SUNDAY MORNINGS

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. [John 4:23-24 (NIV)]

The purpose of this Christian society called the “Church” is, first: to glorify God by our worship. We do not go to church just to hear a sermon. We go to church to worship God. [Billy Graham]

Old World Wisconsin
In this day and age, we refuse to be bored. We watch one of three TVs while on the health club treadmill, stream music or podcasts when out walking, and check our phones at red lights. (Technically, we’re not texting while driving—we’re simply texting while stopping.) We could blame technology, but our penchant for boredom has been a problem since the beginning of time. A golden calf and some “pagan revelry” was the Israelites’ antidote for boredom while Moses was on Mt. Sinai. Then, when they got bored with manna, the Israelites demanded meat. David had at least eight wives but boredom caused his eyes to wander over to Uriah’s house where Bathsheba was bathing. Mankind just seems to be hardwired to tire of the “same old, same old” and, sometimes, that propensity for boredom enters into our worship.

“I laugh so much during church, it seems almost sinful; it’s just so much fun to come!” said a neighbor about her church. Another neighbor urged us to join them at their church because of the musical talents of their pianist/organist who is known for playing six keyboards at once. Neither neighbor, however, mentioned things like the substance of their pastor’s message, the basics of their church’s beliefs, or how their worship affects them. There’s nothing wrong with pastors who insert humor into their messages or great worship music but we must be cautious of thinking of church as entertainment. The center of attention is neither the man in the pulpit nor the musicians; it is the man who hung on the cross for our sins! Jesus was an impressive man while He walked the earth but impressing people was not His goal. If it was, He would have performed far more miracles; instead, He often told people not to tell anyone. His purpose wasn’t showy miracles but the lasting message of salvation.

The purpose of worship is not to praise the pastor, music, or setting; it is to glorify God! Pope Pius X said it succinctly: “Worship is for the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.” It’s easy to get the glorifying part—we’re praising the wondrous nature of God, thanking Him for our blessings, and celebrating His glory. Our worship, however, shouldn’t stop there. Sanctification is one of the Christian words we don’t use a lot, but it simply means that our worship is supposed to change us—to set us apart from the world and worldly concerns for God’s holy purpose. As for edification, another churchy word, worship is about helping one another along the road to Christlikeness—the building up of a group of disparate individuals into the body of Christ. Regardless of the pastor’s ability to deliver a sermon or the worship leader’s choice of music, if the service hasn’t glorified God, helped change us for the better, or built up God’s Kingdom, we haven’t worshipped properly.

Is church where we go to be entertained or is it the place we go to be strengthened by His word and grow to be more like Christ? Is it where we go to be distracted from the cares of the world or where we go to worship the Lord and to revel in His glory? While bells and whistles are pleasant, we should remember that the purpose of church is worship not theater. Rather than fluff and stuff, we should be seeking a foundation in God’s word, the presence of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. If we’re bored during church, the antidote isn’t more pageantry or spectacle, funnier sermons, or better music; it is more mindful worship on our part.

Worship is not about my enjoyment. It is about my enjoyment of God. It is not about my pleasure or my delight or my satisfaction. It is about my pleasure, delight, and satisfaction in God. Worship is not simply about glorifying God. It is about glorifying God by enjoying Him forever. [Sam Storms]

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. [Colossians 3:1-2 (NIV)]

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MATTHEW – Part 2

Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” [Matthew 9:10-11 (NLT)]

great blue heronWhen Jesus brought Matthew into the inner circles of disciples, it was as shocking as if someone like Billy Graham brought a loan shark, heroin trafficker, money launderer, or embezzler onto his worship team. But, along with his questionable reputation and his devotion to Jesus, Matthew brought a unique set of skills to the Lord and to countless generations of Christ’s followers.

Without benefit of calculator or computers, as a tax collector, Matthew was good with numbers and a meticulous record keeper. To do his job, a publican had to have been reasonably fluent and literate in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Latin. It’s likely that he knew a form of shorthand commonly used in the ancient world since the 4th century BC. A man like Matthew was uniquely qualified to record the events surrounding Jesus’ ministry. Along with his skills and reputation, perhaps the only other thing Matthew brought with him when he followed Jesus was his pen.

The book of Matthew, like the other gospels, never explicitly names its author but ancient church tradition is unanimous in attributing it to Matthew the Apostle. Perhaps the best argument for Matthew’s authorship is the unlikelihood that a man with his skills, who responded to Jesus’ call the way he did, and became one of the disciples, would not have kept a careful record of the Lord’s words and ministry! Matthew had the skills, opportunity, means, and motivation. This is a man who showed such early concern for evangelism that one of the first things he did after leaving his tax booth was to invite his former friends and colleagues to dinner to meet and hear Jesus. When Matthew was honing his record keeping and language skills as a publican, little did he know that God had a far higher and better use for him than collecting money for Rome. Let his story be a reminder that no experience is wasted and God has a unique plan for each and every one of us.

After witnessing Jesus’ ascension, Matthew and the apostles returned to their room in Jerusalem and prayed. Scripture is silent about Matthew after that and, other than writing the gospel that bears his name, we don’t know what became of him. The earliest church records say he carried out his ministry in Persia, Macedonia, Syria, and/or the region south of Egypt known as Ethiopia. Those records also claim Matthew was martyred but they don’t agree on how or where it happened. All we know for sure is that Matthew didn’t just reform; he transformed! When he accepted Jesus’ call to follow Him, the despised and dishonest tax collector named Levi transformed into the beloved apostle and gospel writer named Matthew—a saved sinner who accepted the Great Commission and served as Christ’s witness “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The same Jesus who turned water into wine can transform your home, your life, your family, and your future. He is still in the miracle-working business, and His business is the business of transformation. [Adrian Rogers]

And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (NLT)]

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LOOKING FOR “LOVE”

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

cardinalNormally, the Internet would be one of the worst places to search for love but, according to my favorite online Bible resource site, some people went looking for love on line and were successful. Of course, they were looking for it in one of the right places—the Bible. With nearly 3 million searches a day (which, in case you wondered, is more than 2,000 per minute 24/7), “love” was the keyword most commonly searched for by the 160 million visitors to their site in 2021. Appearing 759 times in the NLT Bible, “love” was easily found (even in the King James that only uses it 442 times)!

“Love” tops the keyword search every year and “peace” (appearing 362 times in the NLT) retained its second-place position. As expected, hope, joy, and faith rounded out 2021’s top five most popular word searches. With “hope“ used 190 times, 333 appearances for “joy,” and “faith” mentioned 507 times in the NLT, the Bible was the right place to find them all. Although the number of occurrences depend on the version searched, these favorite words are found in every translation.

The Bible certainly is the place to look for love, peace, hope, joy, and faith but, with nearly 7,000 mentions of “Lord,” almost 5,000 of “God,” and nearly 1,500 of “Jesus” in the NLT, the Bible is a good place to go looking for them, as well! Those names, however, were missing from the most popular searches, as were words like prayer, humility, righteousness, repentance, servanthood, surrender, worship, sanctification, sacrifice, justification, judgment, sin, obedience, and atonement.

2021’s most searched for Bible verse remained John 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The perennial runner-up continued to be Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” As two of the most encouraging and heartening verses in the Bible, it’s easy to see why they are favorites.

Indeed, God’s Word is filled with words of comfort and reassurance, but limiting our Bible knowledge to only positive and uplifting words and verses is a bit like eating the croutons but not the salad beneath them, tasting only the crispy fried onions on top of the green bean casserole, or having dessert while skipping the main course! Some of those unsearched for words may be less tasty, but they are just as important as love, peace, hope, joy, and faith. It seems that many of us come to the Bible more interested in comfort than truth, affirmation than obedience, reassurance rather than correction, and inspiration rather than salvation. When we come to Scripture looking only for words of encouragement, we might miss the bigger message of salvation, redemption, and rebirth found in Jesus Christ. Let’s never settle for Scripture “Lite.”

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. [Hebrews 4:12 (NLT)]

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. [Joshua 1:8 (NLT)]

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THE OWN GOAL

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

green heronUsed primarily in soccer and hockey, the term “own goal” or “OG” describes the moment a player accidentally (or deliberately) puts the ball or puck into their own net, resulting in the opposing team getting credited with the goal. OGs can arise from a player’s misjudgment or simply bad luck, as might happen when he’s the victim of a wicked deflection or freak incident. An “own goal” is probably one of the lowest moments for a player and the term has now become a metaphor for any action that backfires on a person. When I think of the way Paul’s imprisonment helped rather than hindered the growth of the early church, I can’t help but think that Satan made an own goal with that one and the point went to God’s team, not his.

The enemy scored another “own goal’ some 57 years ago when I was a freshman at Northwestern University. Although I’d been raised in a church-going family and considered myself a Christian, I was a troubled and confused young woman when I entered college. First quarter freshman year, I took a course in Methods of Discussion in which we studied group communication. On our first day, the class was divided into small groups for a major assignment. We were to select a campus organization that had discussions and observe several meetings. Our purpose was not to scrutinize the topic discussed but to analyze and evaluate the way in which it was considered—how decisions were made, conflicts resolved, understanding built, questions answered, and voices heard. Having been on campus for less than a week, we freshmen knew nothing about any campus organizations and when Dave, the group’s lone upper classman, assured us that Campus Crusade for Christ would make for a great term paper, we deferred to his wisdom. The fact they met Sunday nights and served supper when the dorms didn’t was the selling point for most of us.

What we didn’t know until after starting the project was that Dave’s purpose in choosing Campus Crusade had nothing to do with observing discussion methods or eating a free dinner. An angry atheist, his sole reason for choosing the group was to write a paper that denigrated and ridiculed Christians and this group in particular. The rest of us, however, insisted on sticking to the task and focusing on the method of communication rather than the topic discussed. When it became clear that our paper wouldn’t accomplish his purpose, Dave dropped the class.

While I remember getting an A on the paper, I remember nothing about the mode of discussion at the Campus Crusade get-togethers except that it was spirited and friendly. What I do remember is their message of God’s grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. This wasn’t the God of judgment and condemnation with whom I was familiar; this was a God of unconditional love and forgiveness, a God of relationship rather than religion. Jesus became real to me and I learned more about Him in a few Sunday evenings than I had in years of Sunday school and church. Even though I’d been baptized as an infant and confirmed as a young teen, it wasn’t until I knelt in the university chapel and asked Jesus into my life that I truly became His disciple. After our paper was submitted, I continued attending those Sunday meetings (and not just for the dinner) until I left university life.

Our Heavenly Father works in strange and wonderful ways and has no problem allowing evil people to accomplish His purposes. There’s a certain amount of poetic justice when Satan’s plans backfire as they did with the Apostle Paul and as they even did with me! Thank you, Jesus, for the atheist who brought me into your arms!

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

lilacWe reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods. We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know this. If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. [2 Corinthians 4:2-4 (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about John the Baptist, I said that doubt was not the same as unbelief. In John’s question to Jesus, we have the doubts of a godly man but we see trickery and unbelief in most of the questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Because the Sadducees interpreted Scripture literally and the Pharisees gave equal significance to their oral tradition, the groups frequently argued with one another over Jewish doctrine. They were, however, united in their hatred of Jesus. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not belief in an afterlife or the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, they asked Jesus a question dealing with resurrection. Jewish law said that, if a woman’s husband died without having a son, the husband’s brother had the responsibility of marrying her. Using this law as their starting point, the Sadducees set up a bizarre scenario in which one brother dies without having children and his widow, who never bears a son, ends up marrying and burying brother after brother until she’s married and buried all seven brothers. The Sadducees want Jesus to tell them which of the seven will be her husband in the afterlife.

Since they didn’t believe in any afterlife, theirs was not an honest question and they’re sure Jesus can’t answer without looking foolish, offending people, or being caught in an inconsistency. He’ll appear arbitrary if he picks one brother over another and immoral if He says they all can have her! His other choice (and possibly the one for which they hope) is to admit that resurrection is a preposterous doctrine. Not only would they score a point against the Pharisees but Jesus would look like a fraud since He couldn’t be the “resurrection and the life” if there were no resurrection!

Imagine their consternation when Jesus corrected them by saying they’d misinterpreted Scripture and had underestimated God’s power with their assumption that resurrection meant a continuation of the same kind of bodies we have in this life. Jesus explained that people would be raised into bodies unlike their present ones and marriage and procreation would be unnecessary. When Jesus added that people will have bodies “like the angels in heaven,” He dug the knife deep into their absurd question because Sadducees didn’t believe in angels any more than they did resurrection.

In His final thrust, Jesus asked the Sadducees if they’d read about resurrection in the Scriptures. He then repeated these words from Exodus: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” [3:6] Even though the patriarchs had been dead for more than four centuries, God’s words to Moses were in the present tense which showed that the men remained alive before Him. Jesus could have found scriptural support in words from Isaiah, Daniel, or Job but He chose a verse from part of the Pentateuch, the section the Sadducees found most authoritative. Having been out-argued by the Son of God, I imagine the Sadducees departed with their proverbial tails between their legs. The crowd that heard Jesus, however, was “astounded at his teaching.”

When comparing the questions posed by John’s disciples and the Sadducees, the differences between doubt and unbelief become clear. Where doubt seeks answers, unbelief isn’t interested in them. Doubt seeks enlightenment; unbelief prefers darkness. Doubt is receptive; unbelief is hostile. Doubt is straightforward; unbelief has ulterior motives. Doubt wants the truth; unbelief just wants to win.

There are those who insist that it is a very bad thing to question God. To them, “why?” is a rude question. That depends, I believe, on whether it is an honest search, in faith, for His meaning, or whether it is the challenge of unbelief and rebellion. [Elisabeth Elliot]

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. [Matthew 22:34 (NLT)]

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JOHN THE BAPTIST – Part 1

And he [John] will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly. [Luke 1:16-17 (NLT)]

blue flag irisWhen the angel promised John’s birth to Zechariah, it was ordained that the child would be named John, that he would be a Nazarite, and that he would prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. After that, other than his circumcision, the only thing we know about John’s youth is that he “grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.” [Luke 1:80] We know that Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea and church tradition places his home in Ein Karem near Jerusalem. Considering Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s advanced ages, they probably didn’t live to see their boy become a man. Nevertheless, they would have been sure their son knew of his divine calling and made provisions for his care.

The word translated as wilderness or desert is erémos, meaning a barren place, it typically was used to describe the desert to the east and south of Palestine. It is speculated that John may have resided in the erémos with a community of Essenes who lived in the Judean desert near Qumran. This Jewish sect studied and copied Hebrew scripture and practiced various forms of asceticism like fasting, prayer, and celibacy. 1st century historian Josephus tells us they often took in children who were dedicated by their parents to such a lifestyle and the Dead Sea scrolls tell us they often recruited members from priestly families.

There are similarities between John and the Essenes. They both strived for holiness through a demanding ascetic lifestyle, practiced a baptism ritual requiring a change in heart, and described themselves as voices in the wilderness. Like John, Essenes had a special diet and members vowed never to eat food prepared outside the community. There was, however, a loophole and anything eatable found in nature that didn’t require preparation was allowed so John’s strange diet of wild honey and locusts would have been acceptable for an Essene.

There are, however, significant differences between the Essenes and John. Essenes interpreted Isaiah’s words, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland” to mean they should separate themselves from Judah and civilization and live in the wilderness to await redemption. The Essenes lived in almost total isolation but John did just the opposite and became a very public voice by the banks of the Jordan as he called the nation to repent. The Essenes’ doctrine expected two Messianic figures along with a prophetic figure. The Dead Sea scrolls make it clear they did not believe Jesus to be a messianic figure but John recognized Jesus as the one and only Messiah.

With his call for the nation’s repentance, John is far more like an Old Testament prophet than an Essene. Just as Elijah confronted King Ahab about his sins, John confronted Herod. Like Elijah, he wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt and his attire, while seeming strange to us, would have made perfect sense to a 1st century Jew. Jesus made the connection when he told John’s disciples that John was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that a prophet would come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord.

John the Baptist is the connection between the Old and New Testaments—between the old covenant of the law and the new covenant of grace. We may not know much about John before his thirtieth year but we do know that he fulfilled the task God set before him: “to prepare the way for the Lord. …to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”

And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” [Luke 1:76-79 (NLT)]

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