FASTING THOUGHTS

You have heard that our ancestors were told, “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.” But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! … You have heard the commandment that says, “You must not commit adultery.” But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:21-22a,27-28 (NLT)]

bue birdShortly before the start of Lent, I got an email advertisement for a Christian book that asked “What if you fasted regret? What if your friends fasted comparison? What would be the fruit of fasting stinginess?” Those questions certainly got me thinking about our thoughts.

The one place we have total freedom is our mind. Even though we have freedom of speech, we can’t shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre or “Bomb” in the security line at the airport. We can, however, shout anything we want at anyone anywhere in the silence of our minds. The father of those three abused gymnasts was free to wreak all sorts of revenge on their abuser in his mind but he couldn’t touch the man in court. We can be charming and polite to the woman who stole our husband and amazingly civil to the man who betrayed our trust when, in our imaginations, they suffer every disaster and tragedy that can befall man or beast.

Since our thoughts are far less easy to control than our actions, we’d like to think of them as less important. When we entertain wicked thoughts, we think we’re not sinning because we’d never actually do the terrible things about which we’re thinking. Since we won’t burn down the house of the man who deceived us or climb in bed with the sexy hunk at work, we think we’re innocent of wrongdoing. But are we? Remember the words of Jimmy Carter that nearly cost him the 1976 election: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Upon reading Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, it would seem that Carter’s confession, while ill-advised, was true! While thoughts and actions can have different results, Our Lord made it quite clear that thoughts are as important as actions. Jesus knew the evil thoughts of the Scribes and he knows ours.

Fortunately, Jesus telling us to get rid of our hands or eyes if they cause us to lust was hyperbole or Jimmy Carter (and much of the rest of the world) would be minus both hands and eyes. He is, however, telling us that our evil thoughts can be controlled. We can renounce every one of them and replace them with godly thoughts. Max Lucado describes it this way: ”You can be the air traffic controller of your mental airport. You occupy the control tower and can direct the mental traffic of your world.” When we keep the runway filled with godly thoughts, the bad ones circling around have no place to land. Our thoughts are as much a part of whether or not we love our neighbor as are our actions.

What would our lives be like if we fasted from things like anger, lust, envy, animosity, haughtiness, disdain, revenge, irritation, and impatience, not just in our actions, but also in our thoughts and, not just during Lent, but all of the time?

We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. [2 Corinthians 10:4-5 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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OBSERVING LENT – Ash Wednesday 2018

“We have fasted before you!” they say. “Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!”
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?” [Isaiah 58:3-5 (NLT)]

ibis - great egret - corkscrewEvery evening, a man went to the local pub and ordered three beers. When asked why three, he explained that he ordered the two extra beers in honor of his two dear brothers who lived far away. One evening, he ordered only two beers. Assuming the worst, the bartender extended sympathy for the loss of a brother but the man explained that both brothers were fit as fiddles. The beers he’d ordered were for them. “It’s me that’s not drinking tonight,” he added, “You see, I’ve given up beer for Lent!”

Yesterday, I wrote about Jesus being tested in the wilderness. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a period of forty days (not counting Sundays) that commemorate those forty days of His fasting and temptation in the desert. Traditionally it is a time to repent, reflect, and prepare for the observance of both Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Some people fast or give up certain habits or behaviors during this season. Others add additional Bible study or prayer time. For those who observe it, Lent becomes a season of self-discipline.

While some denominations observe Lent, many others don’t. Since Lent’s observation isn’t founded in Scripture, the choice to observe Lent really is a personal one. What we must never do is make the mistake of thinking that God will love us more for our Lenten sacrifice or that giving up something like gum, candy, alcohol, meat or television has any bearing on our salvation. Jesus took care of our salvation on the cross and God’s love could never be greater than it is right now. No amount of sacrifice can earn God’s free gift of grace.

Although Jesus fasted, he never commanded us to do so. His words on fasting tend to focus on people’s hypocrisy when fasting—they often fasted to impress people with their holiness rather than grow closer to God. Self-sacrifice is not to be done ostentatiously but humbly, quietly, and privately. However we choose to observe Lent, unlike the man at the bar, it should be done sincerely. God sees into our hearts and knows when we’re repentant and genuinely seeking Him or just going through the motions!

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

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IT IS WRITTEN

sheepThe thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. [John 10:10-12 (ESV)]

I came across a cartoon drawn by Paul Noth in which an enormous billboard overlooks a pasture inhabited by a flock of sheep. The sign, a political advertisement, shows a picture of a smiling wolf in coat and tie with the words: “I am going to eat you.” Looking up at the billboard, one sheep tells another, “He tells it like it is.” Would that all politicians were so forthright!

While it was political commentary on the part of Noth, seeing the sheep in the pasture made me think of how often we’re compared to sheep in Scripture. Unlike that wolf, however, Satan would never be so honest as to openly announce his intention to devour us. Instead, like many politicians, he distorts the truth and makes false promises.

In Matthew 4, we read of Jesus being led into the wilderness to be humbled and tested. For forty days Jesus fasted and, during that time, Satan visited Him. Like a politician who knows the people’s hunger and promises a chicken in every pot, Satan tempted Jesus to tell the stones at his feet to become bread. He then took Jesus to the highest point of the Temple and, like a true politician, offered only a half-truth. Citing God’s promise to protect His people, Satan dared Jesus to jump. Finally, he took Jesus to a mountain peak where he promised to give Him all the nations of the world if only He’d kneel down and worship him. Like many a politician, Satan promised something he couldn’t deliver—it wasn’t his to give away! In all three cases, Jesus countered Satan’s deceitful words with Scripture. “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone. … It is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test. … It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” [Matthew 4:7-10]

Unlike the sheep in Noth’s cartoon, our shepherd has not left His flock defenseless. We’ve been given the armor of God, including a sword, with which to defend ourselves from the wolf’s attack. That sword is God’s word. Perhaps, it’s time to sharpen up our blades with some Bible reading so that, when we’re tempted, we too can say “It is written…!” It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.” Those words apply to the citizens of God’s kingdom, as well; when we know the truth, the enemy can’t bamboozle us with his lies.

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. [Psalm 119:11 (ESV)]

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LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE 

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. [1 Peter 3: 15b-16a (NLT)]

dubble tulipHaving heard that I write Christian devotions, the man looked across the dinner table and asked, “Have you always been religious?” The unexpected question from a Jewish man I barely knew caught me off guard. While I knew he wasn’t asking for a long salvation story, I needed to answer his simple question. I faltered through a brief explanation that I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t consider myself a Christian but that my faith grew deeper as it carried me through some really rough spots in life. Having no idea where I’d go from there, I heaved a sigh of relief when the table’s conversation moved to another topic.

Describing our salvation experience was one of the topics this past week in our small group. There will be times, as there was at that dinner, when we’re given a brief opening to tell it and we’d best be prepared with a good but short answer. Pastor Bill Hybels suggests keeping that first answer to 100 words or less. In actuality, the shorter the answer, the more likely there will be a follow-up question later. As P.T. Barnum said: “Always leave them wanting more.”

When we ask someone, “How are you?” unless we’re a nurse or physician, we’re probably not interested in a detailed accounting of blood sugar, weight, bowel movements or blood pressure. When a non-believer asks about our faith, they’re not looking for a dissertation about the historical accuracy of the Bible, a sermon about salvation, or a blow by blow account of a faith journey that has probably taken years. They certainly don’t want to hear Christian buzz words like justification, conviction, propitiation, and sanctification or about the time God spoke to us in the grocery store.

When someone asks a simple and straightforward question about our faith, they expect a simple and straightforward answer. If someone is really interested in learning more, there will be additional opportunities to share the particulars. In actuality, for many of us, our salvation story is rather ordinary—we weren’t healed supernaturally, there were no burning bushes, the sky didn’t open, and a voice from heaven was not heard. Nevertheless, our lives changed. Unless we’ve thought about how to succinctly communicate that change, we may blow an amazing opportunity to share a little of God’s amazing grace. That time at the dinner party, I wasn’t well prepared; next time, I will be!

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into less than twenty-five words and Stephen managed to summarize the entire Old Testament into about 74 sentences for the High Council.  With a little effort, we should be able to put our faith story into 100 words. What’s your story? Can you tell it in 100 words or less?

When you communicate your personal faith story with sincerity, you will see supernatural sparks fly as God uses it for his glory and your listener’s good. [Bill Hybels]

So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:8a (NLT)]

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SEALING THE DEAL

A few days later Felix came back with his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish. Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” [Acts 13:50-51 (NLT)]

Steamboat ski areaWhile under arrest in Caesarea, the Apostle Paul spent two years sharing Jesus with Felix, the governor. Nevertheless, after two years of testifying about salvation through Christ, Paul couldn’t seal the deal and Felix never came to believe. I’m reminded of a charming salesman who worked for a friend of ours. Although he diligently went out and made sales calls, no matter how many times he called on a potential client, he couldn’t close a deal! Eventually, as nice as he was, he had to be let go. After all, salesmen are expected to make the sale. Fortunately, God doesn’t work that way; if He did, the Apostle Paul might have been out of a job after failing to seal the deal with Felix!

Like Paul, we can repeatedly share our testimony with someone—we can teach Sunday school, invite people to church, talk about Jesus to everyone we meet, and even write Christian devotions. Nevertheless, we might never close the deal and hear someone say, “I’m accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” That, however, does not mean we have failed.

In my son’s first job out of college, he worked with a team of engineers selling cogeneration technology. Prior to his employment, the engineers from his company would meet with a potential customer to show them the benefits of their technology but they just couldn’t close a deal. It was not until my son joined the team that they made a sale. Rather than engineering, my son’s specialty was finance. The people making the final decision about purchase weren’t the engineers—they were the financial officers. Engineers talked combustion, turbines, power ratings and reciprocating engines which meant nothing to them but my son talked their language: percentages, return on investment and profits. Although my son closed the deal with his talk of financial advantages, he couldn’t have done it without the engineers who laid the groundwork by explaining the process.

Evangelism, like sales, is often a team effort; we may not be the ones who close the deal but we all must do our part to make the sale! While some may hear the message and respond immediately, committing to Jesus is a gradual process for many others. If we think we have to seal the deal every time we have a Jesus conversation, we’re going to be very disappointed Christians. That, however, doesn’t mean we stop having those conversations. Whether we’re just laying the ground work, explaining the process, or extolling the advantages, we may never know if our words have moved someone just a little closer to accepting Christ.  It may be someone else’s job to seal the deal; our job is just to keep sharing God’s Word!

For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? [Romans 10:13-14 (NLT)]

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DID YOU HAVE A MOSES?

They forgot God, their savior, who had done such great things in Egypt—such wonderful things in the land of Ham, such awesome deeds at the Red Sea. So he declared he would destroy them. But Moses, his chosen one, stepped between the Lord and the people. He begged him to turn from his anger and not destroy them. [Psalm 106:21-23 (NLT)]

corkscrew swamp sanctuaryOur small group is studying personal evangelism and the study guide suggested writing a note of gratitude to the person or persons who helped point our way to Christ. After all, the single greatest gift any of us can give someone is an introduction to Jesus. Since mine was a gradual journey and, other than my mother, no one immediately came to mind, I skipped this simple step. After finishing the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, I’m reconsidering.

While reading through the story of the exodus, I was struck by the Israelites’ ingratitude. When they made and worshipped that golden calf, God threatened to destroy all of them but Moses interceded; although 3,000 died, the nation survived. When God cursed Miriam with leprosy for her rebellion against Moses, it was Moses who interceded for her and begged God for her healing. When the Israelites failed to believe God’s promises and refused to enter Canaan, an angry God threatened to destroy them with a plague. Again, it was Moses who interceded and saved them. Frankly, by that time, I would have been tempted to tell God to kill the whole lot of them!

When a contingent of 250 Israelite leaders confronted Moses and Aaron with false accusations and complaints, an angry God again threatened to destroy them all. It was Moses and Aaron who fell on their faces and pled with God not to judge the whole nation for their sin. After Moses told the people to move away from the rebels, the ringleaders were swallowed by the earth and God’s fire consumed the others. The next day, instead of thanking Moses for saving the rest of them, the people accused Moses of being responsible for the previous day’s deaths. An angry God told Moses and Aaron to move away from them so that He could consume the ungrateful mob. Yet again, Moses and Aaron fell to the ground in prayer and supplication. Seeing a plague starting, Aaron filled a censer with incense and ran into the crowd to stop the plague by atoning for their sin. Apparently slow learners, when the Isarelites grew impatient and again spoke against God and Moses, the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them. Once again, Moses prayed for the salvation of his people and saved the day.

For over forty years, Moses led a thankless lot of “stiff-necked” people through the wilderness and continually interceded on their behalf to God. Although we read of Moses leading them in offering thanks to God, we never read of any of them thanking Moses for his service. The Israelites mourned for him when he died but it seems they never thanked him when he lived.

Many of us had a Moses and Aaron, more likely several, who led us on our faith journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land—the Kingdom of God. While I can’t single out one specific person who pointed the way, I remember several people who welcomed me when I felt ill at ease, loved me when I felt unlovable, encouraged me on difficult parts of my journey, offered guidance when I started to lose my way, lifted me when I began to fall, challenged me to be all that God wants me to be and, like Moses, interceded for me in prayer. I thank God for them but, today, I also thank them. Did you have a Moses and Aaron who led you into the Promised Land? Have you thanked them?

None of us got to where we are alone. Whether the assistance we received was obvious or subtle, acknowledging someone’s help is a big part of understanding the importance of saying thank you. [Harvey Mackay]

Through the angel who appeared to him in the burning bush, God sent Moses to be their ruler and savior. And by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years. [Acts 7:35b-36 (NLT)]

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