Changing the Church!

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We hear a lot of talk about how bad the Church has gotten today. Small mainline churches that have kept their integrity are dying. Mega churches have sold out integrity for showmanship. When Jesus started His church, the Pastor (Jesus himself) was being executed. The chairman of the board (Peter) was out cursing and swearing that he had never even been a part of the church. The treasurer (Judas) was committing suicide after embezzling the funds. Most of the rest of the board members (the apostles) had run away. A few ladies from the Women’s Fellowship were about the only ones who showed much faithfulness. Is there hope for the Church?

On the first day of the week, Sunday, becomes the day of the resurrection of Christ. Think about it. Three years Jesus has been their leader and now He is dead. They had heard Him say that He would be killed but that death couldn’t trap Him. Now the news is out that He is alive, or has someone simply stolen the body?

The doors are locked after the believers have gathered. The city was in an uproar as the news of Jesus missing body and the visit of the angel was spreading like wildfire. The disciples, having received the message from Mary, now had their first opportunity, as a group, to be together and talk about his news. Had Peter and John lost their minds? It had been a turbulent week and now they were without any leader. What were they going to do?

There were two churches in a small community in Nebraska, a Methodist church and a Baptist church. The Baptists were temporarily without a pastor when a deacon of the church died. The family asked the Methodist pastor if he would conduct the funeral service. This was his first year in the ministry and the Methodist pastor felt he needed approval from the bishop of the area. So he sent a telegram asking” “May I have approval to bury a Baptist deacon?” The bishop quickly replied with a telegram reading: “Bury all the Baptists you can!”

Something happened that evening that changed the lives of every person in that upper room. The implication is plain that Jesus passed through the closed doors.
There is no evidence that he came into their assembly in any miraculous manner.
But as if He had the power to dematerialize his body He was there. Peace be unto you.

The word of peace had relieved fear. He showed unto them his hands and his side.
Didn’t they recognize Him? But He was dead! There is nothing like seeing it for yourself to believe!

When I look at all the “resurrection” in the New Testament I wonder how it changed the lives of those individuals and their families? Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out. The only son of his mother, and she was a widow. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk…. Then a man named Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come to his house because his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying. While Jesus was still speaking, someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. “Your daughter is dead,” he said. “Don’t bother the teacher any more.” Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” When he arrived at the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter, John and James, and the child’s father and mother. But he took her by the hand and said, “My child, get up!”
Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word.

What makes a Church a Church anyway? It is not in the training. After three years the disciples still had difficulty believing. It is not the building. It is not the programs. It is not the music or the preaching. All of these things are important, but what really makes the Church the Church is believing that Christ is real and in our mist. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.””

The Beatitudes: Christian Casualties

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Anyone who was present when I taught a class on the Book of Revelation knows that Jesus had a favorite phrase that He used about the Christian and the end of time! That phrase which is used in both Gospels of Matthew and Mark gives hope but also predicts the coming persecution. “It is he who stands firm to the end that will be saved.” The hope is that “salvation” is coming. The fear is that to stand firm means that something or someone will assail us. The reality of Christ’s words is that whoever is a Christian should anticipate persecution!

The hatred and affliction that follows the witness and holy life of God’s people is the persecution that we will face in this world. Jesus reminded us that God’s prophets always faced persecution. Jesus Himself was persecuted. Acts 11:19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Roman opposition to Christianity also developed gradually. The Book of Acts emphasized Roman tolerance for the new religion. But this began to change with the Jewish riots against Christians in Rome, Emperor Claudius banned both groups from Rome in A. D. 49. This set the stage for the intense opposition of later years that allowed Nero to make Christians the scapegoats for the fire which leveled Rome in A. D. 64.
During this persecution all the apostles were martyred. It was this early persecution that caused Christianity to spread. It is like the principle of thermodynamics: “The greater the heat, the greater the expansion.” Rev 6:9 John in heaven wrote, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.

In the early church, two ideas were taken over from Judaism to express the meaning of persecution. The Jewish theologians taught that the death of the righteous sufferer had redemptive value. While this idea was applied primarily to Jesus by the early Christians, the persecution of His followers was seen as a participation in Jesus’ suffering: The idea of the coming Messiah held that the suffering of God’s people was part of the coming of the kingdom– evidence that a person is truly one of God’s own. Therefore they are “blessed” and should “rejoice” and “glorify God” since “the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God”.

Little do we realize that when we accept Jesus, we accept the consequences of persecution. In the last decade, Amnesty International has documented human rights abuses against religious leaders, believers and activists in almost every region of the world including… Bangladesh, China, Taiwan, Greece, Cuba, Guatemala, Nambia, Nepal, Panama, Turkey, South Africa, and the Soviet Union.” It is reported that, “There are approximately 300,000 Christian martyrs a year around the world and that number is going up.” In fact, “There are more Christians being killed today than there were 2,000 years ago.” “The twentieth century was undoubtedly the BLOODIEST CENTURY that Christianity has ever experienced in terms of total martyrs.” An estimated 100 million Christians have been martyred in this century. That’s more than the previous nineteen centuries combined.

In Belgium, there was a Nazi prison camp called Breendonk. Inside this camp, many Belgian citizens suffered and died during the Second World War. Breendonk wasn’t a Jewish camp, but a Christian camp. How did some of these people endure the atrocities — the anxiety, fear, worry, and injustice of this place? A guide takes the visitors to an small, isolated cell. In a remote corner of this cell, there is a little slit in the stone wall. The only way to reach this corner and this little slit in the wall is to crawl under some high benches. The guide then places the visitor’s hand onto this portion of the stone wall. The guide then instructs the visitor, “Run your hand over what you feel.” The visitor responds, “I feel a carving of a face.” “You are feeling the face of our Savior Jesus Christ.” the guide confirms. In the darkest hour of hopelessness, these men and women would come to the corner of this cell and put their hands on his holy and loving face. This practice sustained them and assured them victory over their fears. This was their way of remembering that they were not alone.

Many Christians are hurt by even the slightest test of their faith. Yet God often uses attacks and slurs on one’s faith to strengthen it. Only when the grape is squeezed can it produce wine. Only when the grain is crushed can it rise as bread.
A path without obstacles probably leads nowhere.

There was an evangelist who loved to hunt. The man bought two pups that were top notch bird dogs, two setters. He kept them in his large backyard, where he trained them. One morning, an ornery little bulldog came shuffling and snorting down the alley. He crawled under the fence into the backyard where the setters spent their days. It was easy to see he meant business. The evangelist’s first impulse was to take his setters and lock them in the basement so they wouldn’t tear up that little bulldog. But he decided he would just let the creature learn a lesson he would never forget. Naturally, they got into a scuffle in the backyard, and those two setters and that bulldog went round and round and round! The little critter finally had enough, so he squeezed under the fence and took off. All the rest of that day he whined and licked his sores. Interestingly, the next day at about the same time, here came that same ornery little bulldog . . . back under the fence and after those setters. Once again those two bird dogs beat the stuffing out of that bowlegged animal and would have chewed him up if he hadn’t retreated down the alley. Would you believe, the very next day he was back! Once again, after the bulldog had had all he could take, he crawled back under the fence and found his way home to lick his wounds. “Well,” the evangelist said, “I had to leave for a revival meeting. He never missed a day! And I want you to know it has come to the point that when our setters simply hear that bulldog snorting down the alley and spot him squeezing under the fence, they immediately start whining and run down into our basement. That little old bulldog struts around our backyard now just like he owns it.” That is persistence and determination. Staying at it. Hanging tough with dogged discipline. When you get whipped or when you win, the secret is staying at it.

An End Of All Wars

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Two men were talking about their wives: Larry: “We had a tough quarrel yesterday but finally she came crawling to me on her hands and knees.” Ken: “What did she say?” Larry: “She said, ‘Larry, you come out from under that bed and fight like a man!'”

As a man was walking the streets of Belfast at night, he was grabbed from behind and a knife was forced to his throat. “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” his assailant asked. The man carefully considered his dilemma. He did not know if his assailant was Catholic or Protestant. If he said the one his assailant was not, he might be killed. He played it safe: “I am a Jew!” he said. His assailant jubilantly answered, “I must be the luckiest Arab terrorist in all the world!”

Isaiah writes that in the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

I believe that this time period is what we call the “Millennium” or “The 1000 Year Reign of Christ.” It is a special time in which Christ is present. Isaiah says of this time, The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. It is a time that follows the Great Tribulation in which the world has faced a great deal of pain, death, and confusion. The Tribulation is a time of great war in which millions of people die. Rev 14:20 They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia. That valley is 200 miles long!

The problem of pain, of war and the horror of war, of poverty and disease is always confronting us. But a God who allows no pain, no grief, also allows no choice.
There is little unfairness in a colony of ants, but also there is little freedom. All of which invites the question, “Where does God stand on the issue of war?” Is war morally acceptable or not?

The Washington Post once reported that the Department of Defense was testing two anti-vomiting drugs that it hoped would allow soldiers, for a short time after a nuclear attack, to continue to perform their mission before they would ultimately die of radiation. In a period of time when we have the ability to destroy the whole earth, it is a good question. The command, “You shall not murder.” Does it apply in all circumstances?

To answer all of these questions we must address three issues! The moral and ethical issue to the individual on violence. The moral and ethical issue of the government to wage war. The moral and ethical boundaries of all governments.

The moral and ethical issue to the individual on violence. Violence perpetrated by an individual was never acceptable! No individual has the right to take the life of another individual, it was strictly forbidden by God!

The moral and ethical issue of the government to wage war. The New Testament makes it clear that God not only allows governments to exist but even ordains them.
At no time did Jesus ever encourage the over throw of the Roman government (it was not important as to whether it was just or unjust). Peter writes, Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. Does this mean that the Bible gives permission to the government for capital punishment? Yes! Does this mean that the government has the right to press people into the armed forces and wage war? Yes!

The moral and ethical boundaries of all governments. A government is only ordained of God that seeks justice and peace. A government that seeks evil loses the blessing of God. A government that wages war to protect its territorial integrity is well within the governments god given rights. On the other hand, a government which wages war to advance it domain, is not within its rights.

The tragic situation in Yugoslavia invites the question of what is right and what is wrong. All of these people live so close to each other and yet they are all so different. Bosnia is mostly Muslim, but not very religious. Croatian are mostly Roman Catholic but not very religious. While Serbia is mostly Eastern Orthodox, the people are not very religious.

As long as it was a territorial issue then the United States should not have been involved. The problem, “ethic cleansing.” The inability of the minority to defend itself and the ability of the majority to try to wipe out a whole race or culture of people. Unfortunately, yes. The United States and all countries of any power must be an instrument of world justice. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Are we a nation of our brother’s keeper? Yes! The world has grown far to small for us not to be.

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Amos: Social Injustice

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Remember the children’s song “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree to see what he could see.” The sycamore tree in the Middle East is quite different from the sycamore that we have in America. It was a huge evergreen tree growing to a height of about 50 feet with a trunk circumference of over 20 feet. The trunk forked near the ground, and the branches grew outward. The leaves of the sycamore, sometimes called the sycamore fig, were heart-shaped, resembling the leaves of the mulberry. The fruit was similar to the true fig but was inferior in quality. These yellow figs grew in clusters close to the branches.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; (A chief tax collector & wealthy). He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. Zacchaeus said, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.

The message of Amos is one of the most eloquent cries for justice and righteousness to be found in the Bible. And it came through a humble shepherd who dared to deliver God’s message to the wealthy and influential people of his day. A literary device which Amos used is known as numerical parallelism: “For three Transgressions… and for four…”. He repeated this phrase seven times as he covered the sins of Israel. You can almost feel the suspense building until Amos reaches the dramatic climax: This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath]. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.

A prophetic Amos gives a fiery denunciation of the northern kingdom of Israel during a time of widespread idol worship and indulgent living. Prophetic in that Amos tells the truth at the cost of his very life. His name “Amos” fits him well because he does bare the “burden bearer” of his people. Amos emphasizes one central theme: The people of the nation of Israel have broken their COVENANT with God, and His judgment against their sin will be severe. Amos condemned the citizens of Israel for their oppression of the poor worship of idols, rejection of God’s salvation, and defilement of the Lord’s holy name. Hypocrisy, greed, and injustice prevailed throughout the land. Amaziah the priest of Bethel is determined to destroy Amos. He tells Jeroboam the King that Amos is raising a conspiracy against him. Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.”

Have you picked up on what the real problem is in Israel? HYPOCRISY! The preacher was taking a special offering. Suddenly the town saloon owner jumped up and said, “I’ll give $5,000 for the building fund!” The preacher was in a catch twenty-two situation and responded like this: “Thank you, but as badly as we need the money, I just can’t accept such money.” Then from the back of the church came this loud voice, “Take it Reverend… that’s our money, anyhow.”

Hypocrisy is pretending to be what one is not. In the Greek theater, a hypocrite was one who wore a mask and played a part on the stage, imitating the speech, mannerisms, and conduct of the character portrayed. Throughout His ministry, Jesus vigorously exposed and denounced the hypocrisy of many who opposed Him, especially the scribes and Pharisees. They paraded their charitable deeds, praying and fasting as a theatrical display to win the praise of men. They sought to give the appearance of being godly, but they were actually blind to the truth of God.

Why is Amaziah the priest of Bethel so determined to destroy Amos? Hypocrisy! Amaziah lives one way and is a different way to the people. Social injustice is covered with a lot of hypocrisy. People who claim to be Christians and yet trample their brothers under.

Hypocrisy is dedicated to preserving its self-image of perfection, and is unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. The hypocrite worries 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. 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.

Why is it an issue of social injustice for Amos? That is where hypocrisy reveals itself. No one should pay attention to a man delivering a lecture or a sermon on his ‘philosopy of life’ until we know exactly how he treats his wife, his children, his neighbors, his friends, his subordinates and his enemies. If Christianity doesn’t work at home, don’t export it. More people are won or lost in the home than in the church. The home is either the greatest witness for Christ, or the worst.

Following these messages of judgment, the Book of Amos ends on a positive, optimistic note. Amos predicted that the people of Israel would be restored to their special place in God’s service after their season of judgment had come to an end.

Amos

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A family sat down at the dinner table following church one Sunday. “The sermon was boring today,” said the teenage son. “Yeah, could you believe how the pastor stumbled over the reading of the Scripture?” his sister chimed in. “I’ve got to admit it was an uninspiring day,” said mother. “The choir was terrible.” Finally, the father, showing his leadership, said, “Hush, you guys. Quit complaining. What did you expect for a quarter?”

I know that all of you were saddened to learn this week of the death of one of our church’s most valuable members – someone else. Someone’s passing created a vacancy that will be difficult to fill. Else has been with us for many years and for every one of those years, Someone did far more than the normal person’s share of the work. Whenever leadership was mentioned, this wonderful person was looked to for inspiration as well as results. Someone Else can work with that group. Whenever there was a job to do, a class to teach, or a meeting to attend, one name was on everyone’s lips, “Let Someone Else do it”. It was common knowledge that Someone Else was among the largest givers in the church. Whenever there was a financial need, everyone just assumed that Someone Else would make up the difference. Someone Else was a wonderful person, sometimes appearing super-human, but a person can only do so much.

God never goes to the lazy or the idle when He needs a leader for His service. He always seems to go to those who are already at work — the busy person. Moses was busy with his flock at Horeb. Gideon was busy threshing wheat by the winepress.
Saul was busy searching for his father’s lost beasts. David was busy caring for his father’s sheep. Elisha was busy plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. Nehemiah was busy bearing the king’s wine cup. Amos was busy following the flock and raising sycamore fruit. Peter and Andrew were busy casting a net into the sea. James and John were busy mending their nets. Matthew was busy collecting customs. Saul was busy persecuting the friends of Jesus.

Amos Alonzo Stagg was one of the great football coaches in the sport. As a coach, he kept his substitutes on the bench constantly alert by suddenly popping questions at them while the game was underway. One afternoon he turned to a fourth-string player who hadn’t seen a single minute of game time all season. Stagg barked, “You! Cartmell! What would you do if we had possession of the ball with one minute to play, the score tied, and we had only four yards to go for a touchdown?” “Well, coach,” the young man stammered. “I believe I’d slide down to the end of the bench so I could see better.”

Today we talk about AMOS, which is the Hebrew word meaning “burden”. In the second quarter of the eighth century B.C. there lived a man named Amos who prophesied. His message was one of great wealth and corruption was destroying the nation and the people. As a result of Jeroboam II’s successes against the Moabites and the Aramaeans, the borders of the Northern Kingdom reached their widest extent since the time of Solomon. It was the most prosperous times since the days of Solomon. It is not a popular time to prophesy against luxurious living, idolatry, and the moral depravity of Israel. A time when the people are rich, feeling safe and Amos calls them backsliders!

Amos was one of the twelve minor prophets and a native of Tekoa, a town about six miles south of Bethlehem. He belonged to the shepherds there and was not trained in any school of the prophets, no real formal education. Shepherding didn’t provide enough income so he was also a fig picker. As a fig picker his hands would have been stained. He would not have been an attractive sight, nor being a shepherd would he have smelled very well. Yet, he was called by the Lord to prophesy concerning Israel. A poor and basically powerless man who stood up and condemned the wealthy class of the nation for cheating the poor through oppressive taxes and the use of false weights and measures.

God needs leaders from all walks of life and possessing all types of talents. Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” This is a man who received the finest education that Egypt had to offer. The LORD said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?

Arthur Caliandro, who succeeded Norman Vincent Peale as senior pastor of New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, was faced with an administrative decision. He put off making the decision, hoping it would take care of itself or that someone else would handle it. A friend, Amos Parish, invited Arthur to lunch. During the meal, Amos asked the pastor, “Do you know the game of baseball?” Arthur said he did, so Amos asked, “What does the pitcher do?” “He throws the ball to the batter.” Amos said, “Then tell me what the catcher does.” Arthur answered, “He stands behind the batter and catches the balls the batter either misses or chooses not to hit.” Amos went on to explain: “Some people are pitchers. They take charge of things They throw the ball. Others are catchers. They don’t make decisions. They catch whatever is thrown at them. When you want to do something with your life, be a pitcher!”