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Being a Light in a Dark Place

Thursday, January 14, 2021

During Charlie’s address to the congregation last week, he revealed that our theme for the year is going to be “Be the Light”.  It’s only natural that throughout a year as difficult as 2020 was, our thoughts would tend to turn inward.  However, the elders want us to remember that we aren’t supposed to be lamps inside a bushel basket, keeping all that light for ourselves.  Instead, we’re supposed to shine before others, so that they can see our good works and glorify God.

However, right now, that poses a problem for us.  Like a houseguest who has overstayed his welcome, coronavirus has kept right on from 2020 into 2021.  In fact, we’ve been forced to a truncated schedule of services because of the risk of infection.  Add to that all the political turmoil and unrest, and our 2020 theme might seem as remote as the dark side of the moon!

What I’d like to talk about this morning, then, is three simple things that all of us can do, right now, this week, to shine.  Let’s consider what it means to be a light in a dark place.

The first thing we all can do is ENCOURAGE AN ABSENT MEMBER.  Here, let’s look at Hebrews 10:24-25.  Across the brotherhood and even within the congregation, there’s been a lot of angst about this passage.  If we cancel services, or if we isolate ourselves at home because we’re medically vulnerable, are we forsaking the assembly? 

To be honest, though, I think that whole debate is missing the point.  This text isn’t about assembling for the sake of assembling.  It’s about assembling in order to encourage one another and stir up love and good works.  There’s a real temptation here for us to get self-righteous, to start judging hearts because we think the only reason someone wouldn’t come is lack of faith, and we’re better than they are, right? 

Brethren, rather than judging one another, we need to be concerned for one another and look for ways to help.  All these people who haven’t been here, whyever they haven’t been here, are missing out on a serious amount of one-anothering.  They haven’t been stirred up.  They haven’t been encouraged by being around other Christians.  I think our tech team has done wonders in working on our livestream, but watching church from home just isn’t the same as assembling with the saints.

In short, these Christians are people who have been on spiritual starvation rations, and that shouldn’t stir our contempt.  It should stir our compassion.  These are people who have been isolated from the love of the congregation, and we should want to help.

Here’s what I want to suggest, then.  This week sometime, go through the directory, find someone who hasn’t been here, and call or write them.  Don’t passive-aggressively hint that they really ought to be coming back to services, those slackers!  Talk to them the way you would want to be talked to if you were in their shoes.  Tell them that you love them, that you miss them, that they matter to you.  Ask how you can help.  I guarantee you that the impact you have will be far out of proportion to the effort you expend.

Second, let’s HONOR THE ELDERS.  Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13.  Let me tell you, brethren:  after the 2020 they had and the 2021 they’re having, they richly deserve that recognition! 

Part of the problem, I think, is that a good eldership is like a duck.  Let me explain.  You ever gone out to a park or something and watched ducks swim around on a pond?  From the shore, it looks effortless, doesn’t it?  They just go sailing serenely along.  Underneath the water, though, it’s a different story.  Those webbed feet are going like crazy!

That’s how it is with elders.  You sometimes hear Christians croaking, “What are the elders doing?  The elders aren’t doing anything!”  They only say that, though, because they don’t see all the activity that’s going on under the surface.

Brethren, I think that if we knew how many hours the elders have spent this year trying to lead this church wisely, trying to balance our physical health against our spiritual welfare, we would be humbled by the depths of their self-sacrifice for us.  They’ve been watching the disease data every day.  They’ve been studying guidelines.  They’ve been texting one another and calling one another and emailing one another and meeting with one another.  They’ve been fielding calls from members, sometimes not very respectful ones.  They’ve been praying.  They’ve been tossing and turning, trying to figure out the right answers when nobody has the foggiest idea what the right answers are. 

Through it all, they’ve done amazingly well.  I can’t point to a single decision they’ve made in the past year and say, “That was just dumb.”  All of us owe these good men a tremendous debt.

In return for all that, our respect is nothing more than they deserve.  Let’s consider, then, three quick ways we can show them love and honor.  First, we can defer to their judgments.  Even if we don’t agree with them about something, we must acknowledge that God set them over the church, not us.  We also might want to consider the possibility that six men chosen for their wisdom are right and we aren’t.

Second, let’s let them know that we appreciate them.  This week sometime, send one of them a card or a text that isn’t bringing a problem to them or complaining about something, but is just saying “Thank you.”  We could stand to do a lot more of that all the time, honestly.  Third, let’s make a practice of praying for them, asking God’s blessing on them in a detailed way.  Every one of them would tell you that they need it!

Finally, let’s PREPARE TO DO GOOD.  Consider the example of 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.  We’re very familiar with this text because it tells us how to give to the Lord’s work, but there’s more going on here than merely that.  We use this text as authority for indefinite collections, but that’s not what this one was.  Instead, by contributing week by week, the Corinthians were preparing for Paul to come and take their cumulative contribution to help the needy saints in Jerusalem.  They couldn’t send that collection right then, but they were getting ready for the time when they could send it.

In addition to all of its other unwelcome traits, I think most of us found 2020 to be a spiritually frustrating year.  There were lots of things we wanted to do for the Lord and couldn’t.  We canceled potlucks, singings, Bible studies, and get-togethers.  In a year when we couldn’t even have all our own people assembled at once, it seemed pointless to invite visitors to our assemblies.

At some point in the future, though, all those restrictions will no longer be in place.  Like the Corinthians, we need to get ready now for what we want to do then.  I’ve already had some of you talking to me about things that you want to try in the future, and I think that’s great!  Let’s all of us start thinking that way.  Think about that devotional you want to host.  Think about that neighbor you want to invite.  Plan for how you want to do it, then, when you have opportunity, follow through.

They Had Been with Jesus

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Acts 4:5-13 recounts a fascinating series of events.  The Sanhedrin summons Peter and John, a couple of uneducated Galilean fishermen, and demands that they give an account of themselves.  However, rather than trembling before the majesty of the high court, Peter delivers one of the most impressive counterpunches in the Bible.  He points out that a) he and John are being treated as criminals for the “crime” of healing a lame man, b) and they healed him by the authority of Jesus Christ, c) whom this same Sanhedrin had crucified. 

Ouch.  In about three sentences, the Jewish leaders go from being in control of the situation to looking like villains and fools.  They reached out to poke the bunny and drew back a bloody stump. 

V. 13 offers a fascinating insight into their reaction.  They are first of all appalled at Peter and John’s boldness.  Then, they recognize both of them as having been with Jesus. 

It’s possible that this recognition was based on purely physical characteristics.  More likely, though, the leaders recognized them because they acted like Jesus.  They had learned from Him to speak with wisdom and confidence that the enemies of the gospel could not refute.  Only the Master could have taught them that!

Today, do the people we talk to recognize that we have been with Jesus?  The difference between us and worldly people should be conspicuous.  We live in a time when people are corrupt, contentious, selfish, hateful, and foul-mouthed.  Someone who has sat at the feet of the Teacher will be none of those things.  The disciple of Jesus is holy, peacemaking, selfless, loving, and gracious in speech.  If we have been with Jesus, when we walk away from the checkout line at Wal-Mart, the cashier will be smiling.

Does our online presence make it obvious that we have been with Jesus?  Heaven knows that all the worst characteristics of human speech are distilled by social media!  Sadly, I know far too many Christians who are gracious and kind in person but rancorous and contemptuous on Facebook.  If we have been with Jesus, we will recognize the temptation that these platforms offer and govern our speech accordingly.  Rather than fanning the flames of controversy, we will give a blessing, even to others thousands of miles away.

Finally, does our boldness in the proclamation of the gospel show that we have been with Jesus?  Often, we don’t take the opportunities that are before us because we are afraid.  Peter and John were literally on trial.  They had every reason to be afraid, but they had been with Jesus.  His spirit in their hearts drove away fear and emboldened them to tell the truth that needed to be heard. 

We ought to be all these things, but if we aren’t, the solution is obvious.  Be with Jesus!  Spend time learning about His will, both in and outside of the assembly.  Seek Him in prayer.  The more we are with Him, the more evident He will become in every aspect of our lives.

All of Us Are Mostly Peaceful

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

For much of the past year, many Christians (myself included) have sneered at the Orwellian reporting on the racial unrest following the death of George Floyd.  Journalists have repeatedly described the demonstrations as “mostly peaceful”, despite the devastation of entire city blocks.  With contemptuous precision, we pointed to the rubble and described the proceedings as “riots”.  We declared ourselves unsatisfied with progressive leaders’ apparently lukewarm condemnations of lawlessness.

These days, it seems the shoe is on the other foot.  The same journalists who described the protests last summer as “mostly peaceful” do not hesitate to declare the disturbance last Wednesday an insurrection.  Now, it is conservative politicians whose condemnations are insufficiently vituperative.

Conversely, I saw on Facebook the other day a report on the events by a brother and friend who was in attendance.  He saw tens of thousands of people assembling without violence, and even though he participated in the march to the Capitol, he was not aware that anyone had forced their way inside until he saw it on the news.  Though he condemned the violence, he deeply resented the depiction of himself and other innocent attendees as participants in a coup.

All of us, it seems, are mostly peaceful.

This is a difficult truth to acknowledge.  In addition to all the other symmetries described above, both sides have attributed the worst behavior of their allies to false-flag enemies.  The news last summer was rife with rumors that those who instigated the looting were right-wing extremists.  This time around, brethren have continually claimed that the people who broke into the Capitol were antifa pretending to be Trump supporters.  Unsurprisingly, the identity of any of these shadowy provocateurs has proven elusive.

The moral of the story is, apparently, that any group of people has bad people in it, and none of us like to admit that about our people.  This is true with respect to Democrats and Republicans, and it’s true with respect to the Lord’s church too.

Most of us have had conversations with church-haters (either former members or members on their way out the door) who depict a very different church than the one we know and love.  To them, people in churches of Christ are hardhearted, unloving, gossipy, mean-spirited, hypocritical, legalistic, more concerned with politics than Christ, and uninterested in grace.  In response, we tend to either a) deny that we see such things, or b) claim that the people who act like that aren’t really Christians.

Sound familiar?

It is a hard thing to listen humbly to one’s enemies.  It’s an even harder thing to separate the fiction that they wish were truth from the truth that we wish were fiction.  However, if we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, we need a mirror like that.

I believe that most Christians are godly most of the time.  However, I also believe that there is evil among us and evil within us, and the words of even the most hateful church critic contain an echo of something that is both ugly and true.  Despite our salvation, we remain all too human.  Only if we are willing to confront our imperfections honestly can we rise above ourselves.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

If there is any verse in the Bible that is of particular significance to brethren, it is Acts 2:38.  It says in so many words that the purpose of baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, a truth clearly taught in Scripture but rejected by much of the wider religious world.  However, the rest of the verse causes us more perplexity.  Peter says that those who are baptized for the forgiveness of sins will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

What is that?  Does this mean that everyone who is baptized will receive miraculous spiritual gifts, like the ability to speak in tongues the apostles displayed earlier in the chapter?  Does it mean that all Christians will have the Holy Spirit personally indwell them?  Or is something else going on here?

In order to understand the text, we first must acknowledge that the phrase “the gift of the Holy Spirit” does not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit is the gift.  For instance, when Jesus refer to “the gift of God” in John 4:10, He means a gift given by God (living water), not God given as a gift. 

Second, we must recognize that Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38 does not exist in a vacuum.  It is the answer to a question, the solution to a problem.  The problem and question appear in the two preceding verses.  Peter’s sermon has convicted his audience that they have crucified the Messiah, and they want to know how they can escape punishment. 

In reply, Peter tells them that they can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Two verses later, he exclaims, “Be saved!”  Thus, there is a strong textual presumption that the gift of the Holy Spirit has to do with salvation.

This presumption is borne out by the rest of the chapter, particularly Peter’s citation of the Joel 2 prophecy in Acts 2:17-21.  There, Joel (speaking by the Holy Spirit, of course) predicts the advent of the miraculous gifts.  He says these gifts will be a twofold sign:  that the day of the Lord is coming, and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 

In 2:39, Peter affirms that this promise is not merely for his audience on the day of Pentecost or even for their descendants, but for everyone whom God calls to Himself.  Today, 2000 years later, we find ourselves in the midst of a generation no less corrupt than that one.  If we want to be saved from the wrath to come, we too must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins.  If we are, we will receive the same salvation promised on that day—the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Paul and Covetousness

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Just as we do today, the righteous men and women of the Bible struggled with temptation.  Sometimes, these struggles are well known, as with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  At other times, though, they can escape our notice.  For most of us, this is the case with Paul’s spiritual battle with covetousness.

Consider, for instance, his description of his own sin in Romans 7:7-8.  It may be that covetousness was the first sin that Paul remembered committing.  At the least, it’s clear from this that covetousness was a sin that he struggled with.  By his own admission, sin produced in him coveting of every kind.

However, Romans 7 isn’t the last thing Paul has to say about covetousness.  In fact, his relationship with money is a theme that runs through many of his letters.  In his discussion of the subject, we learn how he fought back against covetousness and eventually overcame it. 

This is both heartening and instructive.  From it, we learn not only that overcoming our strongest temptations is possible, but also some strategies on how to do it.  With this in mind, let’s consider the way that Paul dealt with covetousness.

First, we see that Paul PUT UP GUARDRAILS.  Consider his words in 2 Corinthians 8:18-21.  Contextually, this passage is about the collection and protection of the contribution for the needy saints in Jerusalem.  Paul didn’t put all that money in his own wallet and go sailing off toward Antioch by himself.  Instead, he asked churches who contributed to appoint men they trusted to travel with him and see that the money reached its destination safely.

Much of the time, we use this passage to show the importance of being above-board in the way we handle church finances.  That way, people can know that somebody isn’t siphoning off their donations.  However, there’s more to it than that.  Notice that Paul says that he’s concerned not only with what is honorable in the sight of men, but also with what is honorable in the sight of the Lord.  He wants everybody to see that he’s doing right, but he also wants to prevent himself from doing wrong.

If we know that there’s a sin that we struggle with, we ought to make practicing that sin as difficult as possible.  Consider, for instance, the famous Pence Rule.  Throughout his political career, Mike Pence has refused to meet alone with a woman who is not his wife.  He’s caught a lot of flak for that, but you know what?  If you’re never alone with a woman who is not your wife, you are never going to cheat on your wife with another woman. 

I think that’s very wise, and throughout my preaching work, I’ve tried to follow a similar rule myself.  Through the years, how many preachers have met their downfall over a woman?  I do not want to add my name to that list!  Whatever our weakness may be, one of the best ways to defeat temptation is to leave no room for it.

Second, Paul is willing to SURRENDER LIBERTIES in order to defend himself from sin.  Look at what he says in 1 Corinthians 9:13-18, 24-27.  A few weeks ago, Clay cited vs. 24-27 in one of his sermons, and in passing, he mentioned that he was using the passage outside of its context.  That got me to wondering what the context was.  How exactly was Paul disciplining his body to make sure he didn’t lose his soul?

I believe the answer lies in vs. 13-18.  He sets out the principle that men who preach the gospel have the right to get their living from the gospel.  However, he himself does not do that.  It would be 100 percent lawful for him to seek support from the church in Corinth, but instead, he preaches the gospel for free. 

Contextually, he gives two reasons for this.  First, so that he doesn’t hinder the gospel.  Second, so that he isn’t overcome by sin himself.  To put things another way, Paul doesn’t want to establish a financial relationship with the church in Corinth because he is worried that such a relationship will open the door for covetousness.  He would rather reject the money he can claim than give sin an opening.

In the same way, brethren, we need to be honest with ourselves about whether surrendering some of our liberties will help us in our struggle against sin.  For instance, there is nothing wrong with a Christian having a smartphone or having a computer in a private location.  I myself have both.

However, if you’ve got a porn problem, then it’s probably true that your smartphone or private computer (or both) are the gateways for your temptation.  Which is better, to forfeit a liberty we enjoy or to lose our souls because the liberty led us into sin?

Finally, Paul was able to TRIUMPH THROUGH CHRIST.  Let’s read Philippians 4:10-13.  This is a famous text, and it’s a famously misused text.  There are lots of people out there who think that doing all things through Christ means closing business deals or scoring touchdowns.

In the light of everything we’ve already studied this evening, though, it’s obvious that Paul is saying something completely different and much more powerful.  He’s saying that through the strength of Christ, he is able to win his battle against covetousness.  When he doesn’t have anything, no problem.  Through Christ’s strength, he can be content and not be greedy.  Likewise, when he’s fully provided for, no problem.  Through Christ’s strength, he’s able to defeat materialism.

As we saw back in Romans 7, Paul had been haunted by the temptation to be covetous all his life.  By the time of Philippians 4, though, he has learned the secret.  Through Jesus, he can defeat any temptation.

Brethren, let’s pause for a moment to think about how encouraging this is!  This isn’t just about Paul and him overcoming his temptations.  This is about us and overcoming our temptations.  No, we aren’t strong enough on our own, but we will be strong enough if we seek the strength that Christ is eager to give.

Sometime this week, then, why don’t we all carve out some time to pray for that strength?  I don’t know what your greatest temptation is.  Maybe it’s covetousness, or sexual immorality, or porn, or drunkenness, or gossip.  I do know, though, that whatever it is, you can beat it through Jesus.  Work to get rid of it, but above all, pray to get rid of it, and He will bless you.

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