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Thanksgiving in Sorrow

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Last Sunday night, Clay led the young families’ devotion, and he focused our study on 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which tells us that we are to give thanks in all circumstances.  Clay observed, and rightly so, that “all” means “all”.  Even in times of sorrow, Christians are supposed to be thankful people.

That raised the question, though, of how we do that.  How can I be thankful when I’m in the middle of some horrible trial, when everything in my life is going wrong, and the last thing I want to do is to thank God for anything? 

We batted around some answers to that question, but as I was meditating on it over the next few days, it struck me that a different answer appears in the Psalms.  As hopefully our Bible reading plan this year has shown us, many psalms are written from dark places.  They reveal God’s people grappling with the same kinds of trials we face.  And yet, with only one exception that I can think of, even the most downcast psalms are psalms of thanksgiving too.  With that in mind, let’s turn to Psalm 77 this evening to learn how we can offer thanksgiving in sorrow.

The first thing that we see in Psalm 77 is THE PSALMIST’S UNHAPPINESS.  Look at Psalm 77:1-4.  The thing that jumps out from this text is that the psalmist is doing what he ought to be doing, but it’s not working.  He’s praying, he’s expressing his confidence that God will hear him, but God is not giving him the peace that he wants.

In particular, the psalm paints a vivid picture of his misery at night.  He can’t sleep, he’s praying all night long, but despite this constant prayer, he can’t find any peace.  His misery continues, and it so oppresses his thoughts that he can’t string a coherent sentence together.

I don’t know about you brethren, but I identify with this.  There have been many times in my life when I felt exactly this way, right down to the insomnia and misery all night long.  I think this is a perfectly legitimate place for a Christian to be.  We can be righteous and miserable at the same time.  Jesus himself was called a man of sorrows, despite being perfectly righteous.  When we demand constant happiness from ourselves and our brethren, we are holding up a standard that goes beyond anything that God asks.  No matter how faithful we are, all of us will encounter suffering.  It’s the nature of life in this fallen world.

Indeed, his predicament leads the psalmist to QUESTIONING GOD’S GOODNESS.  Let’s read from Psalm 77:5-9.  You know, this is one of the places in the Bible when I have to stop and appreciate God’s compassion for us as shown by His revelation.  It’s so important that the Psalms aren’t happy-happy joy-joy all the time.  They show that even the most faithful of God’s people go through times of questioning and doubt.

I think there are two lessons for us here.  First, for those of us who aren’t going through those hard times right now, but are around those who are, we need to learn to accept faith questions as a natural response to suffering.  It is not ungodly for Christians to wonder aloud if God ever will allow them to be happy again! 

Second, though, if we are the ones going through the valley, we have to make sure that our questions are genuine.  Are we asking these things because we want reassurance, or are we asking them because we are looking for an excuse to leave the Lord? 

The first, as I’ve said, is completely legitimate.  The second isn’t.  There’s nothing wrong with engaging God in our doubt.  There is something wrong with refusing to engage Him because we doubt.

What keeps the psalmist from going down that dark road is his RESOLVE TO REMEMBER.  Consider Psalm 77:10-12.  This is the key turning point in the psalm.  Even when he’s in the middle of this terrible suffering, the psalmist says, “I’m not going to think about my horrible present and judge God on that basis.  I’m going to remember everything that I have learned about God from the past.”

This is important because it highlights one of Satan’s great deceptions.  Remember how last week I said every temptation has a lie in it?  Here, we see the lie in the temptation of suffering.  When we are experiencing suffering, Satan wants us to get tunnel vision about that suffering.  He wants us to make our judgments about God solely on the basis of our current horrible experience.  He wants us to conclude that because we are unhappy right now, God is not a good God, and there is no purpose in serving Him.

When we remember the past, we defeat this lie.  If we’re going to put God on trial, we’d better make sure we’re bringing in all the evidence, and our current suffering does not provide all the evidence there is.  When God’s people have suffered in the past, how has He dealt with them?  For that matter, when we’ve gone through hard times before in our lives, how has God dealt with us?  If we’re going to be fair, those are the questions we must ask.

This takes us, then, to THE IMPORTANCE OF THANKSGIVING.  Let’s conclude the psalm by reading Psalm 77:13-20.  Notice that the psalmist isn’t thanking and praising God for what he is going through right now.  Instead, he is looking to the past.  In particular, he is looking to the time when God delivered the Israelites by parting the Red Sea so they could escape from the Egyptians.

That wasn’t a happy time either.  Before God acted, the Israelites were convinced that He had led them out into the wilderness only to die under the Egyptian chariots.  However, God confirmed His faithfulness by delivering them with a display of power so great that none of them could have imagined beforehand what He would do.

Even though the psalmist doesn’t spell this out, his conclusion is plainly implied.  He is comforted because God’s past deliverance of his people shows that God will deliver him personally.  Even though the present is awful, the past reveals what the future will be like.

This is why thanksgiving in sorrow is so vital for us too.  When we pause, even in the middle of suffering, to glorify God for His past goodness, it reminds us that He is faithful and will surely bless us once again.  Has God ever abandoned us before?  For that matter, do we see Him ever abandoning any of His faithful people?  If the answer is “No,” we can be sure that He won’t abandon us this time either.

Other Spiritual Beings Today

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

After my sermon last week on the work of the devil today, I figured I was done with the series.  However, then I got to talking after services with Wayne and Carolyn, and they mentioned that they were curious about what angels might be doing today.

I think I might have to stretch to get to 25 minutes about the things I was sure angels were doing today, but angels are far from alone in the spiritual realm.  We often think of the great spiritual struggle as being between God and the devil, but in reality, things are considerably more complex than that. 

There are all sorts of beings about whom we know little, and probably others about whom we know nothing.  However, many of these beings either have exerted or still are exerting influence in the lives of God’s people.  Let’s spend some time this evening, then, considering the work of other spiritual beings today.

The first class of such beings that I want to consider is the ANGELS.  We see the classic statement of the work of angels in Hebrews 1:13-14.  Contextually, the Hebrews writer is drawing a contrast between Jesus and the angels.  In v. 13, he quotes from Psalm 110 to show that Jesus currently is reigning at the right hand of the throne of God in heaven.  On the other hand, the angels are ministering spirits who render service to Christians.  Jesus as King is thus superior to angels as servants.

Even though it’s incidental to his argument, the writer in passing also reveals a great deal about what angels are up to today.  There’s no time limit on Hebrews 1:14.  We’re just as much Christians as our brethren in the first century, so it follows that God sends out His angels to aid us too. 

It may be, in fact, that many of the answers to prayer that we attribute to God are really the work of angels.  After all, even if they aren’t the Almighty, the angels still are very powerful entities.  The same heavenly messengers who slaughtered 185,000 Assyrians in the days of Hezekiah are perfectly capable of keeping us safe on our car trip!

More provocatively, there’s reason to believe that angels continue to work through dreams.  I admit to being a little suspicious when people say that they are guided directly by the Holy Spirit because everybody in the New Testament who experienced similar guidance was a gifted prophet.  I think promptings from the Spirit are probably associated with miraculous gifts.

However, the same thing isn’t true with respect to angelic visions.  For instance, Joseph the husband of Mary had an angel speak to him in a dream, and though a righteous man, he was not a gifted one.  There are many others in Scripture, some of whom weren’t even part of God’s people, who were sent true dreams.  The wife of Pilate is a prominent example here.  Additionally, there is no 1 Corinthians 13-like expiration date for angelic visitations.

However, before we put too much emphasis on dreams, we need to pay attention to Paul’s warning in Colossians 2:18-19.  He wants us to understand that focusing on visions can lead Christians away from Christ.  However else God may be working in our lives, we know for certain that He works through the gospel of Jesus, and we always must remain faithful to that!

Next, let’s consider UNCLEAN SPIRITS.  Interestingly, the most revealing passage about their work today appears in the Old Testament.  Turn with me to Zechariah 13:1-3.  The first verse of this reading sets the stage.  It tells us that everything else in the reading will happen when a fountain is opened in Jerusalem to cleanse God’s people from sin.  In context with the last part of Zechariah 12, which is clearly Messianic, it’s easy for us to conclude that this is about things that will happen after Jesus completed His saving work.

In the time when the fountain will be opened, Zechariah predicts that two things will happen.  First, people won’t worship idols any more in the land of Canaan.  That certainly happened.  To this day, all the people who live in Palestine, Jew and Muslim alike, are monotheists.

Second, God promises that He will remove both the prophet and the unclean spirit.  This is a truly fascinating prediction for a number of reasons.  First, the only way for God to remove prophets is to stop bestowing the gift of prophecy.  Thus, along with 1 Corinthians 13, this is a text that foresees the end of miraculous spiritual gifts, and it says that their end will come close to the time of Jesus. 

Also, this passage tells us why we don’t have to deal with demons and demonic possession anymore.  God removed the unclean spirits at the same time as He removed the prophets.  Sure, the devil still can tempt us today, but he can’t send one of his servants to take over our bodies and make us do things against our will.  The unclean spirits are not working today.  I, at least, find that extremely reassuring!

Finally, this passage implies an equivalency between the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the one hand and possession by unclean spirits on the other.  The more of the one you have, the more of the other you have too. 

Indeed, this tracks the pattern of demonic possession recorded in Scripture.  During the ministry of Jesus, demons were everywhere, legions of them, because Jesus had the Holy Spirit more abundantly than anyone else ever.  By contrast, even in the book of Acts, demons aren’t as prominent.  This text implies that they aren’t so significant because the apostles didn’t have the Holy Spirit to the same measure that Jesus did.  In short, it seems like one of the rules of the contest between God and the devil is that neither side gets to have more of a supernatural presence on earth than the other.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to THE SPIRITUAL FORCES OF EVIL.  They make their appearance in Ephesians 6:11-12.  Sometimes, I think we’re inclined to read this verse as being about powerful, evil people, but that doesn’t fit the text.  Notice that these are cosmic powers.  They are spiritual forces.  They abide in the heavenly places, which is Ephesians-ese for the spiritual realm.  Nonetheless, despite not being unclean spirits, apparently, these spiritual forces of wickedness cooperate with Satan in trying to overwhelm Christians.  The devil has his servants too.

Note, by the way, that I think that the spiritual realm is far more complicated than any of us have any idea.  In addition to the angels, the cherubim, and the seraphim, when Paul talks about Jesus creating thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities, I think those are spiritual rather than earthly beings too.  They’re part of some heavenly hierarchy that we don’t know anything about because their business does not concern us.

However, we are the business of the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  The bad news is that the devil has helpers, but the good news is that we fight those helpers in the same way that we fight the devil.  In fact, the whole armor of God, which we’re so familiar with from countless sermons, is effective in defeating these bad guys too.

The Kindlers of Strife

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Most of us don’t like causing controversy and stirring up trouble.  However, some do.  In Proverbs 25:21, Solomon warns, “As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.”  To use a more modern metaphor, people like this are a spark to gunpowder.  With seemingly little effort, they cause an explosion.

Certainly, Christians should not be quarrelsome.  Especially in our dealings with brethren, but also in our dealings with everyone, we should seek to unite and reconcile.  If that means keeping our lips clamped down on personal opinions that others find offensive, so be it!  Romans 12:18 urges us to live peaceably with everyone so far as it is possible with us, and even if limiting our self-expression may not be pleasant, it is certainly possible.

Indeed, the only inflammatory views that Christians should express are those that come from the law of God.  Like Paul, we are to declare the whole counsel of God, even knowing that it will prove divisive. 

Too often, though, brethren shy away from proclaiming the gospel while freely expressing their provocative personal views on any number of topics.  They get the Biblical pattern exactly backwards. 

The sources of this problem are obvious.  There are many in our society, of every political and philosophical persuasion imaginable, who do not honor the Bible’s teachings on the importance of peace.  Instead, their goal in life is to stir up strife. 

This is often quite calculated.  They know that if they take a loud, obnoxious stand on some contentious issue, they will get lots of attention.  Half the people will hear them, get infuriated, and start screaming back.  The other half will hear them, applaud them for “telling it like it is”, and scream in the opposite direction. 

Page views and video clicks skyrocket.  Blood-pressure readings elevate.  Our poor, divided country becomes even more divided, as suspicion of the other increases.  People become more cynical, more embittered, less warm and loving. 

Incalculable spiritual damage is done, but the instigators don’t care because they got money and attention out of the deal.  Next week, they will try to do the same thing again and recklessly cause even more damage.  Only God knows where it will end, but the outcome won’t be good.

As Christians, we need to be very, very suspicious of the professional disturbers of the peace.  They want to manipulate us too.  They want to use fear and anger to enroll us in their hateful little tribes.  Even though it’s true that fear and anger leave no room in our hearts for the love of Christ, they’re not concerned about that. 

We need to be concerned.  Paul points out in Romans 13:8 that love is something we owe to everybody.  To Christians, there is no “them”, other than the devil and his angels.  We are on everybody’s side, even the side of the people who aren’t on our side.  When we stop listening to Christ’s call to service and self-sacrifice, we become less than the disciples He wants us to be.

Watch out for the strife-kindlers.   Watch out for the people who want us to look at others with anything less than love.  When they provoke enmity in our hearts, it is not the work of God that they are doing.  It’s the work of someone else.

The Virtuous Man, Part 3

Friday, August 16, 2019

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul tells Timothy to preach the word in season and out of season.  As every preacher knows, this can be a difficult act to follow.  It’s one thing to tell people what they’re eager to hear; it’s quite another to tell them what you know they don’t want to hear!  However, a faithful gospel preacher cannot be deterred by circumstances from preaching the word.

In Job 31, Job wants us to understand that being a man of God is the same way.  Sometimes, being righteous is in season.  It’s what all your friends want you to do.  It’s what you want to do.  It’s easy.  Sometimes, though, righteousness is out of season.  We don’t have people encouraging us.  Maybe we’re entirely alone.  Even then, though, the right thing to do is still the right thing.  Let’s see how this works out in the final portion of our study of the virtuous man.

First, being a virtuous man means having COMPASSION.  In this, let’s turn our attention to Job 31:29-30.  Really, there are two issues here.  The first is in v. 30—it’s the problem of actively cursing your enemy before God.  The second is in v. 29.  Even if you haven’t cursed the one who hates you, are you happy when bad things happen to him?

As Christians, we generally don’t have much trouble with the first of these.  We know that “Pray for those who persecute you,” doesn’t mean praying for God to strike them down!  About that second one, though, let’s be honest.  Let’s say that somebody has been dumping bucketloads of grief on you, and then their life gets sunk.  Isn’t there some part inside each one of us that smirks a little bit and says, “Boy, he sure had that coming”?

Job wants us to understand that that part isn’t godly.  We shouldn’t take pleasure in anyone’s suffering, even the suffering of those who quite frankly deserve it.  Sure, if something bad happened to us, folks like that would be laughing it up, but we have a higher calling than that.  It’s easy to be like the world.  It’s hard to be like Jesus.

This must be our spirit even when we’re pretty sure that we’re witnessing divine judgment for sin.  God certainly will destroy the wicked, but He has told us that He takes no pleasure in it.  Even as we acknowledge that the judgments of the Lord are right, we must mourn their necessity.  Otherwise, we’re no better than the people who hate us.

Second, the virtuous man shows MERCY.  Let’s continue in Job 31:31-32.  We’ve seen similar statements to this in Job 31 already, but this text makes it clear how universal the mercy of the man of God is.  We’ve got a neat picture of this in v. 31.  It’s like Job’s servants are standing around gossiping about him, and they’re saying to each other, “Man!  Is there anybody this guy won’t help???”

After this, the text singles out two particular recipients of the man of God’s mercy.  The second is the traveler, people who are just passing through.  The righteous man will be compassionate to people like that and offer them the opportunity to stay in his home.

The first, though, is the sojourner.  Other translations call this character the stranger, the alien, or the foreigner.  We might call him the immigrant.  This is somebody who is from another country who has been driven by economic need to relocate to a foreign land and try to provide for himself there.  In the early part of the book of Ruth, Naomi and her family are sojourners.

The man of God offers a place to sojourners too, and he does that for the same reason we’ve seen all along.  God loves all weak, vulnerable people, the no-counters that the world despises, and that applies to the immigrant too.  More than anyone else, children of the heavenly Father ought to welcome and help the foreigner.  After all, our citizenship isn’t from around here either.

Third, the virtuous man is a man of INTEGRITY.  Our reading continues in Job 31:33-37.  Probably all of us have heard the saying that character is what we do when no one is watching, and that’s the point that Job is making.  There are all too many people out there who don’t really want to do right, but they do right because they’re afraid of the disapproval of others.  As a result, they either sin when no one is watching or simply conceal their evil desires in their hearts. 

Today, of course, opportunities for secret sin are legion.  Many of us live lives in which the various pieces are disconnected from each other.  We can be churchy at church and worldly in the world and hope to get away with it because our churchy friends don’t know our worldly friends.  Additionally, all of us have plenty of opportunities to sin when no one else is around.  The Internet certainly offers us enough porn to destroy our souls a hundred times over, but it also gives us the opportunity to log onto a message board with an anonymous screen name and spew all sorts of anger and hatred and meanness.  Online, you can be the real you and get away with it!

Except, of course, that no one actually does get away with it.  Job expresses his willingness to stand before the Almighty, but he feels that way only because he knows that his secret life and even his heart are righteous.  If ours aren’t, we need to get to work on that while we still have the chance.

Finally, the life of the virtuous man reveals RIGHTEOUSNESS.  Let’s conclude our reading with Job 31:38-40.  I have to admit that I had some trouble with this one.  What on earth does agriculture have to do with godliness?  And why does Job put his spiel about agriculture in such an important place?  This is, after all, the end of Job’s last speech in the whole book. 

When I thought about it, though, I realized that agriculture was a stand-in for the way that Job lived his entire life.  Thousands of years ago, everybody was a farmer, and if their farming wasn’t going well, their lives weren’t going well.  Somebody who is righteous in his dealings with the land is righteous in his whole life. 

On the other hand, Job says, if he has been unjust, then may his land produce weeds instead of crops.  Basically, he’s calling the curse of Adam back down on himself.  From this, we have valuable lessons to learn about the nature of righteousness.  We’ve been talking about its various aspects, but when you get right down to it, righteousness is of a piece.  To be righteous, you have to be righteous in every area of your life. 

So too for us.  If we want to be men of God, we can’t have part of our life belong to God while allowing these enclaves of Satan to persist elsewhere.  It all has to be His, and only if it does do we measure up to Job’s, and God’s, standard.

The Work of the Devil Today

Thursday, August 15, 2019

These past several weeks, we’ve looked at a number of very encouraging Scriptures that set out the ways that God is not merely active, but powerfully active, in our lives today.  How comforting it is to know that God is personally involved with each one of us!

Sadly, God is not the only spiritual being who is involved in our lives.  The devil is too, and in every way, His work is the opposite of God’s.  God wants to bless us, but the devil wants to ruin and destroy us.  God wants us to know about His good works so that we will seek Him, but the devil wants us to forget that he even exists.

Sadly, his diabolical campaign is all too effective.  People forget about the devil, even if they don’t outright deny his existence, so they stumble right into his traps and are destroyed.  This doesn’t happen merely to people in the world.  It happens to Christians too, and if we don’t pay attention, it will happen to us.  Let’s spend this morning, then, considering the unpleasant subject of the work of the devil today.

First, we must recognize that the devil SCHEMES.  Look at Ephesians 5:11.  Sometimes, we get so caught up in thinking of the devil as mean and evil that we forget that he’s smart.  The devil’s not like the Joker.  He doesn’t run around chaotically smashing things for fun.  He’s much more calculating than that.  Indeed, he has a plan right now for how he is going to do his level best to get each one of us into hell. 

Just like the devil’s not dumb, he’s not lazy either.  He will work on us for years, decades, if he has to, luring us away from the path of righteousness step by step, bit by bit, until finally we end up where he wants us.  He is industrious and patient.

Obviously, all of us would be dead meat if we were left to face such a cunning, malevolent being on our own.  Our only hope for victory is through Jesus.  However, even though we must rely on the Lord, neither should we go skipping merrily off into spiritual danger without a clue.  We ourselves must be watchful for the ways that the devil is working in our lives.

Seriously.  Stop right now.  Ask yourself, “What is the devil’s plan for leading me away from the Lord?”  I guarantee you that there is a plan, and if you pay careful attention to the temptations and spiritual dangers in your life, you can figure out what it is.  The more we see the devil’s designs, the less vulnerable we are to them.  Let’s all be watchful and wise!

Second, the devil LIES.  Consider the words of our Lord in John 8:44.  You know, there are few times in the gospels when we hear as much anger and contempt in Jesus’ voice as we do right here.  He and the devil are ancient adversaries.  Even when Jesus said this, they had been fighting against each other for millennia, and Jesus recognizes in the devil the very opposite of His holy nature.  Jesus said of Himself that He is the way, the truth, and the life.  The devil, by contrast, is the father of lies.

When we are tempted, we must remember this.  Somewhere, in every temptation, there is a lie.  Every single one of them.  Sometimes the lie is that we won’t be happy without this sin.  Sometimes it’s that people won’t like us unless we sin.  Sometimes, it’s that the consequences of righteousness are too hard to bear.  Sometimes, it’s that sin won’t have any consequences.  Sometimes, it’s several or even all of the above.  Regardless, there is always a lie.

Just like a smart fish learns to see the hook behind the worm, we need to learn to see the lie behind the temptation.  Where is it that Satan is twisting the truth in order to lead us into evil?  Once we spot the lie, the temptation will become less powerful.  Once we see that it is possible to be righteous and happy, or possible to be righteous and still have people love us, the pull of the flesh will become much weaker.  Sometimes, people walk into sin without being deceived, but usually not, and if we defeat self-deception, Satan will have a much harder time with us.

Third, the devil HINDERS.  Paul speaks of this in his life in 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18.  This is subtle, but it’s important.  Sometimes, the devil isn’t trying directly to get us to quit running the race.  Sometimes, he’s only trying to make running the race harder.  He’s trying to tangle our feet up to get us to stumble a little bit.  He’s trying to weigh us down so that each stride takes more effort.  He figures that if he can get us tired out, we’re not likely to try as hard in the cause of righteousness.

Let’s take a poll.  I’m not going to ask for a show of hands.  I just want you to answer in your own head.  Right now, is it true that you have all the time and energy you want to devote to serving God?  Or instead, is it true that there are things you’d love to be doing for the Lord, but you’re so busy that you don’t ever get around to doing them?  If the latter is where you find yourself, guess what?  The hindering work of the devil is evident in your life.

The only way to keep the devil from hindering us is to be absolutely ruthless in managing our time.  Distractions in our lives are like weeds in a flowerbed.  We don’t have to work to seek them out.  Instead, they show up on their own, and before we know it, we have a schedule filled with 1257 different things, none of which are related to godliness.  When our schedules look like that, the devil is happy.  As far as he is concerned, a distracted and neutralized Christian is the next best thing to an out-of-duty Christian.  If we want to maximize our usefulness to the Lord, we have to clear those schedules, and we have to spend the rest of our lives saying “No” to everything but Him.

Finally, the devil DEVOURS.  Here, let’s read from the famous text of 1 Peter 5:8.  He’ll hinder us if he must, but what he’d really like to do is consume us.  As Jesus said in John 8, the devil has been a murderer from the beginning.

One of the most heartbreaking things about being a preacher is having to watch as the devil devours people, especially young people.  It gives me no joy to tell this story, but right now, one of the kids I taught in Bible class in Joliet, a kid I had in my home, is on trial for first-degree murder.  He was a smart kid, his mom took him to church three times a week, he had all the potential in the world, but he started running with the wrong crowd, and look how he ended up.  This is to say nothing of all the Christians I’ve seen end up as drug addicts and single moms and atheists.

It’s tough to say, but from the outside looking in, none of those people seem very happy.  That’s the handiwork of Satan too.  He wants to ruin our lives and then wreck our eternities along with that.  Whatever the path that the devil wants us to walk, that is the path we don’t want to go down!

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