Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Church Lady Cookies

Last night our church participated in a community fair hosted by our area colleges, Henderson State University & Ouachita Baptist University. We were excited about the chance to hand out information about our church and hopefully get some kids plugged into Beech Street.
I quickly discovered that at a community fair it's very difficult to get students' attention. Everyone has something they're giving away and if what you have isn't any different the kids won't even stop. When we said we had free candy, they barely broke their stride. When we said we had cookies their ears would perk up but, to be honest, several other places had cookies. But then I discovered what would stop almost every student who came by our table. Rather than telling them we had cookies, we told them we had homemade church lady cookies. 
You can't appreciate the stopping power that phrase has on college freshmen until you see it for yourself. It was as though they'd hit an invisible wall. They'd turn to our table, take some cookies, hear about our church, and head to the next vendor. You can say what you want about spiritual gifts but I'm convinced that the approximately 600 cookies that the ladies of our church provided were as powerfully used by God as any sermon I've ever preached.
There's a lesson for churches to learn from this. What does the student's interest in homemade cookies teach us about how we can minister in our communities? 
Be authentic.  One young man at Henderson asked me, "What's the difference in you guys and the other churches here? What makes you guys different?" It was a great question. And you could answer it several ways. You could talk about what a great praise team you have; but lots of churches have a great praise them. You could talk about how friendly you are; but lots of churches are friendly. You could talk about all the cool ministries you have; but lots of churches have cool ministries. So I answered as honestly and simply as I knew how. I told him that we were just a bunch of messed up sinners who serve a God who loves us in spite of our sins. I told him that we don't have it all together and we don't really try to pretend that we do. We just serve Jesus because we love him and he's better than anything else in our lives. 
Now I'm sure that's the wrong answer according to most evangelism textbooks you'd read but I think that the church gets off track when we put on this facade that tries to show that we've got it all together. I think that actually drives people away. The gospel is an appealing message because it's for bad people. What makes it good news is that in Christ, God is reconciling sinners to himself. But often we try to act like we've got everything together so well that people who don't know Christ don't think they've got a place among such saintly people. Or they're turned off because they see how we act on Sunday night and know we're a bunch of hypocrites. But what if instead of acting like we've got it all together we were just honest with others and with ourselves? I think instead of driving people away, we'd actually draw people in to learn more about the God who loves messed up people. I'm not suggesting we celebrate our sin. I'm suggesting we celebrate a God whose grace is greater than our sin. See, we think we've got to hide our imperfections. The reality is that our imperfections highlight God's grace. Again, it's not that we celebrate our sins. It's that we acknowledge them, and then celebrate that God's grace is greater. In Romans 5:20-21 Paul wrote, "Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Grave overflows, it super abounds over our sin. All who repent can be forgiven--no matter their past, no matter the sin, Jesus' blood can wash it all away! That's the message people need to hear. Not, "Look how I've got it all together" but "Look how great Jesus is to love me even though I'm a wreck!" 
Be exclusive. The students weren't interested in our candy, and weren't all that interested in our cookies--until they learned they were homemade cookies. That was a draw because no one else had homemade cookies. Everybody had free candy. Everybody had free pens. Everybody had information cards. Everybody even had smiling, friendly people at their booths. But not everybody had homemade cookies. It was the exclusivity, the 'I can't get this anywhere else' that really grabbed them. 
What makes the church unique, what we have to offer that no one else has, is the gospel. Nobody else is offering a savior who forgives all who will repent and believe. Nobody else is offering redemption through the blood of Jesus. Nobody else is offering the lasting joy and satisfaction that only comes from knowing God and delighting in him. That's what we have. That's what Paul spoke about in Philippians 3:8-9, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith..."  In other words, there was something in Christ greater than in anything else that could be found. That's the exclusive message of the gospel, and Jesus has entrusted the delivery of this message exclusively to his followers. This is our job, our task, and no one else's. When we try to draw people in with anything else, we just become another voice in the crowd that fades into the background. But Jesus promised in John 12:32, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." When we lift him up through preaching the gospel, he draws people to himself. We have the exclusive message of the gospel and we have the charge to preach it.
Have a good reputation. What would make these students stop and accept cookies from complete strangers? Answer? We told them the cookies were homemade church lady cookies. Nobody's ever had a bad cookie at a church potluck. Church ladies have earned such a reputation for good cooking that all we had to say was, "Homemade church lady cookies" and we had kids interested. If we want to reach our communities we have to be willing to do what it takes to earn a good reputation. I Peter 2:12, "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation." Peter calls us to live above reproach before others so that even if they want to accuse us, they'll find nothing. That's the way we impact our communities. By investing not just our money but our very lives into where we live. We earn the right to be trusted by the way that we live among our friends and neighbors. That's not easy. But it's the life that we're called to live for the glory of God. Let's do whatever it takes to reach whomever we can, for the glory of God.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Delight That Sustains

There are many verses of scripture that we tend to read over so quickly that we fail to really get hold of what’s being said. Psalm 119:92 is one of those verses. David writes,

“If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” 

Read over it again, more slowly this time. David is saying that the afflictions of his life were so great that he was about to die. He was literally at the end of himself. The only thing that sustained him, the only thing that got him through those afflictions was the great delight he took in God’s law. 
This is an amazing statement isn’t it? In a chapter that is entirely devoted to describing the greatness of the character & nature of God as revealed in his law it’s hard to pick out individual statements that stand out. But this is one.
This is helpful verse for us to consider because it instructs and encourages us. Here’s what David tells us in this verse.
First, there is a delight that can sustain us. This is incredibly good news because life will beat us up. If you’ve never experienced that, just wait; you will. Life has a way of surprising us and sometimes threatening to overwhelm us. There are health issues and relationship issues. We have financial strains and uncertainty about the future. There are spiritual issues that we wrestle with. And on top of all of that, we have an enemy who seeks to devour us. Life can overwhelm us! But David says that he was sustained through those times by his delight in God’s word. In other words, there exists in the world a delight that can sustain us. 
Second, that delight is not found within ourselves. David wasn’t sustained because he had a great five year plan for his life. He wasn’t sustained because of the money in the treasury or the crown on his head. He wasn’t sustained because he’d beaten Goliath or replaced Saul. David was sustained by a delight that came from outside himself. This is so important for us to see, but so easy for us to miss. We tend to look within ourselves for what we need. We think we need to be stronger or smarter or work harder. Those things may be true but none of them will sustain us through life. We have to look outside ourselves for a joy that will keep us, a delight that will sustain us.
Third, and this crucial for us to get, the delight that sustains us is a delight in God. What does David mean when he speaks of a delight in God’s law? If we consider the rest of the Psalms we understand that the delight he speaks of is not just in the law-its in the giver of the law. In Psalm 16:11 David would write, 

“…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” 

David’s joy was found in knowing God and being known by him. The law gave him joy because the law taught him more about God.  The law puts the perfections of God on display to us. To borrow a phrase from the Puritans, it shows us the “superlative excellencies” of who our God is and its in that reminder that we find strength for the afflictions. In verse 50 of the same Psalm David writes,

This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.

In verse 50 the comfort is the promise, but in verse 92 it’s the law. So which gave David comfort? Both! The law pointed to the lawgiver. The promises pointed to the promise maker and promise keeper. Both send us straight to the throne. And it's there, in the presence of the king, that we find the delight that can sustain us through the darkest days of our lives. 

Though life can threaten to overwhelm us our God is greater than whatever we'll face. How do we know this? The cross. At the cross Jesus defeated the greatest enemy of mankind—he overcame our sin & overcame death. Salvation is available to all who will receive it. No works are necessary, no additions; simply a hand opened to God, receiving by faith the grace he offers in Jesus. 
Rest in the finished work of Christ, and be strengthened by delighting in our sin-conquering, grace-giving King.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Do We Really Believe God is Sovereign?

It seems that for the past several years "sovereignty" has been one of the buzzwords in church community. It's the belief that God is governing all things, holding all things in his hands and working out all things according to his will and good pleasure. 
But I've discovered that it's much easier to talk about God's sovereign rule over all things than it is to actually trust in it--and it's even more difficult to submit to it. I read a story this morning that reminded me of what submitting ourselves to God's sovereign reign really looks like, and it's found in 1 Samuel 24.
David is a well known Bible character-he wasn't the 1st king of Israel but he was the greatest. The man who preceded him, a guy called Saul, was incredibly jealous of David and spent a great deal of time trying to catch him so he could kill him. In one instance David and his men had taken shelter in a cave. Saul, not realizing they were there, went into the cave to relieve himself. David's men told him, "Now's your chance! God has anointed you to be king and the guy who is trying to kill you is before you, completely defenseless." The Bible records in 1 Samuel 24:4 that David arose and cut off a corner of Saul's robe, an act likely intended to embarrass the king. But the next two verses are striking. The Bible records, "And afterward David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe. He said to his men, 'The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord's anointed.'" 
David is convicted by his seemingly harmless act; why? Because it was an affront to the king, a man called to that position by God. Saul was certainly not acting in a God-honoring way but that didn't change the fact that God had given him his position. David recognized that dishonor to the king was actually dishonor to the one who appointed him. And so he submitted to the leadership of the king, even though that king was trying to kill him!
Now how could he do this? How could David be willing to honor God by honoring the king? I think the answer is found back in chapter 16, when David is anointed by Samuel to replace Saul as king of Israel. How would that make a difference? I think the answer is this: David trusted that God's promise for his life would come true. No one-Saul or anyone else-could stop what God was going to do. And understanding that allowed him to continue to honor Saul, even though Saul sought his life. 
This, I think, is what it truly means to trust in the sovereignty of God. It's easy to believe he's in control when things are going well. But what about when things aren't? What about when there are leaders who are opposed to you? What about when brothers and sisters in Christ hurt you? What about when church leaders fail you? Are we still willing to submit to God's sovereign rule in our lives? 
Don't misunderstand, this isn't a call to fatalism. But it does mean that we should rethink how we approach conflict in our lives. We should rethink what it means to really believe that God is really ruling over all things in our lives and that we can really trust him. If I believe God is sovereign, that will impact every area of my life. If it doesn't, then I don't really believe that he's sovereign.
If we jump ahead to the New Testament we see that Jesus perfectly exemplifies this confident trust in the sovereign control of God over all things. Luke 23:46, "Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last." Having secured salvation for all who would believe, his mission accomplished, Christ lays down his life and commits his spirit to the Father. I Peter 2:23 reminds us that this was the case throughout his life; "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."
What do these verses have to do with trusting God's sovereignty? Isaiah 53:10 tells us; "But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief..." The Father was pleased to crush the Son. In other words, it was God's will, his good pleasure to pour out his wrath for sin on the sinless Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And that's what makes Jesus' words in Luke 23 so incredible. Jesus commits his spirit to the one who has crushed him! He commits himself to the one who has poured out his wrath on him, treating him as a sinner. Before committing his spirit to the Father, Jesus would cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" 
David illustrates what it looks like to really trust that we have a sovereign God who controls all things. Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of that trust. He shows us what it means to not just say we believe God is sovereign but to truly rest in that sovereign care over all things, to say with Job in 13:15, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him..."
Trust in God's sovereign care over all things gives us a robust hope, a joy with which we can face life with confidence. We know that our God is in the heavens and does whatever he pleases and that nothing--storms, persecution, hardships, even difficulties from his own hand--none of that has any influence on our standing with him in Christ, on the certainty of our salvation, and on the fulfillment of his promises. 
Don't just talk about God's sovereignty; believe in God's sovereignty! 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Tempted Like Eve

In 2 Corinthians 11:3 Paul writes, "But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ." Paul expresses a deep concern for his readers, that they might fall to temptation just as Eve did in the garden. 
Why would Paul use this example? I don't think it was an accident. I think Paul is calling us to consider Adam and Eve's sin in the garden and apply those lessons to our daily walk with Christ. What caused Eve to be deceived?
--She wasn't sure of what God said. In Genesis 3 we see the exchange between Eve and the serpent. The temptation begins with a question: "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" Now this is an easy one, right? It's a yes or no question. But Eve's answer betrays an uncertainty as to God's directions. Her answer should have been a simple, "No, that's not what God said at all." Instead, her answer wasn't exactly what God had told Adam. In other words, a lack of certainty as to God's instructions led to her being deceived by the serpent.
--She added to what God said. Part of her uncertainty is revealed in the fact that she added to what God said. Eve told the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the great of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" The problem is that God hadn't said that, exactly. The phrase "neither shall you touch it" isn't found in chapter 2 when God is instructing Adam. 
--She didn't believe what God said. The serpent replied to the Eve in this way: "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it you eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." This is the complete opposite of what God had said. There was no uncertainty, no wavering in his words. "If you eat this, you'll die", God said. "No, you won't die. You'll be improved!", says the serpent. These are opposite things so both can't be true. Eve didn't believe what God said and so she ate the fruit.
--She didn't trust what God said. God said that death would result from disobedience. In other words, God had what was best for Adam and Eve in mind when he gave them this prohibition. But Eve didn't trust that. She didn't trust that God knew what was best. She decided that she knew what was best. Gen. 3:6 says, "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate." Here's what God had said; but here's what Eve could see. And rather than trusting the all-knowing, all-wise God, the one who had created them and given life to them, she trusted in her own reasoning, in her own feelings and desires. And by the way, notice that Adam was with her. That coward stood by silently and let Eve be the guinea pig before he tried the fruit. Eve is not guiltless, but Adam certainly bears his share of the blame as well.
So what are the lessons that Paul wanted the Corinthians to get, and the lessons for us from this story?
1, we need to know what God has said. In scripture we have all that God has for us. How foolish we are to not be men and women of his word! Uncertainty about what he's said never ends well for us.
2, we need to accept what God has said. Anytime we add to God's words we are presuming that we know better. The boundaries that God has drawn are all the boundaries we need. Any others we add will turn us into Pharisees and ultimately lead us to attempting to usurp God's place as ruler in our lives.
3, we need to believe what God has said. Everyday we're confronted with choices to make. Those choices must be weighed against what God has said and what man says. When what God says and what man says conflict we must decide who is telling us the truth. 
4, we need to trust what God has said. I can't count the number of times I've heard well meaning Christians encourage each other to "follow your heart", or, "listen to your instincts." That is the worst advice we can give one another! Jeremiah 17:9, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?". The prophet warns us that we can't always trust what we see. We can't trust what we feel. We can't trust what we want. But God is trustworthy! Rather than chase after what our hearts want (which invariably lead us into sin), we must learn to chase after what God calls us to! The choice before us is simply this; do I believe God has my best interests at heart, or do I believe he doesn't? Does God give me commands, both positive & negative, because he loves me and is for my good? Or does he give commands because he wants to deprive me of something. 
God is good, loving, and always wants what's best for us. We may not always realize or recognize that-but by his grace, may we learn to trust him and walk in submissive obedience to him.