943) The Unanswered Prayers of Jesus (a)

Vasily Perov - Christ In Gethsemane, 1878

Christ in Gethsemane, Vasily Perov, 1878

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By author Philip Yancey, posted on his blog site on October 18, 2015.

     Because I wrote a book with the title Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? I receive letters and emails from readers who give wrenching accounts of unanswered prayers.  A man quit his job at a printing plant when it began printing pornography and, despite his urgent prayers, never landed another job.  A couple desperately wanted a child and found themselves infertile.  Another woman got her wish for a child, only to have her daughter die of a rare disease before reaching the age of two.

     I wrote two chapters on unanswered prayer, but frankly, all words seem impotent against the mystery of why such prayers go unanswered.  When prayer seems more like struggle than relationship, when I find myself repeating the same requests over and over and wonder, “Is anyone really listening?” I take some comfort in remembering that Jesus, too, had unanswered prayers.  Four come to mind.

1.

     As Luke records, Jesus spent an entire night in prayer before choosing the inner core of twelve disciples.  Yet if you read the Gospels, you marvel that this dodgy dozen could represent an answer to prayer.  They included, Luke pointedly notes, “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor,” not to mention the pettily ambitious Sons of Thunder and the hothead Simon, whom Jesus would later rebuke as “Satan.”

     “O unbelieving generation,” Jesus once sighed about these twelve, “how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?”  I wonder if, in that moment of exasperation, Jesus questioned the Father’s response to his night of prayer.

   The particular makeup of the twelve may not truly qualify as an unanswered prayer, for we have no reason to believe that any other choices might have served Jesus better.  Even so, I find it comforting that while on earth Jesus faced the same limitations as does anyone in leadership.  The Son of God himself could only draw from the talent pool available.

2.

     A clearer instance of unanswered prayer occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane when, as Luther put it, “God struggled with God.”  While Jesus lay prostrate on the ground, sweat falling from him like drops of blood, his prayers took on an uncharacteristic tone of pleading.  He “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death,” the Book of Hebrews says— but of course Jesus was not saved from death.  As that awareness grew, Jesus felt distress.  His community of support had all fallen asleep.  “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” he chided.

     We have few details about the content of Jesus’ prayers, since any potential witnesses were dozing.  Perhaps he reviewed his entire ministry on earth.  The weight of all that went undone may have borne down upon him:  his disciples were unstable, irresponsible; the movement seemed in peril; God’s chosen people had rejected him; the world still harbored evil and much suffering.

     In Gethsemane Jesus seemed at the very edge of human endurance.  He no more relished the idea of pain and death than you or I do.  “Everything is possible for you,” Jesus pleaded to the Father; “Take this cup from me.”

3.

     The third unanswered prayer appears in an intimate scene recorded by John (17:20-23a), the disciples’ last supper with their master.  Jesus expanded the scope of his prayer far beyond the walls of the Upper Room, to encompass even those of us who live today:

My prayer is not for them (the disciples) alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one:  I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.

Disunity virtually defines the history of the church.  Pick at random any year of history— pick now, with 45,000 Christian denominations— and you will see how far short we fall of Jesus’ final request.  The church, and the watching world, still await an answer.

4.

     The fourth unanswered prayer appears in what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught as a model.  It includes the sweeping request that “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Surely that prayer remains unanswered today.

   On television I watch the long lines of migrants fleeing war— some 42,000 displaced every day— and think of their prayers for peace and the simple yearning to return to their homes someday.  I am haunted by the image of twenty-one Egyptian Christians kneeling in orange jumpsuits by the Libyan surf, their heads bowed in prayer as, one by one, each is beheaded by ISIS.  God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven— not yet, at least.  (continued…)
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Habakkuk 1:2  —  How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?
Matthew 26:39  —  Going a little farther, (Jesus) fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Hebrews 5:7  —  During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
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O Lord, we know not what is good for us.  Thou knowest what it is.  For it we pray.

–Prayer of the Khonds in North India

942) Worship Where?

     “There are no atheists in the foxholes…  You’ll never be able to keep religion out of the schools– as long as there are tests, there will be prayers in school…  Many people feel closest to God when they are out in the woods, enjoying God’s creation…  Many others feel closest to God when they are alone in their room, reading God’s Word and talking with Him in silent prayer…  Still others say that they never felt so close to God as they did in the hospital room or in the wrecked car when they almost died…”

     The common theme in all of those statements is that you can reach out to God anywhere.  In the foxholes, in the classroom, in the woods, at home or in the hospital; anywhere and everywhere God is there and can hear our prayers.  God is everywhere and always with us.  Even as he dedicated the magnificent temple he had built in Jerusalem, King Solomon said, “God’s presence is not limited to the confines of the houses of worship we build for him.”  Jesus would agree.  In his last words to the disciples before returning to heaven, Jesus said, “Certainly, I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.”  Jesus did not say I’ll be with you whenever you come to church.  He said ALWAYS.

     There are many stories in the Bible of God being with people anywhere and everywhere.  God spoke to Abraham out under the stars on a clear night, telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as those stars in the sky.  God spoke to Joseph in prison, revealing to him the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams.  God spoke to Moses in a burning bush, Joshua on the battlefield, and Paul on the road to Damascus.  God was with Daniel in the lion’s den, with the three men in the blazing furnace, and with David in the valley of Elah when he challenged the giant Goliath.  And, we are told many times in the Gospels how Jesus would go off by himself, into the hills to pray.  In fact, the Bible’s best stories tell of God being with people in places outside of the walls of a church building.

     But there is in the Bible another stream of thought, also going way back to the very beginning.  Even in the earliest chapters of the book of Genesis there is the need to set up special places to worship God.  At first, these places were nothing more than rough altars, rocks piled up out in the middle of nowhere, as a reminder that God had been present in a special way in that place.  Later, instructions were given to build a tabernacle, a portable place of worship that could be taken down and carried around by a people moving to a new land.  Once settled in the new land, that larger, more permanent temple was built by Solomon, which would be the center of worship for the whole nation.  Later, synagogues were built in each city and village for weekly worship.  Jesus himself went to the synagogue to worship every week, ‘as was his custom’ Luke tells us.  

     There are those who say they can be a Christian without going to a church.  And yes, we are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross and not by going to church.  But to live a life of faith without the church is attempting to do something not even Jesus was willing to do.  Jesus Himself went to a specific place, every week, to gather with other believers and to worship.  God is with us always and everywhere, says the Bible; but we also, says the Bible, need specific places and times to worship.  In fact, that inner faith that God is always with us is taught, nurtured, and sustained by that regular worship in a specific place.

     This importance of a place to worship was illustrated to me in a cute way one time.  My wife and I went with our daughter Amy’s family to a program in another church.  As we walked into church, Amy told her daughter, then age three, that this was a church we were going into.  Immediately Courtney began to ask, “Well, where’s Jesus?  Where’s Jesus?”  Amy then explained to me that in their church they would, on the way into church, stop and look at a picture of Jesus that hung on the wall in the entryway.  So, if this was a church, Courtney thought, there must be picture of Jesus here somewhere; so we had to find a picture of Jesus to reinforce that connection.  That’s interesting, because Courtney could have just as well asked where is Thea or where is Emmett or where is Lucas or where are any of the other kids she would see at church.  But she asked, “Where is Jesus?”  She was already beginning to make that primary connection between the church building and the one we worship there.  Faith is built and sustained in many ways, and one of those ways is by having a specific time and a specific place to remember God by coming together for worship and for fellowship.

     The church building is where we gather for worship, and where God speaks to us and we speak to God each week.  This is certainly not the only place that can happen.  God being with us always and everywhere.  But we can, and do, easily forget all about God in our busy lives.  The thought of God may not even enter your mind for a whole day, or two or three, or more.  But the church building is where we come each week to be reminded of God.  This is where we hear those words of Jesus repeated over and over again, “This do in remembrance of me.”  Remembering, and not forgetting about God, is a big theme in the Bible.  God even made it one of the Ten Commandments that we “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”  Having a place to come each week is an important part of making sure we remember.

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Exodus 33:7  —  Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.”  Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp.

Luke 4:16  —  (Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.

Acts 17:2  —  As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.

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O Almighty God, from whom every good prayer cometh, and who pourest out the Spirit of grace on all who desire it; deliver us, when we draw nigh to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind; that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections, we may worship thee in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.
–William Bright (1824-1901)

941) A Father’s Biggest Impression

Randy and Angela Alcorn

By Randy Alcorn, November 6, 2015 blog at:  www.epm.org

     Some years ago, I sat with my daughters at a father/daughter banquet at our church.  Someone at the table asked my youngest daughter, Angela, what I’d done that made the biggest impression on her.  I had no idea what she would say, but of course I hoped for something spectacular.

     I’ll never forget what she shared because it was so powerful to me.  She said, “I remember one time when dad was harsh with me. Then a few minutes later he came back into my room, and he cried and asked my forgiveness.  I’ve never forgotten that.”

     That’s what Angie remembered as having the most impact on her— something I had actually done wrong, and then asked her forgiveness for.  I thought, Isn’t that interesting?  It shows how being a good example isn’t limited to doing great and magnificent things.  Sometimes it’s when we admit we did wrong things.

     This is God’s grace— He can redeem even our failures!  (Provided we recognize and confess them.)  Saying “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” may teach your children more than you would have by never failing, and far more than pretending you never fail.

     How humbling and also encouraging to know that parents who admit their shortcomings don’t lose their children’s trust.  They gain it.

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I John 1:8-9  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Colossians 3:12-14  —  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Colossians 3:20  —  Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

Ephesians 6:4  —  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

James 5:16  —   Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

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PRAYER OF CONFESSION TO GOD (source unknown):

Forgive me, Lord, my sins:  the sins of my youth, the sins of the present; the sins I laid upon myself in an ill pleasure, the sins I cast upon others in an ill example; the sins which are manifest to all the world, the sins which I have labored to hide from my acquaintances, from my own conscience, and even from my memory; my crying sins and my whispering sins, my ignorant sins and my willful sins; sins against my superiors, equals, servants, and loved ones; sins against myself, my own body, and my own soul; sins against thee, O heavenly Father, O merciful Son, O blessed Spirit of God.  Amen.

940) Pray for the Persecutors

From the September 2015 Voice of the Martyrs newsletter ( http://www.persecution.com )

     Suta is a village pastor in India.   Like the majority of people in India, he grew up in a Hindu family.  But now Suta follows Jesus.  He wants others to learn the truth about Jesus, too.

     Suta believed that God was telling him to share the gospel with people in a nearby village.  The people in the village were dedicated Hindus.  As he began sharing his testimony from place to place in the village, some Hindu men threatened him and told him to leave the village.

     Suta left, but he was puzzled.  He asked God, “Why are they telling me not to come into the village when You told me to go?”

     Suta decided he had given up to easily.

     Suta returned to the village.  This time, the villagers beat him up and threw him in a 10-foot deep ditch.

     But Raji, one of the Hindu men, began to feel guilty about hurting Suta.  “I have persecuted an innocent man,” he later told his wife at home.  Raji’s wife was worried that Suta’s God might punish them.  “Go bring that man into our home,” she said.  “We have to take care of him.”

     Raji pulled Suta out of the ditch and carried him to his home.  Raji’s wife took care of Suta, and Suta shared the gospel with her.  When Suta prayed for her sick relative, God healed the relative.

     Everyone in the village heard the news.  All of Raji’s family and Suta’s attackers came to faith in Christ.  “We were wrong,” the attackers said.  “You were preaching the true God.  Please forgive us.”

     A new church started in the village.  “If I had not gone to preach, I would have not got persecuted,” Suta said.   “But I did, and now there is one more church.”

     Sunday (November 1, 2015) was The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.  Watch Voice of the Martyrs’ 5-minute video, Suta, a reenactment of his story, at:

https://youtu.be/6Uw2FCzP22w

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Suta and Raji (Suta’s face is covered to protect his identity)

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Matthew 5:43-44  —  (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

John 15:20a  —  (Jesus said), “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

Matthew 5:10  —  (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I Peter 4:16  —  If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

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PRAYER FOR THE PERSECUTED CHURCH (By Rev. Norman Olsen, Starbuck, MN)

Merciful Father:  Hear the cries of your people who are being persecuted and killed for your Name’s sake; who are threatened with the sword to “deny or die”; who are made to watch as their own children are slain; who are tortured for the sake of a religion; and who must flee their homeland for their lives, if they can.

We join our prayers with their cries for deliverance, O Lord, asking that you embrace them with your nearer presence and provide your promised deliverance in the midst of their suffering.  Breathe in them your peace which passes all understanding, and assure them that there is nothing in all creation can ever separate them from your love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Strengthen them as you did for all the saints and martyrs who went before, with the confidence that death is of no lasting consequence in your eternal Kingdom.

We pray for the conversion of the evil doers, as they hear the compelling witness of the Gospel on the lips, and in the lives, of the persecuted church.  And finally we implore your forgiveness for our sins of indifference and apathy towards the persecuted church.  With shame we confess that so much suffering has met with so little awareness and response.

Imbue us, O Lord, with your Living Word, the Holy Spirit, that we may stand in solidarity with all who willingly suffer for the sake of Christ.  We open our hearts, praying, not only for the suffering church, but that their suffering may teach us faithfulness today, and what it costs to stand for the Gospel in the evil day; confident that while sorrow may linger for the night, joy comes in the morning.  In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.

939) Jesus is Watching

Luke 21:1-4  —  As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.  “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

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     Jesus was watching as the crowd put their money into the temple treasury.  Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything— all she had to live on.”

     The story does raise a couple questions; such as, How can it be good to give away ‘everything you have to live on?’   What then?  Then, somebody has to give to you so that you can survive.  And also, two small copper coins aren’t going to pay the bills at the temple.  Why doesn’t Jesus give a little credit to those who are giving enough to keep the heat and lights on?

     First of all, we need to look at what Jesus doesn’t say.  For example, though Jesus does criticize some teachers of the Law (in previous verses), he does not speak ill of the wealthy members who are putting their larger gifts into the treasury.  Nor, does he say everyone should put everything in, nor does he even say that the widow should have put everything in.  Jesus did not say any of that.  Jesus just said the widow put in more.  More what?  Certainly not more money, so Jesus clearly meant more of a percentage.  This is the same message as in II Corinthians 8:12 where Paul said, “The gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.”  It is just basic Christian stewardship to give as you have been given.

     The other important lesson is that Jesus is watching.  Verse one says, “As Jesus looked up, he saw” what people were putting into the treasury.  Jesus saw them, and, he sees you.  Jesus is watching when that offering plate goes around, and Jesus is watching you whenever and wherever else you have an opportunity to be generous.  Think about that.  This is not a threat.  It is just a fact.  Jesus knows all and sees all.  Another fact is that people act better when they know they are being watched.  This is certainly true of children, and it is also true of adults.  It is true of everyone.  We all behave much better, and are far more likely to do what is right, when we know we are being watched.

     Fifty years ago when I was a child, our church posted for all to see the total amount of money each person gave that year.  Therefore, everyone was watching and everybody knew what everyone else gave– and you can bet that served as a powerful incentive.  I don’t think that was a good idea, because it led to all kinds of pride and gossip and unholy thoughts and comparisons.  So it is a good thing churches don’t do that anymore.  But the most important One of all is still watching, still seeing.  “Jesus is always watching over you,” we like to say, and that is a wonderful promise.  It can also be a little unnerving.  Jesus is watching?  Yes.  Always?  Yes, always.  Jesus even sees how you spend all of your money.  Jesus sees how generous you are and he sees how selfish you are.  

     One more thing.  Giving to the Lord’s work need not be defined only by what one puts in the offering plate.  There are many opportunities to share what you have been given by contributing to international mission or disaster relief organizations, by responding to local needs, or even by giving help to friends or family members who are struggling.  The Good Samaritan was also serving God when he paid for the injured man’s room at the inn until he recovered.  And of course, wherever we put our money, we must do what we can to make sure that what we give is used wisely.  There are, of course, churches, organizations, and individuals are not very good stewards with what they have been given.  One cannot expect to agree with every line in the budget, but we do need to put some thought and prayer into our decisions about how much money to give and where.

     However you choose to give to God’s work in the world, the powerful lesson in this little story of the widow’s offering is that Jesus is watching what you do with what you have been given.

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Luke 12:48b  —  (Jesus said), “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

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O Lord, who hast warned us that thou wilt require much of those to whom much is given; and who in thy infinite love hast entrusted to us both the knowledge of thy truth and the gifts of thy bounty:  Help us to use them as good stewards, giving liberally and working diligently, that we may share in bringing all people to thy truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, 1958, #75, (adapted)

938) Advice from Aunt Agnes

This is the time of year for Stewardship sermons.  This is from one I gave a couple years ago.

     Whenever I have to give a Stewardship sermon I think about my grandmother’s oldest sister, Aunt Agnes.  She was a kind old lady, and I only once remember her having a stern word for anyone, and that was for me.  I was still in seminary, and she was proud that I was going to be a minister.  But she wanted to set me straight on one thing right from the start.  She one day said to me very firmly, “Now Leon, when you get out of school and into a church, don’t be one of those ministers that is always talking about money.  I just hate those money sermons.”

     Well, I thought that was cute and I liked Aunt Agnes, so I didn’t mind that she gave me a piece of her mind like that.  But I did remember it, and when I got a little older and Aunt Agnes was long gone, I wondered what might have been behind that comment.  Aunt Agnes was a good Christian lady, she loved Jesus, and she served the church in whatever ways she could.  But she was also really poor, and only much later did it occur to me how poor she was.  She never married and never had a job, but spent her life taking care of others.  First, she helped her parents with eight younger brothers and sisters.  Then, as her siblings got married, she would help with their families as needed.  For example, one of her sisters gave birth to premature triplets right at the start of the depression, and those three small, frail children took turns being sick most the time for the next ten years.  Agnes was always there to help, often staying for months at a time.  Then, for several years she cared for her elderly parents.  When they died, the farm went to the youngest brother and his new wife.  Agnes and a bachelor brother, who had a good job, moved to a little house in town.  And then her brother was killed in a car accident.  From then on, she had very little to live on.  She worked all her life, but never had a job for social security.  Any inheritance from the farm had to be split nine ways, and in those years, even that little bit became worthless in no time due to inflation.  I once asked my mother what Agnes lived on, and she didn’t know.  It had never even occurred to her to ask her mother, because Aunt Agnes never complained about anything.  She was just always there, ready to help as needed, and always pleasant.

     Therefore, being the committed Christian that she was, I would imagine that Stewardship sermons were hard on her.  It probably made her feel bad to hear the minister talk about giving more money, knowing that she could not do any more than the meager little amount she was already giving.  So I have always kept Aunt Agnes in mind when I speak about stewardship; and somewhere along the line I try to say that the admonishion to evaluate your financial stewardship and try to be more generous is not for everyone.  Some of you really are doing all you can, and I want to acknowledge that.  Sometimes in sermons, or in any kind of advice, those that need it the least take it the hardest, and those who need it the most let it go in one ear and out the other.  Aunt Agnes was a tender soul who wanted to do what was right.  She could not bring much money for the Sunday morning offering, but she did know all about being generous. She spent her life being generous with her time serving others.

     Most of us here this morning are not as poor as my old Aunt Agnes, and we all need the occasional reminder to be more generous; just like we need to be reminded again and again of all of God’s commands.  Some of you may not mind that too much, and some of you may not like it at all.  But when Jesus was on this earth he talked about money six times as much as he talked about prayer, so no one should get too upset if a preacher wants to mention it every once in a while.   And, if you ever served on the church council you know that there are bills each month that need to be paid, so I have found that council members usually don’t mind the usual word of encouragement.

     Paul wrote II Corinthians just 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, so the center of the early church was still in Jerusalem where those incredible events had occurred.  The Jerusalem church at the time was facing some tough times due to persecution and famine.  Along with that, there was the financial burden of being the center of the church, and having to support all sorts of teachers, students, missionaries, seekers, and other guests.  So in his travels Paul would ask for support on their behalf.  In this letter, he is making an appeal to the church in Corinth.  As he makes his request, he tells the Corinthians about the Macedonians, who even though they were facing their own financial difficulties, responded with rich generosity. Paul wrote (8:1-8):

Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.  In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.  Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.  And they exceeded our expectations… (So) since you excel in everything– in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you— see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

     A few verses later, Paul addressed the concern I have every time I preach on Stewardship and think about Aunt Agnes, and how some people are far more able to respond than others.  That has always been the case, in every time and place including ancient Corinth, so Paul added (vv. 12-14):

If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.  Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.  

     God did not bless Aunt Agnes with much money, but he did bless her with the gift of time.  And she used that abundance of time to help others who were in Paul’s words, “hard pressed” in that area.  To others, God gives an abundance of financial resources, so as Paul says, “each can give according to what they have.”  So as Paul puts it so well, “your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.”

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STEWARDSHIP PRAYER (from the Archdiocese of Chicago website):

Oh Lord, giver of life and source of our freedom, we are reminded that yours is “the earth in its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it.”  We know that it is from your hand that we have received all we have and are and will be.  Gracious and loving God, we understand that you call us to be the stewards of your abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us.  Help us always to use your gifts wisely and teach us to share them generously.  May our faithful stewardship bear witness to the love of Christ in our lives.  We pray this with grateful hearts in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

937) What’s It All About?

Humans were created different– to wonder and to ask.  That is a good question– What is it all about?  Is there any more to life than ‘eat, survive, reproduce’?  Who says?

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A story from the website of a course called Christianity Explored.  More stories (and questions and answers about Christianity) can be viewed at:

http://www.christianityexplored.org

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A young woman from London describes her faith journey:

     I got into Tai Chi and Yoga, and then into things like Buddhism and meditation and all different kinds of New Age things.  I was just taking all the nice bits of all the different kinds of religion, and they really do speak into your life and the issues that you have.  I wanted to do more of that, so I went to an inter-faith seminary where you learn about the five major religions, and you try and put them all together, and see if we can all live nicely together.  And that was great.

      While I was there I made a friend.  Then she got breast cancer and was dying.  She asked me to help do her funeral, so we got together to think about that.  She wanted the funeral to say something to her family about her spirituality and what that meant to her and where she was going.  So we started thinking about how we would put that all together.  But then we realized that we had Jesus taking her to heaven, and then as a Buddhist she was being reincarnated and having another life, and as a Taoist she was going to become some sort of a spirit– and we just couldn’t make it hang together.  Five days before you die is no time to realize that you don’t know what’s happening.

     My brother is a Christian, and while I was looking into all the New Age beliefs I would go to church with him, and that was okay.  Christianity was fine with me too, along with everything else.  My brother would listen to all the things I had to say about my New Age beliefs, and he was really patient with me.  He would just say “I think there is more.”  After a while I began to realize that he knew Jesus as a real person, and he had something that I didn’t.

     I went to a course in London called Christianity Explored, and we started reading the Bible.  I realized that I had an opinion about the Bible, but I had never read it.  When I did, it was great to learn that Jesus was a real and living person who loved me.  It was such a relief, and made all the difference in the world to know that he was the way and the truth and the life.  I couldn’t ignore it any more.

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Exodus 20:3  —  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

John 14:1-6  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Acts 4:12  —  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.

Acts 17:22-23  —  Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said:  “People of Athens!  I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:  To an Unknown God.  So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship— and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

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Lord Jesus, give us the grace to follow you, the Way, to learn from you, the Truth, and to live in you, the Life.  

–Erasmus

936) Martin Luther and the Reformation

Martin Luther  (1483-1546)

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      The husband and wife team of Will and Ariel Durant made it their life’s work to write the history of the whole world, from life in the caves to life in skyscrapers, from crude markings on the sides of cliffs to the age of the computer.  The result of that effort, which the Durants worked on for over fifty years, was eleven huge volumes, each containing 800 to 1,000 pages.  They both died in 1981, their work unfinished, having gotten only as far as the early 1800’s.  The title of this monumental work is The Story of Civilization, and each volume tells the story of an important era in human history.  There is a volume on the Greek civilization and one on the Oriental cultures and one on the Roman empire and the beginnings of the early Christian Church, and so on.  Volume Six of that set is entitled The Reformation, indicating the Durants’ view that the Reformation of the church was one of the eleven most significant and influential time periods in all of human history.

     On October 31, 1517, 498 years ago last Saturday, this world changing Reformation began with a single bold act by a chubby little monk in the small, remote city of Wittenberg, Germany.

     When Martin Luther nailed the 95 thesis to the church door in Wittenberg, he had no idea that the results of that act would reach around the world, and in four centuries, merit an entire volume in The Story of Civilization.  He was simply doing what scholars in that university town often did, posting their opinions in that very public place to invite discussion and debate.  The closest thing to this practice today would be the writing of letters to the editor of the local newspaper to inform, and to invite the opinions of others.

     Luther certainly received the discussion and debate that he was after.  The challenges he made were theological and scholarly, but they went to the heart of much of what the medieval church had come to stand for.  And since church and state were so interwoven in those days, anything that threatened the way the church did business, also threatened the way the state did business.  And the kinds of things Luther was talking about changing, could, and would, lead to the unraveling of the whole business, the whole medieval way of life.  Many people in the church and in politics were more than ready for just such an unraveling.  Luther provided the spark that ignited a cultural revolution that changed everything:  from dividing the one catholic church into dozens of denominations, to separating church and state, to redefining the sources of authority in society, to leading (eventually) to the establishment of individual rights, to providing the Bible in the language of the common person.  Many things that we take for granted in our church, and in our whole society, were unheard of before the Reformation, but were well on their way to becoming a part of life by the time of Luther’s death 28 years later.

     I did an internet search of the most influential people of the last thousand years.  I found four lists.  Martin Luther was in third place on all four lists.  This is not just religious leaders.  This is out of everyone, in every area, in the whole world, for a thousand years.  Only two people were considered to be more influential than Martin Luther.

     Luther was by far the most influential reformer, but only the first of many.  Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Philip Melanchthon, and many more were to follow; and so were their writings.  The Reformation brought forth a flood of books and sermons and other writings, as all of theology was rethought and presented in new and more Gospel-centered ways.  “The truth shall set you free,” said Jesus in John 8:32, and it was that freedom of the Gospel that Luther rediscovered and the Reformers never tired of proclaiming.  The whole church, indeed, the whole world and all of life would be seen from a new perspective.  Page after page poured forth– 120 volumes by Luther alone.

     Much of that tremendous output is as not nearly as important now as it was when it was first written.  Every age has its own unique challenges, and important writings in one age will not necessarily be important or even meaningful in another time and place.  Luther himself had hoped that none of his writings would be saved.  It was, he believed, the work of every new generation to proclaim the Gospel in their own way in their own time.  Luther’s writings have been preserved, though half of it has not been translated into English; and most of the 54 volumes that have been translated into English are read only by scholars, some by pastors, and a few have a bit wider audience.

     But one piece of Luther’s work is still read by millions– his Small Catechism.  Luther would have approved of this wide and continued usage.  He considered this little pamphlet his favorite and most important work.

     This is because along with being a courageous leader and world-changing reformer, Luther was primarily a pastor and a teacher.  He was therefore concerned about the spiritual well-being of his people; and his ‘people,’ or sphere of influence, soon included all of Germany, and then, all of Europe.  When he started looking around at the church outside his life in Wittenberg, he was appalled at what he found.  Out in the country the churches were in horrible shape.  In his preface to the Small Catechism, he wrote that most people did not even know the simplest things, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, and they had no understanding at all of the Gospel of God’s grace and gift of salvation.  The clergy were often of little help.  Many of them, he found, did not know the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed either.

     So Martin Luther, who was used to writing mostly long and deep and complex theological treatises, went to work on something short and simple.  In the Spring of 1529 the Small Catechism was published, and this little book has been the primary text for the Christian education of Lutheran young people ever since.

     The catechism has five parts, what Luther considered the five basics of the Christian faith that everyone should know something about.  Part One is the Ten Commandments, outlining how God wants us to live.  Part Two is the Apostle’s Creed, a summary of what we believe.  Part Three is the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray, and the best example of how we should speak to God in prayer.  Parts Four and Five describe the two Sacraments; the Sacrament of Baptism, by which God gives us his eternal promise, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion, in which God repeats his promise, forgives our sins, and reminds us of Christ’s sacrifice for us.  In the Small Catechism, the common person was instructed in what God’s Word said about how to live a Christian life, and how to die with hope in the promises of God.

     Another of Luther’s great accomplishments was the translation of the Bible into German, so that everyone could read it.  We take for granted that we can read the Bible in our own language, but in Luther’s time, that was a radical, even illegal, innovation.  Luther had to go into hiding in order to do this work.  He was a hunted man with a price on his head, so he grew a beard, disguised himself as a soldier, and worked in an upper room in the Wartburg castle for two years to get it done.

     Everything Luther did was centered on the Bible and the message of grace that he found there.  The battle cry of the Reformation was the phrase, “Word Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone.”  Most of all Luther wanted to teach the message of God’s love and forgiveness and gift of salvation won for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The book of Romans became a central text for Luther, with its clear descriptions of salvation by God’s grace alone through Christ Jesus.  In chapter three Paul wrote, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe, for there is no difference; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus….”, and then in verse 28, “So we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the Law.”

     These were the very words that changed Martin Luther’s whole understanding of Scripture, and then through him, God changed the church.  The message of this passage led Luther back to the central message of God’s freely given grace.  In his desperate search for peace with God, he found in this passage that he could take comfort in God, instead of God being the primary cause of his discomfort and fear and despair.  For the rest of his life, he proclaimed that Good News in whatever way he could, and he was a man of great energy and many talents.  As a Biblical scholar, he argued convincingly for the truth of this understanding of the Gospel.  As a historian and theologian, he showed the Roman Catholic church that this had indeed been their own theology for many centuries, but over time had been obscured.  As a linguist, he translated the Bible into the language of the people, so they could read the Good News for themselves.  As a musician he wrote hymns, produced a hymnal, and introduced congregational singing to the worship service.  And as a powerful preacher, he proclaimed the Law and the Gospel to everyone, from kings on down to the lowest servants.

     Luther proclaimed the Gospel most clearly in his explanation to the second article of the Apostle’s Creed where he wrote:  “At great cost, Jesus has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person.  He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent sufferings and death.  All of this he has done so that I might be his own and live with him in his Kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”  Our salvation is through Christ Alone, said Luther, based on the Bible, the Word Alone.  And how do we get in on this salvation? By Grace Alone, he said in his explanation to the third article of the creed where he wrote:  “I believe I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”  And then that second part of the Small Catechism concludes with God’s eternal promise, or, as Luther describes it in these words:  “On the last day, God will raise up me and all the dead, and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life.  This is most certainly true.”

Martin Luther Signature.svg

935) Living Faith (pt. 10 of 10)

The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz.  There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content).  John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website.  A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935.  These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity.  For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).

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CHAPTER TEN:  LIVING CHRISTIANLY IN THE WORLD

Habits of Godly Living

     The year 1989 saw the publication of Stephen Covey’s national bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  How can we live out and give witness to our Christian faith in today’s world?  One way would be to develop “Seven Habits of Godly Living” from the second tablet commandments (five through ten), Jesus’ Beatitudes and antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23), Paul’s virtues in his letter to the Colossians (3:12-15), and Paul’s teachings on Christian behavior in Romans (12:9-21).  From these and other texts, we can develop “Habits of Godly Living” to guide us in living Christian lives in our homes, neighborhoods, and places of work.

The Ten Commandments:  Rules for Christian Living

     Israel was called to be Gods “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), something that would draw people to God.  How was Israel to be such a people?  By observing the commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, contained in the books of Exodus (20:3-17) and Deuteronomy (5:7-21).  Jesus affirms the commandments in his dialogue with the rich young man (Mark 10:19), and the apostle Paul does so in his letter to the Romans (13:9).

     Many people read the Ten Commandments as a series of narrow shall nots.  But Pastor James Moore, in his book When All Else Fails. . . Read the Instructions, says, “The Ten Commandments tell us how things work, how life holds together, how God meant things to be.  Anyone can see that life is better when we love God and other people… when we respect our parents and tell the truth… and when we are honest and faithful in all of our relationships.”

     1.  You shall have no other gods before me.  The word “gods” refers to the fact that there were many gods in the ancient world.  Today we do not think in terms of a plurality of “gods,” but we do worship other gods— reputation, success, wealth, power, pleasure.  We are called to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Mark 12:30), which means giving God first priority in our lives.

      2.  You shall not make for yourself an idol.  God told Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).  God spoke but was not seen.  For this reason no graven (sculpted, carved or chiseled) image was possible.  Today we don’t make idols of God, but we do idolize others— royalty, rock musicians, movie and television stars, and professional athletes.  We are called to worship God and God alone.

     3.  You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.  The word God does not mean the name of God— which was so sacred that it was never audibly uttered in ancient Israel— but the essence of God.  Today this commandment refers primarily to language that profanes God in speech, jokes, writings and graffiti…  We are to take God’s name in earnest, not in vain, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer:  “Hallowed be thy name.”

     4.  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  God rested on the seventh day so that he could enjoy his creation; the Israelites rested on the seventh day so that they could enjoy God.  Today Sunday has moved from a holy day to a holiday.  We honor this commandment by keeping Sunday holy.

     5.  Honor your father and your mother.  The remaining six commandments have to do with our relationships with others— our parents, our spouse and our neighbors.  Today we have a diminished view of the family, and also the elderly (we admire youth and youthfulness, not old age).  We need to care for those who have no family— those for whom we can become family— showing the kind of hospitality Jesus referred to when he said, in the story of the sheep and the goats, “I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).

     6.  You shall not murder.  This commandment has to do with the sanctity of life.  It has been broadened by some to include any form of killing and furnishes the biblical basis for those who oppose capital punishment, war, euthanasia, even recruitment into the armed forces.  It also furnishes the basis for those who say that aborting an embryo is killing one made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26).

     7.  You shall not commit adultery.  This commandment protects the institution of marriage, in which God joins man and woman together to become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 and Mark 10:6-9).

     8.  You shall not steal.  This commandment has to do with honesty.  In its broadest form, it deals with the misappropriation of funds and property, the manipulation of others through bribery and payoffs, and the falsification of reports and records,

     9.  You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.  This commandment has to do with truthfulness.  It includes perjury, slander, libel and gossip— in fact, the protection of another person’s reputation against any form of false witness, even remaining silent when a person is being wrongly slandered.

     10.  You shall not covet.  The final commandment is a prohibition against desiring and lusting after status and success, wealth and possessions, health and youthfulness, and pleasure in all its physical forms.  Coveting (envy) is one of the seven deadly sins.  How do we control covetousness?  By practicing its opposite, which is contentedness.

The Sermon on the Mount:  The Christian Manifesto

     There are two so-called sermons in the Gospels:  Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49).  Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is the more familiar of the two.  It is presented as a single piece, but many believe it is a summary of Jesus’ teachings because of its length and complexity and because there is a different placement of the various passages in Luke’s Gospel.  On which “mount” the sermon was preached is not known, but in the Bible mounts are places where God has spoken and revealed himself.  Examples include Mount Moriah (where Isaac was taken to be sacrificed), Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel (where Elijah battled the prophets of Baal), the Mount of Transfiguration, and Mount Zion, where the psalmist says God “resides” (Psalm 48:1-2).

The Beatitudes

     The Sermon on the Mount opens with eight Beatitudes or ‘Blesseds’— eight qualities that should be seen in the lives of Christians; like Paul’s nine fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5.  Some have conjectured that the Beatitudes are the ‘bottom lines’ of sermons that Jesus preached time and again throughout Galilee, which Matthew has brilliantly summarized into a series of eight teachings.

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who realize that they are helpless to save themselves, those who put their total trust and hope in God, those who wager everything on the grace and mercy of God.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go? You [alone] have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
  2. Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those who grieve over the cruelty and pains of the world, those who are moved by the sufferings of others and offer them comfort rather than passing by; like the Good Samaritan, who came to the aid of the man beaten by robbers on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37).
  3. Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are those who are gentle, loving and compassionate, those who are willing to humble themselves before others; like the father who humbled himself before his wasteful younger son and his angry older son in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31).
  4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who hunger to be right with God, those who thirst after his will, those who desire to be upright and righteous in his sight.  Amos told the Israelites that God does not want false worship; he wants to see “justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).
  5. Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are those who do not repay evil with evil but with love, those who show kindness and mercy to all, those who are willing to forgive and forget grievances against them, as Jesus did on the cross:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
  6. Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are those whose motives are true and genuine, those who pray for an inner purity of heart, as David did after his affair with Bathsheba, when he prayed:  “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 5 1: 10).
  7. Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who strive for peace and for right relationships, those who are peacemakers between persons at enmity with one another, those like Saint Francis of Assisi, who prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
  8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Blessed are those who speak out against social and political injustice and those who are willing to defend Christ’s name before others.  Jesus said that those who suffer for his sake and stand “firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).

Jesus’ Other Teachings

     Jesus’ other teachings in the sermon have to do with being salt and light in the world; the six antitheses (“You have heard it said.. . , but I say.. .”); prayer and fasting; the error of seeing the speck in another’s eye but not the plank in our own; asking, seeking and knocking, for God wishes to “give good gifts to those who ask him”; the impossibility of serving two masters (God and wealth); seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; the Golden Rule; the narrow gate; the good tree; and the strong, well-built house.

The Sermon on the Mount Today

     How can we live out the Sermon on the Mount?  One way is to keep our focus on the preacher of the sermon, namely, Jesus.  Charles Blondin, the French tightrope walker, crossed over Niagara Falls several times in the summer of 1859.  When he was asked how he did it, Blondin said, “I keep my eyes on an object on the far side of the falls and never look away.”  How can we live the Sermon on the Mount?  By keeping our eyes on Jesus.

Jesus’ Parables

     There are some forty-five parables in the Gospels, all of which appear in the first three Gospels (John uses discourses rather than parables).  The German scholar Joachim Jeremias said that all of Jesus’ parables are unique.  When we read or hear them, Jeremias said, we encounter Jesus “face to face.”

     The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  The Good Samaritan is perhaps Jesus’ best known parable.  A ‘lawyer’ (an expert in the law of Moses) asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  The lawyer understood the two great commandments— to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).  What he didn’t understand was that a neighbor was anyone in need.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite are more interested in keeping the law— not touching the fallen man, who might have defiled them— than in showing love and mercy to someone in need.  The Good Samaritan was and is the perfect example of loving one’s neighbor.  He did something that was totally unexpected— coming to the aid of a Jew (Jews and Samaritans had no relations with each other, according to John 4:9); he acted spontaneously, without worrying or wondering what he should do; and he did more than the minimum— he treated the man’s wounds, he transported the man to the inn and paid for his care, and he agreed to pay more if more was needed.  The parable of the Good Samaritan presents a problem:  are we to care for everyone who crosses our path?  If not, where do we draw the line?  Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor is a universal command; it is not limited to those who are easy or convenient to love.  Today, in Israel, it might mean a Jew showing love to a Palestinian or vice versa.  In the United States, it might mean having concern for an American Muslim or someone accused of a crime or someone with a different sexual orientation.  

     The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).  The parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (not to be confused with the Lazarus in John’s Gospel), who sat at the rich man’s gate waiting for a crumb, is one of many parables in Luke about the proper use of one’s wealth.  The poor man died and was carried away by angels; the rich man died and went to Hades.  Why the switch?  Because the rich man ignored the poor man at his gate, and in so doing he ignored God as well.  The apostle John echoes the teaching of this parable, saying, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17).  One day we will be called to account for the gifts and blessings we have received— and our treatment of those at our gate.

934) Living Faith (pt. 9 of 10)

The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz.  There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content).  John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website.  A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935.  These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity.  For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).

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CHAPTER NINE:  GROWING IN AND SHARING CHRIST

     As Christians, we are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 3:17), to be transformed through the discipline of study (Romans 12:2), to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), and to always be willing to share with others the hope we have in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:15).

Growing in Christ through Prayer

     Surveys indicate that a major reason Christians shy away from sharing their faith is that they have, or believe they have, an impoverished faith.  How can we make our faith strong and vibrant?

     The Life of Prayer.  Polls indicate that a majority of Christians are dissatisfied with their prayer life, and this includes clergy as well as laypeople.  One reason is that in our busy world we find it difficult to be quiet before the Lord— to sit and “wait upon the Lord.”  The Westminster Catechism of 1647 asks, “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer is:  “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  We glorify God when we come to him in prayer; we enjoy God when we bask in his presence, like a child sitting on the lap of a parent.

     Forms of Prayer.  There are three principal forms of prayer.  Vocal prayers are spoken prayers.  A helpful, widely used outline for verbal prayer is contained in the acronym ACTS, which stands for the Adoration of God, the Confession of sins and transgressions against God and others, Thanksgiving for God’s blessings and promises and Supplications (petitions or requests) to God for special needs.  God does not care about the correctness or beauty of our words, only that we come to him with a prayerful heart.  Meditative prayer is praying with the mind, usually based on a passage of Scripture or a reading from a daily devotional.  In meditative prayer, the pray-er meditates on the words before him or her.  Contemplative prayer is the most advanced level of prayer.  Contemplative prayer is hungering for a genuine “felt experience” of God, for hearing God’s “still small voice,” for union and intimacy with God.  How do we do this?  By quieting down, called centering— clearing the mind of all distractions— so that we can listen to God, who is everywhere present, like radio waves around us, waiting and wanting to speak to our minds and hearts.

     The Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus taught his disciples how to pray.  The prayer that he taught them is called the Lord’s Prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer has two parts or halves. The first part contains three supplications to God:  that his name—not his name per se but his “essence”— be hallowed, honored, and reverenced; that his kingdom— his rule and reign over the earth— will soon come; and that his will be done– his will that we love him and others.  The second part contains three petitions, which the Scottish commentator William Barclay said can be thought of as present, past and future.  We pray for today— for our “daily bread,” which includes shelter, medical care and other necessities of life.  We pray for yesterday— for God’s forgiveness when we have failed to love him and others around us.  (We don’t confess these things to tell God something he doesn’t already know; we confess them so they maybe forgiven.)  And we pray for tomorrow— for God to be present when we are tempted (see I Corinthians 10:13).  Being tempted is not a sin; everyone is tempted.  It is yielding to temptation that is a sin.

     The Practice of Prayer.  We do not learn how to pray by reading books on prayer; we learn by engaging in the discipline of prayer.  The following are some suggestions from people who have an active, daily prayer life.  First, dedicate a certain time each day to being alone with God, perhaps first thing in the morning before our minds begin racing with all the tasks we have to do.  Second, find a quiet place, with few distractions.  Get comfortable, light a candle to remind you of Christ’s presence and center your mind on God.  Third, keep a spiritual diary to record thoughts and reflections that come to you during these times.  Last, though prayer is an attitude, not a formula, structure is sometimes helpful.  Another acronym for prayer is the word PRAY.  P stands for praise— praising God for his goodness, for our faith and for those whom we love and who love us.  R stands for reflect— reflecting on verses in Scripture or readings in a devotional as they come into our minds.  A stands for ask— asking or petitioning God for personal needs and for the needs of others.  Y stands for yearn— yearning to be “at one” with God, for intimacy with God, to be more in love with God.  Another “help” to prayer is find a good daily devotional that you find meaningful and useful.

     Answers to Prayer.  What about answers to prayer requests and petitions?  Some prayers are answered immediately; others require persistence; and sometimes the answer is no, as in Paul’s prayer to God to remove the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).  God hears all prayers; we don’t know why he seems to answer some (to our satisfaction) and not others.  Some say the real issue, though, is not too few answers but too few prayers.

Growing in Christ through Study and Service

     Prayer is the inward or interior life of Christian growth.  Next, we need to study to make the Jesus of our heart the Jesus of our mind, and then let our faith issue forth in works of service.  Study will help us give an answer to those who ask about the hope we have in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15).  Service will let others see how this hope expresses itself in the good works spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (2:10) and by James (2:14-26).

     Growing in Christ through Study. God wants us to grow in knowledge— to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2).  The following are some suggestions for reading the Bible.  First, get a Bible in a modern translation, preferably a good study Bible.  Start with small, digestible doses of Scripture, reading slowly and carefully and asking what the meaning of the passage was to those to whom it was addressed (you will need a study Bible or a Bible commentary to do this) and what it means today.  Second, be consistent.  Get into the habit of reading the Bible every day.  Third, be systematic.  Stay with something and see it through to the end, rather than jumping from one book of the Bible to another.  A good place to begin would be with one of the four Gospels, perhaps Luke because of the orderliness and completeness of his narrative.  There are more than one hundred literary units (stories, parables and sayings) in Luke’s Gospel; if you read one every day, Dr. Luke will keep you busy for months.  Last, find ways to apply the Bible’s teachings to your life.  The purpose of Bible study is not information but transformation.

     Growing in Christ through Service.  Christians are the best argument for Christianity— and also the worst.  We are at our worst when we fail to reflect in our daily lives the one we profess as Lord and Savior.  If we want others to consider the person, claims and promises of Jesus, we need to be the further incarnation of his message and teachings.  How should we do this?  Jesus tells us, in the story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-45), that we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the incarcerated.  We also need to champion social justice, speak up and out against immorality, care for the environment and show Christian kindness to everyone who crosses our path.

Christian Apologetics

     The defense of Christianity is called apologetics, which does not mean making an apology, as the name might suggest.  Rather, it means giving reasoned answers to those who challenge the beliefs of Christianity— those whose naturalist worldviews do not allow for the possibility of a supernatural, transcendent being; those who ask why there is evil and suffering in the world if God is all-powerful and all-loving; those who cannot bring themselves to believe in the incarnation and in Jesus’ resurrection and miracles.

     The Existence of God.  It is said that there are two “tracks” to God, one by way of nature, the other by way of revelation— the “works” of God in the world and the “words” of God in Scripture.  Natural theology teaches that it is possible to come to the knowledge of God by reflecting on the world around us, which cannot be explained in terms of a random accident of nature.  The other “track” is Scripture, which is called revealed theology.  If there is a Creator, it seems natural that he would want to reveal his love for us and his will for our lives.  How did God do this?  By calling prophets and apostles to speak and record his Word so that one day all the world would come to know him.  It is said that natural theology tells us of God’s creating will and revealed theology of his saving will.  There is also a third way that we know God:  through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.  There are things that we know are true even though we cannot prove them.  Right now I am working at my word processor, and I am hungry and thinking about lunch.  I cannot “prove” that this is what I am thinking, or even that I am hungry— but I know these things are true, and I know that God is true, even though I cannot “prove” this.

     Evil and Suffering.  There are no satisfactory answers to suffering, especially undeserved suffering, other than to say that free-will human beings often make bad decisions and choices, which result in personal suffering and also in the suffering of others.  The good news is that suffering is not the end of the story.  Joni Eareckson Tada was injured in a diving accident in 1967, when she was a teenager, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down.  Joni said the thing that helped her most was to know that “one day I would have a body that worked, hands that could hug, feet that would run.  It gave me a great deal of comfort to know that I had not been left alone, that God would give me a new body beyond the grave.”  As Paul told the Corinthians, God has prepared something wonderful and beautiful for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).

 Jesus’ Incarnation and Resurrection.  Non-believers reject the incarnation and the resurrection because neither can be understood in human terms.   But many things cannot be understood in human terms.  Take the brain, for example.  No one can explain how the wiring in the brain allows us to reason, dream, remember the past, create works of art and enjoy vivid colors and fragrant aromas.  Just because we cannot explain how Jesus was conceived and resurrected does not mean that these two “miracles” did not occur.  As for Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels, C. S. Lewis said, “Who, after swallowing the camel of the resurrection, can strain at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes.”

The Message of Evangelism: Jesus Christ

     Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27).  What about today?  Cynics say that Jesus was an imposter, claiming to be someone (the Son of God) whom he was not.  Skeptics say that Jesus was a man about whom his followers developed a legend after his death.  Believers say that Jesus was and is the incarnate, still-living Son of the God of the universe.

     At the end of the day, though, we always come back to the resurrection, about which the following can be said.  First, fifty days after Jesus’ death, his disciples declared on the streets of Jerusalem that he had been raised from the dead (see Acts 2:22-32).  If the Jews had wished to dispute this, they would have needed only to go to the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and produce Jesus’ corpse, which in the dry Palestinian climate would not have decomposed; this would have ended everything.  But there is no record of anyone coming forward to say that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb or that it had been stolen.  Second, if Jesus had not been raised, there would be no Gospels, no New Testament and no church.  Why?  Because a dead, still-in-the-tomb savior would not have been “good news.”  Third, many of those who publicly testified to Jesus’ resurrection were imprisoned, nailed to crosses, thrown to the lions and burned at the stake.  What gave them the strength to endure in the face of persecution, rather than renounce their faith that Jesus had been raised from the dead?  The believable oral and written testimony of those who had seen the risen Christ.

The Mechanics of Evangelism: Sharing the Good News

     It is often said that God has a plan for our lives.  It would be more accurate to say that God has a purpose for our lives:  to know Jesus Christ and to make him known to others.  The following are some suggestions for making him “known” to others.  First, begin where the other person is and ask about his or her beliefs.  This often leads to them asking in return, “What do you believe?” which opens the door for you to share the unique, distinctive beliefs of Christianity.

     Second, focus on the central message, which is having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Don’t get sidetracked trying to explain the mysteries of the faith; or the lifestyles and acts of other Christians, even church leaders (Our trust is in Jesus, not in fallen humanity); or why there is evil and suffering in the world.  Keep to your beliefs and faith and what they mean to you and for your life— that Christ has given you something to live for (his promises) and something to live by (his teachings).

     Third, avoid using Christian in-talk about the Bible being “the inspired Word of God” or being saved “by the blood of Jesus” or the need to be “born again.”…

     Last, remember that our role as witnesses is to be presenters, not persuaders.  We are to present the Good News of Jesus as lovingly as possible— and then let the inner witness of the Holy Spirit work in the hearts and minds of those with whom we have shared the gospel.

Pascal’s Wager

     The French physicist Blaise Pascal died in 1662.  His thoughts on religion were published after his death under the title Pensees (French for “thoughts”), which has become a Christian classic.  One of the best-known sections in Pensees is Pascal’s “wager.” We all make a wager or bet on God, whether we know it or not.  Pascal said that if we bet on God and there is a God, we win everything; if we bet on God and there is no God, we lose nothing because there is nothing to lose; if we bet against God and there is a God, we lose everything.  In the end, the wager comes down to betting everything on Jesus as Lord and Savior.