So You Think You’re in Charge?!

In our Adult Bible Fellowship at church we’re studying the book of Proverbs. As part of our study we’re encouraging everyone to read a chapter of Proverbs a day for the four months that we’ll be in this study. 31 chapters in 30 or 31 days. By the end of the study they will have read through Proverbs four times. That’s a good way to imprint the truths  of God’s Word on our minds.

Today was Proverbs 16 (September 16 – get it?).

One of the things that jumped out at me this morning was just how much God is involved in our lives – even when we think we’re in Charge.

Three verses in particular from this chapter emphasize just how much God is involved in our lives.

Proverbs 16:1 – The preparations of the heart belong to man but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.

Proverbs 16:9 – A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.

Proverbs 16:33 – The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.

If there is one thing these verses teach it is that God is ultimately sovereign over the affairs of our lives.

We can make preparations, plan our way and even make decisions the old fashion way by casting lots, but God is in control.

We don’t understand how it all works but somehow God takes even our worst decisions, our messed up plans and our flip of the coin and uses them for His good.

That doesn’t excuse us from making good plans, but it does encourage us that even when we make plans that are not the best plans, it won’t frustrate God. He is bigger than any of our plans.

At least four times the writer of Psalms declares the Lord reigns, affirming the fact that God is sovereign (Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1). And in the final book of the Bible, the Apostle John quotes a great multitude in heaven who declare Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! (Revelation 19:6).

It was that truth that George Fredrick Handel picked up and used in the Hallelujah Chorus as the focus of his soul-stirring masterpiece, that we know as Handel’s Messiah. You can listen to the Royal Chorus Society sing it here.

Some people are put off by the teaching that God is sovereign. I find it a comfort for several reasons.

-If the outcome of my life depends on my decisions rather than on God’s sovereignty it’s going to end badly – very badly.

-The truth that God is in control gives me infinitely more comfort than knowing that I’m cast onto the whims of fate, my own plans or someone else’s decisions.

-Because God is good (see Luke 18:19), I know that His control of my life will be good. I can’t even trust my own control to always be good.

-Since God knows the beginning from the end, He knows what is best for me. I don’t.

For these and many more reasons I can rest quietly in the sovereignty of God.

Rather than see God’s sovereignty as a restriction in life, see it as a benefit. Something that helps you do life God’s way.

You might think that you are in charge of your life, but thankfully you’re not. Someone much wiser, more powerful, and infinitely more loving is in control.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

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Small is Not Insignificant

I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything significant in life. I don’t see the results I would like. The wheels keep spinning but it doesn’t produce many visible outcomes. That happens often in small, rural churches.

Words like insignificant, unimportant, irrelevant, inconsequential are often part of my mental vocabulary. We don’t normally equate small with significant.

One reason for this equivalency is that our culture has taught us that large is better than small. Everyone strives for big. Bigger businesses. Bigger churches. Bigger events. No one likes small. Small is bad.

But is it?

Certainly there are times when small is not ideal – when growth is not only desirable but necessary. But is small always bad and large always good?

Not necessarily.

There were times when God used the small – even the insignificant to advance His Kingdom.

He chose Israel to represent Him on this earth, not because they were big or mighty but because they were small. He specifically said that He chose them because they were the least of all peoples (Deuteronomy 7:7).

He selected David the youngest and the smallest of his family (1 Samuel 16:11-12) to take down the giant, Goliath and then to rule His people.

He used a little servant girl to bring healing to General Naaman (2 Kings 5) and He picked another little girl from an insignificant village to bear the Messiah (Luke 1).

All of them small but not insignificant.

That’s just the way God works. He sometimes chooses to use the little things instead of the big things.

Which should say several things to us.

One is that God is OK with small things. They aren’t insignificant to Him. In fact, they are important enough for Him to use in His eternal plan.

Another is that God can use small things for big purposes. All of the illustrations I gave above testify to this.

A third is that small things have the potential to have an impact/influence that is out of proportion to their size. That’s encouraging.

I’m not trying to defend staying small. I’m just saying that small is not the end of the world when it comes to serving God.

If God has you in a small place, serve Him well. You’ll never know what kind of impact you will have.

And in that reality, I find great encouragement.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Grace for the Race

I read this statement recently: Grace for the Race.

Forrest Gump was right, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get until you take one and bite into it. But the imagery differs from reality. With a box of chocolates you always get something sweet. With life you sometimes get something bitter. Mixed in with the sweet chocolates are bitter pills of anxiety, illness, suffering, and disappointment.

But for the Christian there is Grace for the Race. That’s exactly what we need and it’s freely given.

In our staff prayer time at SVBC we pray for the people in our church – those who aren’t able to attend as often as they use to because of age or health; those who are going through difficult health issues; those who are struggling spiritually; those who are facing trials that we don’t know about because they have not shared them; those who are involved in ministries; and of course everyone else.

What all of these people need is Grace for the Race.

Two passages came to mind as I read that statement. The first was from the writings of the Apostle John who wrote: And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace (John 1:16). Another way of translating that last phrase is grace on top of grace.

The idea is that God’s grace cannot be exhausted.

F. F. Bruce, in his commentary compares God’s grace to the waves of the ocean, one wave on top of another. One wave replacing another. He writes There is no limit to the supply of grace which God has placed at His people’s disposal in Christ.

Which means that you will always have Grace for the Race. It will always be there for you.

The other passage was from the pen of the Apostle Paul, when he wrote: My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:9).

In the context Paul asking God to take away what he called his thorn in the flesh. But God didn’t remove it as Paul asked (even the Apostle Paul didn’t have all of his prayers answered the way he wanted them to be answered.).

When you think of all of the trials that Paul went through in his Christian experience – beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, stonings etc. (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-27), this was the only one he asked God to remove. His thorn in the flesh was especially difficult.

Why would God refuse to remove it?

Because He had something even better for Paul. It’s called Grace.

What Paul needed more than relief from suffering was Grace for the Race.

That’s what we need most days – but we don’t know it. Thankfully God does.

He knows that His grace is enough for our trials.

Take those two thoughts with you today – God’s grace is always available, and God’s grace is enough. Let them sustain you, support you, nourish you. Don’t look for grace for tomorrow. Ask God for enough grace to get you through today with all of its trials, hardships, and problems of.

Ask Him for Grace for the Race.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Spend Time With Him – Get to Know Him

Two things happened to me recently that at first didn’t seem to have anything in common.

The first was an email exchange I had with someone who tried to justify their ungodly anger by saying that even Jesus became angry. The very fact that they tried to make that claim to justify their sinful behavior showed just how far into left field they are spiritually.

The second was a Facebook post of a remote setting in Pennsylvania that I immediately recognized even though it had not been identified. I recognized it because I had just been there.

So, what do a misguided appeal to Jesus and an unidentified photo have in common?

Just this. If you want to know Jesus you have to spend time with Him.

The writer of the email mistakenly appealed to the righteous actions of Jesus to justify their unrighteous actions because they don’t spend enough time with Him to know Him.

I was able to identify the photo on Facebook because I had just spent time in the same place so it was instantly recognizable.

Put together the lesson is: If you want to know Jesus you have to spend time with Jesus. Don’t assume you can know Him if you aren’t with Him.

One of the problems is that most Christians assume that they’ve spent time with Jesus because they went to church on Sunday. An hour on Sunday morning is helpful but it’s not enough. The Disciples of Jesus knew Him intimately because they spent three years with Him, 24/7. You get to know someone when you spend that much time with them.

In the early church, in the days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles faced opposition from the Jewish leaders because they were proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. When these unlearned fishermen were taken before the religious leaders of Israel to answer for their actions, the Bible says: Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).

Being with Jesus is what made the difference.

If you spend enough time with Jesus you’ll be able to recognize when something is good or bad. You won’t fall victim to Satan’s lies. You’ll begin to think like Him. Your life will begin to reflect His life. It will make a difference.

Too many Christians spend so little time with Jesus that He’s more like a stranger to them than a friend.

Spend Time With Him – Get to Know Him.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

We Are Them

I don’t know who first coined the phrase we have met the enemy and he is us. I first remember reading it in the comic strip Pogo, written by cartoonist Walt Kelly, featuring a group of animal characters who lived in the Okefenokkee Swamp.

Intended to be both humorous and convicting, it exposed the truth that we are often what we despise and criticize.

Protests aside, we are Patrick Crusius and Connor Betts.

At least in God’s eyes. And His opinion is the only one that really counts.

Two passages illustrate the point.

You have heard that it was said to those of old; You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28).

Lust is not just a dirty thought – it’s adultery in God’s book.

Whoever hates his brother is a murderer (1 John 3:15).

Hate is not just anger – it’s murder according to God.

If people could see our hearts, they would find out that some of us (many?) are serial adulterers and serial murderers.

And those are the Christians.

Another passage puts us in even deeper. James 2:10 says Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he is guilty of all. So you haven’t committed mass murder but you’ve lied, or gossiped, or stolen, or ____________ (fill in the blank).

That makes you a lawbreaker and as guilty as Patrick or Connor.

There’s no room for self-righteousness here. We all stand guilty of heinous crimes.

If you don’t like what I’m saying – I don’t either. I see myself as a law-abiding citizen. On top of that, I’m think I’m OK with God.

But I’m not and neither are you. Not in God’s kingdom anyway.

You might be a law-abiding citizen as far as the laws of this country are concerned but you’re not as far as God is concerned. At the Supreme Court of the Universe you would be found a serial sinner.

And that’s why Jesus came so we, each of us, can find forgiveness. If we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Forgiven yes. That’s grace.

But we still sinned. We still committed adultery. We still murdered.

We would all be justifiably outraged if Patrick Crusius told the judge he was sorry – he confessed his sin; he asked for forgiveness, and the judge let him go because he was remorseful.

I know that the analogy breaks down (our sin was put on Jesus), but my point is, that is often how we treat our sin. It’s easy to confess our serial adultery (lust); our serial murders (hate) and walk away as if nothing happened.

Because, after all, we confessed it.

Why don’t we feel the same outrage over our sin as we do over their sin?

It’s not that Patrick Crusius and Connor Betts are us. It’s that we are them.

There is no difference between their sin and my sin. Without Jesus, were we to stand before God we would be equally guilty.

And that’s the sobering reality.

My point is that we are outraged by what happened in El Paso and Dayton, but we treat our sin differently. It’s not so bad.

But it is.

We need to be as outraged about our sin as we are about their sin.

It just depends on the perspective – and it’s God’s perspective that counts, not ours.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Not for Sissies

Before she died my mother use to say, Old age isn’t for sissies! I’m sure that it wasn’t original with her – someone probably said something similar thousands of years ago. But it does express a certain generalization, i.e. most people struggle with the aches and pains brought on by age. Old age is hard.

In the same way it’s true to say that Christianity isn’t for sissies! Over the years there has been a vein of evangelical Christianity that has soft peddled the cost of following Jesus (often referred to by the term discipleship). At the very least, people are not exposed to the cost, at the very worst they have been misled and perhaps even told that following Jesus will be easy.

But following Jesus is a life of counting the cost – it may be a life of hardship and it’s certainly a life of surrender. That’s Jesus faith.

The cost of discipleship will be different for each of us. Throughout history some Christians have had to pay with their lives (see Hebrews 11) while others have been, in the words of Isaac Watts, carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease (Am I a Soldier of the Cross).

Why is it that some suffer greatly while others hardly at all?

The cost of following Jesus isn’t necessarily measured in terms of the magnitude of the suffering experienced. It’s measured in the willingness of the heart.

In a podcast called, Following Christ is Costly – But How Do You Count the Cost? Pastor John Piper, commenting on Luke 14:25-33, one of the hard passages of scripture, says this:

 “How do we count the cost in advance when we don’t know what the cost will be in advance?” The answer is, you assume the cost could be total. All possessions given up, all relationships given up, all of life given up. That’s the expectation that Jesus calls for.

When you decide to follow Jesus, the expectation is that you surrender all to Him. The reality may not be that for you but the expectation is. The willingness is what counts.

Piper goes on to say there’s no negotiating here with Jesus. It’s all or nothing. Disciples are all in, or they’re not in (Piper). That is true even if you didn’t understand it when you became a Christian.

But don’t run from the hardships because there’s good news coming. I want to end with this lengthy but encouraging quote from Piper.

Disciples are all in, or they’re not in. That’s what the text is saying. But let’s make sure . . . [we] get this in right perspective, because just a few paragraphs earlier — in this same chapter — Jesus said, after he laid down some pretty high costs, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14).

In other words, “There is no cost that you can pay in following me that won’t be made up to you a thousand fold in the resurrection.” And we need to remember Matthew 13:44, which says, “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.” A man sees and sells everything he has — everything he has! — to get that treasure. In other words, all the so-called costs and all the so-called losses — everything — are nothing compared to the gains of having Jesus, the greatest treasure.

So yes, we must count the cost in order to be a disciple. The cost is total in principle and may be total in actual experience. In the end, having Jesus means gain, like Paul says: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

How Should Christians Respond to the Immigration Debate?

One of the hot-button topics in our country today is the debate over immigration. I’m referring specifically to those individuals from other countries who attempt to bypass the normal channels of legal immigration.

We’ve been inundated in recent weeks with news coverage over the separation of families; the conditions of the detention centers; raids by ICE in various cities; and the competing and contradictory viewpoints of the political parties. It’s impossible to imagine that there is anyone in our country who isn’t aware of this issue and who doesn’t have some kind of opinion on it.

The way that you view this issue will primarily determine your response to it. You can frame it as primarily a legal issue, a moral issue, a compassion issue, an economic issue, a societal issue, or a political issue.  How you frame this issue will largely determine which side of the debate you fall on.

Each viewpoint has its go-to arguments that for them provides an iron-clad answer. It would be interesting for someone to look at this issue taking into consideration all of the different points of view equally and offering a solution.

For the Christian (and that’s who I primarily write for) this is also a spiritual issue. And that should be where we begin.

Let me make it clear that I am not addressing this in the framework of a national policy as much as I am your own personal attitude. A Christian’s first concern should be our personal perspective.

However, even framing the immigration debate in a spiritual context does not guarantee agreement (when did we ever have agreement when it comes to the spiritual?!). But there are a few things as Christians that we need to consider as each of us develop our own personal opinion.

Let me give you a few things to think about.

First, the Bible has a lot to say about immigrants, especially in the Old Testament, and we need to take all of it into account, remembering that Israel spent time as immigrants in Egypt. I understand that America is not Israel but the various statements in the Old Testament related to the foreigner/alien/stranger (all terms related to non-Israelites) show us something about the heart of God. Statements like the following need to be considered.

You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21).

If a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33).

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. (Zechariah 7:10).

These statements address a number of different issues related to the immigrants in Israel, but one of the primary applications is how they relate to the worth and the dignity of a person. We are to treat illegal immigrants the same way we treat anyone else in terms of their worth and their dignity.

Another consideration is Christ’s statement in Matthew 22 that we are to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). This doesn’t refer just to just those who are in our country legally. It refers to anyone you come into contact with. In the context of the immigration debate, how do you love your illegal neighbor?

A third consideration for the Christian is the relative importance of this world in contrast to the next. Even though Abraham lived in a land promised to him by God, he was not tied to that land. In fact, we’re told that he lived there as if he was living in a foreign country. For him the Promise Land was not home for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:9-10).

Abraham was all about what is to come, not what is now. And that should be our perspective. On a scale of 1-10 where we live now doesn’t even make the chart compared to the 10 of heaven. Which makes the spiritual viewpoint far more significant than any other.

One way to assess where you stand on this issue is to ask yourself the question, What’s more important to me, keeping the illegal immigrant out of my country or helping him/her get to heaven? You answer reveals your heart.

Finally, take into consideration that people are always more important than policies. Jesus came for people not policies. Jesus died for people not policies. Jesus rose for people not policies. And Jesus is coming back for people not policies.

I understand that for our nation, or any nation to function there has to be laws and policies. And because every leader is human, every policy will be less than perfect. But again, my emphasis is not on policy but on our attitudes toward this delicate issue.

Sometimes as Christians we hide our less than admirable attitudes behind the language of policy.

One of the most helpful articles I’ve read from a Christian perspective on the immigration issue is What the Bible Says About the Current Immigration Crisis. You can read it at https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/bible-immigration.

And remember, always, always, always make it about people not policies. If you have to err, do it on the side of people, not policies.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve