I grew up in denominations that had rather loose fences, but at least there were fences. As a teenager I first came to understand the meaning of the Gospel and placed my trust in the Savior who died for me in one of those churches. I attended a college affiliated with one of those loose fenced denominations. Some of the teachers, however, espoused ideas that I found disturbing because the fences were so loose or, might I say, porous. But still there were fences.
After I left college I spent the next few years in groups that were, what might be called, non-denominationals. I was introduced to a deeper understanding and experience of the Holy Spirit in those groups. We were known at that time as Jesus freaks. But we had little structure and no fences at all. Of course, we would say that the Bible was our fence and whereas the Bible is a good fence the problem was that people could get things from the Bible that were beyond the fences of other denominational groups or even most denominational groups. This opened the door to strange and fantastical teachings that led people down one path and then another, being tossed on the waves of whoever was the latest "charismatic" leader.
That's why I have come to like fences and thus "denominations." At least with denominations you know where the fences are. The well known experiment of taking fences down from school yards led most of the students to staying close to the building for security. But there would be some who would venture beyond the school yard and sometimes put themselves in danger. When the fences were put back up the students played all over the school yard right up to the fences without fear. I have been in a conservative denomination for the past 42 years. I confess that I have played right up to the fences but I enjoy the security of staying in the school yard.
Fences are what might be called confessions or creeds. They say to the members of that tribe that you can go so far and no further. There are denominations that differ from mine that also have fences of their own. On many points their fences are the same as mine but in some other points they differ. But at least I know where we differ and we can engage in civil and constructive conversations. In fact I might even be able to learn from them as long as I can do so within my own fences. While at seminary we arranged dialogues with another seminary nearby from a different denomination. Both of our denominations had strong fences that were built upon the Bible and so we could listen to professors from both seminaries without fear of being contaminated. We knew where we all stood. In that setting we could grow from the dialogues.
It is true that some denominations have moved their fences. I, for one, do not like the moving of fences. When a fence is moved it is encroaching on the property of another. Some have moved their fences so far that they are now encroaching on the property of pagans. Now, I do not hate pagans but when a denomination has to extend their fences to the point that pagans are now in their fold they cease to be a distinct group. They are no longer just in the world; they are of the world. Yet even these denominations have fences, albeit wider fences than I would be happy with. But at least I know where they stand and I can choose whether or not to associate with them.
Non-denominations are in another category all together. They have no fences. Within their fold they have people that might better fit in a variety of other folds. They think that this is the charitable way to be but like children in the school yard with no fences it leaves their flock far more vulnerable to wolves in sheep's clothing. Fences not only keep the sheep in but also keep the wolves out. Some of those wolves have come in with the idea of exchanging faithfulness to truth for turning the Gospel into a scheme to make money. Others have come in teaching that the Old Testament God is not the same as the New Testament God and teach a new kind of antinomianism. That's just a fancy word for saying that the Law is no longer relevant for the Christian. The New Testament would call them Nicolaitans, compared with Balaam, who taught Balaak that the best way to bring down the people of Israel was to tempt them to forsake their commandments.
Non-denominationalism, with its aversion to fences, i.e. confessions and creeds, is only held together by the charisma of its leader. If he is a good and Biblical leader, having fences of his own, the church may do well. But he will not last forever and if there is a new leader who comes without the same solid footing, the church will easily succumb to the latest heresy coming down the pike.
In short, that is why I prefer denominational churches, especially my own, to non-denominational churches.
In the Minister’s Manual are found the words, “Consider Again Christmas. When Pope Julius I authorized December 25 to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus in A.D. 353, who would have ever thought that it would become what it is today.
When Professor Charles Follen lit candles on the first Christmas tree in America in 1832, who would have ever thought that the decorations would become as elaborate as they are today.
It is a long time since 1832, longer still from 353, longer still from that dark night brightened by a special star in which Jesus the king was born. Yet, as we approach December 25 again, it gives us yet another opportunity to pause, and in the midst of all the excitement and elaborate decorations and expensive commercialization which surround Christmas today, to consider again the event of Christmas and the person whose birth we celebrate.”
We just got back from our Florida vacation and part of that time was spent at Disney World. Boy, do they do Christmas! What was amazing to me is that amidst all the glitz and glamor that is Disney that the music that was piped throughout the parks was 90% Christian Christmas Carols. We even attended a Christmas Concert of Carols which included the reading of the Christmas story by a well known actor. Somehow amidst all the pluralism of our age, Disney had not forgot what Christmas was really all about. It left Anne and me with such a good feeling that will lead us through the Christmas season.
What an opportunity we have to witness to our faith in this time of year when people are thinking about the season and so we should be unafraid to say to people, “Merry Christmas.” If a secular enterprise like Disney World can do that so can we.
This year we are going to have our first Candlelight and Carols Service at Lakes Area Christian Fellowship. It will be on Christmas Eve at 5:00 pm. This is a great opportunity to invite friends and family to remember the true meaning of Christmas.
I have heard and read many articles on how Christmas has become so commercialized. Undoubtedly that is true but I am not a Scrooge when it comes to celebrating the birth of Christ. The reason we give gifts to each other is because we have received the greatest gift of all from God himself, namely His Son. If we only think about the tinsel and the gifts and forget the reason that we are celebrating, there is a problem. But if the gifts and tinsel add to the celebration that brings us back to the manger in Bethlehem, that is a good thing. Christmas should be merry. This is not a time to fret over all the problems of the world. This is the time to remember that God sent the solution to all the problems of the world. So MERRY CHRISTMAS!
We are hearing a lot of controversy about the Syrian (and other refugees) who are being resettled in the West, especially after the Paris attacks. It turns out that at least one of the terrorists infiltrated the wave of refugees and slipped into Europe. Now in the United States we have this huge debate going on as to whether we should respond to the needs of the refugees to find a new home on the one hand or the fears of our own people that something like happened in Paris could happen here on the other hand. Should we respond with love or fear?
The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is helpful in figuring this out. Basically this doctrine tells us that there are two very different kingdoms and that a Christian lives in both of them. The kingdom of the left, as it is called, is the kingdom of government. The government has the job to wield the sword to protect its citizens and to preserve society from anarchy (Romans 13:1-7). The kingdom of the right is the kingdom of the Church. This kingdom is characterized as a kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 14:17). The marks of this kingdom are found in the Sermon on the Mount and include such things as meekness, hungering after righteousness, mercy, purity of heart and love for our enemies (Matthew 5). Unless a Christian actually is working for the government, his role in the kingdom of the left is to abide by the laws of the land (unless they directly violate the laws of Christ) and in a democracy to vote for those who best represent our values. It is not in our sphere of influence to decide who or who does not get into our country. The government has to make those decisions, knowing that they have to balance out compassion and safety. This is a difficult thing to do and they need our prayers.
On the other hand, as citizens of the kingdom of the right, we have a completely different way of approaching this issue. Jesus has called us to love even our enemies and to seek to lead them to Himself. We don't decide who comes here but we are commanded to love those who do. There is an example of this in Germany. There the government decided to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees. They were coming regardless of what members of the Church thought about it. But some in the Free Lutheran Church (the orthodox/Biblical Lutherans) decided to receive these refugees as Jesus would have them receive them. By their acts of compassion many of these refugees began to realize that Christianity was a far superior faith to their own. Hundreds have already been won to Christ and have been baptized. One congregation has grown from 160 to well over 600 and another 100 are being prepared for baptism, even as we speak. The German members of the congregation are even growing in their own faith as they watch how these new believers receive the Word and the Sacraments with such joy.
I don't know what will be the final outcome of the debate over whether or not our government receives these people into our country but I do know that if they come we must reach out to them with the love of Christ and show them that He is the only way to the Father.
In his book FOLK PSALMS OF FAITH, Ray Stedman tells of an experience H.A. Ironside had in a crowded restaurant. Just as Ironside was about to begin his meal, a man approached and asked if he could join him. Ironside invited him to have a seat. Then, as was his custom, Ironside bowed his head in prayer. When he opened his eyes, the other man asked, "Do you have a headache?" Ironside replied, "No, I don't." The other man asked, "Well, is there something wrong with your food?" Ironside replied, "No, I was simply thanking God as I always do before I eat."
The man said, "Oh, you're one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don't have to give thanks to anybody when I eat. I just start right in!" Ironside said, "Yes, you're just like my dog. That's what he does too!"
This is the month of the year that we celebrate Thanksgiving, although it ought to be something we do every day. We read in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “... give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
It is easy for us to fall into the thinking that says that all I have has come through the sweat of my brow. As Christians we know that we have been recipients of great blessings from God, at least we know it in theory. But underneath this thinking lies this other voice that says that we don’t need to be so obvious about it. There are some Church-goers who believe that it is fine to give thanks for food at a Church function but that it is embarrassing to be caught praying at a public establishment like a restaurant. You would wonder if they really believe that God is the source of all their blessings.
Then there are some Christians who have much less than others and yet always give thanks no matter where they are. Some even are suffering from various disabilities. Some are living in war zones. Some are being persecuted for their faith.
Christian blogger Casey Hobb wrote: “In the middle of last century there was a pastor named Richard Wurmbrand. He had the misfortune of surviving Nazi rule to live under Communist rule in his native Romania. Can you imagine? Being arrested by both the Nazis and Communists in the course of ten or fifteen years? How would you feel about Jesus’ words, when you found yourself persecuted for righteousness’ sake over and over again? What if you were ripped away from your wife and children and placed in solitary confinement for a decade? What if that happened twice?
These questions were not hypothetical to Wurmbrand. He spent somewhere around twenty years as a guest of the state for doing nothing but preaching the gospel of Jesus. He was rewarded for his faithfulness to the word by being abducted, secluded and whipped. And as horrifying as Wurmbrand’s situation was, his reaction was just as surprising. At least for those of us who would equate missing a football game with suffering for the gospel, it is surprising.
He rejoiced. He sang. He danced.”
Now that is giving thanks in all circumstances. What inspires a person to live like that? Richard Wurmbrand knew that he was loved by God. Jesus had died for His sins. He accepted this gift with gratitude and Jesus took up residence in his heart. The Holy Spirit empowered him to give thanks. The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the more our hearts will be filled with gratitude for the cross and for everything else God provides for us. May you and I be filled with the same Spirit as Richard Wurmbrand.
The mother of a 3 year old shared this story. She said her son asked the baby sitter for help getting his boots on. She could see why. With her pulling and him pushing, the boots still didn’t want to go on. By the time the second boot was forced onto the foot she had already worked up a sweat. She almost whimpered when the boy said, “Wrong feet!” She looked and sure enough, they were on the wrong feet. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on — this time on the right feet. He then announced, “These aren’t my boots.” She bit her tongue rather than get in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” like she wanted to. Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off. He then said, “They’re my cousin’s boots. My Mom makes me wear them.” She didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. She mustered up the grace to wrestle the boots on his feet again. She said, “Now, where are your mittens? He said, “I stuffed them in my boots…”
You know, the same kind of thing happens when it comes to reading the Bible. That’s why so many leave their Bible on a shelf, hardly ever picking it up, except to write a wedding, funeral or birthdate into it. It is just too hard to figure out what it means.
Sometimes it is like having our boots on the wrong feet. In the Bible we sometimes read hard, challenging and even condemning words. We call that the Law. Other times we find sweet, comforting and assuring words. We call that the Gospel. But they have to be put on the right feet. If we are already feeling bad about our lives, and we focus on the Law parts of the Bible we will feel worse. On the other hand if we are defensive and making excuses for ourselves and we focus on the Gospel parts we will fall into a false security. We have to put the Boots on the right feet.
Secondly, sometimes we are content to read what the Bible means to somebody else. Some Christians read more books about the Bible than they actually read the Bible. They only read devotional and spiritual books. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s like putting on our cousin’s boots. We need to read and ponder the Bible for ourselves, asking the Holy Spirit to give us insights that are applicable for our life. This calls for the art of rumination. In a literal sense this is what cows do when they chew the cud. But figuratively it means to “think deeply about something.” In this way we will make the Bible our own.
Finally, when we read the Bible we may have to remove some things before beginning. (It would have been really good to take the mittens out of the boots before putting them on.) In the spiritual life we call this confession. The Holy Spirit really does want to speak to us but if there are things in our lives that are wrong, they will interfere with are being able to hear. Of course, it’s true that we will never rid ourselves of every sin. It may even seem like the moment we get one mitten out another one goes in. On top of that there are some mittens that are invisible to us. All that being true, it doesn’t mean that confession is a futile activity. We can still confess the things we are aware of and end by adding a general confession of all the things we are unaware of. The point is to clear the deck before we dig into the Bible, knowing that Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Then enjoy what God says to you.
One of the shows that I have seen advertised is called The Bachelor and apparently a host of beautiful women are all competing for the affections of one man. I have also seen advertisements for another show called The Bachelorette in which the roles are reversed and a host of handsome men are competing for the affections of one woman. I think in the end the object of all the attention has to choose one. We do not live in a polygamous culture so you really can’t have all of them. This reminds me of the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price. You have to give up some things in order to have the one thing that is MOST PRECIOUS, namely the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, you can’t have it all. Ultimately only one can be MOST PRECIOUS.
That is what Jesus is saying in these two parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” In these two parables we find that one man stumbles upon the treasure whereas the other man is searching for fine pearls. But in both cases they quickly realize that what they found was far more PRECIOUS than anything else they owned. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven should be to every one of us. I once was talking about Jesus Christ to a teenager I met in a park in Queens, NY. It became apparent to me that he was not all that interested in God at that time in his life. I left him with the comment that if he understood how PRECIOUS the Kingdom of Heaven is he would sell everything he had to gain it.
What is the point here? Is it that the Kingdom of Heaven is for sale? Not at all! The Bible puts it this way in Isaiah 55:1, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” The Kingdom of Heaven is a free gift received by grace through faith. But it is only available to those who deem it as the MOST PRECIOUS gift they have. Luther wrote in his great hymn, A Mighty Fortress, “And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife, Let these all be gone, They yet have nothing won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.” The Kingdom of Heaven was obviously his MOST PRECIOUS possession.
What might be the things we have to “sell” in order to receive this great gift? It is different for each person. What are the things that are the MOST PRECIOUS in your life? For some people it is their possessions. They live for their stock portfolios, their two or three homes, their cars, their vacations, their designer clothes. But such things are passing away. The Pharaohs thought they could take it with them, but their stuff stayed behind in their tombs until tomb raiders broke in and stole it. The Kingdom of Heaven, on the other hand, remains forever.
For other people it is their status in life. They want to be looked up to, admired and praised. They might like to have things, but it is only because those things give them status, like a teenager who wants a $200 pair of designer sneakers instead of a $20 pair of sneakers from Wal-Mart. Sometimes even religious people live for their status among other religious people. Such was the Rabbi Saul. He wrote autobiographically in Philippians 3:4-6, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.” But Saul, also known as Paul, came to the same place as the man who found the hidden treasure and the merchant who found the pearl of great price. He goes on to say, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” For Paul there was nothing more PRECIOUS than the Kingdom of Heaven.
Then there are still others for whom it is family. This is probably the hardest one for us to grasp because we always think that our families are our most precious gift. And indeed family is a gift from God and we ought to love those who are closest to us. But even family must play second fiddle to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said in Matthew 10:37, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” There can be only one who is our MOST PRECIOUS, Jesus Christ our Lord, who offers us the Kingdom of Heaven. We may have family members who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ; we must have a faith that will not put our love for them over our love for Him. In A.D. 203 Perpetua, a young nursing mother, was one of 5 new Christians that the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus decided to make an example of in Carthage. At her trial her pagan father begged her to renounce her faith and give a sacrifice to the Emperor. Having heard this, even the judge felt compassion for a nursing mother and told her to just offer her sacrifice to the emperor and be done with it. She would not. He asked her, “Are you a Christian then?” She said, “Yes, I am.” She died in the arena. The Kingdom of Heaven was even more PRECIOUS to Perpetua than her own family and even her own life. Is that true for you and me?
Jesus began his ministry by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Repentance is more than saying, “I’m sorry.” The word “repent” means, “Change your thinking.” What is the MOST PRECIOUS thing in your life? If it is anything other than the Kingdom of Heaven then it is time to change your thinking. Being in the church is not enough. There is an old parable about a monkey trap. To trap a monkey they would put a banana in something that looked like a bird house. When the monkey reached in to grab the banana he could not get his clinched fist out without letting go of the banana. His longing for the banana kept him trapped. So repentance is letting go of one thing to have the MOST PRECIOUS thing. But there is good news. Jesus says to us that we are PRECIOUS in His sight, just like the old children’s song, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” You see, in an even higher way we can understand these two Parables of Jesus by flipping them. In other words, we can see that we are the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. He was the one who sold everything to win our hearts. He gave His life on that cross as the payment for our sins, for our rebellious and idolatrous ways, so that we might be in a relationship with Him, now and forever.
It is said that Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, once had captured a prince and his family. When they came before him, Cyrus asked the prisoner, “What will you give me if I release you?”
“The half of my wealth,” was his reply.
“And if I release your children?”
“Everything I possess.”
“And if I release your wife?”
“Your Majesty, I will give myself.”
Cyrus was so moved by his devotion that he freed them all. As they returned home, the prince said to his wife, “Wasn't Cyrus a handsome man!”
With a look of deep love for her husband, she said to him, “I didn't notice. I could only keep my eyes on you – the one who was willing to give himself for me.” That, dear friends, is how Jesus becomes the MOST PRECIOUS gift in your life. Will you open your heart and receive it?
I want to address the question to fathers: Is Christ in your home? If we want to see our nation changed then this is where it all begins. If you picture Jesus anywhere picture Him in your home. This is more important than picturing Him in the Halls of Congress or the White House or the Pentagon or in our schools and universities. It is more important than picturing Him at the board meetings of large corporations or on stage and screen. He wants to be in our homes.
With all of the issues we are facing from our involvement in world crises, to unemployment, underemployment, scandals in the V.A., senseless killings in our streets, we see the evidence that our nation needs to return to the place where Christ is welcome in our homes. And fathers are often the ones who play the most important role in that reality. It is the absence of fathers, physically, emotionally or spiritually that have in a large part contributed to the moral and spiritual decline in our nation. A popular rap artist known for his vulgar and abusive music made this sad comment, “I don't even know how to speak up for myself, because I don't really have a father who would give me the confidence or advice.” I wonder if that has something to do with the nature of his lyrics.
A father may even provide a beautiful home, but if Christ is not in that home, then we will see that unalterable Biblical truth come true, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). What good is it to have beautiful architecture and interior design if Christ is not present? This is to have a house built on the sand and when storms come into our lives that house will fall with a great crash. But if Christ is there, though our home be little more than a trailer, that home will be built on a rock that the storms of life cannot blow down no matter how hard the winds blow.
In Luke 19:5 we find Jesus saying to a tax collector named Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today.” This man was living in Jericho, a city of ill-repute. Jericho was a wealthy city which is why it probably drew a large number of tax collectors. Even then tax collectors loved to tax the rich and they usually took more than the law allowed and grew rich themselves in the process. The result is that they were a despised segment of society. Yet it was to this tax collector that Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today.”
The religious leaders were offended that Jesus should choose to stay at the house of such a “sinner.” But suppose Jesus had chosen to stay at the home of a respected member of society who was known for his culture and intelligence. Would we not all say, “Of course Jesus would want to stay with that person?” But no, Jesus chooses Zacchaeus’ house precisely because He wants all of us to know that He desires to stay at our houses today.
As Jesus searched for a place to stay that day, He took notice of Zacchaeus, the little man up in the sycamore tree. He had once told His disciples that when they came to a town to look for a “man of peace,” i.e. someone whom God had prepared to hear the good news. Zacchaeus was such a man. Jesus had never met Zacchaeus but He in His omniscience knew His name. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus also knows your name and wants to stay at your house. I say that especially to fathers. In fact He not only wants to stay at your house but He also wants to share with you important truths that will transform your home into His home. Will you welcome Him?
Perhaps as at no other time in history have American homes needed Jesus Christ to move in. Whether we look at senseless killing sprees in Colorado, Connecticut, California or Seattle, or two young girls attempting to knife to death a classmate in Wisconsin because of a video game, or a giant corporation trying to make sense out of the decision not to replace a car ignition switch that would have cost less than a dollar and save dozens of lives, or the rush to redefine marriage, or the music and movies that try to push the envelope of decency far beyond anything that makes sense, it seems obvious to me that we need Jesus Christ to move into our homes. Fathers, will you be a Zacchaeus and let Jesus come to stay in your house?
The stakes are high. If we do not see Jesus Christ lifted up in homes across this nation the decline will continue. More and more children will grow up parented by the people they meet in chat rooms, by the inventors of violent and sexually explicit online games, by the rock stars whose dress would make Adam and Eve’s leaves look modest and whose lyrics promote every kind of ungodly behavior. No wonder schools think that it is wise to give out birth control to 12 year old girls in Oregon. Such things will not make the next generation happy and well-adjusted, but frustrated, fearful and angry. So Jesus says to every father, “I must stay at your house today.”
When Christ stays in your home, His love does what no other power known to man can do. He reveals Himself to the deepest woundedness of the human heart and pours in His healing balm of forgiveness. Like a master surgeon He does not stop at the symptoms of our spiritual and moral disease but goes to the root of the cause, to sin itself. It is clear from the Bible that sin kills, but it is not a quick death; it is a slow, painful, excruciating death. At times we may not even be aware of the disease which works like a cancer slowly growing not only in our society but in every human heart. Without Christ’s intervention we will find ourselves like the proverbial frog in the kettle, enjoying the warm water until it cooks us to death.
But even yet He still wants to come and stay at our house. His approach to sin is different than those who harangue against its vileness and condemn its practitioners. When He comes He first of all deals with the guilt and stain of sin, washing it away with His precious blood. But the story does not end there. Not only will our sins be forgiven but Jesus will work His work in us by the Holy Spirit, whether quickly or slowly, to change the destructive habits that have made a mess of our homes. This is what happened to Zacchaeus. Without any coercion by Jesus he said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
What proof can we give for this reality? How about this: a onetime hard living, hard drinking slave trader welcomed Jesus Christ into his home. His life was dramatically changed and he worked alongside of William Wilberforce to bring the end of slavery in England. His name was John Newton, the author of the great hymn, Amazing Grace. He once said, “I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, "By the grace of God I am what I am.” Will you welcome Christ into your home?
As a boy I was “all ears”. What I mean is that my ears were bigger than I thought they should have been, perhaps because they made easy handles for my father to pull when I was in trouble. So I wanted ears that didn’t stick out so far. I can even remember taping them back before going to bed at night, thinking that this would help them to grow closer to my head. Of course, it didn’t really work. Now over the years I have sort of grown into them. But in Matthew 13:9 Jesus tells us that being “all ears” is a good thing. He says, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Of course, He is not talking about the ears on the sides of my head, but the ears of my heart. Are you “all ears” for God’s Word?
Jesus gave us these words after his Parable of the Sower. In it He says that there are four kinds of soil into which the Word of God is sown: one is like a hard foot path, another rocky shallow soil, another soil with a lot of thorn bushes in it and finally good soil that produces much fruit. So Jesus is inviting His hearers to look into their own hearts to see what kind of soil they are.
The seed is the Word of God. The Holy Spirit doesn’t create faith out of thin air; it comes through hearing God’s Word. The question Jesus is dealing with is this, if the Word of God is the means through which He creates faith, why isn’t everyone who hears the Word of God born again? Why are there people who have grown up in the church who don’t follow Christ anymore? The answer is that not everyone was “all ears”. The hearts of some people are like the hard path. Jesus explains it like this, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart” (v. 19). Hearing the Word of God is not the same thing as understanding the Word of God. There are many people who have grown up hearing the Word of God but never truly understood it. The light just didn’t go on. They may have gone to church for years but the penny never dropped. They were not “all ears”. They might even be decent people but they are not “all ears”. I can remember trying to talking to a woman I knew well. She was a church-goer and a good person from all outward signs but when we tried to talk to her about Jesus she would have this glazed over look. She couldn’t get the concept that she was a sinner and that Jesus died for her sins. She felt she was a good person. As a result the evil one would come and steal from her heart whatever she would hear at church.
The second kind of person mentioned in Jesus’ parable is described this way: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately falls away” (vv. 20-21). When a person gets excited about the Word sadly that does not mean that they will remain faithful. Some people can become deeply stirred by a great preacher like Billy Graham or now his son Franklin Graham. They may even make efforts to change their lives. But there is more emotion than substance to their faith. There is nothing wrong with having an emotional faith but if its roots never go deep into the Word of God it will not be able to withstand the storms of life or the rejection that may cause them to lose friends. Over the years I have seen people have a very emotional response to the Gospel. I remember a young woman who came on an Alpha course. As she heard the Gospel for the first time I could see tears running down her cheeks. But in her case she went on to sink her roots deep into the Word of God because she was “all ears.” On the other hand, sadly I have seen people who started out their faith in the same way but are no longer following Jesus. A close friend of mine who was an usher in our wedding is a tragic example of this kind of soil. At one time he was writing very passionate songs about Jesus but now claims to be an atheist. He might even say, “I tried Christianity but it didn’t work.” But the problem is not that Christianity didn’t work; it’s that he found it too difficult because He was trying to do it by his own effort. Are you still “all ears”?
The third kind of person mentioned in Jesus’ parable is described this way: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” We live in a world that can easily distract us from the Word of God. There may have been a time when someone was full of faith but when worldly cares or the pursuit of wealth came they put their faith on the back burner. They got their priorities all messed up. Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” God wants to take care of our worldly needs but when we think that it is up to us to do that, we will begin to cut spiritual corners. Worship, Bible reading, prayer, fellowship will all take second fiddle to these worldly cares. Jesus says that these things “choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” Are you “all ears” for God’s Word?
Jesus describes the last kind of soil this way: “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (v. 23). Have you noticed what was different about this person? In the first three Jesus says that they only hear the Word of God. In this fourth kind of person He says they also understand it. That means that they comprehend the relevancy of God’s Word to their life. Conversion is not so much a decision to follow Christ as it is a revelation of what Christ has done for us and will continue to do in and through us. The person who is “all ears” says to Jesus, “I desperately need you.” Even if they fall they get back up and stay close to Him and depend on Him. The result is that they will bear fruit because they are connected to the vine. The Bible says of such a person in Psalm 1:3, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” This person is "all ears" for God's Word.
One of the things you will notice about people who are “all ears,” is that they realize that they have been like the other kinds of soil at various times and know that they are tempted to go there again. If we fail to realize these possibilities we will become complacent. If I think that I can never fall away then I am acting like Peter who had to eat his words after denying Christ. What I must see is that I need to daily receive God’s Word, let it work in me conviction, repentance and a renewal of faith in His love. It is this love of God in Christ that makes my life fruitful, a hundredfold, sixtyfold or thirtyfold.
When we moved to Oregon in 2006 the housing market was booming and our realtor told us that the steep climb in prices would continue. Thinking that real estate would be a good investment we bought a home at the top of our price range. Then the bubble broke in 2008 and our house lost about $90K in value. Things began to improve out there and when we sold it last year we ended up only losing $60K. Our Christian faith did not save us from this loss.
So what is the value of godliness? Will it make you rich and famous? Will it insure that you will never suffer in this life? Will it give you the ability to pick winning stocks, horses and lottery numbers? Recently you may have heard the commercial for a stock market trading calendar. We are told that with this calendar we will know when to buy and when to sell stocks. We are assured that our stocks would outperform the market. Sometimes even in the church we hear about get rich quick schemes. One somewhat infamous TV evangelist ended up going to prison because of his schemes.
Do Christians have an inside track on how to become rich? Jesus had told us that His Kingdom was not of this world. The great tragedy in all of this is that people can indeed gain the whole world, but as Jesus also said, lose their own soul in the process. That is what happens when people think that the value of godliness can be measured in dollars and cents.
So what then is the value of godliness? The Bible says in 1 Timothy 4:8, “…godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” The Apostle seems to be refuting the idea that the Christian faith only has value for the great by and by. Karl Marx gave us the words, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” He also said, “The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.” His basic idea is that religion makes people so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. But is this true? Does godliness make someone impotent?
Godliness does begin with the realization that I am impotent when it comes to changing the sinful, selfish and self-righteous bent of my own heart, that I need a higher power, but not just any higher power. I need the One who is God of God, Light of Light and Very God of Very God, who came to be the sacrificial Lamb, to take away the sins of the world and therefore my sins. Such faith is more than being born into a Christian family or a Christian society or giving lip service to the Creeds. It is the understanding of the heart that I recognize my own need for a Savior and trust in Jesus Christ to be that Savior. But with that faith comes godliness which promises a life of value even in this present world.
Karl Marx might agree with some of our own politicians who believe that it is government that is the solution to all our problems. I do not wish to become political here and I would not say that government has no role to play in our society or that the government shouldn’t be concerned for the less fortunate. But government is a human institution and it is flawed at best. When it has tried to take care of all our human problems it finds itself sinking into a mire of its own problems. Most of us of a certain age appreciate the government programs put in place to provide us an income and take care of our medical needs in old age. But we also know that government entitlements are breaking the bank. So what can the Christian faith offer in this present life? I would mention just one example. A Christian high school teacher, named Jonathan Miles packed up his family in the middle of the first Iraq war and went to Israel. God worked through him to develop a ministry to bring Arab children to Israeli hospitals to receive free life-saving operations. He is building trust between Israelis and Arabs and he is doing it in the name of Jesus Christ so that both Arabs and Jews are seeing and hearing about the love that Jesus has for them. This is indeed godliness that has value in this life.
You see, when Jesus comes into a person’s life He changes them. The Bible puts it this way in Ezekiel 36:27, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Those statutes and rules were summed up by Jesus as loving God and loving our neighbor. So if we want to change the world we need only put Christ into the hearts of the people of this world. If you want to get rid of Wall Street corruption put Christ into the hearts of our financiers. If you want to see corporations run with integrity put Christ into the hearts of business people. If you want to see education build up and benefit our young people with something more than godless agnosticism put Christ into the hearts of our educators. If you want to end the miscarriage of justice in our land put Christ into the hearts of our judges and lawyers. If you want to see government work together for the good of our society put Christ into the hearts of our politicians. If you want to become a better parent, grandparent or human being put Christ into your own heart. Indeed godliness does have value for this present life.
But our Scripture does not end there. It goes on to say that godliness also has value for the life to come. We know that death is inevitable. In fact the older we become the faster life seems to pass us by. When I was a child it seemed like eternity between Christmases but now it seems like a blink of the eye. I put away our Christmas decorations and before I know it it seems like it is time to pull them out again. I have wondered if the orbit of the earth around the sun is picking up speed. But seriously life is passing us by quickly. We all know that we will not live here forever. Even with the modern advances in medicine and scientific breakthroughs in aging, we are only forestalling the inevitable.
Some skeptics will tell us that life has no meaning beyond this present existence. One poet asked the question:
Is this the whole sad story of creation,
Told by its toiling millions o’er and o’er?
One glimpse of day, then black annihilation,
A sunlit passage to a sunless shore?
The answer to such skepticism is “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” If someone asks you to prove that there is life beyond the grave, ask them to prove that there is not. If they challenge you to explain how a decomposed body or cremated remains can be resurrected to a new life, ask them to explain how a seed of a mighty oak tree can fall into the ground and die and then come forth as a new seedling that grows up to produce millions of new seeds. If they call your faith a childish hope or a flattering delusion just point them to the words of Christ in John 11:26, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
And what can we say of that life to come? Simply it is beyond our wildest imagination. The Bible says in Revelation 21:4, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Paul, who suffered a great deal for his faith, said, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
When faced with imminent death courageously ask these questions and hear these answers:
What is the cause of death? Sin.
What removes sin? The blood of Jesus Christ.
How can I have this blessing of His saving redemption? Through a penitent faith.
But this is something that we must do now. We cannot wait for no one knows the day or hour of their last breath. Admit your need for forgiveness. Turn away from all that you know is ungodly and put your trust in Christ. He will give you a life of value now and in the world to come.
The Roman Catholic Church came together for their 21st Ecumenical Council from 1962-1965 in what has been called Vatican II. It has been said that this Council was like a breath of fresh air that came into the Roman Catholic Church. Among many of the changes that were happening, a renewal in the working and gifts and power of the Holy Spirit broke out in the church beginning on the campus of Notre Dame. What became known as the Catholic charismatic movement went worldwide and is still flourishing in some places today. David DuPlessis, a South African Pentecostal, began to be thought of as a kind of counselor to the Catholics as well as to other denominations that began to experience Pentecost. In so doing some of his own Pentecostal brethren began to say that DuPlessis had backslidden. But God had his plan. He was invited to attend Vatican II as an observer. At one point a discussion began to surface as to whether or not it was correct to refer to Mary as the mother of the Church. They asked DuPlessis what he thought. He said that since Mary is the Mother of Christ and the Church is the Bride of Christ, that makes Mary our mother-in-law.
Seriously, we do call Mary the Mother of God because she bore Jesus who was both the Son of God and thus God of God and the Son of Mary. But as far as Mary was concerned, she was just a humble servant. In fact she is a perfect example of the Biblical axiom, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
If the world was looking for someone to be the mother of God, they would not have gone looking for a servant girl from a remote village, of which people said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth.” The world flocks around the rich and famous, the beautiful and talented. God, on the other hand, is far above all and He only looks down to find the lowliest among us. That was the mother of God. In fact, she herself recognized her own need for the Savior. She sings in verse 47, “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary did not think of herself above anyone. She was simply a young woman who needed to be saved. In our modern world sometimes women despise the idea of being the “damsel in distress.” They want to be as strong and assertive as men. But we have gotten it all backwards. God is not looking for strong and assertive women; He is looking for meek and humble men and women. Since the Church is pictured in the New Testament as the Bride of Christ, men and women both need to see themselves in submission to Him. How are you doing in that department? In verse 38, Mary said to the angel who had announced the miracle of the virgin birth to her, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Have we said that to Jesus?
This kind of humility is not something that is an optional attitude for Christians; without it no one is a Christian. The Bible says in Psalm 138:6, “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” For example, the person who says, “I can do whatever I want with my body,” is not speaking as a Christian would speak and may not even be one. He or she would be one that the Lord only looks at from a distance, like that Bette Midler song, God is Watching Us from a Distance. But God doesn’t want to watch us from a distance; He wants to have an up close and personal relationship with each one of us, but the only way that is possible is if we realize like Mary our “humble estate.”
Again we look to the Mother of God who sings in verse 50, “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Even in the Church we hear very little about the fear of God, yet the Mother of God says that God’s mercy is for those who fear Him. Whenever God showed up in the Bible people’s first reaction was usually to have the pajeebees scared off of them. He often has to say, “Fear not.” There are some churches who believe that we should no longer teach the fear of the Lord. They think that it is an antiquated, no longer useful, doctrine. God is love, they say, and we must always keep that at the forefront of the Church’s teaching. It is true that God is love and when human beings were living in Paradise that was all they knew. But once sin came into the world, the Bible is very clear that God was deeply wounded precisely because He is love and His holiness and His justice were stirred. The stories of Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the driving out of the Canaanites by Israel and many other Biblical passages express God’s holiness and justice. Lest we think that this is only the God of the Old Testament, all we need to do is read the last book of the New Testament, Revelation. Talk about scary!
In fact, one of the signs of unbelief is lack of the fear of the Lord. In describing man outside of Christ the Bible says in Romans 3:18, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” It is fine for them to say they don’t fear God now, when they are not facing the judgment seat of Christ, but if they do not fear Him now, they will be terrified of Him then. So the Mother of God teaches us the fear of the Lord. When the angel first approached her she was terrified but in verse 30 we read, “And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’” The fear made the favor all the more sweet.
Fear of the Lord and humility before Him, the two marks of Mary, are intimately connected. Mary was not looking to be “liberated” from her humble estate; it was in that humble estate that she became the Mother of God. She sings in verse 52, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” For those, like Mary, who are alarmed over their sins, who recognize their humble position before the Almighty God, there is wonderful news. They too will hear the same words of the Angel to Mary, “you have found favor with God.” It’s not that our humility earns God’s favor; but it is the only way to receive it.
Mary put it this way in verse 54, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.” Israel had been waiting for the Messiah for a long time, actually ever since the fall when God told the serpent that someday the seed of the woman would crush his head though in the process His heel would be wounded. But when He came most of Israel did not recognize Him and they condemned Him to death. When Pilate said that he was innocent of this man’s blood, the people replied, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25)! They did not know how true their words were, but not just for them, but especially for every sinner who repents and believes this Good News. The blood of Jesus washes away all our sins.
Bill Fischer is the Pastor of Lakes Area Christian Fellowship. He appreciates the rich history and Biblical truth that undergirds the Christian faith, while trusting in the renewing power of the Spirit to live out that faith in love for God and others.