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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GOD’S WARDROBE

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. [Colossians 3:12-14 (NTE)]


When writing to the Colossians, Paul told them to clothe themselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love. A more literal translation would be to sink your heart (or the inner parts of your body) into a garment and wrap yourselves with God’s virtues. The Message translation simply says, “dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you.” When we dress ourselves in His clothing, we’ll begin to look like Christ—not because we’re wearing an inner linen tunic, robe, cincture (belt), sandals, and a cloak—but because we’re acting as Jesus would act!

When my high school presented Jean Giraudoux’s Madwoman of Chaillot, I played one of the madwoman’s elderly and equally mad compatriots. But, at 16, I struggled with getting into the role and feeling like an old woman. It was not until dress rehearsal, when I actually looked like my character, that I truly began to act and feel like her.

The change from teen to old woman began with a make-up base giving me a pallor and continued when shadows were applied around my eyes, under my cheekbones, and along my jawline. Fine lines were drawn on my forehead and around my mouth and a little white grease-paint was sponged onto my eyebrows and hair. The transition continued when I put on my costume—a dark silk dress with petticoats and a bustle along with an elaborate hat and net veil. I wrapped myself with a fringed shawl and picked up the old black umbrella I’d be using as a cane. When I saw myself in the mirror, I gasped at the transformation. It wasn’t just my appearance that changed; once I looked like an old woman, I began to walk, talk, and even feel like one. I felt the aches, pains, and weariness of an octogenarian in a way I hadn’t during previous rehearsals. For a few hours the next several nights, instead of being a junior in high school, I became an eccentric old woman because, once I looked like her, I acted my way into being her!

We are called to live by faith rather than by emotion and it is Scripture, rather than a script, that tells us how to live out our lives. We may not feel like being patient with the co-worker who can’t get the hang of the new system, but we can clothe ourselves with patience and act patient while answering his questions. We don’t have to feel kind, loving, or forgiving to dress in kindness, love, and forgiveness. When we clothe ourselves with the wardrobe of Jesus, we’ll start looking and acting like Him and, the more we act like Him, the more we’ll become like Him! We can act our way into a feeling far easier than feel our way into an action!

Decades ago, I had to look like an old woman before I could act like her and be authentic in my portrayal. Today, in the same way, we must put on Jesus’ wardrobe and act like Him before we can become like Him. When you look in your closet this morning, be sure to put on the garments of God along with your shirt and pants!

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. [C.S. Lewis]

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. [Galatians 3:26-27 (NLT)]

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. [Ephesians 5:1-2 (NLT)]

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LETTING GO

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. … Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. [Matthew 16:24-25,19:21-22 (NLT)]

Like any mother, I remember my children’s first steps. After hesitantly pulling themselves up and taking a few tentative steps, they soon realized they could cruise along while holding onto something or someone. Eventually, the tots became bold enough to let go of one piece of furniture and reach toward another to continue their adventures. A fair amount of parental urging, however, was usually needed to get them to finally let go of furniture, walls, or people and walk completely on their own. But, after taking those first solo steps, there was no stopping them. Off they went exploring a new, wonderful, and limitless world while I ended up chasing them and wondering why I’d been in such a rush have them walk.

Like a toddler learning to walk or the rich man in today’s verse, are we reluctant to let go of something that is keeping us from a new, wonderful, and limitless world in Christ? The rich man was unwilling to let go of his wealth—are we afraid to release our grip on possessions that encumber us? Could we value things more than a relationship with God? Is there an unhealthy relationship holding us from a relationship with Jesus or have we become too comfortable in old patterns of behavior or attitudes to face new ones? Are we hanging on to anger or loath to let go of resentment and forgive?

Are we simply afraid of the unknown—of trusting? Are we unwilling to cede control and give charge of our lives to Him? Are we more interested in our own version of happiness than God’s or more interested in following our plan than His? Are we afraid of what He might ask of us? Could we think we’re simply not worthy of His love? Once we release all that is holding us back, the Kingdom of God is waiting for us. It’s there for the asking! We just need to let go and take that first step to experience His unconditional love, forgiveness, hope, joy, and eternal life!

The difference between the toddler and the Christian, however, is that while the toddler learns to walk completely on his own, once a Christian releases all that is holding him back, he is never alone. God’s hand will hold and sustain him and he need never stumble or fall.

19th century evangelist (and publisher) D. L Moody called profit, pleasure, and preferment “the wicked man’s trinity.” What are we willing to release for the Holy Trinity?

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. [Philippians 3:7-9a (NLT)]

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FENCES

Stay away from every kind of evil. [1 Thessalonians 5:22 (NLT)]

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. [Misnha (Pirke Avot)]

tigerLast December, after breaching the barrier surrounding the tiger enclosure at our local zoo, a man stuck his hand into the tiger’s cage. A similar incident occurred a few months later at a nearby airboat attraction when a man improperly went through the first enclosure and put his arms into the tiger’s cage. Although both men survived, they suffered serious injuries to their hands and arms. Fences are placed to protect us and keep us from getting too close to danger but you can’t protect people from their own stupidity.

Just as those fences around the tigers’ cages were meant to protect people from the tigers (and the tigers from people), many of the Rabbinic innovations were designed to protect the commandments of the Torah. It is in the Mishnah (the oldest collection of post-biblical Jewish laws) that we find the phrase “make a fence around the Torah.” It is this fence, not the Bible, that explains the hundreds of prohibitions we find in Judaism.

Those Rabbinic rules were supposed to prevent people from being tempted to break the law or unintentionally doing so. For example, items like hammers and scissors that were associated with prohibited work like building or cutting, were not even to be picked up lest handling them led to their use. Although the Sabbath officially begins at sunset Friday, a few minutes were added before its beginning and after its end to make sure no one accidentally worked too late or resumed work too early. Even today, for my Jewish friend, the Shabbat candles are lit and all work has stopped no later than 18 minutes before the sun officially sets. His Sabbath ends when three stars are visible, which can be about 30 minutes after sunset. Rather than additions to the Mosaic law, these fences were seen as a way of helping people remain obedient to the law; they were erected to keep people from giving into temptation or just cutting it too close! Sadly, through the years, the rules became increasingly complicated and, by Jesus’ time, they were the heavy yoke about which He spoke.

Nevertheless, Jesus gave us a New Testament version of building a fence when He equated the emotion of anger with the act of murder and the attitude of lust with adultery. Anger and lust are like stepping too close to the tiger’s cage—they’re dangerous territory! Just as picking up his cell phone on Saturday might lead my Jewish friend to break the Sabbath by using it, lust and anger can lead to something far worse! Sticking your arm in a tiger’s cage or stepping into sin never ends well and, rather than gouging out our eyes or cutting off our hands, we can erect spiritual boundaries to keep us and our loved ones safe. We may restrict our youngsters to G or PG movies or set specific rules about dating for our teens. We might use internet filters to screen out inappropriate content on our computers, abstain from alcohol, or avoid the appearance of inappropriate behavior by following the “Billy Graham rule” of never being alone with a person of the opposite sex except for one’s spouse. We each have our own spiritual fences.

Unless they’re found in Scripture, however, those fences are not doctrine. They are our personal rules and, as such, other people may have different ones, some of which may be closer or further from the tiger’s cage than ours. We are not in a position to judge other people’s spiritual barriers any more than they are to judge ours. Unfortunately, for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the fence around the Torah became more important than the law itself. We must never do that. Every fence we erect must comply with God’s simple law that we love Him with our entire being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

…he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” [Mark 12:28-31 (NLT)]

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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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FROM TAX MAN TO SAINT – Part 1

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. [Matthew 9:9 (NLT)]

St. MatthewAlthough Mark and Luke call him Levi, there is no doubt that Levi and Matthew are the same man. He may have had two names, as did John Mark or was known by two different names as were Peter (Simon), Thomas (Didymus), Jude (Thaddeus), and Nathanael (Bartholomew). It simply may be that, like the Apostle Paul (Saul), he was known both by his Greek name of Matthew as well as his Hebrew one of Levi.

When considering how Jesus can change a life, I think of Matthew as the poster boy for rebirth and change! It’s in Capernaum that we first meet the man who would become the writer of the gospel bearing his name. Sitting in his tax booth, he is known as Levi the tax collector. In 1st century Judah, tax collectors (called publicans) were the lowest of the low and fiercely hated by their countrymen. Acting as revenue agents for Rome, Jewish tax collectors were considered collaborators. Since they could demand more than what was required, they also were thought of as thieves! Some even accepted bribes from rich businessmen to overtax their competitors and drive them out of business. Their decisions were backed up by Roman soldiers and the people were at their mercy.

Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC-50 AD) vividly described why Jews hated their countrymen who became publicans. Philo explained that the Romans “deliberately choose as tax collectors men who are absolutely ruthless and savage, and give them the means of satisfying their greed. These people…leave undone no cruelty of any kind and recognize no equity or gentleness…as they collect the taxes they spread confusion and chaos everywhere. They exact money not only from people’s property but also from their bodies by means of personal injuries, assault and completely unheard of forms of torture.”

Even though the Torah prohibited borrowing, lending, or being a party to a transaction that involved charging another Jew interest, a favorite device of the tax-collectors was to advance money to people unable to pay their tax and charge exorbitant interest. The publican became a loan shark and the tax became a private debt to him, which may explain Philo’s mention of the injuries they inflicted.

While none of us like the internal revenue, put in the context of 1st century Judah, we can understand why publicans were despised in Jesus’ day. The Babylonian Talmud ranked them alongside “murderers and robbers.” Tax collectors weren’t allowed to exchange their money at the Temple treasury and were excommunicated from the synagogues. The rabbis taught that tax collectors were disqualified witnesses in court, society outcasts, and disgraces to their own family. They even considered it lawful for a Jew to lie in almost any conceivable way to avoid paying the tax collector! It’s no wonder that the religious leaders were outraged by Jesus’ association with publicans.

Nevertheless, in spite of (or because of) Matthew’s unsavory reputation and unpopularity, Jesus called the publican to follow Him and that’s exactly what the tax man did! This was such a scandal that the 2nd-century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus actually used the fact that Jesus had “scum” like Matthew among his disciples as evidence against His divinity.

We don’t know if Matthew was as evil as some tax collectors; at the same time, we can’t reconcile his choice of career with being upstanding and righteous before meeting Jesus! While we’d love to know why he so readily deserted his tax booth, we don’t. We do know that by abandoning his business to follow Jesus, Matthew gave up wealth, job security, and his few friends and co-workers. The disciples who’d been fishermen could always return to fishing if following Jesus didn’t work out for them but Matthew had no Plan B. If he returned to Capernaum, he would be jobless and penniless. Already a pariah in the community, the publican couldn’t expect a warm welcome home from the people he once exploited! When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words about releasing our grasp on earthly things, losing our old lives, and picking up the cross, he knew exactly what our Lord meant by those words.

Jesus says, “Follow me!” to everyone. Are we as willing as Matthew to do just that?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” [Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)]

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