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

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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

We All Need God

It’s true. We all need God.

I’m not talking about in the sense of salvation. Yes, we need God to save us from our wretched, sinful lives. But after that we still need Him. Perhaps more than we know. It’s not a one and done.

When life gets hard and crashes over you like massive ocean waves – you need God.

When the unexplainable happens to you – you need God.

When you’re suffering beyond what you can stand – you need God.

In those and a thousand other situations we know that we need Him. And, He knows that we need Him, and He encourages us to come to Him in our time of need (Philippians 4:6, Hebrews 4:14-16).

So, we do what the Psalmist did, and what God encourages us to do – we cry out to Him. We express our anxiety, our pain, our angst, hoping that He will come to our aid.

But He doesn’t always come – at least not when we think He should.

What’s with that? Didn’t He tell us to do exactly that and if we did, He would be there for us in our time of need (NIV Hebrews 4:16)? Not in His time – but in our time! When we are suffering the most. When it feels like we’re going down for the third and final time. Not later, Lord. NOW!

That phrase in our time of need has been difficult to understand since it was first penned.

The old Scottish theologian Alexander Maclaren offered this explanation: the right grace will be most surely given to me to help me in time of need, or, as the words may perhaps be more vigorously and correctly translated, find grace for timely aid, grace punctually and precisely at the very nick of time, at the very exact time determined by heaven’s chronometer, not by ours. It will not come as quickly as impatience might think it ought, it will not come so soon as to prevent an agony of prayer, it will not come in time enough for our impatience, for murmuring, for presumptuous desires; but it will come in time to do all that is needed.

The key is to understand the significance of the word need. It is need as seen from the mountaintop, not the valley. It is need seen from God’s perspective, not ours.

God knows the time of your need far better than you.

Peter’s time of need was not while he was on the water but when he was sinking. Lazarus’ time of need was not when he was sick but when he was in the grave. Paul’s time of need was not in the moment of his suffering but in the experience of never-ending grace.

God will meet us in our time of need which He alone knows.

So, faith hangs onto that truth even as we cry out with the Psalmist My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear (Psalm 22:1).

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

The World We Live In

Anyone born before 1970 probably has a good idea of just how much our society has changed in the past sixty years. Before 1960 illegal immigration was a minor issue confined to a few specific states. Drugs were something that only happened in a couple of major metropolitan areas. The vast majority of the population disapproved of same sex relationships. Terrorism only happened in some remote corners of the world.

Sometime around 1960 that all began to change.

I don’t want to paint too idyllic a picture of the pre-60’s world. While many of the issues that we face today were either not present or existed only in an embryonic stage, there were plenty of ugly and sinful things about our society. Racism was rampant (if you think it’s bad now, it was worse then), Christianity was the proverbial lukewarm (Revelation 3:15f) in many churches, abuse, particularly in families, in all it’s ugly forms was normally swept under the rug, and sexual immorality, especially among Christians was too easily ignored.

No, life before 1960 was no Shangri-La and it was only Father Knows Best on our television sets.

That said, it’s true that we are living in a very different world today. We are dealing with issues that only the most perceptive people understood were potentialities.

Which makes me wonder what our world will look like in another sixty years? What issues will our children or grandchildren have to deal with?

And even more importantly, how can we prepare them for what we don’t know?

That’s where the unchanging Word of God comes into play.

We need to teach future generations of Christians the timeless truths and principles from God’s Word to guide their thoughts and actions. Issues have changed throughout history and they will continue to change. Future generations of Christians will have to deal with things that we can’t even begin to imagine today. And that’s the beauty of having something that never changes. Every generation can examine the issues they face against the same standard that every preceding generation used – God’s Word.

God told Israel, I am the Lord God – I don’t change (Malachi 3:6, see also James 1:17). Because God is eternal and does not change, what He says in His Word is also eternal and unchanging.  That’s why the Apostle Peter can write to his generation that His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who has called us (2 Peter 1:3) and we can still hold onto its truth in every succeeding generation.

While the world around us changes, every generation of Christians can judge the issues they face by the timeless teachings of God’s Word and be confident that they can handle whatever comes their way.

I remember when my daughters worked as bank tellers during their college years. The bank didn’t teach them what counterfeit bills looked or felt like – there were too many potential varieties. Instead they taught them what legitimate bills looked and felt like so that when a counterfeit bill came their way they would know something was not right.

That’s what we need to do with the Word of God. Teach truth so that when error comes along, we’ll know that something is not right.

It’s not the issues that we should be focused on, it’s the Word of God.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

The Ministry of Presence

When I first started going to Haiti thirty years ago, missionary Dan Shoemaker would talk about The Ministry of Presence. Haiti has been such a needy country for so long that it doesn’t seem like any of the missionary efforts (by either short-term and long-term missionaries) or humanitarian efforts have made even a dent in the problems.

The situation remains hopeless, at least from our perspective.

That’s where The Ministry of Presence comes in. Just being there.

I remember in the early days meeting with the leadership of a Haitian church. We were discussing how we as an American church could help them. They came up with a lengthy list of options for us, far more than we would be able to do. Being inexperienced in their culture I was overwhelmed with their needs. But we had asked and they answered as honestly as they could.

In my mind, what I heard was – We need your money – if you come with it that’s optional. So, being the prototypical American (blunt, to the point etc.) I asked, If you had to chose one, money or us, which one would you choose?

It took less than 5 seconds for them to respond, We want you to come!

What they wanted more than our money was our presence.

I’ve learned in the years since then that it is my presence in Haiti that makes the most difference. Just to be there with them in their suffering. To sit in their homes no matter how poor; to preach in their churches, sometimes with cracks in the walls so big that I can see farmers herding their goats down the street outside. Just to be there.

The Ministry of Presence is not just for a Third World Country like Haiti. It’s not just for missions. We all have the opportunity to practice The Ministry of Presence with those around us. With the widow who has just lost her husband. With the neighbor who is discouraged. With someone at church who is struggling with God.

The Ministry of Presence is just to be there. To talk – maybe. To pray – perhaps. To encourage – always.

But most importantly just to be there.

To let God use your presence in the lives of other people when they feel like no one cares. No one understands. No one will take the time out of their busy schedules to simply sit with them.

We all know the story of Job in the Old Testament. How he was attacked by Satan until he had nothing left. How his friends came to comfort him but actually ended up making his situation somewhat worse with their ill-timed theological explanations of suffering.

But what we often miss in the story of Job is that his friends started out well. They started out simply practicing The Ministry of Presence. Job 2:13 says they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great. That’s The Ministry of Presence.

Perhaps had they stopped there Job’s suffering would have been different. But they didn’t stop there – they began to lecture Job and try to explain why God allowed him to go through such great suffering which only added to Job’s pain.

There will be times in life when giving advice or council is appropriate. But there will also be times when The Ministry of Presence is what is needed. I suspect that we often error toward the former and not the latter. For some reason it’s easier to talk than to keep quiet.

It takes great discernment to know when to keep quiet and simply be there. To simply practice The Ministry of Presence.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve