The frigid temperatures Sarah and I have experienced in Wisconsin when we have gone to visit our family do not feel as cold to us as those we experience here in Kentucky. To us, 20 degrees there feels about like 35 degrees here. However, no matter how we sense the temperature, the reading on the thermometer is still 20 degrees, and the results are still the same – everything freezes. Our mental or physical sensation of the surrounding atmosphere does not change the natural laws governing the presence or absence of heat.
Spiritually speaking, sin is much the same. There are certain sins that we know to be violations of God’s law, yet these sins do not seem to be extremely evil to us. In fact, sometimes committing the sinful acts produces a warm, fuzzy feeling within us. Mentally and emotionally, we reason that the deed surely can’t deserve the same consequence as all those other actions which produce tragedy, sorrow, and heartache.
Yet, the Bible teaches that all sin, and any sin, separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1, 2). The Bible teaches that all sin earns spiritual death for the sinner (Romans 6:23).
Just as our sensation of a physical temperature cannot change the factual measurement and consequences of that temperature, so our feelings concerning a sinful action cannot change its classification or the consequences we must suffer should we choose to commit it.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)
Over the past few years, I’ve gone through phases of trying to learn a different language than my native English. So far those phases have come and gone, and I still do not know Spanish. But each time I begin trying to learn a different language, three things come to mind:
Learn the basics. Embed them into your mind. Pack them up and take them with you where ever you go, because you will need them. But don’t stay in linguistic elementary school forever. If you do so, you can never appreciate that language’s true beauty and complexity, nor can you truly express your thoughts and emotions to those with whom you wish to communicate.
Ask, “Why?”, when you don’t understand the reasoning behind an irregular principle or an exception to a rule; but be ready to accept the answer, “There is no rhyme nor reason to this principle. It’s just the way it is.” When you receive this answer, shrug your shoulders, learn the principle or rule, and press forward. Linguistics is not an exact science. A language grows and flows like a river; primarily flowing in a long established bed, but at time same time, ever changing that bed in order to fit its needs.
Abstracts cannot be reduced to a set of rules. All abstracts of life (art, music, language, religion, etc.) have both universal and cultural parameters. All of these follow some universal rules. Yet no one geographic culture of this world expresses these abstracts in exactly the same way as another geographic culture. The excitement comes in experiencing these differences, adapting accordingly, and then learning to express oneself in an entirely different way.
These same observations apply to our worship and service to God. We must learn the basics of Christianity as they are taught within the Bible. But we cannot be content to only be fluent in the basics. If we do, we can never appreciate the vibrant beauty and complexity of Christ’s teachings; nor will we ever experience the peace-filled contentment of truly learning to love one another.
We must also realize that the Bible establishes rules and patterns by which we are to seek God and to worship him. Sometimes we question the reasoning or logic behind these expectations. Many times no answer can be given as to why God performed a certain action, issued a specific command, or requires a certain reaction in order to benefit from a promise. All we can do is learn the principle, accept its authority, and press forward.
Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of rules. Yes, there are some universal parameters that apply to every human being who will ever embrace Christianity; for example faith in Jesus, baptism for remissions of sins, worshiping in spirit and truth are universal expectations. But there are also ways of expressing gratitude and devotion to God which are unique to an individual geographic culture. When one encounters the unique ways in which one of these “foreign cultures” worships the creator, he would do well to adapt and adopt. In doing so, he can experience the excitement of knowing that Jesus is the savior of the world, and not just his little corner of this vast globe.
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Up until 6 months ago, he was just another resident being brought in by the staff to listen to us sing and hear a devotional message each third Sunday of the month. Sometimes he would sleep. Sometimes he would seem to listen. But he always looked down and flicked out his tongue in an irritating way. I didn’t know his name. I had no idea why he was in the nursing home. I was doing my good deed by simply being there, so I’d wave goodbye as I walked past him.
Then one night a group from church went to the home to do a craft with the residence. Jimmy was the only man present so I sat with him in order to help him tie the tassels on the throw we were making. He wasn’t very fast, and he got some of the threads crossed, but I could tell he loved every minute of that time we shared together. As he said after we had finished, “It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad for two old men.”
Jimmy was just a few years older than me. He had no family; his mother and father had both passed away several years earlier. He had diabetes and was suffering from some of the resultant ailments that accompany that disease. His mental capacity was limited, but he had a memory like an elephant.
He was a former dairy farmer so we had much in common. He could remember all the tractors and machinery that his father had owned, and where they had been purchased. He would reminisce about feeding silage during the cold winter months, mowing hay during the hot summer months, and picking corn during the harvest months. He spoke fondly of milking the cows and wishing he could go back and do it again. He talked about the aggravation of attaching a mounted corn picker on his dad’s tractor, and the joy of watching a new barn being built.
From that first craft night, each time we would return to the home to sing or to do a craft, he looked for me, and I for him. We would talk about things that had happened and he would bring up things that I had said the last time we had visited. Sometimes, if we ran out of anything to say, we would just sit quietly. The man with the irritating tongue-flicking habit was no longer just another resident sitting in a wheel chair over to the side of the group. He was Jimmy Wilson. He was a friend. And I will miss him . . . more than I really imagined that I would.
“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'” (Matthew 25:40)
A fairly large crack has recently formed in the concrete surrounding my hay barns. The surfaces on either side of the crack are uneven and they are becoming more so with each passing year. At first I thought the fissure was forming due to the lower end of the slab settling down. This didn’t make sense since the pad was poured about 35 years ago, but I supposed the damage could have been done early and the results just now showing up after all these years. On further investigation, I realized the upper section was actually rising, and thus causing the uneven surfaces.
I traced the crack back to the edge of the concrete slab where a tree had taken root and was growing. I knew the tree was there and actually thought it to be a benefit for the cows. It provided a small amount of shade and was useful as a back-scratching post. The tree is not very big , only about 12” in diameter and maybe 20’ tall. Yet, its roots have undermined the concrete and have pressured it into relinquishing its integrity.
Often, we put much time and effort into trying to make sure that we keep the center of our hearts and lives appearing as if they are solid with unblemished integrity. We spend so much time focusing upon the center that we do not pay attention to what’s growing around the outer edges. Then one day we realize that a type of sin has taken root just on the outskirts of our lives.
The sin may not appear to be “extremely evil”. It may even appear beneficial in our relationship with others. But before we realize it, its roots have undermined our faithfulness and are pressuring us to relinquish our integrity.
Keeping our faith in tact requires constant vigilance; vigilance of both the center of our hearts as well as the peripheral edges of our lives. The roots of sin will often grow unseen beneath us until they eventually leverage us into cracking open at the heart.
“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” (Deuteronomy 29:18,19)
I remember as a teenager watching others limp and hobble around after they had sprained their ankles. I wondered if they were just putting on a show and “milking” it for all it was worth, especially when I was asked to do some of their work for them. At that time, I possessed good strong, flexible ankles and could literally walk on them with my feet turned on their sides.
Then one day I twisted an ankle to the point of nearly breaking it. From that day forward, I could identify with and understand the pain of the weak ankled.
Through the years, I’ve heard older people talk about becoming inflexible, having joints hurt, and being hindered in their ability to perform the most basic of tasks. I’ll have to admit, there has been some skepticism on my part.
However, now, when I pull onto a road from a near parallel position, I have difficulty twisting my neck enough to look out the side glass in order to see if there is any traffic coming from behind. These days, arthritis or the occasional flare up of bursitis in both elbows and one shoulder makes the simplest of tasks such as putting on my shirts and coat somewhat more difficult. The pain often limits my ability to use my strength to carry loads or open tailgates.
Needless to say, my skepticism is decreasing as my experience increases. Generally, when we have trouble empathizing with someone who is enduring some type of pain (be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual), all we have to do is wait; time and life will provide the personal experiences necessary for us to hurt along with them.
“Rejoice with those who do rejoice, and weep with them who weep.” (Romans 12:15)
This past Sunday, I surprised the members of the congregation by telling them that my wife and I had a gift for each person present. I had prepared for this portion of my sermon on grace by duct taping a gift card from Subway restaurant for each person under the pew in front of them. Before telling the group where to find the present and what it was, I told the members of the audience that each person must retrieve his/her own gift, that the endowment was non-transferable, and that each individual had to personally redeem the gift; no one else could redeem it for him.
The time came for me to reveal the location of the present, and I said, “If you believe me, and trust what I have told you, you may reach under the pew in front of you to receive your gift.”
No one moved. They all skeptically smiled and looked me in the eye. But no one moved.
I responded somewhat spiritedly, “No one believes me?”
Then one person took the plunge and reached for her gift. When the people around her heard the tape rip loose from the wood, more and more began retrieving their cards, until each person in the audience held a present in his hand.
In all honesty, I can’t blame the group for their skepticism because I have used some deceptive illustrations before. I also asked them to break protocol, requiring them to step out of their comfort zone and perhaps run the risk of looking naive or foolish.
The good part about the congregation’s reaction is that it has provided not only an illustration for my sermon on grace, it has given me an illustration for this Sunday’s sermon on faith.
It has been said that grace is God reaching down to take hold of us, and faith is our way of reaching up to hold onto God. God has purchased the whole world a gift. (John 3:16; 1 john 2:1-2) His Son’s blood is the purchase price God has chosen to pay in order to redeem us from our sins. (Titus 2:11-14)
Sometimes this is hard to believe, especially when we are not expecting to hear such “good news”. Sometimes we just can’t bring ourselves to believe that the Creator of this world would sacrifice His own Son to pay for the havoc and damages which our sins have wreaked upon this world. Sometimes we just can’t believe that the gift is an absolutely free gift, requiring us to do nothing more than to receive it by faith.
Each person who wishes to take advantage of this gift receives the benefits of the endowment by demonstrating faith in God’s promises (Romans 5:1,2). A person demonstrates his faith by humbly obeying the stipulations God has set forth for receiving the forgiveness of sins. (John 3:36; Romans 2:4-11; Romans 6:16). The Bible clearly teaches that saving faith always obeys (James 2:17-26). Paul uses Abraham as an example of faith being the sole reason for God to accredit someone as being righteous (Romans 4:1-25); yet Abraham demonstrated his faith by obeying the commands of God (Genesis 22:15-18; Hebrews 11:8-19).
God has endowed each of us with the most precious gift He could possibly give us – the salvation of our souls. But we cannot sit back and skeptically smile at Him, waiting for Him to lay the gift into our hands. Through faith, we must trust His words enough to reach out to receive the gift.
Grace is God reaching down to take hold of us. Faith is us reaching up to hold onto God. In order for the plan to work, both must reach for the other.
The January 25, 2015 issue of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine contains an article concerning the efforts of a startup company to bio-engineer a product which it hopes will replace animal produced milk as a staple of the human diet. In the article (http://hoards.com/article-14731-milk-without-the-moo.html), the author, Kirk Sattazhan, points up that over the past 20 years many fluids extracted from plants have been developed, packaged, and marketed in the supermarket dairy case under the “milk” label. But in the end these products are not milk. They are oil extracts that have been artificially colored, textured, and flavored in order to imitate the real thing. The developers and marketers of these products knew from the beginning that they would not be able to sell the American public on their product if the primary labeling read nut and bean oil. So they capitalized on a very powerful word – milk. Thus the terms soy milk, rice milk, and almond milk were born.
There is the real thing, dairy milk produced by dairy animals, and there are the counterfeits, bio-engineered fluids and oil extracts blended and marketed in such a way as to persuade the populace that it is consuming the real thing.
The Spiritual Application.
Jesus, the one and only savior of this world (John 14:6), promised to build one church. (Matthew 16:16-19). Paul said Jesus built only one church (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22-23; Ephesians 4:4) and that He saves only that church (Ephesians 5:23-27).
Mankind has built many organizations which look, feel, and taste like the church. These organizations can be found in the “christian” section of the supermarket of the world’s religions. They are sold under the label “church”. Why? Because just as “milk” sells, so the powerful term “church” draws interest and devotion. But in the end, there is only one authentic church; the one promised, established, and exemplified in the New Testament.
Although the populace may be persuaded that any organization which refers to itself as a church is indeed just another form or branch of God’s church, the final analysis proves that only Jesus’ church originated in the mind of God. All other groups are mere extractions from the mind of man, concocted and mixed in such a way as to convince mankind that they accomplish the same purpose as the original.
As to what God says about the issue, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. . .there is one body.” (Ephesians 1:22,23; 4:4; 2;16).
Recently, our family in Wisconsin experienced temperatures with wind chills of -35 or lower. As they peered out the window of their toasty house, our son-in-law observed, “It’s hard to believe that just on the other side of that glass, the air feels 100 degrees colder.”
“What will the weather be like when I head to the barn in the morning?”
I asked myself this question almost every night when I was milking. I would read all the forecasts online and try to keep track of the winter storm advisories as they changed from watches to warnings. Snow, ice, freezing rain, sleet, and regular rain were often highlighted as being almost certain.
Then morning would come and I would ask myself, “What will it be like when I go out in a few minutes?”
Many times I would wake up an hour early so I could turn on the local radar. One morning in particular, I tuned in to the radar and saw the most colors I’ve ever seen run across the screen; red, blue, pink, green, yellow, and orange. The digital thermometer showed 34 degrees. I looked out the window and noticed that some snow had fallen. The window screen was not covered, but chunks of ice clung to it. I sighed, dreading the day, and then prepared as best I could by dressing warmly in layers and by donning water-repellent outerwear.
What kind of morning was it?
The water on the windshield of my vehicle easily wiped off. Thankfully, the falling moisture came in the form of rain (not freezing rain), and it turned much of the snow into slush. Most of the ice which had built up on the milkroom floor had melted. It wasn’t a morning that I would like to experience on a regular basis, but it wasn’t near as bad it could have been.
Being prepared and dressing properly helped make it a decent morning. Had I not tried to stay abreast of the changing conditions, then I would not have known what to expect. Had I simply ignored the warnings and dressed as if it were going to be a hot summer’s day, that morning would have proven to be a catastrophe; especially if I had locked myself out of the house.
We can never know for sure what type of weather a new day will bring. Through the years I’ve seen 100% chance of snow forecasts which never yielded a flake, and I’ve seen flurries blanket the ground with 6 inches of snow. The best we can do is try to stay informed through the experts’ predictions and prepare accordingly.
Spiritually, trying to understand or imagine what death is like can be much like trying to know for sure what a day’s weather holds.
What’s it like on the other side? We can read what people think it will be like and listen to the descriptions given by those who have had “near death experiences”. We can look through the window of the Bible, and view as detailed a picture as God desired to paint for us. (Luke 16:19-31). But we will never know what death is like until we pass through that door which leads to the other side; a door which automatically closes and locks behind us.
All we can really do while here is prepare based upon what little we do know.
And so we ask, how will we be dressed when that door closes behind us? Will we dress for the conditions God describes in His Word, using the protective clothing He has provided for us (Ephesians 6:13-18) ; or will we choose to dress in skimpy, thin garments of our own desire and design, ignoring God’s prophesy of what lies on the other side? (Isaiah 64:6)
Personally, I’m glad I watched the weather predictions during those milking years, because it made many an unpleasant day bearable. May we all approach the inevitable day of death with the same precautionary attitude. May we clothe ourselves with the only garment which will make eternity bearable – Jesus the Savior. (Romans 13:14)
Several years ago, I worked all day sowing wheat seed that did not germinate. The problem? Weevils had eaten the “life” out of the seed.
Spiritually, God clearly states in the Bible that His Word is the seed by which His church will reproduce itself (Luke 8:4-8; Luke 8:11-15). God clearly states that we are “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-25). So the Word of God must be planted in a person’s heart before he can develop saving faith (Romans 10:17); the faith that will cause him to obey the truth (1 Peter 1:22; John 3:36).
The relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God lies in the fact that the Holy Spirit’s task was to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11). He would do this by bearing witness about Christ (John 15:26), and by guiding the Apostles into all truth. There were many more things that the Apostles needed to know about God’s plan for redeeming man (John 16:12-15). The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles to both publicly proclaim those truths (Acts 2:1-41) and to record them for future generations (1 Corinthians 14:36-38)
Some people try to separate the Spirit and the Word. They claim that the Holy Spirit personally inspires or illuminates them apart from the Bible. They claim that the Holy Spirit places a message in their minds that is additional to the Bible; a message that is uniquely applicable to them and their followers. They may proclaim something like, “I’d rather hear 5 minutes of Spirit filled preaching than 30 minutes of Bible reading.” And yet God plainly states that He breathed the inspired scriptures so that a person can be spiritually complete and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16,17). The Holy Spirit does NOT convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgement apart from the written Word of God.
Others go to the other extreme. They try to separate the Word from the Spirit. They claim that once the Spirit inspired the Word to be written, He had completed His job. They claim that the Spirit works ONLY through the Word, and they dismiss any claims of Divine help in coming to understand the Word. They teach that it is entirely man’s responsibility to ingest the Word through study and then on his own to properly digest the Word by correctly interpreting its meaning and applying it to the questions and circumstances of life. (2 Timothy 2:15)
As with most beliefs, and issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. One extreme has the farmer raising a crop without sowing the seed, the other extreme has the seed germinating and growing even though it is void of “life”.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)
Susan Boyle took the world by storm in 2009 when she both amazed and mesmerized the judges and audience members of Britain’s Got Talent. The initial modest interview of the brash and sassy 47 year old Scottish singer with the cockney accent left many within the live audience believing that her performance would be entertaining, but not due to her talent. They believed that they were going to be afforded the chance to laugh at her lack of talent. This was especially true after she explained that she hoped to be as famous as her idol, Elaine Paige. However, when the music began, the judges and audience were immediately blown away and rose to their feet before Susan even finished the first line of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Susan Boyle finished second that year on Britain’s Got Talent, but she has gone on to attain the fame for which she had hoped.
One of my FaceBook friends recently shared Susan Boyle’s rendering of “Auld Lang Syne”. I believe it to be the best rendition I have ever heard.
Susan Boyle’s story demonstrates the fact that there are many extremely talented people in this world who may live their lives never being “discovered.” This is true in all areas of life; from sports, to entertainment, to leadership, to academia. These gifted people possess more ability than many who have made it to the big stage, but only a few others, if any, will ever witness their genius. Perhaps their social and economic circumstances hold them back from taking the first step in achieving their potential. Perhaps their appearance and their lack of stage presence prohibit others from appreciating their ability. Perhaps their low self-esteem and lack of confidence force them to hide their gift. Regardless of the reasons, as long as this world stands, there will be many “undiscovered” talents with Hall-Of-Fame potential which will be buried along with those “undiscovered” commoners who possessed them.
Turning to a spiritual application, there are many extremely talented christians in this world who will never be noticed by their fellow saints. The positive side of this dilemma lies in the fact that this does not matter in the greater scheme of life. The only thing that matters is that God knows about these gifted souls because He is the giver of the gifts. God alone possesses the ability to evaluate a person’s spiritual potential. He alone possesses the ability to judge how well a person is living up to his/her potential for service and faithfulness. (Romans 14:4, James 4:12)
Mankind is never to set an individual or group of people on a stage and proclaim them to be a spiritual star. Mankind is never to judge a person or persons to possess so great an eloquence and stage presence that they deserve to regularly be set before the people in order to perform on the Lord’s behalf. We are never to believe ourselves or promote ourselves to be brilliantly talented performers who need to be discovered so that others can be blessed by our oratory or musical prowess. (Matthew 6:1, Matthew 23:1-12, 1 Peter 5:5,6)
The negative side of this dilemma lies in the fact that many times we do exactly what we are never to do. We hear a silver-tongued speaker who seems to touch our hearts and move us to action with every message, and we begin to promote him as being a “star”; one whose performance you never want to miss. We hear someone beautifully croon lively melodies with powerfully moving lyrics, and we proclaim them worthy to be recorded so that their talents can be shared by the world.
Meanwhile, at the back of the congregation sit a multitude of saints who cannot publicly proclaim God with eloquence and power, but they can and do daily tell their friends and co-workers about Jesus. These saints cannot sing with the voice of an angel, but they do lull their babies to sleep with hymns, and they do merrily sing spiritual songs as they go through their everyday routines of life. These saints may not be able to shine on a stage in front of others, but they do shine as stars in the eyes of God. (Philippians 2:12-16) because they have devoted themselves to serving others. (1 Corinthians 16:15)
The world is full of extremely talented people in all walks of life. Many of these people’s talents will never be discovered and set on stage for all the world to see. But that’s not a bad thing. For christians, as long as we shine like stars in the eyes of God, we have achieved our dream.