The Economic Distance Between Us

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Two men were riding a bicycle built for two and they came to a big steep hill. It took a great deal of struggle for the men to complete what proved to be a very stiff climb. When they got to the top the man in front turned to the other and said, “Boy, that sure was a hard climb.” The fellow in back replied, “Yes, and if I hadn’t kept the brakes on all the way we would certainly have rolled down backwards.”

Economic justice does not come easy. Life is not fair, it has never been fair, and I doubt if it will ever in our lifetime be completely fair. We live in a free market economy where people are rewarded for creativity and hard work. We live in a society were the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer and the middle class is disappearing.

In the early 1830’s, a member of French nobility visiting America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted that a major characteristic of this young nation was the pervasive sense of equality. He said that nothing so struck him as the “general equality of condition among American people.” With few who were very rich, and few who were terribly poor, de Tocqueville felt that this was fertile soil for the development of true democracy.

Somewhere between there and now we have changed. Today, perhaps the most noticeable aspect of American economics and perhaps the most dangerous aspect of American politics is the growing gap between rich and poor. During the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s society pushed economic development, educational opportunities and government programs. Programs like social security, veterans housing and the civil rights, etc. It wasn’t a perfect plan, it had flaws and needed changes. But it all contributed to economic equality. In the 80’s and 90’s we changed everything, we thought for the better. But it built an economic growth that benefited the wealthiest Americans and hurt the poorest. Today the gap between the poorest Americans and the wealthiest is larger than at any point in the last 50 years. The richest 1 percent of us have nearly as much wealth as the entire bottom 95 percent.

Douglas Oldenburg of Columbia Theological Seminary points out that in the 1970’s the gap between executive officers and workers was 41 to 1. Today that gap is 225 to 1. The average married couples wages (after taxes and inflation) the 80’s and 90’s increased only 9 percent. During the 60’s and 70’s it increased 83%.

We have been told repeatedly that prosperity at the top means prosperity for those on the bottom. It is now time for the bottom to start receiving benefit!

Jesus one day tells an unnerving story. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. There is a helplessness and a hopelessness about Lazarus! “The time came when both men died. Lazarus went to Heaven. One of the benefits of being poor is that we need God. Few things stand in our way of God. The rich man went to Hell. It is not that he was rich that put him into Hell. Jesus said to the Rich Young Ruler, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” From Hell the rich man said, “have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

At the beginning of this parable we see our world, the world where there is a great chasm fixed between the rich and the poor. By the end of the parable we see God’s world, the world as God intends it. Now, there is another gap, but it is now a gap fixed by the judgements of God.

What is the long and short of this message. It sort of reminds me of the man who was preaching and at the conclusion of his sermon he said, “To make a long story short….” Someone from the congregation yelled, “Too late!” There is nothing wrong with a free market economy, however, with freedom comes responsibility.
Luke 12:48 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. To hold eight billion dollars and not do great things to improve the lives of poor people is not acceptable.

There is a moral obligation for the wealthier person to try to improve the lives of those who have not been nearly as blessed. Gen 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” You better well believe that you are your brother’s keeper.

Herod the Great, ruler of Jerusalem, did a lot of shady things in his life. However, one of the things he did was to take the great stores of wealth that were in the Temple and built an aqueduct to Jerusalem. The city didn’t have any fresh water and didn’t want to pay high taxes. The rich could have water carried in, but the poor couldn’t afford it. He took the money from the Temple because it wasn’t needed or being used.

Matt 6:24″No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. If God is generous and you have prospered it becomes your responsibility to share and improve the lives of others.

Romans: Who Are The Heathen?

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A man asked God how long a million years was to Him. God replied, “It’s just like a single second of your time, my child.” So the man asked, “And what about a million dollars?” The Lord replied, “To me, it’s just like a single penny.” So the man gathered himself up and said, “Well, Lord, could I have one of your pennies?” And God said, “Certainly, my child, just a second.”

Did you hear about the classified ad that read something like this: “Lost – One dog. Brown hair with several mange spots. Right leg broken due to auto accident. Rear left hip hurt. Right eye missing. Left ear bitten off in dog fight. Answers to name ‘lucky.'” Lucky? Of course!

That was a lucky dog. He was lucky because, with all those things wrong with him, somebody still wanted him and was willing to pay to get him back. Isn’t that the story of the gospel? With all of our sin and rebellion, God still loved us enough to pay the ultimate price to win us back to Himself.

The mandate of the Church by Jesus is to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Just who was that mission to? Obviously to people who were not disciples of Jesus. To people who were not baptized. To people who were not obeying God’s commandments. The unconverted, the unbeliever and as we like to say the unsaved.

Jesus’ ministry was to all people. Christ often referred to the unbeliever as “gentile.” In Hebrew language, a gentile was anyone other than a Jewish person. But in the Hebrew mind-set, gentile became a term meaning barbarian, pagan and non-believer. Almost without exception viewed as hopeless!

This prevailed even though God has always offered His salvation to anyone who would accept it. Melchizedek was not Jewish and not only was a believer in the One God but was a priest that Abraham gave a tithe too. (Genesis 14:18-19) Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. Jethro was the father-in-law and he was not Jewish. EXO 2:16 Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Again, he was not Jewish and a believer.

Being a heathen has very little to do with nationality. Has nothing to do with being male or female. Even though women appear to be more involved in the church than men. It has very little to do with age. Even though the older we grow the more involved in the Church we become. Heathen are not people who are simply different. Some of the nicest people in the world are heathen. However, Paul expects to find the heathen outside the Church not in the Church. That is why he writes in Hebrews, not to neglect the assembling of ourselves together. We become like those whom we associate with. If we want to become a Christian and live like a Christian, you have to fellowship with Christians.

Some time ago I was sharing with a Christian friend who, like myself, was a minister. In the course of our conversation he said something I will never forget: “Bill, all I really want in life is for the Word of God to take up residence inside of me and form me into Christ-likeness.” I think this statement hit me because this is the essence of what the Bible is all about. We were always asking “What does it say?” and seldom if ever made the step into a deep personal application of “How can that truth take up residence in me?”

For Paul in his Roman’s writings, this was at the very heart of the difference between being a heathen and a believer. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

The bottom line? Where is your heart? The issue isn’t, “are we a sinner?” We are all sinners. What is the intent of the heart?

Jesus said, MAT 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. You see, I’m like the lucky dog. I come with mange spots. Broken and sinful life. With parts of me missing. But I am lucky, not because of the why that I have lived, but because there is someone who loves me and wants me.

HEALING GOD’S PEOPLE

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Hezekiah was a good and righteous man. He became king of Judah in 715 B.C. following the death of his father Ahaz. Hezekiah inherited from his idolatrous father a kingdom discontent politically and spiritually. Hezekiah cleansed the temple of the Assyrian cult and restored Judaism.

Hezekiah was 25 years old when he became king of Judah. He reigned as king for 28 years. He died at the age of 53. So our text takes place when Hezekiah is only 38 years old.

Isaiah, the prophet, has the unpleasant task of going to Hezekiah and telling him he will die. “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Doesn’t that sound so heartless and cruel? It is like being in the doctors office and hearing the words, “you have six months to live.” Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” Somehow in all of this we hear the words of the Apostle James, JAM 5:16 The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

We as Christians underestimate just how powerful our prayers are and that God hears every word. There are three ways that God responds to our prayers: God will say yes, and answer our prayer, just as He did with Hezekiah. Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, `This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. The second way God answers is to say no. The problem with no, is that we don’t want to think that God is saying no. So we interpret no as, God isn’t hearing my prayers. Or that God is ignoring me. We have a way of accepting “no” as God being unsympathetic, uncompassionate or not caring. When the reality is that “no” may be the best thing for us. The third way God answers prayer is to say, yes but later. Waiting is not always the easiest thing to do. However, that is why sometimes we have prayed about something for years before it is answered.

There is an old Dutch proverb: “God cures and the doctor gets the money.” God has always been in the healing business. The frank truth is that we probably make more out of healing than we really should. The awesome truth is that at some point God’s healing mercies for our bodies cease and His grace for dying begins. All healing is tentative. The mortality rate is still 100%. We talk about all those dead people who came to life after the crucifixion of Christ and walked into Jerusalem. While they lived again, they died again.

Scripture teaches that sickness and illness came into the world as a result of sin. However, not all illness is the result of sin. Some illness is physical, some is environmental, some is the result of being exposed to a germ. Regardless of the source, whether it is a spiritual problem or an environmental problem, God offers healing. When a Jew was ill, it was to the Rabbi he/she went rather than to the doctor. The Rabbi would anoint him/her with oil and prayed over the person.

In New Testament times there was the idea that sickness was due to sin. The Rabbis had a saying, “There is no death without guilt.” and “No man gets up from his sickness until God has forgiven him all his sins.” MAR 2:5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Healing was important in the New Testament times because it showed or identified that Jesus was the Christ. Many symbolic forms were used. Laying on of hands, authority to heal in the name of God. Anointing with oil, the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Anointed cloths, remembrance of the power of God.

But all evolved around prayer and the decision of God. Prayer can change God’s mind. But the Church holds the key, for it is not the faith of the one being healed that is questioned. It is the faith of the one bringing the healing in the name of God that must have the faith. Do we live with such certainty in our lives?

Romans: Not Ashamed

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A man heard that 80 percent of all traffic accidents happen within a mile of home. So he moved! But problems can’t be avoided. Problems come into every life. Some problems, some temptations, can be avoided and should. But the Devil attacks us at our weakest point. So no matter how safe we think that we are, we are not. In fact, when we think that we are the safest, we are the weakest.

In 1977 I got an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land. It was an experience of a lifetime. For someone planning to enter the ministry, it was a valuable educational tool. The first time that I had ever been out of the country, and now I would spend a week in Israel and two days in Rome. From my college there were about 7 who went. I didn’t know any of the other six from my school. We were assigned roommates for the entire trip. When I was assigned a guy who was a Southern Baptist preparing for ministry, I was excited. Not only to get to know and make a new friend, but we had something in common. This ministerial student wasn’t at all what I expected. Flirted with the ladies, but I thought, maybe he is just kidding around (letting his hair down). Then one night came in drunk and passed out on his bed with bottle in hand.

The private life that he was living was not reflective of the public life we was confessing. Sometimes we call it a dual life. Living in the public life one way. Living in our private lives totally a different way. Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:1-8)

In a small college town a tavern frequented by students ran the following ad in the campus paper during the days before Parents Weekend: “Bring Your Parents For Lunch Saturday. We’ll pretend We Don’t Know You!” The ad was soon challenged by the college chaplain, who posted a revised version on the campus bulletin board. It read: “Bring Your Parent to Chapel Sunday. We’ll Pretend We Know You!”+”

A powerful book that every Christian should read is The People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck. In it he deals with a very specific kind of evil that is both chilling and fascinating. Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them . . . they dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach. The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly” are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness” is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie.

The Church at Rome was a very young Church. There was a great cost to being a Christian and living in Rome. The Romans used Christians in the lions den for entertainment. Sometimes they used them as torches for the city streets. If they were less lucky they became slaves. It was easy to live a double life! When Paul writes the Book of Romans, he addresses the issues of sin, the cross and salvation.
But the whole theme of Roman’s is For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. Clearly there is one major issue on Paul’s mind. You can’t live a double life, it is in Jesus’ words, hypocrisy.

The more excellent something is the more likely it will be imitated. There are many false diamonds and rubies, but who goes about making counterfeit pebbles? However, the more excellent things are the more difficult it is to imitate them in their essential character and intrinsic virtues. So it is with Christian virtues and graces. (Matthew 7:15-16)”Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

No one should pay attention to a man delivering a lecture or a sermon on his ‘philosophy of life’ until we know exactly how he treats his wife, his children, his neighbors, his friends, his subordinates and his enemies. A person isn’t known to be a Christian solely by what he or she confesses, but by what they live. JAM 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

“The righteous will live by faith.”