Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Who Didn't Make It

Who Didn’t Make it
Matthew 2:1-12

            Last week we discussed who was at the original Nativity scene. Let’s review:
            -What does the word “nativity” mean?
            -Who was there?
            -Who is commonly found in all of the traditional nativity scenes but wasn’t there?
            To re-cap…nativity simply means birth event. The only people we know for sure were there were Mary and Jesus. We can assume that Joseph was there, some shepherds that showed up soon after Jesus was born, some angels, and cattle. Tonight we are going to ask the questions 1) Who wasn’t there? and 2) Why were they not there? 
Let’s go back and read Matthew 2:1-12 to follow the story of the three wise men. Maybe we’ll get at least one of the people groups who was not at the nativity scene.
1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose[b] and have come to worship him." 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him,
"In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
 6 "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
 7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
            The wise men were gift intellectually and were probably astrologers. They noticed something different in the sky—a new star and felt compelled to follow it. People have been using stars for navigational purposes since the beginning of travel. There are certain stars that seem to be fixed in the sky, and are therefore, great for navigating year round. Other stars, commonly called “wandering stars” in the Bible were considered useless for navigating. This new star was most likely only seen by this particular group of wise men, but it is possible that they were the only ones who were paying attention to the sky, or the only ones who acted on what they saw. Either way, they saw the star and decided to follow it like the yellow brick road.
            We discussed last week that this star was probably some supernatural phenomenon because a star does not sit directly over a planet, let alone a country, let alone a city, let alone a house. But these wise men followed the star all the way to Jerusalem. When they got to Jerusalem, the star vanished.
            Let’s go back 2,000 years and imagine that you are one of the wise men. You had just walked several hundred miles, following a star that was to lead you to the birth place of the King of the Jews, whom you were interested in worshiping. Once you got into the heart of Israel, the nation’s economic and spiritual capitol, the star disappears, no one else saw it or knows anything about it, and worse yet, no one knows or seems to care about the birth of the new King of the Jews. I mean, this was the heart of the Jewish religion and nobody cared about their own king’s birth while they were foreigners who walked several hundred miles to worship him. What is going on? If you were one of the wise men, you would have been tired, frustrated, and confused. Seeking answers they went to King Herod. We don’t have enough time to get into all of the dysfunction surrounding him and his relatives—but we can say that The Jerry Springer Show has nothing on this family.
            Herod was deeply disturbed by the news of the birth of the King of the Jews for one simple reason—he was already the king of the Jews, appointed by the Roman Emperor. He didn’t want anyone coming along and taking his authority from him, or starting an uprising. So he acted like he was interested in worshiping this King of the Jews like they were, and questioned the wise men about the stars appearance and disappearance. He instructed the wise men to go out and search for the newborn King and when they find Him to come back and tell him where He is so he can go and worship Him, too.
            Once they left his palace the star reappeared and they were able to find the house where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were staying. An angel instructed the wise men to return home a different way so as not to run into Herod. Meanwhile Herod waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. Then one day Herod said, “Hey! I’ve been tricked!” Still wanting to take out this person he felt was a threat to his kingdom, he ordered all male children two years and younger to be slaughtered. Little did he know, Joseph was acting on a directive from an angel to flee Jerusalem and head to Egypt to preserve the life of the baby boy.
            To answer our questions, Who was not there, and why? We can say confidently that the political leaders were not present at the nativity scene. The simple answer to why, is that they would have misinterpreted Jesus’ role as the King of the Jews, and felt threatened by his presence. Political leaders back then right up until today, in general, seem to be more interested in protecting their job, and keeping the status quo rather than doing what is right. Remember Pontius Pilate? He was the man who sentenced Jesus to death even though he found nothing in which to condemn Him, yet did so anyway. Pilate was not threatened by Jesus’ title of King of the Jews, but he was concerned with job security, and keeping the peace.
            Another group of people mysteriously absent from the Nativity scene was the Jewish religious leaders. These were people who studied the scriptures for a living in order to have a right relationship to God, to teach others to have a right relationship with God, and to recognize the signs of the coming Messiah that had been prophesied about for hundreds of years. But as time passed, these professional religious leaders started to appreciate the status, respect, and money that came with the position, and so they, too, would have been threatened by anyone coming in and upsetting the apple cart, especially one who would later teach that people no longer needed to go through a priest at a Temple to get to God. They would be able to have direct access to God. Remember how Herod assembled his religious experts and asked them where the Messiah was supposed to be born? He was able to get the correct answer—Bethlehem, from the Book of the Prophet Micah. Later in the time line the Jewish leaders said in John 7:27 that Jesus could not have been the Messiah because they knew where He came from and that the real Messiah would just suddenly appear. How is it that the wicked King Herod could get the right answer and not the religious leaders of the day? Perhaps they didn’t want to know the right answer. Following Jesus would cost them everything.
            What about you? What would it cost you if you became a sold out follower of Christ? Would it cost you your job? Probably not. A place to sleep and food to eat? Probably not. Your life? Maybe. Respect among your peers? Probably. You have to count the cost before you make any decision. If I buy this car, what will it do to make bank account? If I date that guy, how will I be perceived amongst my friends? If you count the cost of becoming a sold out follower of Christ and it seems too much for you, then don’t do it. We have to many fake Christians with one foot in and one foot out of the boat as it is. But if you’ve counted the cost and said, “Jesus did all of this for me, losing the friendship of a handful of idiots is the least I can do for Him.” Then climb aboard. We’d love to have you.      

Monday, December 5, 2011

Flocksmen and Wise Guys

Flocksmen and Wise Guys
Matthew 2:1-12, Luke 2:8-20

            Picture in your mind a Nativity scene. Who and what is there?
-Have students go up on stage one at a time to be a member of the nativity scene. They must stand still and portray what they suggested.
-Cows, camels, angels, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, wise men, shepherds…
            There many different types of Nativity scenes. I’ve seen the really pretty Willow Tree one, a Charlie Brown one, a Veggie Tale one, and a Precious Moments one. It seems like there is just about one for every brand out there. I haven’t seen a G.I. Joe Nativity scene though but that would be awesome. I can imagine Sgt. Slaughter looking over at the new born babe with Cobra Commander in the background wringing his hands like Satan.
            But have you ever wondered who was actually at the Nativity scene? Or even what does the word nativity mean? That’s what we are going to look at today. We have about four more weeks until Christmas so we are going to take a break from James until after the New Year and then get back into it.
            Well, the word Nativity simply means the event of being born. So, just real quickly who do we know for sure was at the event of Jesus being born? You can give the Sunday school answer for this one—Jesus, and Mary. Joseph could have been pacing up and down the hallway. But before we get into all of that, let’s begin by figuring out where Jesus was born and why He was born there.
            Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married when one day Mary approached Joseph and said, “Joseph, remember how we never had sex?”
            “Well…I’m pregnant. But don’t freak out. It was God who impregnated me and I’m carrying His child.”
            If you were in his shoes what would you have done? What would you have said? What would you have been thinking? My first thought would be that she had been cheating on me, that she thinks I’m completely stupid, and if she believes this to be true, she is completely nuts. Joseph knew that if his fiancĂ© was pregnant before they were married it would be very shameful for him and for her. On top of that if the child was not his it would be doubly embarrassing, and he would have the legal right to have her, and the baby with her, stoned to death for adultery. But the Bible says that Joseph was a good man and decided to divorce her quietly. (In those days engagement was as binding as marriage) It was at this time an angel appeared to Joseph and told him not to put her away, and that everything she had told him was indeed true.
            Joseph was from Nazareth, which is about 100 miles north of Bethlehem. The Roman Emperor at the time demanded that a census be taken and that every needed to return to their home towns to be counted. Joseph was from the lineage of David which meant that he and his soon to be wife were to travel to Bethlehem, no matter how pregnant she was. Remember Daniel Johnson, the guy who walked across the United States? He said he walked about three miles an hour and tried to walk about twelve hours a day. He was not nine months pregnant though.
            We celebrate Jesus’ birth in the month of December, but I personally believe that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, which falls somewhere in late September to late October each year. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem there was no room for them in the inn so they had to stay where they kept the livestock. If it was during one of the Jewish holy festivals, and there was a massive amount of people in town, it would explain why there was no room for them. I always pictured that Mary and Joseph stayed in a barn with sectioned off stalls and plenty of hay, but it was more like a dark, cold, damp system of caves carved out of a hill side where livestock was kept. It was probably very dirty, and smelled like “hoodunnit.”
That is the Nativity scene. That is where God in the flesh chose to be born. Now who was there, and why? To answer that question we need to look at Luke 2:8-20.
8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
 14 "Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"[
15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
            In our little Nativity scene inside a cave cut out of a side of a hill, we find Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and some shepherds—we don’t know how many. Why shepherds? Why did God choose to send the angelic hosts to proclaim the Good News of the Saviour’s birth to shepherds. Shepherds were poor, uneducated, and probably someone most people wouldn’t want to hang out with. They probably smelled and were dirty all the time. The gospel was presented first to these bottom of the totem pole people because if it was presented first to the elite or noble class it never would have been given to the poor and lowly. The elite class would have thought the gift of salvation was to great to share with people of such low class. But the gospel is for everyone. By making it first available to the lowest of the low, God was making it available for everyone.
            Who else was at the Nativity scene? Maybe some onlookers, and people who had compassion on a young girl who was giving birth in an animal stall. That’s probably all there was. “But what about the three wise men?” I hear you ask. We’ll have to take a look at Matthew 2:1-12.
1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose[b] and have come to worship him." 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
 6 "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
 7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
            There is a key word verse 11. It is the word “house.” Where was Jesus born? In a cave. Some time has passed between the birth and when the Wise Guys showed up. By the way, how many wise men were there? Tradition says three, but that is based on the gifts that they brought—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is assumed that there was one present from each. The Bible simply says that there were wise men—no number is given.
            Even though they were not at the Nativity scene, we can still ask why they were there. The gifts they brought were symbolic. Gold represented royalty. Frankincense was an expensive fragrance. And myrrh was a death ointment, a symbol of the new born baby’s future death. Incidentally, Joseph and Mary sold these gifts and used the money to fund their flight into Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of the infants.
            But why wise men? Why not three average people with gold, frankincense, and myrrh? If the shepherds represented the lowest of the low, the wise men represented the highest of the high—like Ivy League professors. God revealed his plan of salvation to the lowest of the low and the highest of the high. Grace is available to everyone. It is not limited by social status, or economic levels.      

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Showing Partiality

Showing Partiality
James 2:1-13

Skit 1: The Hungry Working Class (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)
            Need at least 2 poor working class people who are hungry; at least 2 rich people; and 1 narrator.
Skit 2: Social Classes at Church (James 2:1-4)
            Need at least 2 rich people; at least 2 poor people; 1 usher; and a narrator.
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:17-22; James 2:1-13

1 Corinthians 11:17-22
But in the following instructions, I cannot praise you. For it sounds as if more harm than good is done when you meet together. 18 First, I hear that there are divisions among you when you meet as a church, and to some extent I believe it. 19 But, of course, there must be divisions among you so that you who have God’s approval will be recognized!
 20 When you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper. 21 For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk. 22 What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking? Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!

James 2:1-13
My dear brothers and sisters,[a] how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?
 2 For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting[b] dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. 3 If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, 4 doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?
 5 Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? 6 But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name[c] you bear?
 8 Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[d] 9 But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.
 10 For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. 11 For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.”[e] So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law.
 12 So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. 13 There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

Tonight we are going to continue our journey through James. Today’s passage can be divided into two distinct but connected sections. One is showing partiality, which is a sin; and the other is the dangers of committing that one sin.
Most of you all know that for my day job I work in the Home Improvement business. Home Improvement is quite a bit different than new construction in many ways, but most importantly because the home owners have already moved in, have all of their stuff there exactly where they want it, and are usually there watching over you like a hawk. I have worked in million dollar homes that were kept in immaculate shape, and I have worked in homes that were completely covered with cockroach parts including parts that got crushed by the rubber seal around the refrigerator door. On that particular house, another contractor, who needed to use the restroom, took one step inside, turned around, and found an alternative solution to his problem. I have worked in houses where the home owner baked brownies for us every day which I gladly accepted, and I have worked in a house where the homeowner was a hoarder, the house was a complete disaster, and she offered us fudge-cicles everyday. I wouldn’t have eaten one of her fudge-cicles if I was running a marathon on the equator. I’ve worked in really expensive houses where the homeowner gave us a key and told us to lock up when we were done. And I have worked in some terrible looking places where the homeowner watched us to make sure we didn’t steal anything.
            One thing I take pride in while working is that I will treat your house like I would want my house treated by a hired handyman. This also means that I want to be treated how I would treat a hired handyman, with respect and dignity. It doesn’t matter if I’m working on the governor’s house or some rundown house I will do my best to get the job done properly, efficiently, and clean up after myself. I remember the one and only time Rebekah came to work with me, I was having some issues getting the soffit put back up just right and the homeowner let me have it. I was already frustrated when he fired off this zinger, “You wouldn’t leave this like this at your home.” I was already walking around to the back of the house when he said this, then he turned to my beautiful bride and said very arrogantly while laughing, “Oh, I got him with that one!” I don’t know who he thought she was but he definitely didn’t know she was my wife. The fact is that I wouldn’t have left it like that, and I wasn’t planning on leaving it like that, but my options were extremely limited at that particular moment. That one comment took a shot at my integrity and I’ll never forget it. He judged me without knowing me.
            Why is it that we treat people differently based on their socio-economic status (In youth slang: how much Benjamins they got rolling in)? Why do some contractors do everything they can to go above and beyond what a rich person needs done and will cut corners on a poorer man’s house? James instructs us that when we show partiality we become judges with evil thoughts. We start judging people by what’s on the outside rather than what’s on the inside. How many of you have ever met a man or woman that would be considered poor by the world’s standards but you would trust that person beyond a shadow of doubt? Now how many of you have met a man or a woman that would be considered rich by the world’s standards that you wouldn’t trust with your cheeseburger if you had to go to the bathroom? There are great people at every station of life, and there are terrible people at every station of life. There are people who favor the rich and there are people who favor the poor. The greatest mistake we could make is to judge someone based on their outward appearance or financial standings rather than what lies inside.
            James calls “love your neighbor as yourself” the royal law—a law that is superior to all other laws, but if we show partiality we sin. You might say, “Eh, what’s the big deal if I show partiality?” You know just yesterday I was at Chic-fil-a and I saw a family coming in the door that I was standing by and one of them was wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt. I wish that God said I was to love my enemies except for UM fans but he didn’t. When every fiber of my being said “Lock the door, turn off the lights, and everybody get down,” my non-partiality side said to open the door for them. Now if I can do that, what can you do?
            It’s hard to evaluate how we might be showing partiality because it is hard to evaluate ourselves, but here are some questions we could be asking. 1) Am I fine with the people who are coming to this church, including visitors, as long as they look, dress, and/or smell like me? 2) Am I fine with the songs we sing as long as they are hymns? Or Praise songs? 3) Do I get uptight when someone reads from a particular translation of the Bible that I don’t read from? 4) Do I believe that there is a standard for behavior within the worship service that includes, standing, kneeling, clapping, saying “Amen,” and raising their hands? Tough questions.
            I remember reading a story that took place at a church near a beach. The service had already started when a young man walked in wearing cutoff jeans, a tank top, and was barefoot. Every seat was taken as he slowly walked down the aisle scanning for an empty seat. Finally he plopped down, and sat cross legged in front of the first pew. The congregation was distracted and a little bit shocked by the whole thing, and most of them nodded approvingly as the head deacon approached the young man. I mean it was kind of unfortunate but something had to be done. The deacon, no spring chicken himself, made it to the front row, plopped down, and sat right next to him. The young man gave his life to Christ that day. How many of us would have done that?
            Partiality may seem like such a small thing when compared to murder, or adultery, but James says in verse 10, “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.” What happens to someone if they live a completely perfect life except they sin one time? They go to hell. God is so pure and holy that He cannot be in the presence of sin. He hates it. I use this analogy all of the time because it is so perfect, and I will continue to use it until someone comes up with a better one. Imagine a five gallon bucket of the best ice cream in the world sitting right next to a five gallon bucket of poop. All of the ice cream in the world won’t change that bucket of poop one bit, but one speck of poop in that bucket of ice cream ruins the whole bucket. Your sin is the speck of poop in God’s ice cream. If the story ended there it would be tragic, but it doesn’t. God sent His son to take care of our sin problem once and for all, but we have to let Him in. Simply knowing about God is not enough. We have to accept Him as both our Lord and our Savior.                  


Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Review of "Average Joe" by Troy Meeder

            I recently read Average Joe by Troy Meeder. It was a book I had been interested in reading since I heard him speak on Focus on the Family. I was also interested in reading it because I had recently read his wife’s book Hope Rising. I found both books to be fairly similar in that they were almost devotional in nature. Although the book was divided into sections, the chapters did not build off of each other. I did enjoy Average Joe more than Hope Rising because I was able to relate to Troy as a man, more than I could with his wife Kim.
            Although, I looked forward to reading the book, I still had my doubts and trepidations. I don’t want to be average. I don’t know anyone who wants to be average. And even if some might consider me to be average, I definitely do not want to be proud about being average. Troy addresses this issue by page 3. On page 4, Troy writes, “Before we go on, I want to make something really clear: when I use the word average, I don’t mean lazy, sloppy, inept, mediocre, or anything like that. A true average Joe works hard, gives his all, makes a difference. And he does it without whining or feeling sorry for himself. An average Joe isn’t expecting to get rich or famous. He’s content knowing that the One whose opinion really counts is pleased with him.” I can live with that definition.
            The book was an easy read and came equipped with a study guide that can be used for a men’s small group or in conjunction with a Bible study. I did enjoy parts of the book, Troy is definitely a skilled author, but I found myself becoming increasingly agitated with one small aspect of his stories. He owns a horse ranch that is known across the nation for its goodwill, he ran one of the largest youth ministries in the state, his wife was an exceptionally talented cross country skier and a best selling author, he takes flying lessons from a world class bi-athlete, and scubas in Hawai’i. I wish I could be that average.
            Other than that minor irritation I would recommend this book to any guy who wonders if God could use him where he is.
I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Christmas in September

Christmas in September!
James Series
James 1:16-18

            We’ve just exchanged, at least in theory, a bunch of terrible gifts. We all know what it is like to open up a present that you weren’t expecting, or don’t like at all, and you have to act like you love it. A few years ago my aunt was hoping to play a trick on my uncle. She wrapped up a hideous little stuffed cat figurine that was standing on its hind legs and wearing some renaissance outfit. It was the ugliest thing you’d ever see. She wrapped it up and put my great-grandmother’s name on it, so when he opened it up he would have to pretend that he liked it so not to offend the old grandmother. Unfortunately, my great-grandmother was sick that day and wasn’t able to spend Christmas with us. A good joke spoiled.
            When I think of bad Christmas presents, I think of Ralphy and that pink bunny costume that he had to try on. Remember Ralphy’s reaction? He was like “Are you kidding me? I’m not a six year old girl.” Randy, his brother, was rolling on the floor crying he was laughing so hard. Sometimes we feel exactly the same way with the things God gives us. We want a Ferrari and we get a Pinto. We want a corporate job in a high rise and we get a job as a window washer. We want an Ipad and we get a piece of cardboard with Scooby-Doo on it (true story).
            But James says in 1:16-18, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”
            “Do not be deceived.” It may seem like it’s not a good gift but it is. Everything we get, big and small, is channeled through God. Philippians 4:9 says, “My God shall supply all my needs according to His riches and glory.” For example: I have a job. I work very hard for my dad at David Koppin Home Improvement. At the end of the week I receive a pay check. Where does the paycheck come from? It may have David Koppin Home Improvement on the check but it comes from God. God just funnels what I need through DKHI. If I lost my job, God would funnel what I need through another source. So everything is from God. So what if I stumble across some pornography. Is that a good and perfect gift from God? No the pornography isn’t, but what you become after overcoming your addiction is a good gift. (Same thing with tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.) Your parents get a divorce—that’s bad; you have a friend who is going through the same thing and you introduce her to Jesus to help her with her grief—that’s good. I have heard numerous stories of people who have had accidents, or even failed suicide attempts that resulted in the loss of their use of legs. When asked if they could take a magic pill and go back to what they were before the accident, they have all said, “No,” and that they were actually happier now. (Mark Zupan; Kristen Jane Anderson for example.)  
            There are so many examples of what we think are bad things today that will turn out to be good things tomorrow. Do you know how many stories there are of people who were supposed to be in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 but weren’t because they had car trouble, lost their keys, took a different way and got stuck in traffic, or some other terrible thing that ended up saving their lives? Hundreds and hundreds. They were probably worried about getting fired, maybe even cussing out God for making them late. But God was sitting in Heaven thinking, “Yeah, but you’ll see. This is for your own good.” I worked with a guy who’s wife was dying of breast cancer. She eventually asked him to stop coming to her doctor’s appointments because it was hindering her from sharing the love of Jesus with the other women in the room. She turned something very bad into something very good. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” He works bad things into good things for those who love Him.
            I love verses 17 and 18 of James 1. “There is no variation, or shadow of turning” with God. The way He is, is the way He has always been, and will always be. If He has been good to His people in the past, He will be good to His people now and forever. We can trust in Him. Verse 18 explains why He will be good to us. He created us out of His own free will and loves us. He wants us to be His first fruits, or the best of the best offering, from all of His creation.
            Essentially it all comes down to trust. Are you going to trust what you can see and perceive right now? Or are you going to trust the creator of the world, the creator of your circumstances, and the One who has been around from the beginning and has planned out the ending? Remember my pea and the watermelon illustration. Set the pea and the watermelon side by side. What can the pea tell you about the watermelon? Only what it can see. It can’t tell you about the bottom, top, the two sides, or even the inside of the watermelon. It is very limited in its perspective. We are also very limited in our perspective.
            Our first step in trusting God is believing in His son Jesus Christ. Without that relationship nothing else matters.       

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Whose Fault Is It?

Whose Fault Is It?
James Series
James 1:12-15
            It all started about 6,000 years ago with a young couple who lived in a garden. Their names were Adam and Eve. God gave them some very simple instructions. He said, “Hey this place is paradise, but there are few ground rules. Number one: Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s it.” We don’t know how long it was before they broke the only rule God had given them. It could have been a day, a week, or ten years. We don’t know. All we know is that one day the serpent (Satan in animal form) made a suggestion to Eve that if she ate from that tree she would be like God. She noticed the fruit did look good to eat so she took a bite. Then she gave some to Adam, who was standing right beside her. That is precisely when all hell broke loose—literally. Immediately their eyes were opened and instead of being like God, they noticed that they were both naked. So they made some coverings out of fig leaves. Has anybody here ever touched a fig leaf? They are very itchy--kind of a weird choice to make your underwear from. Later in the cool of the evening when God usually walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, He couldn’t find them (because they were hiding) and asked the first question recorded in the Bible, “Adam, where are you?”
            Have you ever noticed when you’ve messed something up, you’re hard to find? My uncle set his barn on fire when he was a kid, so he ran inside, grabbed his father’s belt and hid. Usually it’s not because the offended party is hunting us down, it’s because we feel guilty, or ashamed, and don’t want to be around the other person. I broke the trust of my college coach. It took me a long time to not feel guilty or ashamed around him. Every time I was with him, subconsciously I had my tail tucked between my legs.
            Back to the Garden…God eventually found Adam, which probably didn’t take much effort because…well because He’s God. Adam said, “Well, you see, I hid because I was naked and I didn’t want you to see me in my birthday suit.” God said, “Who told you you were naked? Hey where did this core come from? Aww snap! You’ve been eating from the tree I told you not to eat from!”
            Then what did Adam say? “The woman You put here with me gave it to me to eat.” Who did he blame? Eve and God. What did Eve say, “The serpent made me do it.” Or, “The devil made me do it.” What did the serpent say? Nothing. He just laughed as he introduced sin into the world.     
            So not only has sin been around since Adam and Eve, so has the blame game. Let’s jump right into our scripture passage—James: 1:12-15, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”
            Tonight we are going to be looking at three things: 1) What is temptation and what is a trial? So far up to this point in the chapter James has focused on trials—“Count it all joy when you fall into various trials;” and then the trials of the poor man compared to the rich man. In verse 12 it switches from trials to temptations. 2) Who is to blame for our temptations? And 3) What is the progression of temptation?
            #1) What is a trial and what is a temptation? A trial is something that tests you, something that if you withstand it successfully will make you stronger. For example—weightlifting. I don’t do it myself, because those things are heavy, but those who do lift weights put their muscles through a trial and make them stronger in the end. Now, if someone has never lifted a weight in their life decided that they were going to break the world record for the bench press, they would probably get hurt, tear some muscles and have less strength than when they started. If God puts you through a trial and you succeed, you will come out stronger and better equipped to handle the next trial God sends your way.
            Every trial has an opportunity to become a temptation though. When I am in the midst of a trial, I can either use it to exercise my faith, trust God, and become stronger, or I can doubt God, do things my way, and take the easy way out. If I disobey God and do things my way, the trial has become a temptation leading to sin.
            Some examples of trials you might be facing: Big test that you aren’t prepared for; You want something but can’t afford it; You heard something really interesting about somebody else; Your boyfriend/ girlfriend is encouraging you to do things you know is wrong; Your parents told you you couldn’t do something or go somewhere that you wanted to; You or someone you know is pregnant. Each one of these trials can be a strength builder, or could lead you down a very sinful road.
            #2) Maybe it’s because I have seen too many movies like Evan Almighty, or Bruce Almighty, but when I think of God and heaven, I think of everything being pure white—whiter than the best bleach in the world could get something white. When I think of sin, I think just the opposite—everything black, muddy, and disgusting. What part does pure white and disgusting black have together? They don’t have and never can have anything in common. The Bible repeatedly calls God “holy.” The angels even sang a song about Him saying, “Holy, holy, holy.” Saying it three times dramatically emphasized how holy he was. The definition of holy is, “Living according to a strict or highly moral religious or spiritual system.” God in His perfect white suit is not playing in the mud. He is not playing really close to the mud but not getting in. He is not having anything to do with the mud. He is strictly staying as far away from it as He can get.
            Verse 13 says “Let no one say when He is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.” In the phrase “I am tempted by God” or put another way “I am tempted of God” the word “of” needs to be looked at. In English “of” means “of.” In Greek there are two different words that can mean “of”--Apo and Hupo. Apo means directly, as in “I am tempted directly by God. God is right here enticing me to sin.” Hupo means indirectly as in “I am indirectly tempted by God. He is not right here but He has created the scenario, as well as my sinful desire, and has placed me smack dab in the middle of it.” The word James used was hupo, which means indirectly. It is not common for people to directly blame God for being tempted, but it is common for people to indirectly blame Him for the situations they are in when they do fall into temptation—“If God allowed me to have more money I wouldn’t have had to steal.”
            James doesn’t even consider the possibility that God could be responsible for directly tempting someone. That would go against everything that He stands for. His entire relationship with us has involved His molding us into His image, leaving our old sinful nature behind. Why would He then tempt us to do evil? It makes no sense. But then James goes further and says, “Don’t even say that God indirectly caused you to sin by creating the circumstances that you find yourself in.”
            Just in case you find it in your Bible, remember what I taught here tonight, and think I was wrong, and discount what I have to say, there is a story in Second Samuel 24. Verse 1 of that chapter says that the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel and He enticed David to take a census. You might think, “What’s the big deal about taking a census?” Instead of trusting in God’s protection, David wanted to count how many fighting men he had in case he needed to defend himself. Even in verse 3, his top advisor tried to talk him out of it. Verse 1 clearly indicates that God was the one motivating David to take the census, a sin that cost the lives of 70,000 people. This passage would destroy James’ entire argument if it was the end of the story. First Chronicles 21 tells the exact same story but from a different perspective—both inspired by God, except in verse one it says, “And Satan stood up against Israel….” Who stood up against Israel? Satan. Is Satan God? No, of course not. The only explanation then is that God allowed David to go through a trial, a chance to take the high and more difficult road and trust Him for protection, but David became tempted, chose to doubt God, and take matters into His own hands.
            Then we have Jesus. Immediately after His baptism He was led up by the Spirit (capital “S” means God) into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He was led into the trials by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil. He did not succumb to the temptations, and therefore, grew in His faith, if that was possible.
            To answer the question “Who is to blame for our temptations?” we need to look at…
#3 The progression of our temptation. James uses a very vivid image of the life cycle to describe temptation. James says God is not to blame, “but each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” Yesterday, at my day job, I had been working in an attic. It was a very tight attic with lots of duct work making it almost impossible to move around. We had decided that due to the distance we would have to travel and the amount of obstacles we would have to cross that it would be easier to take the vent off the side of the house and pass the material up that way rather than try to carry them through the attic. This would take longer, and require us to sit in the extremely high temperature longer. As I was sitting there looking out the vent I saw the homeowner walking with a can of Coke, and two cans of Mountain Dew. I knew that the cans just came out of an ice cold refrigerator because I could see the condensation dripping off of the can. I also knew who they were for—me and my two co-workers. I could taste the Coke and the Mountain Dew as I poured it in my mouth. I could feel the carbonation burning my throat. I was being put through a trial. Every fiber of my being wanted to drink that soda but I had made a vow to not drink soda for the entire year. Was God tempting me? No, He was putting me through a trial that if I succeeded would make me stronger the next time. (You’re probably thinking “What kind of trial is that?” Well, if I could resist something I wanted when I was physically worn out, overheated, and dehydrated, I could certainly find the courage to resist it when I wasn’t in that circumstance.) Was the homeowner tempting me? No, he had no idea about my vow. If he did, then it might be a different story. I was tempted by myself when I desired the ice cold beverage. I was not drawn away, however, and overcame that particular trial. By the way, it would not have been a trial for me if I looked out the vent and saw him carrying a jar full of olives no matter how cold they were. Each of us have our own set of desires that the devil uses to draw us away from God. The reason why I overcame the trial was because I had made the decision months ago not to give in if I ever had the opportunity.
James says we are drawn away by our own desires and enticed. I picture a sheep wandering away from the rest of the flock—he is being drawn away by his own desires enticed by something, whether it is a fresh clump of grass, some shade, or water. “Then when desire is conceived it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown brings forth death.” A single thought, based on our own desires draws us away from what God would have us to do. That desire, that falls outside of God’s will for our lives, conceives sin. That sin, if it is not taken care of will bring forth death.
How can sin bring forth death? It depends on the sin. If your sin is drinking, death could come about through any number of things: an accident, health failure, or alcohol poisoning. But what about lust? Your lust might cause you to sin through pornographic websites, or inappropriate relations with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You might contract a life threatening STD, like AIDS, but for the most part the death James is speaking of here is a spiritual death. If you never take care of your sin problem, it will lead to what the Bible calls a spiritual death, or in other words you’re going to hell. By taking care of your sin problem I don’t mean making a commitment to never sin again, or doing extra chores at God’s house to appease Him. It doesn’t work that way. Once you’ve sinned, that’s it—you’re done. Remember God’s perfect white heaven? You now have thick black tar-like stuff all over you, and you can’t get it off. There’s only one way to deal with your sin problem and that is making Jesus your Lord and Savior. What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.              


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
James 1:9-11
The James Series

            How many of you all would like to be rich? Richer beyond your imagination? Banks come to you for a loan? Now how many of you would like to be poor? Broke as broke can be? If it cost a nickel to travel around the world, you couldn’t get out of sight? You’re so broke you go to KFC to lick other people’s fingers? So broke that if you threw a pity party you couldn’t bring the snacks? Most people, if they were able to choose, would choose to be rich rather than to be poor. “Money can’t buy you happiness,” right? Can it rent it? Have you ever seen a sad man riding a jet ski? No, money can’t buy you happiness. It can’t even rent happiness. You can have fun for a short period of time, but once that time is over you’ll go back to your previous level of happiness, or even worse, you will become more depressed because you have found one more thing that didn’t satisfy. Money can’t buy you happiness but neither does poverty. In fact poverty can’t buy you anything. You will have a tough time finding someone who used to be broke, became fabulously wealthy, and then all of a sudden became happy. Just as you will also have a tough time finding someone who was fabulously wealthy, who then became broke, and suddenly became happy. What this means to me is that money is not a contributor to happiness. I know people who can’t pay their bills and they are perfectly happy. I also know people that have money coming out of their ears that are perfectly happy. I know rich and poor people who are absolutely miserable.   
So what do the rich and the poor have in common? Well according to Proverbs 22:2 it is that the LORD has made them both, but there is something else, too. As the Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy so eloquently put it, “The more money you come across the more problems you see.” The Lord has made both the rich and the poor, and He also made us both to have problems. Proverb 30:8-9 says, “…Give me neither poverty nor riches—feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of the Lord.” The author of this Proverb was wise enough to see that there were rich people who completely lost touch with the reality that they are dependent on God, as well as to see that it is not good to be so desperate that you take drastic measures just to feed yourselves.
Let’s take a quick poll:
-How many of you have ever filled up a glass of water, drank part of it, and then left it sitting around, or drank what you wanted and dumped the rest out?
-How many of you have ever went to the sink, cup in hand, and prayed earnestly that clean drinking water might come out when you turned the water on? And secondly, how many of you have ever thanked God after drinking that clean water?
-How many of you have at least one car in your household? Two cars?
Review time:
-In America, for the most part, we don’t have to be concerned with the quality of our water unless we live near a factory, or a dump site. If that is the case, call Erin Brokovich. Therefore, since we rarely have to be concerned about clean drinking water, we rarely think about it. If we rarely think about it, then we certainly don’t pray for or thank God for it on a regular basis. In fact, we get pretty agitated during hurricanes when we have to boil our water.
-Because water is so plentiful in America, we take it for granted drinking only what we want, or need, and occasionally forget about it and leave it on the counter for the cat to drink out of and eventually knock over all over your school books.
-If you, or someone in your household, owns a car you are in the top 8% of the richest people in the world no matter what size, shape, condition, make, or model. If you own two cars, you are in the top 1%.
Now…how rich do you feel? You may not feel rich but you are. If you spent a week in Haiti, or lived in a shack in South Africa for a few days you would come back thankful for all of the blessings you have. So why don’t we feel rich? For one, we are so blessed that we rarely need to think about our daily necessities (food, water, clothing, shelter) and therefore, we focus on what we don’t have. Secondly, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” The rich have problems. The poor have problems. We think that once we reach a certain financial level that all of our problems will go away. Some will go away, like, “how am I going to pay rent,” but they will be replaced with “How am I going to afford to send my kid to college now that they don’t qualify for financial aid?”
Today’s topic is not about money. It’s not about rich versus poor. It’s not about the benefits of being rich or the benefits of being poor. By the way, being poor is not a spiritual discipline, just like being rich is not a sign of God’s favor. Today’s lesson is about problems—we all have them.
James 1:9-11 “Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, 10 but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. 11 For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.”
In Israel, there is a grass that will grow at night and then burn and wither each day as the sun rises. Reading this passage, I always imagine a growing, beautiful plant in a pot sitting right next to a potted dead plant. The first plant is beautiful but no sooner than the sun rises it’s going to wither and die and look exactly the same as the other plant. Oprah Winfrey, the richest woman in the world will eventually pass away. When she does her skeletal remains will look very similar to Mother Theresa’s, a woman who took a vow of poverty.
So what is this passage saying? Don’t try anything? Ambition will get you nowhere? Not at all. There are two characters in this passage: the rich and the poor. Let’s look at the poor first. James says for him “to glory in his exaltation,” or glory in his being lifted up to an elevated state. But I thought it wasn’t spiritually beneficial to be poor? Yes, but in James 1:2 it says, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall in various trials….” James is telling the poor man to glory in the fact that God is putting him through difficult situations in order for great things to come from it. Verse 4 says that doing so will make him “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
Then there’s the rich man. It seems the rich man has more problems because James goes into greater detail describing all of the bad things that will happen to him. Perhaps it is because the rich are used to fixing every problem with money and have a harder time believing they need God. Maybe James spends more time trying to convince the rich that, like that grass, they to will burn away. In summary James says for the rich man to “glory in his humiliation.” The rich man and the poor man will go through different trials and problems but the end result will still be the same—God making us “perfect and complete lacking nothing.”
So what’s the point? What are we supposed to be getting out of this? You are going to go through trials, whether you are rich or poor, white or black, male or female. The question is, “How will you respond to those trials?” Will you cave under the pressure? Will you seek another source other than God to get you through—like a new car, new girlfriend/boyfriend, new cell phone or other gadget? James says to count it all joy. Take it all in and embrace it. Ask God when you are going through various trials, “Lord, what am I to learn from this?” It may seem like I’m blowing off trials like they are nothing, but I am not. Trials are tough. Maybe you have lost a friend, or a loved one. Maybe your parents are divorcing, maybe you’re failing your classes, or you’re pregnant. God wants to talk to you. He wants you to be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Maybe the one thing he wants to teach you is, “Hey, my grace is sufficient for you. I’m all you need.” Maybe God is trying to get your attention for the first time and accept Him as your Lord and Savior.