TAKE THE WEIGHT OFF! (Hebrews 12:1-2 – Part 2)

What about us, then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily. We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently. We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he’s the one who brought it to completion. [Romans 12:1-2 (NTE)]

When Alexander the Great’s army was advancing on Persia, his troops were so weighted down by the spoils of war they’d taken in earlier campaigns that they moved too slowly to be effective in combat. At one critical point, it seemed that defeat was inevitable. As much as the greedy Alexander desired the silver, gold, and other treasures they’d pillaged, he ordered that all the plunder be thrown into a heap, burned, and left behind. Although his troops complained bitterly, they did as directed. Once unencumbered by the excess weight of their treasure, his army saw the wisdom of Alexander’s command when their campaign turned from impending defeat to victory. “It was as if wings had been given to them—they walked lightly again,” said one historian.

While I’m not sure of the truth of this story, it makes an excellent illustration of what the writer of Hebrews means when he tells us to lay aside every weight that slows us down. He didn’t say “some” of the weight; using the word pas, he meant every bit of it—the whole enchilada! Using the word ogkos, which meant a bulk or bulging mass, he was referring to any hindrance, burden or impediment. While there’s a specific mention of sin, other things can weigh as down, as well: disappointment, grief, shame, fear, worry, and material possessions. Not every weight, however, is as obvious. The excess weight in our lives could be seemingly harmless distractions like constantly checking email or social media, surfing the Internet, Netflix, TikTok, YouTube, gaming, shopping, or even crafting.

How do we know what’s hindering us? If it isn’t helping; it’s hindering! For example, Walt Disney was ruthless when it came to cutting anything from a film that interfered with its pace. One animator worked for nearly eight months on a four-and-a-half minute sequence in Disney’s Snow White. In it, the dwarfs made soup for Snow White and nearly destroyed the kitchen in the process. Disney liked the scene but he cut it—not because it was bad but because, rather than adding to the narrative, it slowed it down. If it didn’t help move the story forward, Disney knew it hindered!

As we begin this new year, now is a good time to ask God (and ourselves) what might be hindering our progress. Along with the multitude of “bad” things we need to lay aside in order to make room for all the great things God has in store for us, this also is the time to ask if there might be some “good” things that should be eliminated, as well.

Runners in the ancient Olympics ran naked and, while I’m not advocating stripping down quite that much, they knew what it meant to rid themselves of any extra weight! Let us follow their example and run the race God sets before us as if we’re in it to win it!

It is a most lamentable thing to see how most people spend their time and their energy for trifles, while God is cast aside. He who is all seems to them as nothing, and that which is nothing seems to them as good as all. It is lamentable indeed, knowing that God has set mankind in such a race where heaven or hell is their certain end, that they should sit down and loiter, or run after the childish toys of the world, forgetting the prize they should run for. [Richard Baxter (Puritan theologian)]

Don’t you know that when people run on the race-track everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you’ll win it. Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. [1 Corinthians 9:24-25 (NTE)]

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ANOTHER SONG OF MOSES

Take to heart all the words of warning I have given you today. Pass them on as a command to your children so they will obey every word of these instructions. These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River. [Deuteronomy 32:46-47 (NLT)]

queen anne's laceYesterday I wrote about the Song at the Sea or Song of Moses found in Exodus 15. There is another psalm known as the Song of Moses. Found in Deuteronomy 32, it was sung forty years after that first one, when the Israelites were again preparing to enter Canaan. With Moses’ death imminent, God had appointed Joshua as the nation’s new leader. Knowing that the people would turn their back on Him once in Canaan, the Lord met with Moses and dictated the words to this song. God’s words were ones of warning and Moses was to teach this song to the Israelites as a reminder of the consequences of disobedience.

Starting with praise for their “glorious God…a faithful God who does no wrong” [32:4], it moved into a brief history of the people and God’s faithfulness in bringing them out of bondage. Taking a prophetic turn, it then spoke of Israel’s future ingratitude, idolatry and apostasy, God’s resulting anger that “blazes forth like fire and burns to the depth of the grave,” [32:22] and the judgments of abandonment, disasters, famine, and terror that would be inflicted on Israel by their enemies because of their sin.

Even though the song ends on a note of hope, with God promising vengeance on Israel’s enemies and salvation for his people, it’s a grim prophecy and one we know comes true. We know that God’s clear warnings in this song were not heeded any more than His promise of victory in the first song was believed. We know of Israel’s idolatry and alliances with pagan nations, the divided kingdom, the northern kingdom’s defeat and removal to Assyria, and Judah’s fall and exile to Babylon. We know that, when the Jews finally return to Jerusalem, they are ruled by a foreign nation and that the temple will be destroyed and Judah cease to exist in 70 AD. We know that nearly two thousand years will pass before Israel again is a nation.

God is not like a sadistic teacher who springs a final exam on us without warning. Throughout Scripture, like a good parent, He’s warned his children about disobedience and its consequences. Will we heed His words? Will we learn from those who’ve walked before us?

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. Remember what it says: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.” [Hebrews 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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THE SHADOW KNOWS

The Lord is watching everywhere, keeping his eye on both the evil and the good. [Proverbs 15:3 (NLT)]

black vultureAfter eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden. Did they think God wouldn’t know what they had done and come looking for them? Did they really think trees could hide them or that fig leaves would cover their transgressions? We’re not much different. I remember when my brother used his questionable artistic skills to crudely enhance the illustrations in one of my mother’s favorite art books. Thinking she’d never look for it, he then hid the defaced book at the back of the bookcase. She, of course, did find it; like God, parents have a way of discovering our misdeeds!

While Adam, Eve, and my brother failed at hiding their transgressions, sometimes people appear to be successful at covering theirs. I have a friend with a “lead foot” who brags of talking his way out of numerous speeding tickets with such heart-breaking stories (none of which are true) that policemen are usually comforting him by the end of his tale. We all have ways of trying to conceal our wrongdoings, deny culpability, or avoid punishment. A word of caution: while our methods may work with people, concealment, rationalization, misrepresentation, and deceit will never work with God.

In the introduction to The Shadow, an old-time mystery radio program, this question was asked: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Said with an ominous laugh, the answer was, ”The Shadow knows!” At the end of each melodramatic episode, the Shadow’s eerie voice reminded listeners that, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay…The Shadow knows!” While I have my doubts about the invincible crime fighter knowing what’s in our hearts, I know who does see the evil lurking there: God. We can hide, conceal evidence, lie, and deny responsibility, but we can’t fool God. We must never forget that He sees us all, all of the time.

Father, forgive us our sins and for foolishly thinking we can conceal them from you. Thank you for watching over us, for holding us accountable, and for your beautiful gift of forgiveness.

In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide You from myself, not myself from You. [Saint Augustine]

O God, you know how foolish I am; my sins cannot be hidden from you. [Psalm 69:5 (NLT)]

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IDLE WORDS

For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you. [Matthew 12:34-37 (NLT)]

sanfoin - Onobrychis viciifoliaSince we’ll be held accountable for our words, I wondered how many words that might be. In 1984, Gyles Brandreth claimed that by the time a typical American dies, he (or she) will have uttered more than 860 million words. Since Brandreth is an actor, writer, and Scrabble fanatic rather than a scientist, his number seems questionable. In 2006, Louann Brizendine claimed that women speak an average of 20,000 words per day while men speak a mere 7,000. Based on her numbers, in a lifetime of seventy years, women would have to account for over 511 million words while men would answer for about 179 million. While Brizendine’s qualifications as a neuro-psychiatrist lend credence to her statements, she provided no source for her statistics. Skeptical of her lopsided numbers, psychology professor James Pennebaker conducted a systematic study in 2007 that recorded the daily conversational word output of both men and women. He found that women averaged 16,215 words a day and men 15,669. Based on his numbers, both men and women will speak well over 400 million words in a seventy-year lifetime.

It’s no surprise that the biggest difference between sexes was the way they used their words: women used more pronouns and talked about relationships while men used more numbers and talked about gadgets and sports. Common among both sexes was that most of the words spoken were mundane and seemingly unimportant.

Nevertheless, come Judgment Day, we’ll be held accountable for all of our words simply because they reveal what’s in our hearts. Jesus’ warning wasn’t about blasphemy, a sin well covered elsewhere in Scripture; He specifically spoke of “idle” words. The original Greek phrase is rhema argon meaning unproductive, unprofitable, ineffective, empty, or careless words. Jesus seems to be speaking of the words that spill out: the spur-of-the-moment utterances, the unrehearsed speech, the words that reveal what we’re truly thinking, and the ones said under our breath so no one will hear. He’s speaking of the offhand remarks, insensitive comments, slips of the tongue, little digs, snide asides, thoughtless words, sarcasm, spite, and insult that come from our mouths. Remember—words have tremendous power. After all, God spoke the world into existence!

Our whole lives will come under review on Judgment Day—including those over 400 million spoken words along with the millions of written ones. How have we used our words? Have they wounded or healed, cut down or built up, disparaged or encouraged, cursed or blessed, rebuffed or embraced, insulted or honored? There are consequences to our careless and thoughtless words because our words reveal the true state of our heart! If what comes out of our mouths is faulty, our hearts are equally flawed.

Whether we speak 150 or 15,000 words today, may all of them be worthy of a Christ follower!

His heart cannot be pure whose tongue is not clean. [D.L. Moody]

But no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. [James 3:8-12 (NLT)]

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FEEDING HIS SHEEP

“Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.” [John 21:17b (NLT)]

skateboarding steamboat SK8When we spent our winters in the mountains, we often provided dinners for a local skateboard ministry. Offering a safe and sober refuge (along with the love of Jesus) to the area’s teens and young adults, this SK8 church defies definition. It’s an amazing combination of indoor skatepark/teen rec center and non-denomination Christian ministry where unconditional love mixes with rad skate ramps, both grip tape and Bibles are plentiful, conversations range from ollies and railslides to John 3:16, 360s and service projects are regular events, and, while you may hear some Christian rap or metal you’ll not hear bad language.

If the Christian church is a hospital for wretched souls, then SK8 church, with its goal of reaching “the lost, broken, and addicted with the love of Jesus,” is a MASH unit for them! Most of the youth have troubled pasts and few come from faith-based homes or with any knowledge of the Bible. Many, however, have transformed their lives as they have come to know Jesus through this ministry.

Last week, after receiving their year-end update, I thought back to our experiences with these youngsters as we dished up pulled pork or sliced ham on Thursday nights. The ministry began almost sixteen years ago when a young couple brought burgers and hot dogs to the local skatepark and shared both bread and the Bread of Life with kids who were desperately hungry for both. When winter’s snow made skating impossible, they opened their home for those dinners and the Word. Within five years, they had a building and built an indoor skate park. SK8 church now offers after school open skating, tutoring programs, counseling, recovery meetings, weekly Bible study, and five mission trips a year, along with middle school and high school/college/adult ministries that include weekly dinners (and God’s word). They recently expanded their ministry with a satellite skatepark/rec center/skate shop in a nearby town.

Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and three times Peter said he did. After each affirmation, Jesus either told Peter to feed or to care for his sheep. Feeding the sheep literally meant to take them to pasture and caring for the sheep meant to act as would a shepherd. That charge, however, wasn’t literal nor was it meant just for Peter. It applies to every one of us who claim to love the Lord. Rather than pasturing and shepherding sheep, we are called to feed God’s children His word and to care for them by guarding, guiding, nurturing, and restoring them along with seeking the lost and bringing back those who’ve strayed.

When they started SK8 church, that young couple’s only qualification was their love for Jesus. Nevertheless, they took Jesus’ words to heart and literally fed those youngsters dinner along with God’s word. Granted, feeding and caring for His sheep won’t always lead to a major ministry and 501c3 standing as it did for them but it should lead to some action on our part.

Sometimes, feeding His sheep is as simple as a platter of sliced ham or a tray of brownies! Our pastor tells of a woman at a previous church where he was the youth pastor. Well into her eighties, she faithfully appeared at the weekly youth meetings wearing noise reduction ear muffs (because of the loud Christian rock) and bearing a huge tray of home-made brownies. She may not have liked the music, but she loved Jesus and His lambs. The teens knew the special ingredient in her brownies wasn’t chocolate; it was love!

As we begin this new year, let us think of ways that we, too, can feed and care for His sheep.

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. [James 1:13-15 (NLT)]

Super Ghost Orchid (by R.J. Wiley)

Once they start collecting orchids, many seemingly normal people become obsessed with them—something the Victorians called orchidelirium. In spite of the threat of federal and state prosecution, some collectors cannot resist the temptation to possess one of the rare orchids found at Corkscrew Swamp and other Florida parks. Because it’s located 50 feet up on a cypress tree, Corkscrew’s super ghost orchid seems safe from poachers but many of Florida’s exotic orchids are stolen from parks, preserves, and homes every year! This summer, a woman was arrested for stealing $4,000 worth of orchids from homes in a town not far from us. As much as I enjoy flowers, it would take far more than an exotic orchid to make me steal from a neighbor’s yard or trudge through the snake and alligator infested waters of a swamp. But, if not an orchid, what would entice me to do such a thing—to do what I clearly know is wrong?

I thought of the old joke in which a man in a bar asks an attractive woman if she’d have sex with him for a million dollars. After she accepts his offer, He then asks if she’d consider it for ten dollars. “What do you take me for?” she asks indignantly. “My dear,” the man replies, “We’ve already established what you are with your first answer. Now we’re just trying to negotiate the price!” What does it take to tempt any of us to step into sin?

At Corkscrew, the Audubon Society has built a boardwalk to keep visitors where they belong. While it helps protect the park’s flora and fauna, its true purpose is to protect the people from the dangers of the swamp. It is, however, a matter of choice as the whether or not a visitor stays on the trail (and not all of them do). In our daily lives, the Bible tells us how to behave and shows us the way we should go. God’s word isn’t there to keep us from enjoying ourselves—it’s there to keep us on the path of righteousness and protect us from sinking in the swamp of sin. But, just like the orchid hunters, we can choose to succumb to temptation, climb over the railings, and walk where we shouldn’t.

“What would you do for a Klondike bar?” was the question asked in the old commercials for the ice cream treat. Their ad campaign was re-launched last year when actress Anna Faris went undercover as a marketing director. She asked a group of expecting couples if any would sign over the naming rights to their baby for a lifetime supply of Klondike bars. For most of us, it would take more than the promise of a rare orchid or an endless supply of ice cream to succumb to Satan and step off God’s path. Satan, however, is no fool; he knows exactly what would tempt us each and every one of us. The question isn’t what we’d do for a rare flower or a frozen treat, but we better know our answer if we were asked what we’d be willing to do for things like wealth, happiness, beauty, fame, youth, health, security, love, or position.

Satan, like a fisher, baits his hook according to the appetite of the fish. [Thomas Adams]

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. [Romans 8:5-6,9 (NLT)]

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