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Sermon: Happy, The Meek

happy

“Happy: The Meek”
Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

I. Introduction

It’s probably no surprise to anyone here this morning that high stress situations have a tendency to bring out people’s character flaws. When we are over worked, tired, hungry, sick, anxious, afraid, or uncertain our emotions become a bit unhinged, don’t they? And if we aren’t careful, when we become stressed our biggest flaws have a tendency to put themselves on display for everyone to see. Many of us, when we are under enough pressure, will become impatient, aggressive, and inconsiderate of others.

This is one reason we are often told to be careful not to judge a book by its cover; not to evaluate a person based on a single encounter. We can never know, when we meet a person for the first time (or any time for that matter) what they might be going through at that particular moment that is affecting their emotions, their personality, and their responses to others. And at any moment, given the right circumstances, any one of us could be in a situation where we lose our cool in front of someone else.

I have to be honest and tell you that I have been guilty of this more times than I care to admit. I’ve been the one who acts out of normal character, when I have been under some sort of stress. I’ve been the one to snap at someone, when I feel like I’m being challenged. I’ve lost my mind, when I should have remained calm. And I’ve ceased to see the person in front of me, when I have allowed my emotions to get the best of me.

Let me give you a case in point. Please hear this as an example of what not to do. I’m not proud of this moment, and can only say that it was during one of the most difficult times in my life, when I wasn’t walking closely with the Lord. I was at basic training, under extreme stress, when I encountered a guy that I can only describe as a bully. And I really do despise bullies. Recruit Coleson was big. He was from a rough neighborhood. He was used to getting his own way by threat of force, and he was completely unwilling to work as a team. I was his squad leader and had to deal with his belligerent behavior on a daily basis. One particularly rough day as I was giving out cleaning assignments, Coleson mouthed off and loudly proclaimed that he wasn’t going to do what I asked. So, like any rational young man, who was under a ton of stress and standing in front of someone much bigger than himself, who was refusing to be a team player, I evaluated my situation and chose a course of action that seemed appropriate at the time, but that I later regretted. I got up in his face and told him in no uncertain terms that he would complete the assignment he had been given, or else. Let’s just say Coleson wasn’t used to having anyone step up on him like that, so he reacted physically. I can only describe what happened next as an embarrassing example of what happens when two people lose sight of the big picture and allow their character flaws to take center stage.

I remember four other recruits picking me up and dragging me off of recruit Coleson as I tried to end his belligerent behavior once and for all. I remember standing in front of a Drill Instructor, trying to explain what had just happened. And with a bit of time and perspective, I remember thinking in hindsight that the whole encounter could have gone so much better, if I had only chosen a different approach to dealing with recruit Coleson.

 

II. We must all choose how we will handle conflict

I would love to tell you that was the only time I’ve ever lost my cool, but I’d be lying. Though I can’t recall engaging in any physical confrontations since that event many years ago, there have been a number of times when I have responded poorly, even aggressively, in the face of conflict. And I doubt I’m alone in this. One of the biggest problems in situations like this one is that they may start off as small disputes that quickly escalate. Maybe one person starts off by saying something a little but snippy, and that cause another person to reply with sarcasm or anger. Then in the back and forth both people get more and more upset until one or both of them lose control.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever had one of those gut-check moments, where you realize that you completely overreacted to a person or situation, and then instantly regretted it? Have you ever been accused of acting like a bull in a china shop, running roughshod over other people or their feelings? I’m guessing most of us, at one time or another, have allowed character flaws to show when we meet with friction from other people.

The truth is that we have encouraged this sort of behavior as a culture. My guess is that all of us at one time or another have been told that the secret to success in this life begins with standing up for yourself. If we want to achieve the American Dream, we have to go out and make a name for ourselves, fight for what we want, and take no prisoners. Have any of you ever been told that? If you haven’t heard that one in particular, I’m sure you have heard one of its variations. Just stand up for yourself. Fight to make yourself heard. Take charge. Go get ‘em. Don’t take no for an answer. Git ‘er done!

But have you ever stopped to consider whether or not this is the way we are supposed to go about things as followers of Jesus? When I was a young man, I didn’t tale the time to ask myself that question very often. Even though I believed in Jesus and had asked him to become Lord of my life, I was still living as though he was a deposed King. I was the one in control of my everyday, and it showed in my interactions with other people.

But, if we are serious about our faith, then we don’t have to follow Jesus long before we realize that one of the big questions we must each answer is this: how would Jesus have us respond to other people when a situation gets tense, when our rights are trampled, when our pride is damaged, when our needs go unmet, and when we are confronted with hatred, mistrust, abuse, and contempt? Will we stand toe to toe with our enemies and fight fire with fire? Or will we choose another way?

 

III. Jesus offers a different way

As Jesus continued to teach the masses who had come to receive his healing touch and hear his message of hope about the coming Kingdom, the question of how to handle conflict must have been bubbling under the surface of people’s thoughts. You see, there can be no true happiness and peace as long as people are in conflict with one another. And people have been carrying out all sorts of evil against each other, since Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy. The conventional wisdom for how to handle a quarrel was to say “an eye for an eye”. If someone says or does something nasty to you, be sure to return the favor. In other words, seek retribution. Go on the attack. Don’t be the victim. Jesus knew that the people were seeking the secret to happiness in this life, and he knew that true happiness couldn’t coexist with conflict, so he cut to the heart of the matter by identifying the heart-attitude that leads out of conflict and into blessing. He said, “Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Happy are the meek. I’m sure by this point the crowd was already starting to get used to Jesus’ strange promises about happiness. I mean, he had already told them that happiness comes from poverty of spirit, which is a lack of pride and complete dependence upon God. And he had told them that happiness comes to the brokenhearted, because they receive God’s comfort, so that they can be a comfort to others. But now he was saying that happiness comes to those who are meek, for they will inherit the earth. How can this be? Surely history has proven that the meek get trampled and abused, while the strong and powerful rule the earth. How can Jesus make such an unfounded claim?

I believe Jesus’ answer makes more sense, when we define what meekness means. By its simplest definition, meekness means gentleness. The same root word is rendered both ways in the New Testament and conveys the same meaning wherever it is used. But it is much deeper than that word implies on its own. So let’s take a moment to reflect on what meekness is, and what it is not. First, let’s define what it isn’t.

  1. Meekness is not weakness. When you hear someone described as meek, what comes to your mind? Do you picture a quiet, timid, maybe physically small or insignificant person? This is what popped into my mind at first. But the Biblical example doesn’t follow this notion. Instead, the Bible describes meekness as an inner strength, by which people are able to withhold anger and wrath (Psalm 37:8). It is seen as the strength to control our emotions and the actions that flow out of them.
  2. Meekness is not apathy. Apathy is a complete lack of interest in something, and it often manifests as an unwillingness to get involved. Meekness is sometimes mistaken as apathy, because a meek person doesn’t often immediately respond in the face of conflict. But true meekness means caring enough to respond carefully and thoughtfully, even in the face of hostility, and even if it creates an appearance of indecisiveness.
  3. Meekness is not fear. Fear stems from uncertainty about the future and our place within it. Fear leads us to respond harshly to conflict, as we seek to protect ourselves. Fear turns our hearts inward, as we seek to save ourselves at all costs. Meekness, on the other hand, is the absence of fear. It is a quiet confidence that doesn’t seek self-preservation, because it trusts that God is in control and that he is near, as Paul said in Philippians 4:5.

So, what is meekness, if it isn’t weakness, apathy, or fear?

  1. First and foremost, meekness is self-control. Ephesians 4:2-3 says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Christians are called to become meek or gentle in their dealings with others in order to build and preserve unity with others. This means exercising self-control, and even “making allowance for each other’s faults because of our love. (NLT)”
  2. Meekness shows a deep concern for the other, to the point of sacrificing one’s own desires and rights for the other’s sake. When we allow the fruit of gentleness to take root in our hearts, we give up the right to lay down judgment or punish another person for wronging us. The meek offer forgiveness instead of condemnation and patience instead of retribution. In Psalm 37 David puts it like this: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” And Paul says it this way in Colossians 3:13: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
  3. Meekness or gentleness is also sign of God’s peace in your life. In Philippians 4:5 Paul tells the church that their gentleness should be evident to all and they shouldn’t be anxious, because the Lord is near. And in Colossians 3:15, he says again, following a call to meekness, that the peace of Christ should rule our hearts. As I said earlier, it is impossible to be truly happy when we have conflict in our lives. Meekness is a sign that we are at peace with God and other people.

So, where he world often views meekness as weakness, apathy, and fear, God has defined it as the opposite – self-control, a deep concern for others, and a sign of God’s peace. I’m beginning to see why Jesus might think that meekness can bestow happiness. But he goes further to define why this is true in Matthew 5:5 when he says the meek will inherit the earth. Have you ever wondered what he meant by that?

It all ties back to what we learned the first week of this series. Remember when I said that all the other Beatitudes only make sense in the light of the first one? Only when we are completely dependent upon God and empty of pride, can we become truly meek. Gentleness and arrogance are mutually exclusive. So only when we have poverty of spirit, can we ever hope to develop a meek character, exhibiting the spiritual fruit of gentleness in our lives. A person might occasionally show gentleness apart from God, but it will not be their true disposition. Only those who live in the power of the Holy Spirit can grow the fruits of the Spirit in their lives.

When Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth, he was commenting on the future that God has promised to his adopted daughters and sons. The meek, who can only become so through the Holy Spirit, will inherit the Kingdom of God and the New Creation as heirs of God and coheirs with Christ. How do we know this? Because meekness is a sign of adoption. When we receive Christ as our Lord and Savior and invite the Holy Spirit to take residence in our souls, the Bible promises us that God will make us new creatures. He takes our weakness and apathy and fear and gives us hearts filled with self-control, love for others, and a deep and abiding peace.

 

IV. Application

At its very core, meekness is self-denial. It is a total surrender of self to Jesus, for the sake of others, trusting that he will preserve us, even in the face of conflict, and help us to love others as he loves them. Do these words of Jesus ring a bell?

“Whoever would save his life, must lose it.” (Mark 8:35)

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)

Or, as the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

These are powerful words. Dangerous words! And they are at the heart of what it means to become meek. But, if this is so, then the question we must each ask ourselves this morning is this: do I exhibit meekness in my life? Do I have the spiritual fruit of gentleness? Am I willing to deny myself out of love for others?

Here are a few quick tests that we can use this morning to determine whether or not we have allowed God to produce meekness in our lives.

  • Do you respond with gentleness in the face of conflict?
  • Do you lovingly encourage your spouse, children, or significant other?
  • Do you favor gentle correction over harsh discipline?
  • Do you choose to remain silent, when your instinct is to defend your position?
  • Do you ever let someone else have their way, even when you disagree with them?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then maybe it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with Jesus. Maybe this is a sign that you haven’t fully surrendered your life to him. Maybe you’ve been holding onto something of your old life that Jesus wants to make new. Or maybe the problem is that you know about Jesus, but don’t really know him. We should never expect to grow the fruits of the Spirit until we receive the Spirit. And we will never receive the Spirit until we confess Jesus as Lord and trust in him alone for our salvation.

If you struggle as I do with what Jesus has said about the meek being the ones who inherit the kingdom, here are some simple steps we can all take this morning, to begin inviting God to help us in this area. And here’s the thing; they all begin with prayer.

  • We can ask God to transform both our actions and reactions.
  • We can submit our self-will and pride to Jesus.
  • We can ask God to give us his eyes, so that we might see people the way he sees them.
  • We can ask God to increase our faith, so that we remain steadfast and unshaken, even when we experience the stresses of life.

We all know that today is Mother’s Day. It is a wonderful time to honor all those who have been mothers to us. And it is also a time for reflection about what makes our mothers so great. One of the greatest characteristics I have seen in many mothers is their gentleness with children. Now this certainly isn’t limited to mothers or even women. But as I reflect on the incredible mother Sarah has been, and as I think about my own mom and grandma, I realize that one of the things that has made them such good moms is their meekness, their self-control, their concern for others, and the peacefulness they exhibit, even in stressful situations, though I’m sure every mom has had those moments where they don’t feel like they have it all together.

Meekness can be particularly difficult for men to embrace, because it is so often identified as weakness by the world. So, many of us have to look to the examples of our mothers and grandmothers in order to see what meekness looks like. But all of the greatest Christian men and women I have known have exhibited the patient gentleness that we are talking about today. They have been slow to anger and abounding in love, just like our Heavenly Father. They have been sensitive to the particular needs of children, and have often welcomed the opportunity to mentor those younger in the faith. They have been quick to forgive. They have been peacemakers. They have been honorable and virtuous, and have honored others and prayed for their virtue. They have been the solid rock upon which strong families are built, and they have been the very best witnesses to the good news of Jesus, because they so easily point past themselves to Him.

What do you suppose our families, our church, and our community would look like if we were each to embrace meekness, instead of overbearing, as our default mode? How would our lives change if we were to stop insisting on our own wants and needs, and began gently caring for the wants and needs of others?

I don’t believe that God has called Christians to become doormats, who invite the world to walk all over us. But I do believe he has called us to become disciples, who seek to walk in the way that leads to life and peace and prosperity, and we can’t ever fully embrace those promises, until we first embrace the gentleness of spirit that stems from complete dependence upon Jesus. Will you seek that freedom today?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray! Heavenly Father, when the world tells us we must be strong, you tell us that our strength lies in you. When the world tells us that we must be conquerors, you tell us that we are more than conquerors; we are your daughters and sons. When the world tells us that we must stand up for ourselves, you tell us that we must become meek for the sake of others. Lord Jesus, would you help us to become the humble people that you seek, who are so filled to overflowing with your love that we no longer seek to preserve our own lives, but instead offer them up to you as a living sacrifice? Would you teach us to become gentle and meek in our relationships, so that we become witnesses to the freedom and unity you offer us through faith? We ask all these things in Jesus name. Amen.

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Sermon: Happy, The Broken-Hearted

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“Happy: The Broken-Hearted”
Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

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I.Introduction

When I was a child, I didn’t really understand what it means to mourn for something that has been lost. Like many people my age and younger, I grew up in many ways protected from serious illness or death. I didn’t grow up on a farm or raise livestock, and I didn’t hunt, so I never learned firsthand what it is like to witness both the birth and the death of animals. I don’t come from a large family, and we have never lived close to our extended family, so I was largely unaware of any serious illnesses or deaths in the family. My great grandma lived until she was 105, so I was already in middle school by the time she passed away.

So I was completely unprepared for the emotional shock, when I discovered first-hand that death isn’t the only thing that causes us to mourn. The fear of death has just as much power. During my eighth-grade year, my dad became sick and was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. He quickly went from the strongest man I knew to lying in a hospital bed undergoing chemo and surgery, and I didn’t know if he was going to live. As the possibility of losing my father became real to me, it brought to the deepest level of sorrow I had ever experienced to that point in my young life. I don’t think my parents even know this, but during those early days I was so distraught, mourning the possibility of his death, that the only thing I found to distract myself from the emotional stress was physical pain. I can still remember sitting on the sidewalk pounding my fists into the ground until my knuckles bled and my fingers broke, trying desperately to hold it together; all the while praying over and over to God, “Please don’t let my Dad die.” Some of you have been there before. Some of you may be there even now. I was overwhelmed with my grief, and all I could do was mourn the impending loss I thought was coming.

I am so thankful to say that my father survived his battle with cancer. That often isn’t the final outcome. Today, my dad is as strong as he ever was, and I am grateful to have had all of these extra years with him. I consider them a tremendous gift, even on the days that we don’t see eye to eye. In fact, at the end of the month, he and my mom will be joining us at Union to preach, while I am away for a few days. You are going to love them.

But even though my dad survived, the sorrow I endured during his illness had taken a toll on my heart. The grief and pain had left scars that wouldn’t quite heal fully. And then life began to speed up a bit, as it has the habit of doing. And over the years I began to experience other losses of lesser or greater significance. Beloved family pets died. Grandparents passed away. And the losses began to add up and take a more significant toll on my heart. Each time the pain would disappear eventually, but the scars kept piling up. And from that moment on, I began to understand a little bit more what it means to be broken-hearted.

I experienced true heartache when my dad was sick, when my grandparents passed away, and even when my pets died. I thought these experiences would eventually make me stronger, able to cope more with the tragic realities of this life. In fact, by the time Sarah and I got married I thought I had everything pretty well handled. I didn’t think there was anything that could really shake me all that much. But I found out the grief I had experienced so far was nothing compared to the day we lost our first child to miscarriage.

I didn’t even know what to do. I was caught so completely off guard that I became numb. I didn’t know how to comfort Sarah, let alone myself, and so I sort of shut off the center of my brain that said something tragic has happened, and I closed off my heart to the grief I was beginning to feel. Sometimes, I think I really failed Sarah as a husband during the early days and weeks following the loss of that first child. I didn’t know how to grapple with my own feelings, so I completely shut them off and wasn’t able to give her the support she needed. But we eventually recovered and tried again. After the third miscarriage, no amount of posturing could cover up for the intense despair I felt, and that I know Sarah shared. We mourned for our lost children, and our hope was shattered. Even after Janna and Simon were born, there was a part of my heart that didn’t fully heal, at first, from the loss of our unborn children, even though I knew that they rest in the arms of Jesus and will live forever with him.

 

II. We have all had experiences that cause us to mourn

Friends, I didn’t share these moments from my life with you this morning, because I think I have endured so much. Many people have experienced much more pain in their lives than me. In fact, I see God’s blessings all around our family. I shared these stories, because I know that we all have similar experiences from our past and even our present. We have all mourned losses in our lives. Many of us have lost loved ones. Some of you are grieving today for a loss that you expect to come soon. In fact, losing a loved one is what most of us probably think about when we hear the word mourn. But I have come to discover that we grieve many different kinds of losses throughout our lives. And while some losses might seem trivial to us, compared to others, any personally significant loss we experience can break our hearts and lead us into mourning. Have you ever mourned any of the following?

  • Loss of a job you loved
  • Loss of a relationship (friendship or dating or marriage)
  • Loss of a home (we had to mourn a bit during our move from our home of 10 years)
  • Loss of a church family
  • Loss of youth
  • Loss of innocence (I went through a particularly rough time in my early 20s. I will never be able to reclaim the innocence I had before that time.)
  • Loss of health (We all go through this to some degree as we age. Some of us experience this earlier, due to illness)
  • Loss of optimism or hope.

 

If you have experience grief over any of these events in your life, and I’m sure all of us have, then you know what it means to mourn. Sorrow is part of the human condition, and people have been mournful of their losses and have built up scars on their broken hearts hearts, since Adam and Eve took that first bite of fruit and lost their innocence, their home, and their relationship with God.

 

III. Happy are those who mourn

Last week we read that people in Judea and the surrounding areas had begun flocking to Jesus, because they had witnessed his miracles and heard about his message of hope and the coming kingdom of God. Even though the people came asking Jesus to heal their sick and drive out demons, he knew that what they were truly seeking was happiness in this life. And knowing their hearts, Jesus spoke words of challenge and promise to them. He told them they would be happy when they became poor in spirit. Having poverty of spirit means becoming completely dependent upon God in all circumstance, and I mentioned last week that this first Beatitude is the foundation upon which all of the others rest. Only when we have become fully dependent upon God will we find the happiness that Jesus promises to us in Matthew 5:4.

When the crowds had gathered around him, Jesus knew that they were seeking happiness in this life. But he also knew that they had come to him weighed down with so many burdens. He knew that, like us, these people had experienced losses in their lives. They had all been driven to mourn their losses. And many of them, I’m sure, had developed scars on their hearts that wouldn’t fully heal. So Jesus continued to speak words of life in answer to their unasked questions about happiness. He said, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4)

 

  1. How does God turn our sorrow into happiness?

Happy are those who mourn. How does God turn our sorrow into happiness? How does he comfort us in our grief? He does this by giving us new hearts and by giving us himself.

It seems like every time I turn on the television I see an ad for cholesterol medication. I’m sure you’ve seen them. They always talk about fighting plaque and keeping arteries from hardening. As I understand it, when sharp material moves through our veins it can create tiny injuries. When those injuries heal, they form scars, and those scars lead to the hardening of the arteries. This is a particular problem for diabetics, who have excess sugar, which is sharp, moving through their systems. Now, that may be a simplistic understanding of what goes on in our bodies, but it may help us understand Biblical analogies of the heart. You see, the problem with our emotionally wounded hearts is that they become scarred, and over time our hearts become hardened. This begins with sin in our lives and continues when we are injured by all those losses that we experience as a result of sin in the world.

As part of the process of making us new creatures, God desires to give us a heart transplant. He wants to cleanse us from our sins, and then remove our damaged, stony hearts and give us new hearts that are resistant to future injuries. But before God can give us new hearts, we have to surrender our old hearts to him. Only when we face the truth of our broken condition and relinquish the pride that holds on to our wounds like war medals, can we embrace the gift of God’s grace through Jesus. When we surrender our hearts to him, through faith in Jesus, God promises to do an amazing thing.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 says, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” (NLT)

God promises to give us a complete heart transplant, so that we can truly experience the comfort he has to offer us. He transforms us, so that we can respond to him in faith and receive his grace in even greater measure. And once we have new hearts that can respond to him in faith, God gives us his greatest comfort by giving us his own presence. He does this, not only for our comfort, but also so that we might be a comfort to others in need.

Paul describes God’s comforting presence in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 when he says, “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.” (2 Cor. 1:3-7, NLT)

God is able to turn our sorrow into joy, when we surrender our broken hearts to him and receive a new heart in its place. God makes those who mourn happy, by comforting them with his presence, when they turn to him in faith. Here is another way of saying what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:4: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (Matt. 5:4, MSG)

 

  1. Does God really understand? How do I know I can trust him with my sorrow?

This sounds good and all, but have you ever wondered if God really understands what you have been through or what you’re going through now? Jesus is asking us to take a pretty big leap of faith here. How do we know that we can trust him with our broken-hearts?

Paul reminds us that we can trust Jesus with our brokenness, because he has been where we are, he has walked in our shoes, and he has overcome the world. Hebrews 4:15-16 says, “This High Priest of ours (Jesus) understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testing we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (NLT)

We can trust Jesus with our lives and our broken hearts, because he gave his life to purchase new hearts and new lives for us. And the happiness Jesus offers us in our grief is more than just the absence of scars. God is not only able to give us relief in our hour of greatest need; he is also able to turn our grief into joy by helping us comfort others the way that he has comforted us. God blesses those who mourn by giving them new hearts, by comforting them with his presence, and by enabling them to comfort others in need, by the power of his Spirit living in them.

And when we are comforted, we find that we no longer need to fear death, because we know that Jesus conquered death on the cross. We no longer need to fear loss, because we have gained everything – a Father, a home, and a future – through our adoption as daughters and sons of God.

 

IV. Application

It wasn’t until I turned my sorrow about the losses in my life over to God, that I began to finally experience the peace that he promises us in Scripture. It wasn’t until I trusted him with my deepest wounds, that God was able to turn my grief into joy. It wasn’t until I surrendered my stony heart, with all of its bruises and scars, to Jesus, that he was able to give me a new heart that is capable of feeling, of receiving, of loving, and of hoping again.

Several years after our last miscarriage, and just after Simon was born, my Pawpaw died. He was a faithful man of God, a pastor, and a true disciple of Jesus. He was the greatest man I have ever known, next to my own dad. It was a sad and difficult time for us when he passed away. He was my last surviving grandpa and he had become Sarah’s grandpa as well. It was hard to say goodbye to him. But there was a huge difference between the sorrow I felt at his loss and all of those I had experienced before his death. You see, not only did I know for certain that Pawpaw passed from this life into paradise with Jesus, but I also understood for the first time that death has no power over me. I am free from fear of loss, because of Jesus’ steadfast love. I am free from bondage to sin, because of Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I am free to live without fear, because the Holy Spirit lives in me.

Friends, we don’t have to allow the sorrow of this life to take over and steal our happiness. When we experience those tragic moments that lead us to become mournful in this life, we can surrender them to God, and he will be faithful to comfort us in our grief and point us toward the hope that we have in Jesus, both now and for eternity. But before that can happen, we have to let go of our broken hearts, surrender them to God, and allow him to heal the wounds and scars that we carry. Before God can extend his soothing touch to comfort us in our need, we must first acknowledge our need for him.

What if each of us here were to surrender all of our burdens to Jesus this morning? What if we were to put our faith into action and extend the comfort that Jesus offers each of us to those who are far away from him in our community? What would it look like to approach one another and the unsaved with our arms open wide in a gesture of loving kindness, because we understand their struggle, instead of close-fisted, as though we are looking for a fight? What if we were to decide today that we are willing to receive the comfort Jesus offers to those who mourn?

If you have come here today bearing scars on your heart from the losses in your life or the wounds of your past, you can leave this place with a new heart this morning. If you are experiencing sorrow over your present circumstances this morning, you can surrender that to Jesus as well, and he will come in and give you the only comfort that can satisfy your need. If you will surrender it all to Jesus right now, he will carry your burden and he will give you new life in him. If you need to surrender something to Jesus this morning, take a moment to pray in your seat, or come down to the altar as we sing this next song, and someone will pray with you to invite Jesus to come and comfort you and heal your broken heart. Would you come?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you haven’t left us to struggle with our grief on our own, but that you have promised us comfort if we will surrender everything to you. Would you please come and replace our hardened hearts with hearts that seek after you. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen.

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Sermon: Happy, the Poor in Spirit

happy

“Happy: The Poor in Spirit”
Matthew 5:3

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I. Introduction

What does it mean to be happy? What is the secret to finding happiness in this life? That may seem like a pretty philosophical question this morning, but it’s one that I have been pondering this week. And I’ve come to discover that you can ask a room full of people those two questions, and get a dozen or more different answers. I think a lot of us define happiness differently, depending on where we come from, what stage we are at in life, and what our dreams are.

For example, when I was a boy, happiness to me was getting lost in my imagination. I spent a considerable amount of time playing with action figures at home or going out in the woods to make believe. Some days I was climbing trees to find the kingdom of the trolls above the leaves. Other days I was taking part in a battle with the evil forces of the world.

As a youth, happiness to me was flying. More than anything else in this world, I wanted to be a pilot. I can still remember taking my first ride in a small Cessna 172 with a missionary friend when I was in middle school. I had my Sony Walkman and headphones with me, and had loaded up the soundtrack to Top Gun. When we took off, my heart was in my throat, and I can still remember the feeling of looking down at the earth as everything got smaller and smaller. It was amazing!

As a teenager, happiness was a bit more grounded. I pretty much only cared about three things: reading books or comic books, playing video games at the arcade, and girls. Pretty much all of my time was spent thinking about or pursuing one of these goals.

I went through a bit of an identity crisis in college, like many of us do. And when I didn’t really like who I saw myself to be, I thought I could find happiness by at least giving my life for a good cause. So, I dropped out of college twice to join the Marine Corps and serve my country.

As an adult with a family of my own, my definition of happiness has changed a lot from what it was before. Now, I might define happiness as a sense of peace and security for my family.

 

II. We are all looking for happiness

I’m sure you can probably identify what happiness has looked like to you at various points in your life, too. And whatever that looks like for you, I’m pretty sure we all share at least one thing in common. My guess is that every person here today is, in fact, looking for happiness. We all seek those feelings of peace and contentment and purpose and joy. Nobody here, when you woke up this morning, said to yourself, “Self, I sure hope I’m miserable today.” (If you did say that to yourself, then we might need to have a talk after the service.) No, we all have a desire within us to be happy. We seek out jobs that we are good at or that we enjoy or that pay a certain wage, because we want feel rewarded and happy at work. If we get married, we look for someone who makes us feel good about ourselves and who supports us and loves us, because we want to be happy in marriage. We surround ourselves with friends who enjoy the same things we do, because we want our friendships to increase our happiness. We try to raise our children in a safe environment, and we try to provide for their needs and desires, because we want our kids to be happy. We pursue hobbies like sports, hunting, crafting, quilting, video games, music, or whatever you find enjoyable, because they increase the quality of our lives by giving us moments of happiness. We pursue these things because somewhere along the path of life a promise has been made that these things will bring us the happiness we desire. Someone, somewhere has told us that all we need to be happy is a good job, a good home, a good family, a few good friends, and some good activities to occupy our time. We see these promises on billboards and television adds. We hear them from our parents. And we whisper them in our innermost thoughts. And because we want to believe the promise that true happiness is within our grasp if we just work hard enough, earn enough, save smart enough, play long enough, or surround ourselves with people who are good enough, we pursue all of these things with every bit of the energy we can muster.

And because we want to protect the promise, we tend to avoid those things that get in the way of what we perceive will make us happy, don’t we? We put off work that isn’t fulfilling, we avoid hard conversations with our spouses and children, we ignore the mounting credit card debt, we stop spending time with people who might need something from us or bring us down, and we look for ways to escape reality and spend more time on those hobbies that give us a momentary feeling of happiness.

When push comes to shove, I think we all can admit that we spend most of our waking hours in the pursuit of happiness in this life. And even though many of us find the source of true joy difficult to pinpoint, we are willing to go to extreme efforts in order to find it.

But sooner or later we all encounter something in life that shakes our confidence in the promise of happiness, don’t we? Maybe layoffs happen at work, and whether we are caught up in them or not it shakes our confidence. Maybe a friend stabs us in the back and destroys our trust. Maybe no matter how hard we work, we just can’t seem to keep our heads above water. Maybe a loved one gets sick or dies. Maybe our children leave home and don’t want to talk to us. Or maybe a marriage falls apart. Even if nothing like this has happened to you yet, and I’ll bet it has, there are questions we eventually need to ask ourselves about the things we spend our lives pursuing. What can we do when the things we think will make us happy fail to do so? What happens when they don’t live up to the hype? How should we respond when we no longer feel happy about our jobs, our hobbies, our friendships, our children, or our spouses? What do we do, when happiness seems like a pipe dream instead of a promise?

Our world offers a lot of answers to these questions. Does your job stink? Great, come work for us, and you’ll be better off. Is your life boring? Buy this new gadget or go on that vacation to find excitement. Do your friends bring you down? No problem, you can meet all kinds of people on this dating site, social media platform, or at this club. Need to escape the monotony of life for a bit? Try some of this drink or that drug and you’ll be high on life. Feel like you can’t get ahead? Come to Vegas or play the lottery and win big, then you’ll never have to work again. Tired of your difficult marriage that requires commitment before intimacy? Escape into a fantasy world without barriers through pornography, erotic stories, casual sex, or an affair. The world tells us that when the things that promised us happiness begin to fail, we can just look elsewhere for a temporary fix.

And let’s be honest. Some of the world’s suggestions about where we can find happiness might actually satisfy us for a while. We might get some temporary enjoyment from them. We might even experience what we would call true moments of happiness. If this weren’t true, why would anyone pursue these things? But ultimately, everything the world has to offer will fail us in some way. If we put all of our hopes in the things this world has to offer us, we will always wind up disappointed. You see, nothing in this world is made to last, so nothing in this world can bring us lasting happiness. What we need is something not of this world.

 

III. The secret of happiness

The same need for fulfillment, the same desire to find happiness in this life has been part of the human condition since Eden. You see, Adam and Eve were created to walk with God in the Garden of Eden and enjoy intimate fellowship with him. And when they disobeyed God, they not only lost a home, they also lost their connection to God. The relationship was damaged, because Adam and Eve believed they could find happiness in creation, rather than the Creator. And since that time, humanity has continued to experience that sense of loss. We know that God has created us to be happy. We feel it in our bones that we were made for more than what we are. So we fill the moments of our lives with the pursuit of things that we think will restore that sense of fulfillment that is missing.

When Jesus began his public ministry, after his baptism in Jordan river, people immediately began to see something that looked like it could bring some happiness to their dreary lives. Jesus was doing things they had never seen before. He was healing the sick, casting out demons, and easing people’s pain. And get this; instead of preaching a message of condemnation, Jesus was giving the people a message of hope and talking about the coming Kingdom of God. So, they hurried to bring their sick family and friends to Jesus in hopes that he would heal them. And they crowded around him, so they could hear his teaching.

Jesus knew the deepest desires of their hearts. He knew that when they came to him seeking healing and hope, what they were really looking for was true happiness; that sense of well-being and peace and prosperity.

He could have stood on that mountain and given them all the secrets of success according to the world’s standards. He could have been like the other Rabbis and told them that fulfillment could only be found in the Law. He could have simply refused to answer the question in their hearts. He could have disappointed them, like everything and everyone else had done. But Jesus had the answer that so many others had missed. He knew where true happiness can be found. And because he loved the people and had compassion on them he was willing to give it to them straight. Not tricks, no gimmicks, no empty promises. Even though they didn’t realize it themselves, Jesus knew that what the people really needed was the intimacy with God that was lost in the Fall. And so he told them very plainly what they needed to hear.

You will be happy, he said, when you are poor in spirit. Wait, what? Surely that was a slip of the tongue right? You will be happy when you are poor? I bet when people heard that they started mumbling. “I think you got that backwards, Jesus. I’m already poor. I think I’d be much happier if I was rich.” I mean when have you ever seen the words “poor” and “happy” or “blessed” in the same sentence before? Being poor stinks. Nobody wants to experience that feeling of going without something, and sooner or later the poor are always pushed to the edges of society where it becomes even more difficult to escape poverty. And what does it mean to be poor in spirit, anyway? I’m not sure what that means but it can’t be good. What could Jesus possibly mean? Have you ever found yourself asking God these sorts of questions? I’ll bet you have, and I’m sure the people who were gathered to hear Jesus preach were asking these very questions in their hearts.

Maybe it will help to say it a little differently. The New Living Translation of the Bible puts it this way: “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” Let’s read that again. “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

To be poor in spirit means having no confidence in our own talents, our own aptitudes, or our own efforts to fill the void in our lives and provide the happiness we seek. Being poor in spirit means arriving at a place where realize we just can’t make it on our own. Being poor in spirit means re-orienting our self-love toward God, so that he can transform it into his love for others. Being poor in spirit means making ourselves empty of all the things that have taken root in our hearts, so that we might be refilled with the Holy Spirit. Being poor in spirit means becoming humble before God, finally seeing him for who he is and what he has done for us in Christ, and recognizing that he is God and we are not. And no longer having any confidence in themselves, the poor in spirit seek the life that is hidden with Christ in God. When we die to self and find true poverty of spirit, it is then that God is able to bless us with the immeasurable joy that can only be found in him. And it is only then that we begin to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.

So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means dying to self, and turning to God as your only hope, through faith in his one and only Son, Jesus and trusting him to become Lord of your life. To be poor in spirit is to be desperate for God and his will for your life.

 

IV. Application

So how do we become poor in spirit? How do we find the happiness that Jesus promised to those who become so?

It begins with honest self-reflection. It requires us to recognize our own sin and our inability to please God or put right what Adam set wrong. The only way to overcome the pride in our lives and the endless drive to find our own versions of happiness is to realize that we are incapable of finding it on our own.

Second, it requires a willingness to surrender everything to God. Becoming poor in spirit requires us to confess our failed efforts to live successfully apart from God, and ask him to take control.

And this takes faith. Faith is a sure trust and confidence that God loves us and has our best interests at heart. If we don’t trust God and have confidence in him, then we will never be able to give him control of the things we most need to turn over to him; those longings that we keep secret and close to our hearts.

Finally, becoming poor in spirit requires us to become radically dependent upon God. I don’t mean just trusting him when you get in a bind, or maybe doing what he says when it seems to make sense or you can see a benefit. Radical dependence means trusting God to run your life completely, from this day forward, knowing that wherever you go, he is in the driver’s seat.

What would our world, our church, our families look like, if we were all to become radically dependent upon Jesus for fulfillment in this life? What if we were to stop trying to achieve happiness by the world’s standards, and instead started trusting in Jesus to give us a deep and abiding happiness that will last into eternity? What if we were to seek our blessings from our Father the King and his heavenly Kingdom, instead of trying to find them among the rubble of a broken kingdom on earth?

Only after we become poor in spirit, dependent upon God for all that we are, will we begin to experience true happiness in this life. And once we surrender everything to him and begin living as citizens of his kingdom, he will make us able to pursue the things of lasting value that only he can give us. We must embrace poverty, if we want to experience the true riches of the kingdom of God.

Over the next few weeks, we will be hearing more from Jesus about the things that bring true happiness. Every one of his statements confronts the lies of our culture. Every one of his promises challenges our assumptions. And every single blessing that Jesus pronounced over the people begins with this: Happy is the one, who is poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, you have given us so many blessings in this life. You bless us with life and love and purpose. You bless us with sunshine and rain, with clothes to wear and food to eat. And you blessed us beyond measure, when you sent your Son Jesus to live with us as a man, to die on a cross as payment for our sins, and to rise again in victory over sin and death. Father, would you send your Spirit now upon us, and teach us what it means to become poor in spirit, radically dependent upon you as our source of true happiness? And would you fill us up to overflowing with your love, so that our happiness might spill over to become a blessing to all those we meet. We ask this is Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Therefore Go

therefore-go

“Therefore Go”
Matthew 28:11-20

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

 

I. Introduction

At the beginning of Matthew 28, we encountered the two Mary’s as they made their way on Sunday morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried on Friday. They were expecting to find the tomb sealed and spend a few grieving moments with their teacher, but what they found instead was a group of Roman guards scared stiff, the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance, and an angel, who calmed their fears, telling them not to be afraid, but to look and see for themselves that Jesus had risen, just like he told them he must do.

Once they had seen the empty tomb for themselves, he didn’t let them linger in their grief. Instead, the angel told the women to go and tell Jesus’ disciples what they had seen. They took off immediately to do what the angel commanded and ran right into Jesus himself, and when they recognized who it was they had found, they bowed down and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Go and tell my brothers.” And just like that, they were off again to spread the good news that Jesus is alive.

Did you hear what happened there? The women received two sets of instructions on that Easter morning, which they followed to the letter. Both Jesus and the angel, who might have given them any number of important orders that day, commanded them, as witnesses to the resurrection, to very simply “Go!” This morning, I’d like for us to spend a few minutes talking about what happened next.

 

II. Recognizing Jesus Leads to a Choice

Now, it is easy to gloss over this next section of Matthew 28, because it deals with minor Biblical characters, but doing so means we miss something important to the story. And frankly, I’m always curious about what happens to the characters we meet along the way. With everything going on surrounding the resurrection, have you ever stopped to ask yourself what happened to the Roman soldiers who had been guarding the tomb?

The empty tomb comes with an imperative for all those who witness its miracle; once we recognize that Jesus is the risen Lord, we each have to decide what to do with that knowledge. The guards were witnesses, just like the two Mary’s and, later, the disciples. And without their story, we might not realize that not everyone responds to Jesus in the same way. In fact, people always respond to the resurrection in one of two distinct ways, and they might not be as simple as you would think. The responses aren’t as clear-cut as belief and unbelief. But our reading this morning from the second half of Matthew 28 paints a picture of the two options available to us.

The Roman soldiers represent the first of two choices. These men had an unmistakable encounter with the angel, who frightened them so badly that the Bible says they became “like dead men”. Now remember, these men were part of the fiercest military of their time. They weren’t prone to experiencing fear, and admitting what had happened could have had serious consequences for them. They could have kept the incident quiet to save their reputations, but they chose instead to tell the chief priests what had occurred. They took a huge chance by sharing an extraordinary story with people who were not likely to believe them.

They started off so well, didn’t they? The soldiers immediately went and testified to what they had seen, just like the Mary’s did with the disciples. But when they met with opposition to their testimony, the first thing they did was bury their story, accepting a bribe for their silence. Their encounter with the truth of who Jesus is should have given them the confidence to proclaim what they had seen, even in the face of conflict. But the slightest pressure caused them to alter their course. By contrast, when the Mary’s met with skepticism from the disciples, they continued to believe what they knew to be true – that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Meeting with opposition didn’t alter their course, and their words were ultimately proven to be true when Jesus appeared the disciples.

I wonder if the difference is that the Mary’s knew Jesus, whereas the soldiers merely knew about him? The Mary’s had a relationship with Jesus, but the soldiers – even though they saw the angel and the empty tomb – had never met Jesus himself.

How often do we start off on the right foot, excited to tell people about what Jesus has done for us, but then come up short when we meet with a bit of resistance? How often do we remain silent, because we have accepted bribes offered by this world? How many of us fail to witness to the good news of Jesus, because we don’t really know him; instead we just know about him?

There is a second option available to us when we recognize Jesus as the risen Lord, and the disciples represent this choice.

The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t mention the encounter between the disciples and the women who visited the tomb and found Jesus alive, but you can read about it in the other gospels. What is important about that exchange is that the disciples didn’t initially accept the women’s testimony as true. In fact, they thought they had gone crazy in their grief. But because they had a relationship with Jesus and had seen him do miraculous things in the past, they were willing to take an uncertain step forward, even in their doubt. Jesus had instructed the women to tell his disciples to go ahead of him to Galilee, where they would see him for themselves. Even though they thought these women were out of their minds, they went to Galilee as Jesus instructed and waited with what I would guess was a mixture of hope and despair, until Jesus arrived and transformed their despair into joy.

The Bible says that when they saw Jesus, his disciples worshipped him. Now, we have to be careful not to rush past this. These men were God fearing Jews, who believed that only God is worthy of worship, and who would never bow to anyone but Yahweh. So, when they saw Jesus, who had been crucified and buried, standing before them, they recognized him for who he was – God incarnate.

But that doesn’t mean that every one of the disciples was instantly on the same page, does it? It appears that seeing Jesus isn’t enough for some people. Notice the Bible says that some doubted, even when they were face-to-face with Jesus. In fact, they were worshipping him, like we are doing today, and still they doubted. Knowledge of Jesus, even witnessing his miracles first-hand, is sometimes not enough to convince people to follow him.

But also notice that Jesus didn’t say to the disciples, “those of you who are without doubts go…” No, he commissioned all of them, every last one, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to raise up disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey his commands. You see, God is not threatened by our doubts; rather, he answers our doubts by giving us himself. When Thomas doubted, Jesus showed himself and invited Thomas to see his wrists and touch his side. In the face of doubters in Matthew 28, Jesus tells them that all authority has been given to him, and surely he will be with them to the end of the age. In both cases, Jesus remedied doubt with his very presence, and he still does so today. So, if you are a doubter this morning, whether you doubt that Jesus can really overcome your sin and make you new, or whether you doubt whether or not your faith is sufficient you are in good company. But you don’t have to worry; because you can turn to Jesus and he will supply you with the faith you need to take that next step in following him. God is not afraid of skeptics. In fact, he has a habit of uses them in mighty ways for his kingdom. Just look at the Apostle Paul, who murdered Christians in God’s name, but was forever changed, when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus and became a missionary and martyr, because of his faith. God is not afraid of skeptics, because he knows that every encounter with Jesus leads to an opportunity and a choice.

The choice is this: either believe and proclaim the good news that Jesus is the risen Lord, or reject him and bury the truth. We have to choose one or the other; there is no middle way. Either proclaim or keep silent. And the choice hinges on who or what is sitting on the King’s throne in our lives. The Soldiers were commanded to keep silent by the chief Priests and obeyed them; Jesus commanded the disciples to go and proclaim the good news, and we are here today because they listened and obeyed. Proclamation means Jesus is Lord. Silence means he isn’t. It is up to us to decide which king we will take orders from.

 

III. Found People Find People

The truth is that we all know what Jesus has commanded us to do, don’t we. We all know that Christ calls us to pick up our cross and follow him into the highways and byways of life, seeking out those who are far from him. I would be very surprised to find out that this is the first time someone here has heard that Jesus expects them to tell other people about him. Our problem is not knowledge. Our real problem is complacency. You see, the church has been caught up in cultural lie of late. We have been told that we just need to follow Jesus’ other commandments and come to church on Sundays, and the world will see our witness and flock to the church for healing and salvation. But it doesn’t look to me like people are rushing to our churches for answers to life’s questions and a sense of belonging. In fact, the world seems pretty content to find those things elsewhere.

The problem isn’t that the world doesn’t need Jesus; it does. The problem is that they need Jesus to meet them where they are, just like we needed him to meet us where we were when we were still lost in our sins. So, maybe we should consider carefully that the last instructions that Jesus gave to his disciples were not “sit and wait,” but rather “go and make”.

Friends, the empty tomb places an imperative on our lives. We must choose which voice we will listen to; the one that says bury the truth, or Jesus’ voice that says “therefore go.” There is no halfway gesture that will suffice. There is no middle way. You cannot be a fully devoted follower of Jesus and say no to becoming his witness. In fact, there is a word the Bible uses for those who try to find a middle path between knowing Jesus and doing what he says. Jesus calls these people “lukewarm”, and in Revelation 3 he warns a lukewarm church that their time is almost up. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” When the church is unwilling to give testimony to the good news of Jesus, he will find someone else who is willing. I don’t know about you, but at the end of my life I don’t want to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.” I want to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” But how can I be faithful, if I don’t obey his last command to go?

 

IV. Common Objections

So, if the scripture mandate is for disciples of Jesus to go and find the lost, then why do we struggle with it so much? Why do most of us find it so difficult to tell other people about Jesus and invite them to church? And it really is “most of us” that have a problem sharing. I’d like to take a moment to share some recent statistics about “unchurched” people in America and the church’s response to them.[1]

  • According to surveys, “Eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited.” –Dr. Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door
  • “A study including more than 15,000 adults revealed that about two-thirds are willing to receive information about a local church from a family member and 56 percent from a friend or neighbor. The message is clear that the unchurched are open to conversations about church.” – Philip Nation, LifeWay Research
  • A survey from LifeWay Research “showed that many would respond to an invitation from a friend or acquaintance (41 percent), their children (25 percent) or an adult family member (25 percent).” –Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research

Yet the same research found that:

  • 7 out of 10 unchurched people have never been invited to church in their whole lives.
  • “Only two percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church. Ninety-eighty percent of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year.” –Dr Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door

If we applied these statistics to a church of 200, that would mean only 4 people from the entire congregation will invite an unchurched person to church this year. Friends, these numbers are troubling, but we don’t have to be a statistic. We have an opportunity each and every day to be faithful servants of Jesus, instead, by simply telling people about what he has done in our lives and inviting them to church. We just have to get past the barriers that hold us back. And I find that the biggest obstacles we face can be summed up in a few common objections that I have heard when people are challenged to share their faith. Have you ever thought or spoken any of these?

  1. It’s someone else’s job. Maybe the pastor or full-time missionaries or the mission team. I think this objection is a product of our overly busy lives. We have convinced ourselves that only professional religious people have the time to share their faith. This is a trap that many well meaning Christians fall into, especially in our country, where we have the financial means to send support to “other people” who are engaging in evangelistic work. Just the other day I was listening to an advertisement for WBGL’s pledge drive in Terre Haute. They played a call from a listener who was so excited to be giving to the radio station, since she works full-time and doesn’t have the free time to go on a mission trip or engage in other outreach ministries. I’m sure her heart was in the right place, but she has bought into the lie that we are too busy for Jesus to send us. It’s someone else’s job.
  2. The second objection I have heard over and over is this. I can just be a good Christian, and people will eventually ask my why I am different. OK, let’s be really honest with each other and ourselves this morning. When is the last time someone approached you while you were minding your own business and said, “Wow! You are so different from other people. Tell me what you have that I don’t, so I can have it too”? If this has happened to you, then you are one of the few, because it isn’t common. It is important to become friends with non-Christians, so that we can show them the love of Jesus and earn the right to be heard, but it is a rare thing, indeed, for a non-Christian to simply observe something different in a Christian and ask what it is.
  3. Have you ever heard this next objection? I don’t want to impose my views on other people. As a sports fan and a voter, I find this one a little hard to swallow. Am I right? For those of you who don’t know, I am not an Indiana native. I moved to Indiana from Kentucky, with my wife, Sarah and our two kids last summer. And since our move, I have yet to meet a single Colts fan who didn’t lament the fact that I root for the Pittsburgh Steelers and try to convert me. In fact, our first week here, some friends from our church brought us a DVD about the history of the Colts organization in the hopes that we would give them a shot. And let’s get really honest here. It only takes the mention of a politician’s name in a crowded room to very quickly demonstrate that people are quite willing to impose their political views upon one another. If it isn’t a problem for us to share our views on other things that are important to us, why then do we find it so difficult to share our views on the most important subject in the entire universe?
  4. The next objection has a bit more weight behind it. I can’t talk about it at work. The fact is that most of us spend more time at work than anywhere else, and there are real restrictions in many workplaces against proselytizing. But more often than not, I think we find this an easy excuse. Employers have no control over what you say at lunch, so why not invite some coworkers to lunch and get to know them. Or spend some time with them outside of works hours. Build some friendships with people who don’t go to church, and look for opportunities to love them and to share what Jesus has done in your life. When we do these things, the workplace becomes a wonderful place for us to share our faith, because it puts us in regular contact with people we might not otherwise meet. And, at the end of the day, it is time for us to consider which is more important, our jobs or our witness. There may come a day when we have to make that choice, and we should prepare for that today.
  5. The fifth objection might be the most difficult to overcome. I don’t know what to say. I think most of us get stuck here, more than anywhere else. We simply don’t know how to share our faith and, rather than take a risk that we might make a mistake or be thought foolish, we simply say nothing. We are not the first people to be concerned about what we should say. In fact, thee disciples were worried about this too. Jesus knew this, and in Luke 21 he comforted them by telling them that, although some of them would be arrested and taken before governors and kings on account of him, they should not worry. He said, “But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” And Jesus can do the same for us today if we will trust in him to give us the words we need, at the appropriate time, to share our faith.

I have heard all of these objections, but I suspect one of the biggest reasons we find it difficult to share our faith is because our faith simply isn’t big enough, and we are afraid we will fail. I came across a quote this week that challenged me to consider how we should use the faith we have, no matter how small or weak: “Don’t let the size of your gift keep you from giving it away.” Think about the young boy with his loaves and fishes in John 6. This must have seemed like too small a gift to give in the face of such a tremendous need. Yet, when he surrendered his meager offering, Jesus was able to multiply it to feed thousands. What if we were to surrender whatever meager offering of faith we have to Jesus and ask him to multiply it? With even the smallest faith – the size of a mustard seed – God can move mountains. With the smallest faith, surrendered lovingly to him, Jesus can reach thousands with the good news of salvation and eternal life.

 

V. Application

Friends, we are all out of excuses, when it comes to obeying the Great Commission. Sharing your faith is as simple as telling someone over lunch what God is doing in your life. Sharing your faith is as easy as inviting a friend or acquaintance to church. Sharing your faith is as straightforward as offering grace, where condemnation is the norm. It’s as uncomplicated as being generous and unselfish. It’s as counter-cultural as loving the unlovable, being available instead of overcommitted, and being filled with hope in a world without it. Sharing your faith doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does have to become part of our DNA, if we would be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed everything, so that we might have a faith that saves us by grace.

The Great Commission is a mandate, not an option. If we are not actively seeking to do what Jesus commanded, then we are not truly the church. And what the world needs now, more than anything else, is for the true Church to be the Church.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you never stopped pursuing us, when we were caught in our sins. We thank you that you sent your Son, Jesus, to proclaim the good news of your kingdom, to die on the cross in our place, and to set us free to follow you in faith. Would you help us now to develop a vision for reaching the lost people in our community, who you so dearly love? Would you break our hearts for the broken-hearted all around us? And would you teach us how to share our faith openly and compel us to go into the world in the name of Jesus? For it is in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

[1] http://backtochurch.com/participate/resources/statistics

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Sermon: From Tombs to Temples

tombs-to-temples

“From Tombs to Temples”
Matthew 28:1-10

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

 

I. Introduction

Have you ever experienced something disappointing in your life? Have you ever felt defeated by some event or unrealized hope? Maybe you took a test that you spent hours preparing for, only to find out that you didn’t make the grade. Maybe you worked your tail off, but still didn’t get that promotion you were hoping for at work. Maybe you were part of a winning team, or a fan of one, that suddenly lost its title game. I can identify with that last one this morning. As many of you know, I’m a huge UK basketball fan. And after an unprecedented season, they lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four last night. I can tell you that, although many of you here are thrilled at that news, I experienced some real disappointment at the final buzzer.

That might seem like a trivial example for you. Maybe your disappointment comes from something more personally devastating, like the loss of a home, or a job, or your health, or a loved one. Whatever your story, it is probably safe to say that most of us here have experienced what it means to feel defeated in this life.

So I think we can all understand how the two Mary’s must have felt that morning when they approached the tomb where Jesus had been buried. Like the twelve, they had pinned all of their hopes on Jesus and the kingdom of God that he preached. And when he was taken from them so suddenly, the grief and sense of loss must have been difficult to bear. Jesus’ closest disciples were conspicuously absent this morning, too. They were hiding, afraid for their own lives after what had transpired. They were just trying to figure out what to do next, and this left the women outside the circle for the moment. They probably needed something, anything to hold onto in their despair. And so they returned to the tomb that morning to be close to Jesus, even in death.

I can only imagine what it must have been like when the ground began to shake. I have to wonder how they reacted when they saw the Roman guards unable to move in their fright. And the angel – every time the Bible mentions an angel appearing it evokes fear in those who see it. No wonder the guards couldn’t move. It’s no surprise, then, that his first words to the women were, “don’t be afraid.” Angels are always sent as messengers in the Bible, though, and this one was no exception. But the message he carried was the most profound that had ever been delivered. Jesus has risen; he isn’t here. The tomb is empty!

I can imagine all of the despair that the women carried in with them that morning disappearing in an instant. Was it too much to hope that the message was true? Maybe the angel sensed their hesitation, so he invited them to come and see for themselves where Jesus had lay. Then he sent them out to proclaim the good news of what they had seen with their own eyes. Overcome with joy, they rushed to tell the disciples the message they had received, and ran right into Jesus himself. And as they fell to his feet and worshipped him, he spoke the same words of comfort and hope they had just received from the angel: do not fear, go and tell the disciples what you have seen. Their despair now replaced with joy, the women went away at once to tell the disciples what they had seen.

 

II. Why do we celebrate the empty tomb?

Since that day two thousand years ago, people have continued to shake off their fear and have gone out into uncertain places to testify to the good news that Jesus Christ is risen, and the tomb is empty. But why do we still commemorate this event, so many years later? Why do we focus so intently on the resurrection? Why do we still talk about the empty tomb?

The Bible exists to tell us the story of humanity and our relationship to God. We learn from its pages that God created all things, and everything he created was good in his eyes. He made the heavens and the earth, every kind of plant, and every kind of creature. And he created mankind in his own image to rule the earth as stewards of creation. Because of his love for us, he gave the first man and woman freedom to chose whether or not they would return his love. And he gave them a single command as a way for them to exercise that free choice. Adam and Eve believed they could rule better on their own, and so they reached out for knowledge and power that they couldn’t possibly grasp, and their rebellion invited sin into the world, and an inclination toward choosing sin over God has been passed down from generation to generation. And we still see the effects of sin all around us. In fact, sin is so pervasive that the Bible says that every single one of us has sinned and fallen short of God’s measure of holiness. There is no part of our lives that has not been touched by sin in some way. We have become slaves to our selfish desires, and we continually choose things that are temporary and fleeting over things that are eternal. And when we do, we worship created things in the place of our Creator.

Left to our own devices, humanity would have spiraled out of control almost immediately, when Adam rejected God’s best for him. We would have become little more than beasts, the image of God completely destroyed in us. But God stepped in to halt our out-of-control plunge into darkness. Even as he punished Adam and Eve for their disobedience by casting them out of the garden and subjecting them to decay and death, he continued to sustain them by his grace.

But we still have a problem. Because the stain of sin covers each of us, we can do nothing to repair our relationship with God. Nothing we do, no matter how good it might seem, can ever return us to that state of righteousness that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall. And while God’s grace points us toward God, we still have the problem of guilt to deal with, because we are guilty of breaking God’s law.

But the Bible also tells us that God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son into the world as the man Jesus, who demonstrated for us what true holiness looks like, and who received the punishment for sin in our place on the cross, in order to remove our guilt and to purchase freedom for us from sin and death.

The Apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 3. “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

When God raised Jesus from the dead, it proved that he was who he said he was, and that he accomplished the work that he came to do. So, when we remember and celebrate the empty tomb today, we testify to the truth that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, and no other, and that it is freely offered to anyone who believes and trusts in him.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul instructs the church to remember this good news he had preached to them, and to which they had held firm. Of all the things he had taught them, this one thing was the most important. Without it, he said the Corinthians would have believed in vain. “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Paul went on to say that if Christ wasn’t really raised from the dead, then any faith we have is futile. But because he has been raised, we have the promise and hope of resurrection ourselves. When we receive the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus, we become children of God and heirs to all of his promises. And what he has promised us is eternal life with him in the new creation, where sin and death no longer have any presence or power.

 

III. Exchanging tombs for temples

The resurrection isn’t just good news for the future, though. There is so much more to salvation that waiting for eternity to come. The empty tomb has real and powerful consequences right now, for those receive Jesus as Lord by faith. When we turn our lives over to Jesus, he is able to make us new creatures, even in this life. He is able to take what is broken and dirty and make it whole and clean. He is able to take our sinful desires and transform them into holy desires. He is able to produce true righteousness in us, without which, we are told, we cannot see God. Now what does this mean?

In Jesus’ days there was a group of people who thought they were righteous because they belonged to Israel and obeyed the letter of the written Law. The Pharisees observed all of the right festivals, they avoided all of the things prohibited by the law, and they obeyed all the rules. But they had become so focused on the outward expression Law and its protection, that they had begun to demand more of people than God intended. They began to focus on the Law itself as life giving, and they had missed the heart of the Law in the process. They had mistaken the gift for the Giver.

And because of this, in Matthew 23:27 Jesus said to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” The Pharisees had the appearance of doing all the right things necessary, in order to be declared righteous, but their hearts were corrupt, and so they had missed the true righteousness that can only come by faith.

God’s commandments have been established to help us maintain our relationship with him, but God does not just want people who will adhere to a set of rules. He wants people with transformed hearts. And this can only happen when we receive God’s gift of grace, through faith in Jesus.

The Bible says that when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead we will be saved. That salvation is for the future, yes, but it is also for the present. In the moment we receive Christ into our lives, and commit to following him wherever he leads us and to doing the things he tells us to do, he sends us his helper, the Holy Spirit, who lives with us and works to transform us into the holy people God desires for us to be. Those who are in Christ are a new creation, and Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that we become living temples for God. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” When we place our trust in Jesus and believe in him, he is able to take all of the junk in our lives and wash us clean.

Because Jesus overcame the tomb, he can transform our whitewashed tombs into temples for the Holy!

 

IV. Application

But transformation can only come when we have first received the freedom from sin and the fear of death that God offers us by faith in Jesus. This is a free gift from God, but it must be received in faith.

Maybe you are here this morning and you’ve just been trying to hold everything together on the surface, but deep down you feel trapped by your circumstances or the decisions you’ve made. Maybe things look like they are going great in your life to anyone who is looking, but you feel desperate on the inside. If this is you, God can give you freedom from the need to pretend that things are OK. He hasn’t promised us that everything will be perfect in this life, once we follow him. But he has promised that he will walk through life with us, and give us strength and peace for the journey. You don’t have to walk through this life alone. We were made to live in a relationship with God, and he is calling out to you this morning, begging you to return to him.

But maybe things are going pretty well for you right now. Maybe you aren’t really struggling with anything. Maybe life’s good. I’m willing to bet that plenty of you here today don’t feel like you are in need of rescue at the moment. God has given us so many good gifts in this life, and we should give him thanks and praise. But where will you be when trouble comes? Where does your hope rest? Are you counting on your current blessings to carry you through, or are you grounded in faith? Because sooner or later trouble finds all of us. We know this is true, don’t we? And when you try to weather the storms of life by leaning on earthly blessings, you’ll find that nothing can satisfy. Don’t make the error of mistaking God’s blessings for God himself. Everything in this life is temporary, but life with God is eternal. The Bible warns us to see God first and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to us. But Jesus must become a first priority in your life if you hope to persevere.

Maybe you are here this morning because your family begged you to come, or because you felt obligated, because it’s Easter, but you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, and you aren’t sure you need one. If this is you, I’m glad you’re here today. Maybe you’ve been in church your whole life, but you realize this morning that you haven’t ever taken that first step of faith, to trust in Jesus for your salvation today and in the future. Or maybe you came this morning, because you always come to church on Sunday. Maybe you received Jesus as your Lord and Savior years ago, but right now you feel the Spirit tugging on your heart, telling you that your priorities have gotten mixed up. Wherever you are on this journey of life, whatever your past looks like, and whatever your struggles at the moment, you can find freedom from your burdens today.

Because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we can have freedom from guilt and sin in this life. Because the tomb is empty, Jesus can take our whitewashed tombs and exchange them for temples. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we can experience new life right now in him. All we have to do is receive it by faith.

As we close this morning, I’d like to ask everyone to bow your heads and close your eyes for just a minute. I’d like you to take a moment to pray to God quietly in your heart. Maybe this is the first time you’ve ever prayed. Maybe you talk to God all the time. It doesn’t matter where you think you are spiritually, I want you to take a chance and pray this simple prayer right now.

Jesus, what do you want me to do with what I just heard? What is God speaking to your heart right now? Is he calling you to believe in Jesus for the first time? Is he telling you that everything will be all right if you’ll just trust him? Is he showing you something that you need to turn over to him, in order to set your priorities right? Whatever it is, don’t ignore it. The tomb is empty, Jesus is alive, and he offers each of us new life in him, if we’ll only believe.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you love us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die on a cross in our place. We thank you for the empty tomb, which proves that Jesus was who he said he was, and that we can trust him to complete the work he has begun in us. We thank you most of all for your gift of freedom from sin and death that is freely given to anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord. Thank you Jesus for who you are. We love you! And it’s in your name we pray. Amen.

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Sermon: Mistaken Identity

mistaken-identity

“Mistaken Identity”
Luke 19:29-41

29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.

 

Download Sermon Study Guide

I. Introduction

The day had finally arrived. After three years traveling with his disciples and teaching them about the kingdom of God, Jesus was about to enter into Jerusalem for the last time. From the moment he called the first disciples, he had been steadily revealing God’s plan to all those who would listen. He had been a voice in the wilderness crying out for God’s people to return to their Father’s house, through repentance and faith. He taught that the heart of the Law is love, first of God and then of one another. He taught that greatness comes by way of service. He confirmed that God desires mercy over sacrifice. He told people to do insane things like loving their enemies and withholding judgment. He challenged them with parables about the Kingdom of God, and confronted their culture by demonstrating how faith and action work hand in hand.

He had also performed many miracles in these last months. He had healed the lame, he had cured lepers, he had restored sight to the blind, he had fed thousands with nothing more than a handful of bread and fish, he had walked on water, he had calmed storms, he had cast out demons with a word, he had raised the dead back to life, and he had even forgiven sins. But one thing more remained for him to do, in order to fulfill his Father’s mission.

 

II. Jesus was mistaken for a different kind of king

But, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, he did so knowing that even his most faithful disciples, the twelve, didn’t fully understand what he had come here to do. Even though he had told them several times before what must come to pass, they were unable to comprehend what it would mean. He had told them before that the Son of Man must die and be raised again to life. He had told them that his kingdom was not of this world. But as they approached the city, he sent two ahead to find the colt that he would ride, and they remembered the prophecy of Zechariah: “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” I suspect that, in this moment, the disciples wondered if what Jesus told them was a mistake; that things wouldn’t work out as badly as he said they would. And, as if to confirm their suspicions, the people of the city welcomed him with cries of adoration. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Surely Jesus must be wrong, then. He was entering the city as a hero, not a criminal. Surely, he would restore Israel and rule Jerusalem. Surely things would turn out better than he expected. They couldn’t foresee how the week would end in Jesus’ death on a cross.

The problem, you see, is that the disciples had mistaken Jesus for the wrong sort of king, and they weren’t the only ones to do so. The Jewish people had developed high expectations for Messiah – who he would be, and what he would do. And, even though Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, they still believed he was the leader they were looking for. So when he entered the city to the fanfare of the crowds, it was because he was entering with a mistaken identity.

  1. Some people mistook Jesus for a great military leader from King David’s line. He was from David’s line, for sure, but he came as a shepherd, not a warrior. He came to seek lost sheep, not to fight battles.
  2. Some people mistook Jesus for a religious sage, who would rule with earthy wisdom, like Solomon. He did come with wisdom, it’s true, but it was the wisdom of the cross, which Paul tells us is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)”
  3. Some, like Judas, mistook Jesus for a rebel, who would use subterfuge to overthrow Caesar. But Jesus openly proclaimed the truth and grace of God’s coming kingdom, casting light on the dark places, not hiding in them.

It seems that each person had his or her own notion of who Jesus really was, and what his arrival at Jerusalem would bring. Even those who didn’t believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah mistook him for someone else. The Pharisees thought he was just a teacher with dangerous ideas, who was encouraging civil unrest by allowing the people to treat him like the King. Israel’s political situation was already bad enough, without this maniac strutting around acting like Caesar. They wanted to protect their way of life, and this Jesus was doing things that would bring trouble down on all of their heads. They wanted Jesus to stop the crowds from chanting his name, suggesting he should control his followers better.

But there was a common mistake made by all those who were with Jesus as he entered the city that day. Each of them, when they looked at Jesus, mistook him for an earthly king. But Jesus is not an earthly king; he is the King of Kings. His reign is cosmic in scope, and his kingdom will never end. He didn’t come to rule a nation, but to set all nations free. He didn’t come to gain more subjects, but to welcome more daughters and sons to his Father’s house. He didn’t come to win a battle against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. He didn’t come for his own glory, but for the glory of the Father in Heaven. So, when the Pharisees attempted to quell the crowd, Jesus pointed out that, when the king of the universe passes by all of creation knows it, even if some have chosen to remain blind to it.

Even today, we sometimes mistake Jesus for a different sort of king, don’t we? We see him as little more than a moral example to follow, and we believe that we can earn God’s approval by just doing the sorts of things Jesus did. We see him as gentle Jesus, offering endless love to sinners, but we forget that he is also a holy God, who demands righteousness and a total transformation of our hearts. I wonder how often we fail to remember that this Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator of all things?

 

III. We have mistaken ourselves for kings

Our bigger problem, though, is not that we don’t recognize Jesus for who he truly is. At some level I think we all know and understand that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. Our real problem is that we fail to honor him as Lord in our lives. The people of Jerusalem wanted to honor Jesus as an earthly king and put him on an earthly throne. We don’t even want to go that far, anymore, let alone invite him to take up residence as king over our hearts and actions. In fact, too often, we simply dethrone Jesus entirely, because we have mistaken ourselves for kings and queens in his place. We have enthroned our own needs and desires above all else, and we have become a people, who often answer to no one, but our own inner voice.

Now, this may sound a bit melodramatic. I mean, most of us here are faithful followers of Jesus, right? We earnestly seek to become more like him, and we have confessed him as our Lord and Savior. We know from the Bible that we are all sinners, in need of a savior. And we know that Jesus died on the cross in our place as a penalty for our sin. We know that God has promised us that when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead we will be saved. Doesn’t that make him our king and us his loyal subjects?

Friends, confession is only the first step in Jesus’ coronation as king. It is enough to save us from an eternity in Hell, but it is not sufficient to bring Heaven on earth. You see, like any monarch, Jesus is king whether we acknowledge him or not. Confession simply expresses that truth. But until his sits fully on the throne in our lives, and we begin to do the things he commands, he is not really our king, is he? If his word does not command our allegiance and our action, then he is not really our Lord. So often, many of us settle for a puppet ruler in our lives. We like the Jesus that we can control, who maybe asks us to change a bit, but not so much that it will hurt. We are OK with a ruler who wants us to give up some of our time and money to a good cause, but we draw the line when he asks us to surrender our lives. We are far too comfortable with the kingdoms we have constructed around ourselves that provide us with temporary peace, leisure, and financial security. We don’t want to give these up, because, frankly, they make for a nice place to live. But in Christ we are called to step out of the comfortable, but ultimately fleeting, kingdoms of this world and into God’s heavenly kingdom that will last. And the only way we can fully make that transition is to step off the throne ourselves, and invite Jesus to take up permanent residence as the one and only Lord in our lives.

What we need is the return of the king!

 

IV. The Return of the King

In the ancient world, whenever Caesar returned to a citadel, the people who lived there under his rule would rush to meet him outside the city gates. They would fall at his feet and begin shouting his praises and victories. “Hail, Caesar!” they would say. And then they would usher the king back into the city, where he would take up residence and assume authority over all the people. Does this sound familiar? That is exactly what the people of Jerusalem were doing with Jesus, because they thought he was there to replace Caesar. But, in order for the people to welcome their king, they first had to take the risk of opening the city gates. This was a risk, because it left them open to attack from the outside, and it meant giving up complete control of the city to their Lord. Every time the gates were thrown open to welcome a ruler there was a real possibility that the wrong kind of sovereign would enter to take the throne. You see, when the king who comes to the city is a wicked king, a pretender, the people always suffer under his rule. But, when the king who comes to the city is a good and wise king, the people always prosper under his care. Only under the authority of a genuine king can people experience true peace and fulfillment. Likewise, we will only experience peace and restoration when we return the one true King to his rightful place in our lives.

So, like a city in the ancient world, we need to be sure about the character of the king we are inviting to take residence on the throne in our lives. There was once a great preacher named S. M. Lockridge, who delivered a sermon with the aim of answering the question of who King Jesus really is, and I would like for us to hear a bit of that now.

*I showed a licensed version of this video. You can purchase a copy at ignitermedia.com.

 

V. Application

That’s my king, and he is worthy! Jesus is the only king I want to welcome into my life. He is the only one I trust enough to open up the gates of my heart. But, despite the fact that I have asked Jesus to be the King of my life, and seek to follow him faithfully, I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I still allow a pretender to sit on the King’s throne. In fact, I allowed it to happen this week. His name is Pride, but he masquerades as self-sufficiency. You see, I convinced myself this week that I could handle everything on my plate by myself, even though I knew the week would be shorter, because of spring break. I convinced myself that, even with folks I depend on being out of town for vacation, business, or family responsibilities, I would be just fine. I can cover for everyone, no problem. I’ve got this. And pride let me go on thinking that, even as I began to run out of time to complete the work at hand, even as I struggles to maintain the energy I needed, even as I began to cut corners in my devotional life. Self-sufficiency would have allowed me to run myself into the ground in an inglorious fashion, because Pride is a terrible ruler to place on the throne. Have you ever found yourself in a situation like this, where, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, you still believed you could handle everything alone, until you finally reached the point of collapse?

I was headed there this week. Those of you who follow my writing on the Internet read about it in an article I posted on my website, and from the number of views it received I can assume that I am not the only one who was struggling with the lie of self-reliance this week. But then I read the words of Jeremiah 3:15 yesterday, and God revealed the pretender I had allowed to sit on the throne. “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” And I realized that God doesn’t want more effort, more productivity, or more results from me. What he desires is for me to have more of Himself in me. He wants me to embrace HIS heart, HIS knowledge, and HIS understanding. Like Paul, his grace must be enough for me. I can’t do it alone; I was never made to rule over myself. I was created to trust in Jesus to rule wisely over me, and it is time to invite the rightful king back onto his throne.

Who or what is sitting on the king’s throne in your life? Is there something that’s holding you back from becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus? If so, you can turn it over to Jesus right now and receive forgiveness and peace and restoration. I’ve allowed false kings to reign in my life for too long now, and I won’t settle for their tyranny anymore. I want to be all in for Jesus, and I can only do that if I allow him to fully take charge of my life. What about you? Are you ready to invite Jesus to take his rightful place as the one true king in your life? Are you ready to cast out the pretenders and puppet kings you have allowed to take control? If so, the process begins when you recognize who Jesus truly is, when you confess that he alone is your savior and Lord, and when you trust that he is a good king and do what he commands.

I would like to close this morning with the words of a great hymn, O Worship the King all glorious above. Let this be our hearts’ cry this morning, as we welcome the king onto the throne in our lives once and for all.

O Worship the King all glorious above

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in you do we trust, nor find you to fail.
Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!

O measureless Might, unchangeable Love,
whom angels delight to worship above!
Your ransomed creation, with glory ablaze,
in true adoration shall sing to your praise!

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give you all glory and honor and praise today, and we recognize you for who you are – the King of Kings, Prince of Peace, and Lord of Lords. As we enter into this Holy Week, would you reveal to us the depths of your love, manifest in your Son Jesus, who for our sake endured the shame of a cross. Would you help us, even now, to open up the gates of our hearts and minds to receive you as our one and only King, and would you teach us to be faithful servants in your kingdom come. We ask all this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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Some Days Just Suck

some-days-suck

I’ll probably get some flak for using that word, but the truth of the matter is that some days really do just plain suck. Even for those of us with a glass-is-half-full mentality, there are some days that start off wrong, get progressively worse, and by the end wind up seeming fit for nothing more than being tossed unceremoniously in the crapper.

I’ll probably get flak for that word too. “Pastor’s shouldn’t talk that way,” they’ll say. But pastors are people, too. And sometimes, we have days that suck.

Take today, for instance. This day’s trajectory is aiming toward a monumentally unsatisfying flush, unless something changes.

The kids are on spring break this week, which for many families is a time of fun and relaxation. We spent a couple of days earlier this week with family, which was great. I enjoyed spending some much needed down time with my wife, kids, and parents. But as anyone with a weekly production schedule knows, unless the production itself is being cancelled, “taking a break” just means cramming all of the same work into fewer hours later on in the week.

Since “Sunday is always coming” for pastors, and I had several other events scheduled before then, I knew that I would have to hustle the remainder of the week, even though I worked on a number of administrative tasks during our short “break”. We cut our down time short, so I could get home early enough to prepare for Wednesday night Bible Study (which was awesome) and I planned to take the entire day today to finish my sermon and a number of other necessary tasks. Remind me to tell you why it is a bad idea to still be writing a sermon the week you plan to preach it. But, I digress…

Yesterday didn’t go as planned. We got home decently early, but as often happens, some things came up that interfered with my work and we wound up rushing to grab some dinner before rushing to Bible study. By the time we got home and the kids were asleep, any hope of finishing the work I had planned for the day were dashed. So, when I went to bed last night, it was with a bit of stress, but mostly hope, about what today would bring. Remember, I am a glass-is-half-full kinda guy.

 

And then it went downhill

Last night was terrible. I didn’t sleep well. I woke up in a lot of pain from a nagging injury that flares up from time to time. My morning schedule got messed up. I waited too long to eat breakfast, and started getting hangry. I couldn’t find my ear buds. I forgot my coffee, when I left home to get some work done. And I watched as the precious few minutes of my morning slipped away, on the one day when I needed to be most productive.

On my way to the place where I am now writing (outside of my home office, because the kids shouldn’t have to be quiet during spring break, just because Daddy works from home) I had a bit of a melt down. It started as a prayer, but then turned into a yelling match with God about how sucky this day is turning out to be, and “why should I have to deal with all this nonsense when I am trying to prepare a sermon and deliver your message to your people?”

You see what I did there? I went from dealing with a crummy day to blaming God for my woes. I’m sorry if you passed me on the road and saw me yelling in my car. It wasn’t pretty, and I am ashamed.

So, why am I sharing my humiliation publicly? Because I know I am not the only one having a sucky day. But I want you to know that God is bigger than your biggest problem. And he is not afraid or offended to hear his people call out to him, even question him, when they are in distress. I believe he welcomes it.

Don’t believe me? Just read the Psalms.

 

How should we respond?

In fact, the Bible is filled with people who cried out to God seeking deliverance, understanding about their situations, and justice when they were at their wits end. God doesn’t only want to hear from us when we are composed and perfect. He wants us to turn to him first, whenever we have a need. But, so often, our first response to a bad situation is to turn inwardly focused, rather than to seek God’s help.

Here are some ways that I have tended to respond to bad situations. Do any of these resonate with you?

  1. Frustration. I can’t believe this is happening to me?
  2. Depression. Things will never get better.
  3. Guilt. My situation isn’t as bad as such-and-such situation. I have no right to feel this upset.
  4. Apathy. I don’t even know why I bother. anymore.
  5. Anger (at God). Why did you let this happen?

I have wrestled with all of these, just this morning. Maybe you have too.

But, God calls us to a better response in the face of negative circumstances. He calls us to faith.

The Apostle Paul gives us a good example of this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.

“In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul was struggling with a less than ideal situation. We don’t know what his specific problem was, but he refers to it as “a messenger from Satan”, so it can’t be good.

But in his turmoil, Paul chose the better way – the way of faith. First, he trusted that God could fix the situation, if he wanted to. And when God’s answer was not to remove the problem, he trusted that God had a bigger plan for him that included the thorn in his flesh. In fact, he trusted God so completely that he began to see his weakness as strength, because of the surpassing power and presence of Jesus in his life.

God does not promise us that he will remove our burdens, when we turn to him, but he does promise to carry them for us. In other words, he may not change our circumstances, but he will always change our hearts, so that we can walk through our circumstances.

 

Trusting God doesn’t mean there won’t be days that suck

God has never promised us lives of bliss, devoid of problems. In fact, Jesus said we will face many troubles in this life (John 16:33). He has instead promised us that his grace is sufficient for even our most difficult situations, if we will turn to him in faith.

You might be having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day today. Like me, your morning might have totally sucked, and it might not get any better. But you alone can control how you will respond.

My first response today wasn’t the best, but thank God that he is a God of second chances. From this moment on, I’m chosing the better way of faith. I’m chosing to trust that God can carry my burdens, and even if he doesn’t change my circumstances, he is walking with me in them.

What about you? Which way will you choose today?

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Sermon: All In

nehemiah

“All In”
Nehemiah 12:27-30

27 At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. 28 The musicians also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem—from the villages of the Netophathites, 29 from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the musicians had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. 30 When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.

 

Download Sermon Study Guide

I. Introduction

I can only imagine how Nehemiah must have felt on the day when the Levites dedicated the wall of Jerusalem. It had been a long journey to this place, and one filled with uncertainty, hard work, and danger. These very walls, which had once protected the city and the Temple from attackers, had been destroyed almost 150 years before; the people of the city driven out to foreign lands. The gates of the city had been burned to the ground, and the Temple had been ransacked and desecrated. Over time, any hope the Israelites might have held onto that they would someday return to their homeland had dwindled, until Ezra the priest and a handful of hopefuls returned to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the Temple. When his efforts were stalled by Israel’s enemies and things were at their bleakest, God raised up Nehemiah, giving him a vision for rebuilding the city walls, so that the people might return in safety and so that the Temple might be rebuilt.

Nehemiah risked his life in order to approach the King of Babylon and ask for his blessing to go to Jerusalem and rebuild. He risked his reputation when he led his ragtag band of Jews to begin building the wall stone by stone, while their enemies mocked them. And he risked the lives of God’s people when he wouldn’t back down to threats of violence from the opposition. But throughout his struggles, Nehemiah placed his confidence in God. He believed that God would fulfill his vision of a rebuilt city, filled with people who would serve God and God alone.

His confidence was well placed. In just fifty-two days the remnant of Israel were able to rebuild the city walls and put up new gates. People began to return from exile to their ancestral homes. Ezra and the priests had read the Law to the people, and the people had confessed their sins to God. Despite all of the opposition they had faced, God’s vision had been fulfilled, and now Nehemiah would witness the dedication of the city walls as a testimony to God’s mighty acts. Oh, how Nehemiah’s soul must have soared.

You see, Nehemiah’s interest in what was going on that day was more than just a passing fancy. He wasn’t just a spectator who happened to come along to see what all the fuss was about. He had been an active part of it. In fact, he had led in this mission from the start. Even more than that, Nehemiah had risked everything to see this day come. He had poured himself heart and soul into accomplishing the task at hand. He had held nothing back in the pursuit of God’s vision for God’s people. He was sold out for God, and as he watched the wall of the city being dedicated in the name of Yahweh, he knew that he, too, was dedicated to God’s vision.

 

II. Dedication means going all in.

But what does it really mean to say that someone is dedicated? What does it mean to be all in for God’s mission and vision? It might be helpful to start with a definition this morning. According to the dictionary, the verb “dedicate” means to:

  1. devote (time, effort, or oneself) to a particular task or purpose.
  2. devote (something) to a particular subject or purpose.

In other words, to dedicate something means to set it apart for special service or to commit it to use by a particular individual for an exclusive purpose.

The Bible has a lot to say about dedication or devotion. In Colossians 4:2, Paul instructs the church to be devoted to prayer. Acts 2:42 says that the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship. Later, in Acts 18 we learn that, when helpers arrived to assist him in ministry, Paul devoted himself to preaching. In 1 Corinthians, Paul praises those who live devoted to the Lord, to his service, and to the apostles. And in Romans 12:10 he pleads with the church to be devoted to one another in love. The Old Testament often refers to people, places, and things as being devoted or dedicated to God. And in each of these cases, one thing is made clear. That which is dedicated must be dedicated to one thing only, because it is impossible to be devoted to two or more things at the same time.

Jesus summed this up well in Matthew, chapter 6. He was speaking to his disciples about money, and the dangers of seeking wealth. He instructed them not to store up temporary treasures on earth, but rather to seek the eternal treasures of heaven. His reason was that people’s hearts are naturally tied to whatever they value as treasure. And he clarified that a person’s heart cannot be tied to competing desires. In verse 24 he said, “24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t allow for half measures. He didn’t say that we can pursue temporal things and eternal things at the same time. No, he indicated that this is impossible, because whatever we devote ourselves to becomes our master. But Jesus also didn’t say that dedication is a bad thing, only that we must be careful what we dedicate ourselves to.

Nehemiah chose the wiser course. Rather than devoting himself to earthly concerns like his position in the palace, his reputation, and even his life, he gave himself completely to God and his vision for Israel. He didn’t hold anything in reserve, but freely and joyfully offered all that he had and all that he was to God to be used for God’s purposes.

I am not an advocate of gambling for a great many reasons, but I do find it interesting to watch really great card players from time to time. Many people call poker a game of luck, but it clearly requires incredible skill and mastery, or the same few people wouldn’t always finish at the top of the world championship games. At any rate, if you have ever watched a game of the World Poker Tour on television, you have likely seen someone get to the point where they decide to lay everything on the line for a single hand of cards, either because they have been dealt a winning hand, or because they believe they can successfully bluff. When this happens, the player pushes all of his or her chips to the center and says, “I’m all in”. They leave nothing in reserve for the next hand, instead committing all their resources to this single play.

Nehemiah followed God like a poker play, who is betting everything on a single hand. He went all in. He was fully committed to God’s vision, and had no backup plans. He was, by our own definition, completely dedicated to the outcome.

 

III. Being all in requires a focused mission & vision

It sounds great to talk about being completely dedicated, right? That sounds like a commendable trait. In fact, we often substitute words like loyalty or passion, when we talk about dedication. But when we hear someone say they are loyal or passionate, the next question we probably ask ourselves is what are you passionate about, or to whom are you loyal? In other words, what is the purpose behind your loyalty or passion? We should ask the same question when we talk about dedication within the church. What good does it do us to say that we are going all in for something, if we don’t know what the purpose, or final goal, is?

Now, I’ve known some people over the years that were enthusiastic about everything, ready to give 100% at all times. Have you ever known someone like that? Think about that guy or girl in high school or college who was “up for anything” or who always seemed to be in the middle of whatever was going on. Maybe you were that person. It can be fun and motivating to be around someone with unbridled enthusiasm, because they bring so much energy to a task. But that sort of unrestrained zeal is more often a hindrance than a help.

Even though a person like that might have passion, they are typically the last sort of person I want to work with on a team. The reason is that, when people have passion without purpose, they tend to run off in all directions. They tend to skip steps that might seem uninteresting or tedious. They are all about being where the action is at, and less about committing themselves to a long-term goal. Passionate people without a purpose tend to flit from one cause to the next when the excitement wears off. They tend to give up too soon, when the going gets tough.

We have a problem with misplaced passion in the church. We have a tendency to look for the project or program with the most excitement, jump in headlong for a while, and then move on to greener pastures when the fun wears off. We tend to withhold our limited resources of time and money and energy for those things that have the most aesthetic appeal, or that we think will have the biggest short-term payoff. This is passion without purpose.

When we seek instead to be purposefully passionate, though, it means we are willing to dedicate ourselves fully to any task, any program, and project of the church, because we know that each step that we take forward gets us closer to a common goal. Purposeless passion is ultimate self-seeking, because it’s objective is continued excitement for the individual. Purposeful passion, on the other hand, is other focused, because it seeks to achieve the goals of the group at the cost of self-fulfillment.

In order to become purposefully passionate, truly dedicated people, we need a clearly defined mission and vision. So, I would like for us to take a few moments this morning to talk about our goal as Jesus’ church. Let’s start with the general, and move to the specific.

  1. Great Commission (Matthew 28). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
  2. United Methodist Church Mission. Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
  3. The Vision of Union United Methodist Church. Praising God. Loving people. Seeking disciples. Serving Jesus.

This is the purpose toward which we need to focus our passion. If we are to live fully into who God has called us to be in Jesus, we must dedicate ourselves to whatever is necessary to achieve these goals. But in order for us to become truly dedicated to our common goal as a church, every person here has to become individually dedicated as well. In other words, each of us has to decide whether or not we are all in. So, are you ready to become fully dedicated to God and his vision for us?

Before you answer, consider this. Becoming fully dedicated to God’s vision might mean serving in a position that you don’t find exciting or fulfilling. It might mean taking part in difficult and thankless work. It might mean making a long-term commitment to doing something that doesn’t show results for months or years. Going all in for God’s vision will definitely mean surrendering your resources to Jesus. It will mean giving of your time, your talents, your energy, your prayers, and even your finances, with no strings attached. For Nehemiah, being dedicated to God’s vision led to uncertainty, mockery, and threats of violence. He was asked to give up everything – his royal position, his comfort, and possibly his life – in order to fulfill his purpose with passion. Why should we expect dedication to require any less of us today?

 

IV. Jesus was all in for us.

You might be questioning whether or not this sounds like a good deal, after all? The truth is, I think most of us know what God expects from us, when we make the claim that Jesus is Lord. We know that Jesus’ desire for us is not that we would become half-hearted groupies, but that we would become fully dedicated disciples, transformed into his image. But when the stresses of life begin to overwhelm us, or when the luxuries of life begin to appeal to us, we often find it easier to take a back seat and let someone else be the dedicated one. Have you ever said any of these things to yourself? I don’t feel led to do that. I’m too old. I’m too young. I’ve already put in my time. Someone else needs to take a turn. I’m too busy. I don’t think it will work. It’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of money. What will I get out of it? It’s just not my thing. Why should I care?

I’ve said some of these things before in my own internal monologue. My guess is that I am not alone. Friends, we know what God desires from us, because he sent Jesus to demonstrate it on a cross. Aren’t you glad that Jesus didn’t say, “I don’t feel like going all in. Let someone else do it. They are a waste of time. They are a waste of resources. They never learn. It won’t work. What will I get out of it?” God desires fully transformed people who love him, who love people, and who are willing to go all in, fully dedicated to serving him, even to death on a cross.

 

V. Application

Becoming fully dedicated to God and his mission has a prerequisite, though, and there is no way around it. We cannot ever be fully dedicated to God and his mission, until we are first found to be in Christ. You see, Nehemiah 12:30 links dedication to purification. Only when we are purified, can we be fully set aside for Jesus, and only Jesus can purify us from the stain of our sins. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” In Christ we are new creatures, who are no longer enslaved to our past lives of sin or present temptations. We are free to go about kingdom work, because we walk with the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power and wisdom we need. In Christ, we are adopted as daughters and sons of God, who are charged with the responsibility and authority of the Father to complete the work he has given us. And what is that work? To seek out those who are far away from him, and to bring them home to the Father’s house. This one thing should be our burning desire, and we must dedicate ourselves to it, if we would continue to call Jesus Lord.

Jesus went all in for us, so we shouldn’t rest until all people are in a relationship with him.

When I reach the end of my life, it won’t matter how much money I made. It won’t matter how many degrees I have from schools. It won’t even matter whether I sat in church every Sunday or read my Bible every day. None of those things will matter, unless Jesus has transformed my heart. And if my heart has really been transformed I will demonstrate it my actions. Everything I do at work, at home, at the store, at a ball game – everything – will point people back to him. Friends, I don’t know about you, but I want to hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” I want to be all in for Jesus, to know that I didn’t hold anything back. I don’t want to rest until all people are in a relationship with him.

There are sometimes many steps between where we now stand, and where Jesus wants to take us. And we are all at different points along that journey. If we you want to become who Jesus has called you to be, you have to take that next step, and then another, and another. Some of them are difficult, but when we take these steps we can do so knowing that Jesus’ journey to the cross was far more difficult, and through him we can have victory. So, what is your next step toward going all in for Jesus? Maybe for you the next step is:

  • A personal relationship with Jesus
  • Baptism
  • Confession of sin to God and a brother or sister in Christ
  • Reading your Bible daily
  • Inviting someone to church
  • Getting involved in a small group
  • Surrendering your finances
  • Reprioritizing your time
  • Volunteering in the church
  • Joining the church
  • Going on a mission trip
  • Sharing your faith with a neighbor

Maybe for you, the next step toward going all in for Jesus is to simply say “yes” to something we are doing as a church. For example, God has blessed us with the joy of many children and youth in our church. But we haven’t done all that we can yet to demonstrate to these kids how important they are to us and to Jesus. So, next month, after Easter has passed, we will be launching a new Children’s Church program for all children, through fifth grade. Our desire is to show our children how much Jesus loves them, to encourage them toward developing a personal relationship with him, and to help them experience church the way that all of us want it to be — a joyful place where they are valued, not for what they can do for us, but for who they have been uniquely created to be in Christ. And let’s not forget our older kids and teens. We want to provide a place for them to worship and learn to follow Jesus, as well. But for this to work, we need your help. We don’t need people who sense that children’s ministry is their whole purpose in life. We’ll take your help, if that’s you. But what we need are fully dedicated followers of Jesus who see these children and teens as God sees them — precious jewels, purchased at a great cost.

We are also taking some new steps as a church toward reaching those in our community who are living far away from God, through works of mercy. This month we started a new mission effort called One Thing. Each month, we will be partnering with an organization in our community or close to our hearts, to meet a tangible need for resources or volunteers. Sometimes, we get too comfortable with writing checks to meet needs. There is always a need for financial assistance, and we should continue to give to those in need, but what this world needs is not more philanthropy — it needs more Christians willing to step out of our church buildings and onto the streets of our neighborhoods and cities. This month, we are collecting much-needed items for the Clay County Food Pantry. But this isn’t just about buying some inexpensive items and calling it a day. At the end of the month we will also send a team to help them stock their shelves. In a church our size, we can make a sizeable difference, if we will just take the next step toward going all in for Jesus and his vision for our church.

Friends, we have so many things warring for our souls, things that would hinder us from becoming fully devoted to Jesus. But he died and was raised again, so that these other things would no longer have power over us. Jesus went all in for us. How can we possibly give him less than everything in return?

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you sent us your Son Jesus, to die in our place, taking our guilt upon himself, and setting us free from bondage to sin and the fear of death. Thank you, Jesus, for not withholding anything from your mission, instead giving everything so that we might become daughters and sons of God. Would you send your Spirit now to us? Would you make us wholly devoted to you and no other? Would you take our hearts and make them new, teaching us to love as you love, and holding nothing back for ourselves? We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Facing Opposition

nehemiah

“Facing Opposition”
Nehemiah 4:1-15

4 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”

3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”

4 Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

10 Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”

11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”

12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”

13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work.

 

Download Sermon Study Guide

I. Introduction

A couple of weeks ago we took a look at Nehemiah’s first days in Jerusalem, as he carefully evaluated the work that needed to be done in order to rebuild the city walls. And we learned from his example what is necessary to build a healthy church that lasts. If you remember, we defined a healthy church as a church that keeps Jesus at the center of all life and worship, that seeks to grow spiritually under the care and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that engages thoughtfully in the Great Commission, so that God the Father will be glorified by our witness.

Nehemiah showed us that building a healthy church requires us to seek God first and trust him to fulfill his purposes in our midst. We talked about what it means to evaluate ourselves honestly, so that we can see clearly what needs to be done. We talked about the importance of understanding and communicating a common vision, and of being willing to take risks. And we learned that, at the end of the day, if we hope to build a healthy church that lasts, we have to get to work. Every member of the body of Christ has been placed by God in our community, has been given unique gifts and abilities, and has a vital role to play in the life of the church.

Nehemiah recognized all of these things, and we read in chapter 2 that he was able to communicate God’s vision to the people of Jerusalem and organize them together to do the work of rebuilding the city walls. But the Jews faced many difficult obstacles to their success. Some of their challenges came from the work itself, which was difficult and dangerous. But some of their biggest challenges came in the form of opposition from their enemies.

You may recall at the end of chapter 2 that when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard about Nehemiah’s plans and saw that the Jews were getting to work on the city walls they mocked them, and even accused the Jews of rebelling against the king? And as Nehemiah and his fellow laborers began to make progress toward the fulfillment of God’s vision, the opposition they faced grew stronger and stronger.

 

 

II. What Opposition Did Nehemiah Face?

Outside opposition to God’s vision for us can take many forms, but whatever resistance we encounter typically falls into four broad categories. Nehemiah faced all four of these in chapter 4. Let’s see if these categories are familiar.

The first is anger. Chapter 4, verse 1 says that when Sanballat heard the Jews were rebuilding, he became angry and “greatly incensed”. For those of us without a dictionary on hand, some more common words for incensed are engraged or furious. Have you ever witnessed what happens when someone is enraged? Or, maybe you have experienced it yourself. I know I have, and I can tell you that when a person becomes enraged, they become violent, out of control, unable to behave rationally. They lash out at those around them, with no thought of the consequences. Enraged people become, in a word, scary. When Nehemiah led the Israelites in fulfilling God’s vision of a rebuilt Jerusalem, the first reaction he received from his enemies was undisguised fury.

As is often the case, the anger of Nehemiah’s enemies soon turned into ridicule. You see, it is the nature of uncontrolled anger to lash out, and it is easiest to do so with our tongues. And just like a schoolyard bully, Sanballat looked for others to join him in his hatred. Verses 2 and 3 tell us that he mocked the Jews in front of the Samarian army, and pretty soon his companion Tobiah joined in. They belittled the Jews themselves and they made fun of their attempts to rebuild.

Have you ever been ridiculed, mocked, or tormented? I’ll admit that I have endured this sort of hostility on a number of occasions, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve also been the one who ridiculed, mocked, and tormented others. Most of us have been on one or both sides of this equation, and we all know well the feeling of powerlessness that is felt by the victim. No matter how many times we utter the grade school mantra “stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” the truth remains that words, especially malicious words, can and do wound us deeply. And we know the insults of Nehemiah’s enemies bothered him, because in verse 4 he prays and asks God to turn their insults back on them. But still, the Jews continued in their work.

And when the anger and ridicule weren’t enough to force Nehemiah to alter course, his enemies turned to a third type of resistance: intimidation. After all, if words won’t do the trick, maybe threats will. Verses 7 and 8 say that Nehemiah’s enemies began to plot together to cause trouble for the Jews, and this plotting became intimidation when their plans were made known.

How many of you here have ever felt truly intimidated by someone or something? How did it make you feel? Did you find your thoughts consumed by what could happen next? Did it completely steal your joy? How did it alter your thinking and your behavior?

There is an old 80’s movie that popped into my mind as I was thinking about intimidation this week. Has anyone here ever seen the movie Three O’Clock High? Well, it is a story about a well-liked teenager who has tried to do everything right. He is a good student, he hangs out with good kids, his teachers like him, and he has even been trusted to run the school store that sells office supplies. Everything seems to be going great for this young man until the day a new bully moves into town. This bully is looking to make a name for himself and finds the perfect opportunity when the main character accidentally embarrasses him, and the bully tells him that when the bell rings at 3:00, he will be waiting outside to fight. The rest of the movie tells the story of this poor intimidated kid as he tries to find a way out of the fight. All of the protagonist’s efforts to fix the problem only make things worse, and we see his life slowly unravel with each tick of the clock.

I will say this, if you are the sort of person who roots for the underdog, then you would love the way the movie ends. He finds an inner strength of character and manages to lay the bully out flat with one punch, slightly assisted by a set of brass knuckles. But throughout the story, we see the affects of intimidation; of not knowing what could come next, but fearing what the enemy will do. Intimidation steals the peace of the victim and throws their life into chaos. This is why it is such an effective weapon. Nehemiah and the Jews were subjected to this sort of intimidation, and yet despite what they must have felt they continued to work at rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

Until finally, when all else had failed to deter the Jews, Nehemiah’s enemies moved from intimidation and the threat of violence to outright violence itself, and we are told later on in chapter 6 that they eventually attempted to have Nehemiah assassinated.

 

 

III. What Does Opposition Look Like Today?

We face similar challenges when we submit to following God’s vision for us today. When the outside world doesn’t understand us, Christians often meet with anger and ridicule. We see this all of the time in the media, and many of us have experienced it first-hand from people who don’t know us. Some of us here may have even experienced intimidation because of our beliefs. Our students will experience this as they grow older, even more so today than just a few years ago. They will endure ridicule and mockery as they hold fast to the commands of scripture, seeking what is good and avoiding what is evil. Some here may have even experienced the threat of violence or violence itself because of their faith, though this is a problem much less often experienced here in America.

Not all challenges to following God come from outside influences, though. Sometimes our greatest opponents to following God’s vision occur inside the church. Churches are filled with people of varying experiences, maturity levels, and expectations. And, though it is often hard for us to admit, even churches that don’t often see new faces on Sunday are many times filled with those who don’t yet know Jesus in a personally transformative way. For all of these reasons and more, we won’t always see eye to eye in the church. Because we are all messy people, when we don’t see eye to eye or don’t get our way, we sometimes resort to anger, ridicule, and even intimidation. And because the church is filled with messy people who don’t always see things with kingdom vision, sometimes we experience opposition from other congregations or denominations when we strike out accomplish God’s vision for us in new or different ways.

But more often than not, the greatest opposition we face to accomplishing God’s vision for us comes from within. When we continue to pursue attitudes or lifestyles or relationships that are contrary to God’s best for us, as revealed in scripture, we war with the Spirit of God living in us, and we create barriers to our own progress. Sin, apathy and laziness, fear, pride, and regret. When we allow any of these to gain control over our thoughts and actions, we become enemies of the good work that God wants to do in our lives, and they can cripple us in our attempts to discern and follow God’s vision for our lives and for the church.

Perhaps the reason we don’t experience stronger persecution as Christians in the West, is because we have already so effectively setup opposition to God in our own hearts.

 

 

 

IV. How Should We Respond to Opposition?

Whatever the source and type of opposition we face, we find solutions to it in scripture. Nehemiah provides us with yet another example to follow in chapter 4. As we watch the story unfold, his response to the opposition he faced was decisive and filled with faith. The easy thing to do would have been to give up and run back to Susa and the king. He could have abandoned his project in Jerusalem, and moved back to the easier work of a cupbearer. I mean, it’s not like this was his city anyway, right? He had never been there before. In fact, it had been destroyed more than a hundred years before he was born. Why should he risk his life for some place from Israel’s past, this abandoned city, this pile of rubble, with gates burned to the ground? Why should he care at all?

He cared, and he carried on, because God had given him a vision bigger than himself. And because he was viewing things from God’s perspective, he chose instead to stand up to his enemies and face his opposition head on. Nehemiah took five simple steps that we can still follow today, when we are facing challenges to God’s vision for us.

First, Nehemiah prayed to God for victory in verse 4. Why is that pray is so often our last line of defense, instead of our first? I think we often buy into the great lie of our culture that says we have to be self-reliant in order to be successful in life; that we just have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and that, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The Bible tells us a sweeter truth. Scripture shows us that a life of dependence upon God and his word leads to blessings, while a life separate from him leads to curses. Through Jesus we learn that the abundant life is one that abides with God in Christ. And this begins with prayer. When we face opposition, as Nehemiah did, our first response should always be to seek God on our knees.

Second, Nehemiah led the Jews to continue the work they had started. Verse 6 says that they continued to build the wall until all of it reached half the height that it once was, even while they were being persecuted. The easy thing to do, when we encounter resistance to our efforts is to simply give up. But Nehemiah shows us that we are called to press on in the face of hardship and trust God to give us the strength we need to persevere. Sometimes we just give up too easily, forgetting that anything worth doing at all is worth struggling to achieve. If we are willing to endure all kinds of hardship in order to accomplish our dreams for success in our jobs and families and even our hobbies, why then do we find it so hard to press on when we meet with opposition in our spiritual lives and in the church? We must learn to persevere in the face of challenges, if we would see God’s vision made reality in our lives.

Third, Nehemiah organized the families of the workers to protect on another from attacks. In verse 13 we read that Nehemiah didn’t just ignore his enemies, trying to pretend that their threats weren’t real. He didn’t tell his people to ignore them either. And he certainly didn’t just throw up his hands and say, “Well, we’re in trouble! Every man for himself.” Instead, he took decisive action and organized the families of the Jews to stand guard for one another as they continued with the work they had been given to do. Sometimes we crumble in the face of opposition, because we forget that we are called to be one body in Christ. We are no longer lonely lost sheep in search of a shepherd; rather we are the family of God, with the Almighty as our Father, the Spirit as our Helper, and Jesus as our brother, who has walked where we walk. And there is great strength to be found when we seek to be unified with one another in Christ. We have to stop living as though we are a bunch of individual Christians and remember that we are each a part of the family of God.

Fourth, Nehemiah trusted in God for protection and provision to accomplish God’s vision, and in verse 14 he reminded the people not to be afraid, because God is awesome and great. Sometimes we become so preoccupied by the challenges we face, that we forget who we serve: the One and only God of the universe! He is the creator of all things, and if he can make all of this, he can surely provide for us in our time of greatest need. Sometimes, we just need to learn to trust God more.

Fifth, and finally, Nehemiah prepared the people for future opposition, and remained diligent and alert for further hostility. He didn’t pretend that, once the immediate threat was gone, everything was going to be perfect from then on. Instead, Nehemiah prepared the people for the challenges that were yet to come. Sometimes, when we have just come through a tough challenge, we let down our guard and we begin to slip back into old patterns of though and behavior, don’t we? Maybe we have had victory against a particular sinful desire, so we stop being quite so diligent to avoid the triggers that set off our temptation. Maybe we have just pulled off a successful project or survived a difficult challenge as a church, and so we sit back and take a much-needed rest, only to find that we never start moving again. Or maybe the stress of a dangerous or divisive moment has finally passed, and we find ourselves no longer earnestly seeking God in prayer, because we don’t see any immediate threat. When we drop our guard, we become vulnerable to even more devastating attacks from the enemies of God’s vision. Instead, like Nehemiah, we should prepare ourselves for what is to come, not because we fear it, but because we desire to see God’s vision fulfilled.

Opposition can teach us a few important lessons. It teaches us that God alone is our source of strength. It teaches us that we are stronger together. It teaches us perseverance and patience. It reminds us that we are not citizens of this world; that our kingdom is heaven. And opposition teaches us that nothing in this world will satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts.

 

 

V. Our Hope

When Jesus Christ walked the earth, he also encountered opposition to His Father’s vision. He overcame the rage directed against him by outsiders (Romans) and insiders (Jews) alike. He turned aside their ridicule and slander. He stood strong in the face of their intimidation. And he endured their violence, even unto death on the cross. And in so doing, he freed each and every one of us here from the bondage of sin and the fear of death. Through Jesus, we can now experience true union with God and unity with the Body of Christ. And because of him, and all that he endured on our behalf, we know that we too can persevere in the face of life’s trials. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we become God’s adopted daughters and sons, we are born again from above, and we become citizens of heaven. And in Jesus alone, we find the only thing that will ever satisfy the desires of our hearts.

In Hebrews 12:2-3 Paul says, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” In other words, don’t give up! When opposition rises up to meet you, don’t lose heart; instead, remember Jesus. We can face any opposition, because Jesus overcame every opposition on the cross. And he lives in us!

 

 

VI. Application

God’s vision for Nehemiah was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, so the people of God could return home from exile. God’s vision for us is that we would live holy lives, obedient to his Word, and actively seek out those who are living far away from him, inviting them back into relationship with God, through Jesus. This is God’s vision for every Christian, and Jesus summed it up for us in Matthew 22, when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Friends, now is the time for us to stand up to whatever opposition we face so that God’s vision might be accomplished in us. For you that might mean you need to confront some sin in your life. Maybe you need to confess it to God in prayer, and then ask one of your fellow Christians to support you and hold you accountable for remaining pure. Maybe for you, confronting the opposition means learning to trust God more fully in the day-to-day experiences of life, and choosing to turn over to God all your anxiety, worry, and attempts to maintain control. Maybe your greatest opposition comes in the form of regret for past sins or hurts, and your need to release those to the healing presence of Jesus, who forgets our pasts and gives us a future in him. Whatever the challenges you are facing today, remember this: We can face any opposition, because Jesus overcame every opposition on the cross.

Friends, we are beginning to embark upon a new stage in our journey as a church. I believe God is calling us to consider whether we are truly fulfilling his vision of loving God and loving people, or whether we have allowed opposition to get in our way. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be talking about how we can recognize success in following God’s vision for us, and we will begin evaluating ourselves personally and as a church, to see where our hearts truly lie. This process may be, at times, difficult and painful, but I believe it will also be filled with joy and hope as we witness the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. I believe that God’s vision for us is greater and more amazing that we have dared to allow ourselves to imagine, and I believe that He is waiting for us to ask him to give us eyes to see it, ears to hear it, and the strength to persevere in the face of opposition.

 

 

VII. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you this day, that you are a God who has a vision for our lives; that you have not called us to wander aimlessly, but have directed our paths. Would you come among us today, now, in this place, and give us a renewed sense of your vision for us. Would you show us what it means to truly love you and love others? Would you show us clearly where there is any opposition to your vision, and would you give us victory over anyone or anything that stands between us and you? We love you, and we thank your for sending your Son, Jesus. And we give thanks that we can overcome all things, because Jesus lives in us. Amen.

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Book Review: 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, by Andy Stanley, Reggie Joiner, and Lane Jones

7-practices-of-effective-ministryAndy Stanley, Reggie Joiner, and Lane Jones, Seven Practices of Effective Ministry(Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2004)

A pastor friend of mine handed me this book by the North Point team over the weekend, and once I started reading I had trouble putting it down. Don’t let the publishing date dissuade you; the wisdom contained in these pages is still just as relevant today as it was in 2004.

Let’s get a couple of disclaimers out of the way, before reviewing the content. First, though Andy Stanley is listed as the first author, his direct written contributions include only a short introduction and conclusion. If you are looking for material written by him specifically, this is not the book for you. However, his influence is clearly present on every page, as might be expected from his long time friendship and ministry partnership with Lane Jones. As a North Point resource, this book contains wisdom, strategies, and ideas that have grown out of Stanley’s leadership and the lessons learned at North Point Church.

Second, the style of this book is altogether different from what you might expect to find in a leadership book. In the first part, Lane Jones tells the fictional story of a young pastor at his wits end, who is lured by a friend into a coaching session with a successful businessman, under the pretense of free tickets to a baseball game. The entire story takes place within the context of the game, so the reader will find several references to baseball throughout. This story serves the function of providing a common narrative context for leadership lessons the authors wish to teach.

In the other half of the book, Reggie Joiner builds upon the foundation laid by Jones, and delves more deeply into each of the seven recommended leadership practices. This part of the book contains real world examples, which further illustrate the concepts highlighted in the fictional story.

Though somewhat unusual for the genre, this style of blending story and instruction works well to guide the reader into the book and cement the rational for implementing the recommended practices. The second part of the book doesn’t settle for restating what was said in the first, so there is no sense of tediousness in reading. I found that the story drew me in, prepared me to hear the wisdom being presented, and then drove the lesson home in the second half. Reading this book was much like listening to a well crafted sermon.

Now for the content. Stanley’s team convincingly argues the following 7 practices will enhance the work of ministry leaders:

  1. Clarify the Win – define what is important at every level of the organization.
  2. Think Steps, Not Programs – before you start anything, make sure it is where you need to go.
  3. Narrow the Focus – do fewer things in order to make a greater impact.
  4. Teach Less for More – say only what you need to say to the people who need to hear it.
  5. Listen to Outsiders – focus on who you’re trying to reach, not who you’re trying to keep.
  6. Replace Yourself – learn to hand off what you do.
  7. Work On It – take time to evaluate your work–and to celebrate your wins.

All seven of these practices challenged and resonated with me. Different personalities will struggle more with different individual practices, and many leaders will recognize practices they have already implemented into their leadership in some fashion. I was most personally challenged by practices 2, 3, and 4, and I think our church will be most challenged with practice 5. I look forward to thinking through the ways I can incorporate these strategies into my own leadership and instill them into other leaders in my ministerial context.

I consider this book a “must read” for pastors and other ministry leaders. It is a quick read that will challenge you to lead with purpose and consider the long-term success of your church or parachurch organization as more important than your own.

I highly recommend this book!

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