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God Loves the Worst

April 8, 2019

We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we are pretty good people, and of course God is going to love us. We may pretentiously think “God is love so that is what God does…he loves us. He sort of has to do that, right? How could he not love me? Especially when I’m not that bad.”

Right and wrong. God loves us, and he is love; however, God does not have to save us and reconcile us to himself. And, we are not just sort of sinful or bad; we are the worst! And we have no chance of making ourselves better or more lovable to God—not even a little bit.

God is a holy Creator, and we are sinful created things. God says, “These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.” (Psalm 50:21) And this, “I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst.” (Hosea 11:9) And the prophet said this, “God is not man, that he should lie.” (Numbers 23:19) Over and over, God tells his people, “I the LORD your God am holy.”

And we are unholy, ungodly. But God loves us in the midst of our sinful wretchedness. That is what is amazing about God’s love; not only is his love unconditional, it is unconditionally poured out toward absolutely miserable wretched sinners who keep on sinning and destroying themselves.

The “good news of great joy” for humans is that God “justifies the ungodly.” (Luke 2.10; Romans 4.5) That is, the Lord loves sinful people so much that he declares them good, holy, innocent and righteous through the blood of Christ. How does that happen and why? It happens because God loves people. It happens through the sacrifice of Jesus who demonstrated the greatest love by giving his life for us objects of God’s wrath. Salvation and forgiveness do not happen apart from God’s loving sacrifice in Jesus Christ crucified. Through Christ, we can dwell eternally in God’s love.

The apostle Paul, who is another person who knew God better than most people in history, writes, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) By the blood of Jesus, we who are ungodly sinners are justified and made as perfect as Jesus in God’s eyes. And we have not done a single thing to earn it in any way whatsoever. This love is generously and indiscriminately poured out for all people who have ever lived or will ever be conceived.

John records Jesus declaring, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) For love of people, God the Father sent God the Son into the world to die and rise again by the power of God the Holy Spirit.

God’s story in the Bible begins with God creating the universe and all that is in it including humans made in his image. The story shows how God desires for people to live eternally in a garden of paradise enjoying all his creation and having fellowship with him. He delighted to create people and called his human creation “very good.”

After humans sinned and spiraled downward into rebellion and severe perversion, God did not wipe them all out. The story of the Bible leads to God’s rescue mission in sending his Son to save humans from bondage to sin, Satan and death. Take hold of the Son, Jesus Christ, to enter his goodness and grace for now and eternity.

To listen to a sermon about the state of people and the overwhelming love of God, listen here.

 

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A child’s self-worth thrives from receiving parental unconditional love and grace that says, “You are valuable to me because you exist, and I love you because you are you.” Such love molds their self-image and informs their knowledge of their Creator.
None of us gives or receives perfect love to or from anyone in this world. We are broken and sinful. Some of us have been blessed to have loving, healthy and nurturing parents; while, some people have suffered from a failure to receive healthy expressions of love at all from their parents or family.

I think no matter who we are or what sort of situation in which we grew up, we come to associate receiving love with having to earn or deserve it some way. Because we are no longer little children, we think we must perform for our love, change in order to get it, pay for it in some way or go without real love.

Unconditional love is hard to give; it is also hard to receive. This fact is just an indicator of how broken we are as humans. Due to our sinfulness and woundedness, we have a difficult time expressing and receiving love. The Harvard University researcher George Valliant conducted one of the longest running studies on happiness and well-being. During the 75 year study he followed several hundred men. The study proved the ultimate value of loving, warm relationships in contributing to happiness, but Valliant also concluded that “It’s very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved.” That’s shocking to read.

We have been hurt; we are hurt; therefore, we hurt others. In order to love God and love others and to receive love, we need rescue and healing. Our distorted attitudes and expressions of love negatively influence our relationship to God.

How would you answer these questions, “Why does God love you?” Or “How can you get God to love you?” or “What does it take for God to like you?” Or “What would cause God to stop loving you?”

Often we answer these sorts of questions by saying something like, “Well, you know, you have to…” or “Well, if you ….” Or “Well, I don’t know…you should probably…”

We find ourselves trying to earn God’s love, make God love us, wish God showed his love to us somehow, prove ourselves to God, change ourselves for God, get God’s attention or do something else for God’s love. We may sometimes think that God doesn’t really love me…How could he?

What might be even worse is when we get to a point in life and we think something like, “Ahhh….Now God will love me” or “Well, I did that, so now God will hear me” or “I think I’m almost someone God will really love.” Or “I am living right, so of course God loves me.”

This last phrase might be indicative of the narcissism of some in our culture who have an idea akin to “I am special; of course, God loves me…How could he not?” This requires a healthy dose of self-examination in light of God’s word and holiness.

It is Lent right now as I write this. Many of us fast in some way during Lent. Two erroneous outcomes can sometimes occur during or after a fast rather than the positive outcomes we and God intend. If we complete a fast, we may think something like, “Yes! I did it. Now God will do something cool for me.” In truth, a fast accomplishes turning our attention to God rather than earning something from him. Sometimes we fail to meet our goal…anyone else besides me? I stayed in the kitchen too long, and I lost it and ate a bunch of stuff. I have to admit I had a thought like “Oh no, God is going to be mad. Shoot. I wonder if he noticed.” Yeah, he noticed and probably laughed… “O foolish ones, and how slow of heart to believe that I love you.”

What is the truth about God’s love?

We have to remember that by God’s grace and through faith we are saved and in Christ. God demonstrated and asserted his love once and for all by giving his one and only son Jesus to die for us (Romans 5:8). That is not based on our flimsy wills and whimsy self-control. God’s love is based on his being. He is love, and we are blessed to be the objects of his love.

The apostle John is probably one of the persons in history who knew God as well as anyone on earth. He writes in his letter, “God is love.” (1 Jn 4.8) Among other attributes like holy, merciful and just, love describes the essence of God. Love flows and emanates from God. All creation exists in God’s love. To exist is to be in God’s love. To be human, is to be a recipient of God’s love—regardless of who you are or what you have done. God’s love pours out toward you. God’s love is amazingly unfailing.

When you receive Jesus as your Lord and ask him into your heart and life, you receive the Holy Spirit who pours God’s love into your heart (Romans 5:5). The same love that the Father has for the Son dwells in those who have received Jesus into their life (John 17:26 ) Believe it or not, this is the prayer of Jesus for us. You can experience it by receiving Jesus and the Father’s love into your life and heart right now.

If you would like to listen to a sermon on the Father’s love for you, listen here.

The following prayer follows this sermon on Deliverance that I preached on 1-28-18 based on the text of Mark 1:21-28.

Lord, almighty, merciful and omnipotent God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, drive out from me all influence of evil spirits.  Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, I ask you to break any chain that the devil has on me.  Pour upon me the most precious blood of your Son.  May his immaculate and redeeming blood break all bonds of the enemy from my spirit, body, emotions, will and mind.  Holy God banish from me all the forces of evil, so that I can be healthy and free to do good deeds for the glory of the name of Jesus.

I ask you for the intercession and help of your mighty angels on my behalf.  Please send and empower them to minister to me and drive from me all that is not of you.  Father, I ask you to send your angels to minister to my family and to cleanse my home of anything evil.  Give your angels power and victory over their enemies that harass me and my family.

(say aloud) In the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of his cross, resurrection and ascension, I command all demons that could have any influence over me to leave me forever.  By Jesus’ scourging, his crown of thorns, his cross, by his blood and resurrection, I command all evil spirits to leave me.  By the true God, by the Holy God, by God who can do all, in the name of Jesus, my Savior and Lord, leave me now and go quietly from here.

In the name of Jesus Christ, I command all evil spirits to leave my family and my home right now and go quietly to where Jesus commands you.  I break all curses against me and my family by the blood and name of Jesus.  Amen.

 

KY deer

During my D. Min. residency in 2016, I went hiking one evening on the Kentucky River Palisades Trail.    I saw only two other hikers during the time I was on the trail, and by the latter half of it I was the only one in the woods.  Near the trail in the middle of the woods, I sat on a large flat stone and spent time reflecting on the discussions we had in our class relating to Henri Nouwen’s life and the love of God.  I was led to consider God’s love for me in particularly and reflected and prayed on the stone for about 30 minutes enjoying the company of the Lord.  God’s seemed to truly manifest his presence there with me in the cathedral of the trees.

When I arose to continue the hike, I looked behind me and saw the deer pictured above.  It stood about 15-20 yards from me watching me seeming unafraid but quite curious.  My immediate response was to thank God for blessing me with this surprise.  It was an amazing experience as the deer came several yards closer and then walked in a wider circle around me to the other side of the trail where it continued to watch me.  The encounter with the Lord and the deer was a highlight for me and not one I would soon forget.

When I arrived back at Asbury for the beginning of my second D. Min. residency, I was eager to return to this trail and keen to see more deer or perhaps the same deer.  I also hoped to have a similar time of communion with the Lord.  I visited the trail the first weekend.  I took the same route through the trees and rocks descending to the KY river and then back up the hill.  This time, however, it rained throughout the hike, and poured down on the latter half of the hike.  I had a rain jacket, but it was not the most pleasant of situations, even though, once again it was only me in the vast woods.  I saw a couple young deer run off away from me during the hike.  By then, I had picked up my step to make it back to the car.

With my head down, striding toward the end of the trail, I caught a glimpse of a small mound of rocks about five feet to the right of the trail.  It struck me as strange because it was in the middle of open dirt / mud without rocks or trees.  I wondered to myself why anyone would make a mound of rocks there.  When I considered the wider expanse of the area, it dawned on me that this was the spot I sat and prayed during my previous hike.  I saw the rock I sat on further off the trail and then looked and noticed the tree where the deer stood the year before.

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There are certainly other explanations for a mound of rocks in the woods, but I thought of the Ebenezer symbol from Scripture and wondered “could this be from the Lord for me to see?”  In the story of Israel, the prophet Samuel prayed for Israel’s victory against the Philistines and the Lord answered his prayer.  Following the battle in which the Lord fought for Israel, Samuel set up a monument:

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12

The term Ebenezer means “stone of help.”  In the case of Israel, it served to remind them how the Lord helped them overcome their enemies in his mercy and grace despite their own unworthiness.  When I saw the stone and thought of the Ebenezer stone, I also remembered the twelve stones that were brought up by the twelve tribes of Israel from the Jordan River when they crossed following Joshua into the Promised Land.  After they crossed over Joshua had them piled into a memorial:

“The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” Joshua 4:19-24

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The stones in Scripture represent the mighty help of the Lord to his people.  I don’t know how these stones in the woods came to be right at the spot of the trail where I went off and experienced a mystical time with the Lord who blessed me with the interaction with the curious deer.  But what came to my mind was that the Lord caused them to be there and for me to see them and stop to remember how the Lord revealed himself to me and blessed me through his mercy and grace.

For me, it was the Lord who set these stones there as a remembrance not only for me but for himself.  The Lord revealed to me that our times of communion together are his delight and joy as well as mine.  The Lord looks forward to the times we spend together in tune with one another. He remembers with fondness the experiences he has with us when we give him our full attention and love him with our whole heart, soul and strength — whether they are times of intimacy in solitude or times of sacrificial service to others.  God sets his own remembrance to remind him and us that communion is the true source of satisfaction and fulfillment.

It is baffling to imagine God being like a child who says to his mom or dad, “Remember that time when we…”  However, to see the Lord’s longing for communion with people, we only have to read and reflect on the prayer of Jesus to his Father.  He are the closing verses:

“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.  I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:22-26

The prayer reveals Jesus’ longing for his followers to be one with him and the Father and the Holy Spirit.  To be one with the Lord is to be filled with the love that the Father has for his beloved Son.  The pile of rocks in the woods reminded me of God’s delight in me and love for me.  It revealed to me that God delights in his love for me and my reciprocation of love to him, and he remembers our time of communion.  What a grace to serve a loving God who speaks to his children and shows himself to them. (John 14:21)

By the way, in the pile of stones beside the trail, there were eleven stones.  I added a small one on the top to make it twelve.

raising-ebenezer

 

I participated in the 2nd residency for the D. Min program at Asbury in August.  I was again with about 55 other students from all around the world in this program designed to better equip us to engage in God’s mission in all sorts of cultural and geographic contexts.

This residency began with a reorientation by Dr. David Gyterson, the Dean of the Beeson Center which houses the D. Min.  He reminded us that our model for leadership does not come from the world but from Jesus.  David described Jesus’ leadership style as being “kenotic” leadership.  This term is based on the early Christian hymn found in Philippians 2:1-18.  This is the description of Jesus’ condescension from glory to obedient suffering and death on the cross.  Paul writes that Jesus emptied himself or made himself nothing.  The Greek verb is ekenosen from where the adjective “kenotic” generates.  In this sacred calling, leadership includes the following three commitments: “thinking deeply, loving fully and serving sacrificially.”

Reorientation was followed by an afternoon exercise in Spiritual Formation led by Dr. Marilyn Elliot, V.P. of Community Formation.  She led us in a time of devotional silence and prayerful meditations followed by teaching on “Seeing through Christ’s Eyes.”  This exercise was fruitful in helping us stop and take a few breaths to enter into God’s peace prior to beginning a busy two weeks of classes.  Marilyn has inspired and helped to cultivate a similarly peaceful spiritual ethos on the campus of Asbury.  I think most people can get a sense of a graceful atmosphere at the school that touches everyone involved.  I am blessed to have Marilyn as my dissertation coach, and I am thankful she has also brought a much-needed touch of peace to that endeavor for which we had trainings interspersed throughout the residency.

The first course for my cohort – Preaching and Leading – was “Discovering God’s Missional Heart.”  For my group, the first 2 ½ days were taught on the public expression of God’s missional heart by Dr. Gregg Okesson, Dean, E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism and Professor of Leadership and Development. He has spent a decade teaching at a Bible college in Kenya and was a church-planter amongst a Muslim people-group in north-central Tanzania. He and his family lived in East Africa for 13 years.  He also has served as a pastor.   His teaching emphasized the myriad cultures and contexts where God is working to save and transform people around the world.  He taught about how the essentials of the gospel reach across all borders to express the salvation of God.  He also discussed how sometimes culture can seep into and corrupt our faith.  As an example he showed the following video which definitely resonated with me as a soccer fanatic.  It illustrates the mix of faith and sports and stimulated quite a bit of class feedback.

The second half of this class was taught by Dr. Stephen Seamands, Professor of Christian Doctrine and former pastor.  He taught about the private, relational expression of God’s missional heart.  Stephen is the author of two books that were texts for the class: Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service and Wounds that Heal: Bringing our Hurts to the Cross.  I recommend both. Through the class, he emphasized the invitation we have to enter into the fellowship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and how God heals and delivers people through his presence and his body.  This was a meaningful discussion of God’s transcendent glory and power and his imminent love and goodness.  We are invited to experience both, and we need to experience both in our daily relationship with God.  Dr. Seamands taught that “Christian ministry is not my asking Christ to join me in my ministry as I offer him to others, but rather it is my joining with Him in his ongoing ministry and mission as He offers himself to others through me.”

The second week’s class was “Leading Change” taught by Dr. Tom Tumblin,  Professor of Leadership and Associate Provost for Global Initiatives and Academic Affairs.  This class featured considerable class discussion and interaction that addressed leading ministries.  The basis for leadership was rooted in the kingdom of God and applied in our various arenas of ministry.  Dr. Tumblin is incredibly competent in not only organizational leadership but Biblical principles and models of leadership.  Leadership discussions also highlighted the value and urgency of sanctification for the leader who faces pressures and temptations of all sorts from all sides.  Below is a picture of me facilitating a class discussion on a case study.

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We were blessed to have two guest speakers during this week.  The first was Dr. John Oswalt, Distinguished Professor of the Old Testament and an incredible scholar and lover of the book of Isaiah.  He enthralled us with an hour lecture on the elements of kingship in the prophecy of Isaiah.  This compared the kingship and powers of the world with the kingdom of heaven and the power of God.  The second guest speaker was Alan Hirsch, a well-known speaker and author on the mission of the church.  He emphasized the urgent need for the church to reignite the offices of the apostle, evangelist and prophet in addition to the already emphasized offices of pastor and teacher.  He taught from Ephesians 4:1-16 with an emphasis on the following verses:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” (11-12)

Alan’s teaching was a welcome push back against the cessationist intrusion in the church against the gifts and purposes of the Holy Spirit working among believers.  Alan’s purpose is to activate missional communities that create a church on the move.  I think his new book 5Q is worth checking out.

Two additional highlights of the D. Min. residency are once again the incredible, over-the-top hospitality and welcome we experience at Asbury from the D. Min. leadership team and the Lasting Impressions Team.  They treated us to snacks and drinks at all of our class breaks.  To ease the Saturday dissertation trainings, we were blessed with Chic-Fil-A and Subway lunches.  We had BBQ one night and Burgers and Hot Dogs another night.  This treatment is indicative of the entire Asbury campus experience.  We closed out the week with a Eucharist celebration.

The other highlight is the fellowship with the fellow students who come from all over the United States and world.  It is encouraging and exciting to hear from international students how God is working in areas like southern Africa and Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Vietnam and elsewhere.  God is working through faithful ministers to multiply believers and churches all over.  He is healing, delivering and saving people.  In the United States, God is at work too in various cities and on college campuses in ways that we never hear about on the news.  In all of these contexts, the kingdom of God faces opposition but is overcoming.  The news is inspiring because God is working through ordinary people who are willing to become vessels for extraordinary works of God.

My dissertation project continues to move forward on the project of developing a training in spiritual formation for staff of pregnancy resource centers.  This project requires ongoing research, writing and planning.  I believe it is a ministry initiative that God has inspired me to develop, because this ministry is so close to his heart and has to overcome intense opposition from spiritual forces and worldly forces.  I encourage you to reach out to support your local pregnancy resource centers with prayer, financial support and volunteer efforts.

Joshua led the people of Israel to a great God-empowered victory against the city of Jericho.  God caused the walls to come down and gave the city into Israel’s hands.  All the people were killed except the household of Rahab the prostitute who helped the spies of Israel.  Prior to the invasion, Joshua told the Israelite soldiers to kill everyone and destroy everything except the articles of gold, silver, iron and bronze that were to be devoted to the Lord’s treasury.  Joshua warned, “Keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it.” (Joshua 6:18)

The next city in Israel’s siege of the Promised Land was Ai.  The spies of Israel assessed Ai as a vulnerable city that a portion of Israel’s army could conquer before lunch time.  A handful of the Israelite soldiers went up to attack Ai, and they were routed from Ai and 36 of the Israelite men were killed.  Joshua and Israel’s leaders were shocked and dismayed.  Where was God? Where was the commander of the army of the Lord?  Had God abandoned them and left them in limbo at the disposal of their enemies?

In assessing the Christian community today, it seems to resemble the state of Israel after the defeat at Ai.  Our Christian communities are besieged.  Sickness, addiction, broken relationships, corruption, sexual immorality, deception, disagreement and financial problems seem to be rampant among Christians.  And these are needs of those inside the church not only those of the lost.  Concern for the salvation of the lost often falls way down on our prayer lists.  It seems like Christians are being routed by the enemy and falling to the side.  Are we destined to be continual victims of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or of our own “brokenness?” Are those who commit to ministry in the church and world going into battle only to be scattered by various “enemies?” I think that on the whole the church seems stuck between past victory and present defeat.

Our posture and bewilderment is not unlike the leaders of Israel after their defeat:

So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.   Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.  And Joshua said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan!  O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies?  The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”  (Joshua 7:4-9)

In our churches today, this seems like our ongoing responses to life’s difficulties.  The hearts of Christians seem to melt like fear in the face of the onslaught of sickness, addiction, immorality, compromise and the call to discipleship.  We rarely stand in faith against pain and illness.  We rarely declare freedom in the face of addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, shopping, the internet, etc.  We think that we surely cannot stand in holiness against the lures of sexual immorality.  We excuse ourselves from the call to discipleship and holiness, because they are too demanding for us.  Too many of us have our religious ways and dare not venture from them despite the urging of the Holy Spirit to pursue the fullness of his presence for our lives.

We are content, like the crowds of Israel—the people of God who presume to expect the entitlements of God’s promises, to let a handful of spiritual soldiers go up against these enemies of our “promised land.”  Christians in general will let “those called” do the hard work of intercession, Bible study, discipleship, mentoring and evangelism.  As Israel acquiesced to their pride, self-righteousness, complacency and leisure, churches say “Let the few go up against the enemy.  I will stay in the camp in my tent indulging and fantasizing about the promises of God.”

Image result for stand up consecrate yourselves.  Joshua the battle of Ai

But the few cannot carry the burden.  The few devoted cannot overcome the enemy and deliver the many back at the camp so they can reap the rewards.  The few become wounded, burned out, targets for the enemy, taken out and then criticized by those back at the camp who point their fingers.

The leader Joshua and the elders, like the devoted among churches today, see the tragedy and mourn and pray and cry out to God on behalf of the people.  They come near to despair for the vision God has given to them and wonder what will happen now in the midst of defeat.

The Lord responds surprisingly harshly to his people’s leaders:

The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?  Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions.   That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. (Joshua 7:10-12)

I am really surprised by how the enemy of God’s people today seems able to undermine ministry endeavors so easily.  Sickness, pain, stress, conflict, sinful habits, career difficulties, deceptions, vacations, busyness, sports or whatever take people out of their ministry calling all of the time.  How are the forces of evil so successful? Is it just coincidence that so many afflictions befall those who have taken steps of faith in their intentions to do ministry or in their actions of ministry?  I don’t have the exact answer, but I see patterns, and I believe that God brought this event from Israel’s history to my mind to consider “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

God called out Israel’s sins.  He rebuked them and allowed them to face the consequences of sin.  36 innocent soldiers were killed due to the sinfulness of those back at the camp.  No matter how skilled they were or how hard they fought, they were doomed from the time they set forth to battle Ai, because of the compromise of the people of God to rebellion and sin.  This is why the people of God cannot stand against their enemies.  Could this be why so many Christians are victims to our spiritual enemies and their manifestations today?  How do we know and what do we do?

God tells his people:

 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: That which is devoted is among you, O Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove it.   “‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe that the LORD takes shall come forward clan by clan; the clan that the LORD takes shall come forward family by family; and the family that the LORD takes shall come forward man by man.  He who is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done a disgraceful thing in Israel!'”  (Joshua 7:13-15)

I believe this is a message for the church to consider today.  “Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow.”  You, Christian, consecrate yourself!  What are your dreams for tomorrow?  Are they worth consecrating yourself fully to God to see them fulfilled? What is your calling, your vision?  What is your desire for your loved ones? What affliction or trial are you facing?  Examine yourself, confess, repent, receive and go forward toward holiness.  This is the way of discipleship—the way of the cross and resurrection.  It is the ancient way of the faithful.  And it is not for a select few who are called or professional religious people or those who happen to be into that sort of thing.  You, average Christian and your church, cannot stand against your enemies because of hidden sinfulness and compromise that includes apathy, worldliness and religious legalism. The sacrifice of Christ, his resurrection, his ascension and the power of Pentecost give you power and grace and all you need to consecrate yourself through Christ.

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In the story of Israel, God leads the inquiry for sin to a man named Achan who had taken gold, silver and clothing from Jericho and hidden it in his tent.  Achan bore the punishment for his sin, and Israel was consecrated and able to go forth and conquer Ai at the direction of the Lord.   How would this be instructive for our lives and our churches?  I think the Lord is waiting for our churches and individual Christians to “stand up,” consecrate ourselves and destroy from among us that which is devoted to sinfulness, apathy or compromise.  Otherwise, the warning of the Lord is apropos: “I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.” (Joshua 7:12)

So, let us examine ourselves, our lives, our devotion, our allegiances and our habits and attitudes.  The Lord may reveal that we are holding onto destructive things and practices and that we have been slack in our devotion to prayer, Scripture, our sanctification and to the ministry for which God has called us.  He may show us that we are undermining the advancement of God’s kingdom.

After Israel deals with its sin and rebellion, God doesn’t send only a handful of soldiers out to conquer Ai.  He sends out the full army and instructions for victory.  I believe that until the majority of Christians in our churches become consistently active in prayer, worship and ministry, we will not see the victory that the Lord desires for us over things like sickness, pain, addictions, divorce, immorality, unbelief, rebellion, etc.  We each have to decide whether it is worth it to give up what is undermining the advancement of God’s kingdom and its fullness in our lives.  The Lord is waiting for us to grow up in our faith and deeds.

The upcoming season of Lent prescribes a step of faith and devotion that is not ordinary and not necessarily comfortable.  It is the season of self-examination and going forward in the mission of God.

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To become a Christian is really one of the easiest things in the world to do for anyone.  We receive Jesus Christ as our Savior who forgives our sins, and we declare in faith that he is Lord.  We ask him to give us new birth, to give us the Holy Spirit and to give us eternal life with him.  Jesus has done all of the work.  We reap the benefits by believing in him and calling upon him.  Salvation is a gift of grace—unmerited and undeserved.  We can’t even contribute to it.  We receive.  If we believe in Jesus enough to ask him to come and forgive our sins and give us the Holy Spirit, he will come.

To progress in the Christian life beyond receiving the gift of salvation requires determination, patient endurance, steadfastness, wisdom, commitment, self-denial, discipline, maybe suffering, and faith, love and hope.  Christian character is battle-tested and proven.  The mature Christian disciple seeks Jesus, his kingdom and his righteousness. The Christian walk of discipleship occurs by grace and by our striving to follow Jesus in our lives in the world.

Engaging intentionally in discipleship and ministry comes down to the difference between going to church and being the church.  It is the difference between being a consumer of church and being an ambassador and minister of Christ in, to and through the church.   The New Testament gives no indication at all that living as a Christian in the world is easy or safe.  There is nothing worldly appealing about being the church according to the New Testament.  This is a reason why people are prone to innovate ways of trying to be Christians apart from and in contrast to the New Testament.

We are saved through acceptance of Jesus, but we do not become perfect in our actions and lives immediately and not until we die and are with Jesus.   For the Christian, all things are made new – new creation.  We don’t know how to live according to the new creation.  We can’t learn it instantly.  It takes the rest of our lives to learn how to live according to what we have become in an instant – saved and God’s child through Jesus.

If we choose to pursue this goal of discipleship and Christian living, the rest of our lives will be spent taking two steps forward and one step backwards in pursuit of holiness.  A church consists of people intending to move toward holiness and living in the kingdom of God but often going in all directions and nowhere.  It cannot help but at times to be uncomfortable, painful, frustrating and offensive.  However, the body of Christ at a church also serves as the place where God works in us and develops us as his children, disciples and ministers.

I believe that God has called each person in Christ to become and remain an active member of a church.  Not only that, he has called us to get into the thick of it.  He has called us to rub shoulders, open our hearts, be confrontational, be constructive, be repentant, be submissive, be authoritative and become like Christ through a commitment to a church where we are planted, rooted, growing and producing fruit.  He calls us to give a significant portion of our money, our time and talents.   God has called us to take steps of faith and to do what may be difficult and not give up, grow weary or run away and hide.  He promises rewards to those who overcome.  One of those rewards turns out to be that we find ourselves a part of a local family of faith where we are loved, accepted and encouraged.  Our church becomes for us a people and place where we encounter God.

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Romans 12

The Apostle Paul’s letters encourage, exhort and instruct Christians in the life of discipleship.  The text of Romans 12 seems focused on the life of the Christian in a church.  Paul, as well as anyone, knows the hardships of church life and of being a committed partner to other Christians.  He knows the frustrations and pains involved in living life with a group of other Christians.  On the other hand, he has also experienced the glory and wonder of being a minister of the gospel of Christ in and among the body of Christ—just read Romans 15 and 16.

In Romans 12, Paul urges Christians to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God as our reasonable, appropriate response to him.  Our worship of God is to lay down our lives to him and to submit to his will for our lives.  The Christian life involves a rejection of our selfish will and the ways of this world.  Paul calls for our spiritual transformation and the renewal our minds according to the kingdom of God in Christ.  As this occurs, we learn to walk with Jesus in faith and to test and approve the perfect will of God for our lives rather than rely on the basic principles of the world.  The church exists to facilitate this transformation and renewal by offering the context for discipleship and faithfulness for believers and by inspiring worship in Spirit and truth.

Immediately in Romans 12, Paul counters objections with a call to humility and by pointing to God’s gift of faith and to the body of Christ to which we all belong—if we are in Christ.  If we are saved, then we belong to Christ who is our Lord and God.  We are not in charge.  We are members of his body of which Jesus is the head who alone is above all.  What we have to offer others and to recommend ourselves to others is only what has been given to us by God through Jesus.  In emphasizing the gracious gift that we have through Christ, Paul does not minimize the gifts we are given or our role in their development and use.  He magnifies them in light of the giver and in light of the high calling to use the gifts given to each of us for the sake of Christ’s body the church.  None of us is given the Holy Spirit and his gifts to merely attend and watch or be an ongoing consumer of church rather than becoming an active participant and contributor in the life of the family of faith.  Although everyone is welcome to come, we want everyone to also grow in their faith.

It is good to discern and listen for God’s will and calling for our lives and ministry.  We should know whether a particular church is where God wants us to come and grow and from where to go and tell others.  That church where God calls us to worship and serve still will not suit all of each of our desires, preferences, personalities, needs and schedules.  For people in the church to grow as disciples and ministers, and for a church to grow in breadth and depth, we must give as we have received in the form of mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, time, resources, help and relationships.  The problems we identify with people in the church or with the deficiencies of the church are the same or similar to our own problems and deficiencies but multiplied by the number of people in the church.

(Paul envisions a church following the apostolic teachings he has passed forward.  The New Testament reserves its harshest language for those distorting the gospel of grace or behaving unethically, oppressively or immorally.  We are called to a church of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Other sorts of churches we might be led to avoid.)

Paul recognizes that we each need the help and benefits of each other’s presence and gifts. The gifts in Romans 12 include prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing, leading, governing, and showing mercy.  This litany of gifts serves to show that God’s gracious empowering of his people is all-inclusive.  All of us are called into Christ and his body to be ministers by the power of the Holy Spirit given to us.  We are the church, and through our participation, we contribute to its edification and growth in depth and breadth.

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The functionality of these gifts occurs through sincere, brotherly (and sisterly) love expressed in devotion, honor and service.  Paul encourages us to be zealous in our service and worship of the Lord.  We are to be joyfully devoted to prayer and generosity.  Our church, this portion of Christ’s body, is to be open and welcoming to all who come as an expression of the Father’s hospitality in Christ.

The members of Christ’s body, imperfect and dysfunctional though they are, extend the promise of salvation to all people through a hearty invitation to join this journey toward holiness in the power and fruit of the Holy Spirit.  We share with those in need, because we are all in need and Christ is the gracious giver to all who receive.  Paul emphasizes the command to be humble.  He says do not be proud and do not be conceited, because there is nothing more foolish than a helpless sinner acting proud and conceited.

Conversely, we also need to reject the false modesty by which we would exclude ourselves from participation in serving and ministering in the church due to our perceived inadequacy.  We are saved by grace and empowered by grace to serve and minister, so by God’s Spirit we come to serve.  By his grace, we speak, we pray, we give, we encourage, we heal, we teach, we bless and we live in harmony with one another—not apart from others.

We overcome evil by good.  We are all members of the Lord’s body.  It is his work among us to build us into his image individually and collectively.

Paul assumes a commitment to each other among the body of Christ.  Is this your church? Is this the part of the body of Christ to which you are called, planted and rooted?  Then stay and grow and use the gifts God has given you to contribute to the harvest of righteousness that the church exists to produce.  Pursue the counsel of others and take initiative to develop your gifts and to express the power and love of Christ in, for and through the church.  You won’t do it perfectly.  The church won’t respond perfectly.  But let’s aim for it.

If you have not already, I encourage you to become a member at the local church where God calls you.  If you are currently a member and maybe even a founding member, I encourage you to recommit yourself to pursuing the development of the spiritual gifts that God has given you and pray about your participation in the ministry.  I believe God desires us all to grow as his disciples and ministers.

If you are not currently in a discipleship group (Bible study, home group, Morning Prayer, prayer group, etc.), join one or start a new one.  You only need one other person and a Bible and a set time and place.

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