If he is, where’s the evidence?

Most little boys sitting in a corner are there because they are being punished. And how did he get the whole pie? Did he steal it? And how come he isn’t using a fork to eat it with? It must be pretty messing using only his fingers. So is Jack really a good boy? Or is his claim just that – all claim with no evidence?

Well, in our passage for today, the evidence of salvation is demonstrating love by your actions. Is there enough evidence to convict you of love?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Praying for the Persecutd Church, and Preparing to be the Persecuted Church

The following transcript was preached for the National Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on Novembeer 11, 2012

The early church had been growing like gang-busters. From the day of Pentecost on, it had been only up and up and up. The Spirit of God had swept across the landscape saving souls by the thousands. It looked like clear sailing all the way till Jesus returned. But alas, it was not to be. The tables would be turned quickly.

Because, here’s a little maxim you need to know: Whenever God works, Satan will be there to oppose it; and the more God is doing, the greater will be Satan’s effort to squash it.

As John MacArthur said, “Throughout the universe, war rages on every front. God, the holy angels, and elect men battle Satan, his demonic hosts, and fallen men. Although the outcome of the war has never been in doubt, the battles are no less real.” And might I add, the casualties are no less painful.

Satan had shown his true colors through the ages by opposing and killing the prophets. He thought he had finally won when he led the Jews to betray their Messiah and then the Romans to crucify Him. But alas, from Satan’s perspective, Jesus rose from the dead and founded a church - a church to function as the Body of Christ doing His work and spreading His message throughout the world.

And the church was growing and spreading. Satan must have been beside himself in frustration. What will he do? Oh, remember the maxim? Wherever God is at work, Satan is there to oppose, so the church’s growth won’t be unopposed. Satan will attack the newly formed church.

Oh, the disciples should have been prepared. Jesus had warned them even before the Cross. In John 15:18-20, Jesus taught:
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”

Well, the persecution is about to intensify. Persecution of the church will characterize the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the church. Uncounted thousands would lose their lives as they were fed to the lions, turned into human torches, crucified, and whatever else evil human men could devise to viciously kill.

Yet, the Christians faced death with a calm serenity that unnerved their tormenter. And far from destroying the church, the church thrived. As Tertullion would say, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And martyr’s blood flowed all through the history of the church. Wherever the Gospel went, the executioner followed.

Satan’s first recorded attack against the church came through the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Then Saul went out creating havoc in the church by binding and leading Christians away in chains to be cast into dungeons. All is not rosy. It’s not a safe time to be a Christian here in these middle chapters of the book of Acts. But the church keeps pressing on.

And then, Herod joins in. Acts 12:1-4 says:
“Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews (The Jews were all happy about it, and Herod was a people pleaser), he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread (It was the Passover). 4 So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him (4 squads of 4 is sixteen soldiers to guard one man - Herod wasn’t taking any chances of escape), intending to bring him before the people after Passover.

Oh, Herod’s intention is to behead the church by beheading the leaders. He’s trying to strip the church of their leadership so they flounder. And Peter is currently in the crosshairs. And what was Peter’s horrible crime? Preaching the Gospel of Christ. That was enough to give him a death sentence.

So, what will the church do? How will the church respond to this onslaught? After all, Peter is in prison, and he’s probably going to be executed as soon as the Passover is over

The answer is, the church will pray: Acts 12:5 says, “Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.” Amen! The church prayed – of course, they prayed. While Peter sat in prison, the church was on her knees pouring her heart out to God. They were holding an all night prayer vigil. They begged God to intervene on Peter’s behalf.

The New American Standard translates it this way: “So Peter was kept in prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.”

That word, fervently, comes from a Greek medical term, ektenos. It described the stretching of a muscle to the limit by maximum exertion. The church was literally praying until it hurt. This is kind of like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, He sweat great drops of blood from the effort, falling on the ground and pouring His heart out to God. This was soul wrenching hard work. That’s what fervent prayer is. It’s praying with all you’ve got. Ever prayed like that?

And that kind of prayer is effective. James 5:16 says, “The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” So, that’s what the church is doing here. They’re giving it all they’ve got to pray for Peter, and God miraculously answered.

Acts 12:6-8 says:
“And when Herod was about to bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison. Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, “Arise quickly!” And his chains fell off his hands. Then the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and tie on your sandals”; and so he did. And he said to him, “Put on your garment and follow me.”

Praise God, an answer to prayer - a wonderful, miraculous answer to prayer.

But, couldn’t God have kept Peter from being arrested? Of course God could have. The angel could have intervened at any time. But, God sovereignly chooses sometimes to let us suffer persecution for His sake. Sometimes He rescues, and sometimes He doesn’t. Peter was spared the sword, but James wasn’t.

After the angel left him, Peter went to find his friends. They were all meeting at the home of John Mark. Peter knew they would be. He knew they would be praying.
Acts 12:12 says, “So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying. “

Peter pounds on the door, interrupting their prayer meeting. Rhoda, a servant girl comes to see who it is, and (“Oh, my!”) she is astonished - it is Peter. She is so astonished, she forgets to open the door and runs and tells the disciples, leaving him to stand outside where he continues to knock. But nobody can believe it – “You’re nuts,” they tell her. “You’re just seeing things. He must be dead, and you’re hearing his angel”

They prayed for God to spring Peter from prison, but they didn’t believe it could happen. How much that is like the way we pray. We kind of hope God will answer, but we really don’t expect it. After all, God didn’t answer their prayers for James. They are a little discouraged - a little disheartened - and it shows in their lack of faith. Well, that is Peter standing out there knocking, isn’t it? Where is their faith? Couldn’t they believe that God could do a miracle? Nonetheless, they prayed

Well, we in this church, we prayed too. We prayed for Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, a 32 year old husband and father of two sons. He had been confined in prison in Iran for crimes against Islam and had been sentenced to death. What horrid crimes had he been guilty of? Proselyting – preaching the Gospel. He was in prison for Christ, so we prayed. I, for one, had little hope he would ever be released, ever see his family again. I fully expected him to be executed by the Iranians. But God intervened. Pastor Nadarkhani was released from prison on September 8th, and the Christian world celebrated.

Quoting Mervyn Thomas of Christian Solidarity Worldwide: “I believe it is no coincidence that Pastor Nadarkhani was released as people around the world were praying for him. What a result. . . and such an unexpected one at that.”

So, can we stop praying? Mission accomplished? OH, NO! Less than 130 miles away, another pastor faces even worse conditions. Behnam Irani, 41, is serving six years in prison in Karaj for so called “actions against the state.” What were those actions? He pastors a church made up of Islamic converts, and he dared share his faith with Muslims. Those are his horrible crimes.

In August, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that he is suffering from severe bleeding due to stomach ulcers and a colon disorder so that he was vomiting blood. In spite of all this, he was denied medical treatment. He suffers alone, sick and near death. Pastor Irani has also been beaten so severely by prison authorities that he struggles to walk. His internal organs are all shot. He is a physically broken man. It is believed that without medical care, he will die within months, alone, a martyr for Jesus.

But he is not alone. Ahmed Shaheed of the U.N. estimated that Iranian authorities arrested and detained more than 300 Christians since 2010. Iran is a dangerous place to profess Christ. According to Shaheed, “scores of Christians” languish in jail “for freely practicing their religion.”

Here’s what it is like there: Mansour Borji – an Iranian pastor who fled to London – reports that the house church movement is like: “a James Bond movie – how they are careful about their communication, how they switch meeting places, how they turn off their phones and how they take out their SIM cards.” To meet openly is to be arrested in Iran.

But, Iran is not alone. Open Doors USA publishes an annual list of the 50 countries with the worst record on persecution. Every Sunday in Nigeria, Christians meet in fear of the roving bands of Islamic zealots that viciously murder dozens at a time and burn churches. Last year in Egypt, there was the “Maspero Massacre” where 27 Coptic Christians were killed as the Egyptian Army opened fire and used tanks to run over and squash a protest against the burning of a church. The examples could go on and on of suffering.

What do these Christians need? They need our prayers. Iranian pastor Borji stated: “The first thing that people in this situation ask for isn’t activism or advocacy. It’s prayer.” So we need to pray.

Jerry Dykstra of Open Doors agrees: “They don’t necessarily pray for the persecution to go away. They pray for faith that is unwavering.” So what should we be doing? We should be praying. Some God will spare, like Pastor Nadarkhani, but others He will not spare. And we can only pray that their faith will not waver, that God will keep them strong.

As Pastor Nadarkhani said when released from prison: “The Lord has wonderfully provided through the trial. . . As the Scripture says, ‘He will not allow us to be tested beyond our strength.’” We must stand with these persecuted souls.

But are we exempt from this kind of persecution? Praise God, we have been for over 200 years. In the midst of a world filled with persecution, we have lived in a bubble of protection - protection enshrined in the first amendment to our constitution. Our country was primarily founded by people who fled Europe and the systematic persecution of Christians that was rampant there. They came here seeking religious freedom. And when they enacted our constitution, the first order of business was passing the Bill of Rights.

The first right to be protected was the Freedom of Religion. This is what that First Amendment says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As long as our country upholds our Constitution, we will be protected. Unfortunately, that right is being eroded year by year. Crosses and Ten Commandment plaques have been forbidden on public property. Football teams can’t pray before their games. Sharing faith at work is construed as hate speech.

Now, with the forward march of same-sex marriage, the right to refuse a same sex couple based on your religious convictions has been stripped. You can’t refuse to photograph their “mockery of a wedding” or refuse to rent them a bridal suite. Pastors have been arrested in Canada and Europe for preaching against homosexuality. It is considered hate speech there even when taken straight from the Bible. Soon, it may be outlawed here. And now, under Obamacare, Christian organizations are required to provide free birth control through their employee healthcare whether it violates their convictions or not. Bye, bye, freedom of conscience.

As Christians, we are in a decided minority. In a Pew Research Report on Religion and Public Life published in October, It’s reported that the percent of us that are Protestant in this country has dropped to 48%. For the first time, we are in the minority. This doesn’t mean we are converting to Catholicism or Mormonism. Oh no, 20% of us claim we have NO religious affiliation. And Maine is the most un-churched state in the union now.

In 2007, Pew showed 60% who seldom or never attend religious services still identified with some religion. Now, in 2012, only 50% do. I hope you realize the situation is even more stark than the numbers report because not all who claim affiliation as Protestant actually attend church which is one indicator of whether you take your faith seriously or not. And how many of the Protestant denominations have abandoned Protestant beliefs? The situation is indeed dark. It will only get harder to live openly as a Christian.

What are we to do as the persecution intensifies? The best answer is to follow the plan of the apostles. In Acts 4:24-30, the apostles were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, then released. And what took place? They gathered to pray - but not prayers of dejection, prayers of praise. Acts 4:24 says, “So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them,

That word, Lord, is a unique one coming from the Greek word, despotes - or despot. God rules! He is the absolute ruler. And that gives them confidence. All their suffering was part of God’s will. They could trust Him and His purpose. Live or die, God ultimately decides.

Why would God allow James to be beheaded and Peter set free? Nobody knows, but God. This is His universe, not ours. We simply must trust Him.

The Passage continues in Acts 4:25:
25 who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: (In Psalm 2)
‘Why did the nations rage,
And the people plot vain things?
26 The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.’

27 “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus
whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.

And now here is their request - Acts 4:29:
29 Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, 30 by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.”

They didn’t ask to be spared the persecution. They asked to be effective in spite of it. “Let us accomplish what needs to be done, Lord” That’s the attitude we must have.

Acts 4:31 concludes the account:
31 And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.

Amen! God answered that prayer. He didn’t spare them persecution, but He did make them effective in ministry.

Acts 5:27-32 is a report of the next encounter, and this is their answer to the court:
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”
29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. 31 Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

That’s the issue: We ought to obey God rather than man. And we ought to obey God even if it means we will suffer consequences for it - Yes, even if the consequences are persecution and death.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life or Death? What Do Your Actions Show?

Nice people, who are attractive and agreeable, they are easy to love, especially if they don’t have any needs. But those difficult, unattractive, ornery people, can you still love them? What about a total stranger who has come with some desperate needs?

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. It begins with a questioning lawyer coming to trick Jesus. Here’s the story as Jesus told it:
Luke 10:29-37
“29 But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 36 So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
37 And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The world turns a blind eye to suffering. Too often the church does too, but we are the church. Would you have walked on by?

I quoted from Tony Campolo in an earlier post. Tony headed a small evangelical mission that planned and built a small orphanage in a third world country. The orphanage was designed to hold 50 mal-nourished kids. And when it became time to open, they sent out a bus to a local neighborhood, an urban slum, to round up the kids. But instead of 50, they found over 200 starving kids waiting with bloated bellies, toothpick limbs, the red tint to the hair from lack of protein.

It was an agonizing task to sort out the kids, deciding who would live and who would die. The local native pastor who had brought the kids organized the ones being left behind and had them sing a thank you for rescuing the fifty. They sang the chorus, “God is So Good.”

Tony Compola wrote of that, “I didn’t want to hear it. God can’t be good to them.”

But they kept singing: “He loves us so,” and Tony wanted to cry out, “Stop! It isn’t true! God isn’t good to them, He doesn’t love them. If He did, He would have some kind of plan to rescue them.”

Then, he said, it dawned on him; God did have a plan. The plan was to use people like you and me. He concluded, these kids weren’t suffering because God didn’t love them, they were suffering because Christians just didn’t care – at least not enough to do something about it.

Oh, I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. There are many examples of love and kindness among you. Yet, the bulk of the modern church is neither hot nor cold; but tepid, comfortable, complacent. And that’s a dangerous place to be.

This is what Jesus said to the lukewarm church at Laodicea: Revelation 3:16 – “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.”

Most people think religion is something that happens in a building on Sunday morning one day per week where no attendance is required and the cover charge is whatever change you might have in your pocket at the time; rather than what happens when we offer a cup of cold water in God’s name. Yet, millions of supposed members are not involved in any ministry. None at all. And worse, they don’t think it strange.

But the essence of Christianity is this: James 1:27 – “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

The essence is simply this: It is giving ourselves without reservation to Jesus Who incarnates Himself in the suffering of people around us. Do you?

Here’s an interesting statistic: America has 10 million pet dogs 73% of which are over-weight, yet a scant portion of believers ever tithe to any ministry. Churches have built over $200 billion in church buildings to be used a few hours per week, mainly to be used by those who gave the money, and all to honor the God who said, “I dwell not in temples made with hands.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with having a nice building to worship in, but the real emphasis has to be on ministry - on people and their needs. Are you serving Christ by serving others?

As we close, I want you to look again at what Jesus said in John 13:35 – “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” But the issue is a lot deeper than whether or not the world thinks we are Christian. The issue is whether or not we are real. 1st John 3:14 warned us: “He who does not love his brother abides in death.”

This is a life and death issue. Do you have life; do you really have eternal life? If your answer is, yes, can it be proven by your ministry to the hurting? Or do your actions prove you are abiding in death?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Loving the Unlovely

In the last entry, we mentioned the verse, Luke 9:23, where Jesus gave the requirements of discipleship: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” We’ve discussed this before. It’s the willing sacrifice of everything we have, including our very lives, all for the sake of Christ.

But does Christ really demand our death? He might, and He did with the apostles. But, more often He demands a living sacrifice. Romans 12:1 says: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

But, how do we make our lives a “living sacrifice?” Is this some kind of mysterious mumbo-jumbo? That’s the essence of our passage in 1st John. Look at it again: 1st John 3:16-18, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”

Isn’t that clear? To love God is to love each other.

Tony Compolo addressed this saying:
“There is a tendency for many people in our ‘rational’ society to make Christianity into a commitment to abstract principles, rather than making it into a commitment to others. I can remember, as a boy, going through the catechism class in which I was taught that ‘the chief end of man is to love God and to serve Him forever.’ That statement is beautiful, but very often we fail to understand how God is served. There is a tendency for us to make loving God into nothing more than a private, inward, meditative trip. I believe that it is critical for us to acknowledge that the Jesus whom we find within ourselves is, first of all, the Jesus who confronts us in the form of a neighbor who is in need.”

I want you to look at Matthew 25:31-40. I acknowledge that this passage describes the judgment of the nations at the end of the Tribulation when Christ comes to set up His earthly kingdom. It is more commonly known as the sheep and goat judgment. But the point I want you to see is this: What is the basis of judgment? And then ask, does this reflect Christ’s priorities for my life?

Let’s read: Matthew 25:31-40
31 “When the Son of Man (Jesus) comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory (at His Second Coming) . 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep (His followers) on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ (We don’t remember any of those times) 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

The next few verses show us the reverse; It shows the goats – the people who did not love - with the opposite result. They were cast out.
Matthew 25:45-46 says: Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” That is the tragic end of a selfish life.

But, do you see what this shows? Jesus chooses to manifest Himself to us through the neighbor in need – through the unwed mother struggling to make ends meet, through the dirty little boy who can’t sit still.

How do you respond to them? Will Jesus be able to say to us one day: “Thank you, for the smile you gave me, and the encouragement you offered. Thank you for how patient you’ve been with me; for the help, for the hand out, for the love”

For many of you, the answer will be, “Yes!” But for others, it will be, “NO!” Unfortunately, “No!”

But, listen to me! How can someone claim to love Christ and not respond to the suffering of the people Jesus loves? That’s the point of 1st John 3:18 – “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”

In other words, don’t just talk about a need you see, roll your sleeves up and get it done! Loving in tongue means loving insincerely, but your act of helping shows your sincerity.

At our church in Syracuse during the time of our adoption of our Korean children, there was a mentally handicapped couple who heard we had a need, and so they brought a $10.00 bill and a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese to give us. They said, “That’s all we’ve got right now, but we’ll give what we can.”

That’s it! It’s giving of ourselves to those Christ loves. It’s offering the shoulder to cry on. It’s taking a dinner to someone who has been in the hospital. It’s helping an over-whelmed young mother.

James 2:14-17 shows the opposite of this: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

That’s a great question, isn’t it? Do words fill an empty belly? Do words take the cold out of chilled bones? A faith that doesn’t prove itself by action is dead - it’s useless. It is worthless to save us.

John Calvin always said, “It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies can never be alone.” So, faith requires work: In the same way, real loves requires actions. Our love for our wife and children is demonstrated by the work we do to make their lives better.

But love is not natural, is it? Selfishness is. Oh, it’s easy to love the brethren, but it’s hard to love a brother. Do you understand what I’m saying here? It’s easy to love the corporate whole, but much more difficult to love the individual. “Oh, yes, I love the church; but the people in the church, how can you put up with them?”

There’s an old ditty that goes like this:
“To dwell above with the saints we love,
Oh, that will be glory;
To dwell below with the saints we know,
Now, that’s a different story.”

No it’s not! Jesus demands we love them as He loves them. Do you?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Essence of Christianity

What is the essence of being a follower of Christ? What does it really mean to be a Christian? Do you know?

By asking, I’m not asking about your theological beliefs. The process of becoming a Christian is spelled out clearly in Scripture. We are saved by grace through faith. But you can’t tell that by looking at anyone. You don’t wear your faith like a button on your lapel. So what actions or attitudes express the essence of a follower of Christ?

Here are some possibilities: I used to think it was being a church-goer. People who went to church Sunday mornings must be Christians, why else would they go? Yet, is that true? Billy Graham has claimed that as many as 80% of the people sitting in church on a Sunday are not born again. Maybe they come out of duty, or to ease their guilty conscience. Maybe it’s curiosity, or so people will think they are moral. So church attendance isn’t enough

Well, maybe what makes a Christian is being an officer in a church. But, No! I’ve noticed that, too often, especially in little churches, the major qualification is longevity, or sometimes personal wealth or influence. The position is too often used as a platform for personal power instead of a platform for service.

Well, then, maybe it’s personal piety. I remember that sometime about the time I was turning into a teenager, the Sunday School teachers stopped telling Bible stories and started teaching morals. Living the Christian life was stressed, and you did that by following all the rules taught to the tune of a little ditty:
“We don’t drink and we don’t chew,
And we don’t run with girls what do.”
I grew up in a really conservative church, so I remember Sunday School teachers who would say things like, “Dancing stimulates the lust of the flesh.” And we wouldn’t want our flesh stimulated

Or they’d say things like, “How would like the Lord to return and catch you in a theater?” That was scary, since my parents took me to see Disney movies like Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson, and it always made me nervous. Not so much nervous about being caught, as nervous about missing the rest of the movie.

I’ve heard pastors even preach you shouldn’t go to a theater to watch a Billy Graham film (Now, it would be a Kendrick film like Courageous or Fireproof) because you’d be supporting a theater that showed R-rated films on other nights.

Now, certainly, we should seriously be concerned about our behavior. There are movies and types of dancing Christians shouldn’t be involved in. And there are lots of substances a Christian shouldn’t ingest or smoke. Yet, there are many people who do none of the so-called questionable things, yet they are far from Christian. Muslims, after all, don’t drink and they exhibit the extreme in modesty.

If living by a set of rules was the extent of it, the Pharisees would have been the best of the best, but they received nothing but condemnation from Jesus because it was all external with them.

Well, what about correct doctrine? Maybe being a Christian is simply a matter of believing the “right stuff.” Yet, much of the church gives intellectual assent to right doctrine. Most liberal churches still have creeds and statements of faith that are right down the line. They revere them, but ignore them. But that isn’t the issue. James 2:19 says: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” If right doctrine was enough, Satan would be the best of us all. But it isn’t enough

What then is? What really is the essence of being a true Christian? The answer is surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ - total, unreserved surrender to the Lord Jesus. Luke 9:23 says, “Then He (Jesus) said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. “