Friday, September 25, 2009

Ministry of Reciprocation

I love the "aha!" moments in life. As I was sitting in my office this rainy, Friday morning, putting the finishing touches on this week's sermon, I had one of those moments. My text this week includes the famed "golden rule" of Jesus found in Matthew 7:12, "In everything, therefore, treat people in the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets." Being the good Bible student that I am, I determined to find out what the "therefore" was there for. Let's be honest, when we quote this, we leave out the therefore as we say, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But Jesus precedes it with a therefore. In other words, what He is about to say is the logical conclusion of what He just finished saying. That's when the "aha!" moment came.

In the preceding verses, Jesus speaks of how God blesses us when all we do is ask of Him. It's as if Jesus is telling us, "since God has blessed you, you need to bless others." Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, describes this type of command as a matter of "spiritual orientation" and he lists, very succinctly, a few other areas that this principle seems to apply. His point is, if we are correctly "oriented" towards God in our spirit, how we treat Him and how He treats us will spill over onto those we relate to in everyday life.

I prefer to call it the "Ministry of Reciprocation." To reciprocate is, according to Webster, "to give and take mutually." Here's the "aha!" How we treat others directly reflects how we treat God. If we love God, we will love others (see I John 4:7-8). In fact God "gives" us love, which we "take" and "give" not only as a return to God, but to others as well.

Check out the other areas this "give-take-give" principle of reciprocation takes place.

Forgiveness- In Matthew 6:14 Jesus tells us, "For if you forgive others (give) ... your heavenly Father will also forgive you (God gives, we take)."

Confession- Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:32-33 that "whoever confesses Me before men (give) I will confess him before My Father who is in heaven (a gift we take)." Add to this principle that those who hear our confession that we give publicly and respond to it will be saved (see Romans 10:9-17) we have reciprocation.

Blessing- James takes a different approach (as is so like him). Rather than demonstrate, he points out the absurdity of when we fail to engage in the ministry of reciprocation. In James 3:8-12 he describes how with one tongue we bless God and curse men. He compares this to the same bizarre behavior of a fig tree growing olives or a grapevine growing figs (v. 12) and rightly sums up God's opinion in v. 10- "My brothers, these things ought not be this way."

So what does all this mean? It means if we fail to "reciprocate" God's actions toward us, not only back to Him, but unto others as well, we reveal how close (or far apart) we are in our relationship with God. A failure to love people means we are falling short in our love to God. A failure to forgive reflects that we feel unforgiven in our hearts. Cursing people but blessing God reveals a duplicity that shows what we offer God is nothing more than "lip service" and is not a genuine, heartfelt response to His goodness.

So how is your walk with God? Perhaps I should ask, how are you relating to people? The two are linked. The golden rule is much more than a rule; it is an indicator of our relationship with our Maker. So go. Do unto others, and remember, what you do reveals your standing with God.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

All-Consuming Passion

I hate to lose. No, I really, REALLY hate to lose. I also hate watching my teams lose. I am a huge Nebraska Cornhuskers fan. For those not familiar with the history of college football, you would be hard-pressed to find a team with a deeper heritage, a better history of success or a more loyal fan base than the Huskers. The 1995 Nebraska squad is often touted as the greatest college football team of all time. The second best? The 1971 team.

Needless to say, I grew up watching them win... and win... and win. Losing not only wasn't an option, it wasn't fathomable. Then came the days of decline after legendary coach Tom Osborne retired, followed by the dark days of the Bill Callahan era. Now the Huskers are rebuilding and regaining prominence and it's exciting to watch... until they lose.

Saturday, September 19. 19th ranked Nebraska has led and defensively dominated the 13th ranked Hokies of Va. Tech. However, despite their defensive domination, the offense of the Huskers floundered and the lead was only 5 points. I watched, praying the clock would tick faster.

Five minutes to go.
Three minutes.
Two minutes.

Two minutes until Big Red snapped a decade long losing streak against top 20 teams. 2 minutes until their return to prominence was legitimate. Two long, agonizing minutes.

Then it happened. First a long pass play to get Tech to the three yard line. Then with 21 seconds on the clock, a touchdown pass. Game over. Nebraska loses by one point.

I was livid (remember, I hate losing). I ranted. I stalked around. I yelled at inanimate objects. I acted like a two-year-old.

I even went outside to finish some outdoor work just to blow off steam. As I reflected, I realized how foolish I must have looked. Then I got angry with myself (which didn't help, it only complicated matters). But I realized something; why don't I get that passionate over lost souls? When was the last time I got angry at Satan for deceiving millions? When did I last allow my hate for losing apply to spiritual warfare?

I felt small. There I was, upset over a football game, and every day souls die without knowing the Lord. All I could do is wonder, "Where is my passion for them?"

Lord, give me an all-consuming passion for the right things and an attitude of contenment for the non-essential things.

Until next time,

P.S. I have recently become an official "book reviewer" for Thomas-Nelson publishers. My pay? Free books! My job? Post the reviews on my blog. So be watching out for book reviews!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Here I Am!

For the most part, my children have never experienced a high-school football game. For the last several years I worked with a small private school in Maryland that did not have a football team. As a result, this corner of American culture was left unexplored by my children, until a couple of weeks ago.

I grew up going to all the home football games that my high school played. While never a natural athlete, I have always enjoyed the excitement and thrill of sports, and in small towns across the nation, Friday nights in the fall are nearly as sacred as Sunday mornings. It's not just the game. It's the conversations in the stands. It's being with people who, while they differ from us in many ways, are there for a shared purpose: to root the home team on to victory. This camaraderie combined with the adrenaline of the game draws a community together, even in the cold and rain. Needless to say, when we moved to Lunenburg, I wanted to get involved in the community and introduce my kids to this staple of Americana.

As the game progressed, the home team (the Central Chargers) was getting closer to the end-zone. The crowd started cheering as each play brought them closer to the goal line. The cheerleaders began to lead the crowd in some chanting, three-syllable cheer. Every high school has such a cheer. Sometimes they are simply the initials of the school (C-H-S! C-H-S! C-H-S!) other times they are more encouraging in nature (GO! FIGHT! WIN!). The crowd was thoroughly involved in the cheer, and I was enjoying the atmosphere. When there was a break in the action, I turned to find my wife fighting to control her laughter. I gave her the quizzical "What's up?" look, to which she answered, that while the crowd was chanting, our youngest daughter, Charley, made up her own cheer. Even though her small voice was drowned out by the scores of football fans around her, she was loudly saying, "HERE I AM! HERE I AM! HERE I AM!" It was as if Charley wanted the fans to notice her and her efforts.

Have you ever felt like Charley? You go to church, because in it you hope to find a group of people from various backgrounds tightly knit together by a common Savior.

You attend.
You get involved.
You volunteer.
You work hard to get your life straight.

Then something happens. Maybe it's small at first. Just a feeling deep inside that you rarely give credence to, but it grows. You begin to notice that everybody seems to be doing better than you are.

His Sunday School class is more popular than the one you teach (but you have put in so many hours of study).
She gets an appreciation award for her involvement with the seniors ministry (but you take communion to them every week).
That deacon gets a public 'thank-you' for his donation to the building fund (what about your weekly gift. It's not much, but it's all you can afford).
That elder seems to have everything in his life in order (yet you try so hard)

Before you know it, you feel like screaming "HERE I AM! I NEED HELP!" but you feel nobody would notice or care. They seem focused on something else.

Been there? I have.
I've felt unappreciated;

So let me give you some advice. First, realize that people may be focused on someone else and that someone else just might be Jesus! If you are in a church that is focused on Jesus, you may have simply lost your focus. Don't do things for personal recognition (see Matthew 6:1ff) do them for Jesus. It's His approval we should strive for, not man's. Make sure you have "fixed your eyes on Jesus" as you strive to do His will.

Second, your tank may be empty. I love D.L. Moody's metaphor of the human soul, a "leaky pitcher" that must stay near the Holy Spirit's stream in order to remain full. You can't feed others and not feed yourself, eventually you will starve. Don't fall into the trap of substituting devotional reading with study for a lesson. Feed yourself! Let God's Word replenish you. Also, make sure you have mature Christians in your life to encourage (not brown-nose) you in your efforts. We all need a pat on the back. It shouldn't be our goal, but we need that "atta boy!" sometimes.

Finally, cry out for help. Someone will hear you. My wife heard her daughter's improvised cheer, and God will hear your impoverished cry, no matter how "loud" your world seems. God will hear, and perhaps, so will God's people. I honestly think that sometimes we don't give people enough credit. Give them a chance to help and heal you. That's what the Church is for, let them do their job.

Do these things and know that God is cheering you on. He is your biggest fan and He wants you to succeed. Moreover, He has given you the ability to.

Until Next Time,

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What Happened to Biblical Preaching?

I'm a huge fan of podcasts. I download several every week of different preachers that I enjoy listening to, and as I drive around or work in the office, I plug in my ipod and enjoy a good sermon (hey, us preachers need to be fed too!)

Recently, however, I noticed something. Several (not all) of the messages I listened to had little, if any, scripture references in them. Were they based upon biblical principles? In my opinion, yes. Did they say anything that would have constituted a "false doctrine". Not that I could tell. But still, this realization disturbed me. Some used a scripture here and there, almost like they were garnishing a dish. It was there, but not as the main meat of the message. One sermon in particular (I listened to it twice to make sure) never referenced or quoted a single passage of scripture. It was polished, well-delivered, motivational and had an impact. The illustrations were fresh and thought provoking. The points were both comforting and compelling. But there was no reference to or quotation from the Word of God.

"Now wait a minute..." someone may say, "...if it's got a Biblical theme, and is well delivered, do you really need to quote the Bible? After all, that might alienate someone who is not familiar with the church." To that I would answer with the apostle's words in Hebrews 4:12, "For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Now the question is, do we believe this? Do we believe the Word of God is a sword; a weapon against the temptations of Satan? Do we believe that it can change lives and hearts by cutting away that which distracts us from God? If so, then the Word of God must be present in every sermon for it to produce the effects of piercing the soul, judging the thoughts and intentions of the listener and producing a lasting change in the hearts of people. If scripture is not present, in my mind it is not a true sermon, but rather a motivational speech, nice and uplifting to listen to, but incapable of any eternal impact.

My other concern with Bible-less preaching is a question of authority. If I stand before a congregation, and give a "motivational speech" that contains no scriptural references, and people respond, even if they give their lives to Christ, I must ask myself, "Are they coming to Christ, or coming to me?" Without the Word of God there, I usurp God's authoritative call with my own sad imitation. Yet, if my message is bathed in God's Word, it rings with the sound of truth and authority, an authority that is not my own, but God's. If someone disagrees with my message, or finds it "too difficult" to apply, I merely have to point out the authority of Scripture to justify my message. No such option exists for the one who abandons his Bible in order to preach a more "acceptable" message.

Finally, a sermon without the Bible is like an empty bottle. It has shape and form, but it's contents can never satisfy. It might look like a sermon at first glance, but it will leave you thirsty and dry in the long run. Let those of us who preach put our faith in God when He told the prophet Isaiah, "My word...which goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it." (Is. 55:11, emphasis mine). I want my sermons to accomplish something. I want my messages to succeed. I want God's word to return overflowing with results. For those who do not preach, challenge us who do, to keep God's Word at the center of every sermon, because His Word will be the final word.

Until next time,