How To Change

Standard

Matthew 4:17

There is a story in the Talmud of a rabbi who taught his students a lesson on preparing for death and on repentance. One of the students asked, “Rabbi, when should a man repent?” The rabbi responded: “Repent a day before your death.” His students were confused: “How can a man know the day of his death?” they asked. His answer: “He cannot — and since he may die tomorrow, it is all the more necessary for him to repent today.”

Everyone thinks of changing humanity and noone thinks of changing himself.
In the theological and ethical sense, repentance is a fundamental and thorough change in the hearts of people from sin and toward God. Although faith alone is the condition for salvation, repentance is bound up with faith and inseparable from it. Without some measure of faith no one can truly repent, and repentance never attains it’s deepest character until the sinner realizes through saving faith how great is the grace of God against whom he has sinned. On the other hand, there can be no saving faith without true repentance. Repentance contains essential elements: A genuine sorrow toward God on account of sin. An inward revulsion to sin necessarily followed by the actual forsaking of it. Humble self-surrender to the will and service of God.

One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair; and only one, that none should presume. In Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God is seen the truth that repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin: By repentance, one turns away from sin; By faith, one turns toward God in accepting the Lord Jesus Christ. Such a twofold turning, or conversion, is necessary for entrance into the kingdom. “Unless you repent,” said Jesus, “you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5). The positive, or merciful, side is seen in these words: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). We cannot put our new lives in our old wineskins!

If there are a thousand steps between us and God, He will take all but one.
He will leave the final one for us. The choice is ours. The man who knows his sins is greater than one who raises a dead man by his prayer. It is much easier to repent of sins that we have already committed than to repent of those we intend to commit.

Change is not easy! Look at the alcoholic, the smoker, the drug addict. The smoker can use medicine to reduce the effects of stopping. The alcoholic can use support groups to hold him accountable and to give support. Even the Church is a support group for sinners. A lot of things can be done, but it all comes down to taking the necessary steps.

When an archer misses the mark, he turns and looks for the fault within himself. Failure to hit the bulls eye is never the fault of the target. To improve your aim – improve yourself.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells of a time in the Siberian prison when he was weary from hard labor, weak from a starvation diet, and in pain from an untreated illness. He was being forced to shovel sand hour-after-backbreaking-hour. Finally he felt he could not go on. He just stopped, knowing that the guards would beat him severely, perhaps even to death. Just then another prisoner, a fellow Christian, took his shovel handle and, right at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, he drew in the sand the sign of the cross. Then he quickly erased it. But when Solzhenitsyn caught the glimpse of the cross, all hope and courage of the Gospel flooded his soul and enabled him to hold on. He says that he was saved that day by the sign of the cross.”

Foretelling It All

Standard

Luke 1:26-38

Remember the old joke, “what does the rocket have at the end of its foot? A mistletoe!” Actually, the mistletoe was celebrated by ancient Scandinavians as a symbol of peace and tranquility. It was hung over doorways to tell all who entered that this was a place of peace. In more recent years it has become a part of Christmas celebrations with a similar meaning. Catching someone who stands under a mistletoe is a license to kiss that person.

In the fourth century A. D. a Turkish man in the town where Nicholas was a priest had three daughters who were of the age for marriage, but he was unable to find suitable husbands for them because he had no money to pay for their expected dowry. Nicholas saw the man’s misfortune and secretly threw three bags of gold through the chimney of the man’s home– one for each of the girls. As fortune would have it, the girls had lain their stockings by the fireplace to dry, and the coins fell into the stockings. The girls were able to marry because of the kindness of Nicholas. Nicholas had acted in secret, but his act of kindness was discovered. As the legend of St. Nicholas grew, the children would hope that Nicholas would leave them something.

It is probably the merging of fact and fiction that does the most harm to our faiths. Christmas is fun and exciting for all of us, but we sometimes mistake fiction for fact. We forget that Santa Claus is found in many different cultures, not just Christian communities. Even predominately non-Christian societies celebrate Christmas, not because of its connection to Christ, but the joy of giving. We are like one of Tennessee Williams’ play, “I don’t want realism…I want magic!”

We get caught up in a lot of things that really aren’t important. There always seems to be a debate about whether or not Mary was a virgin. Pulpit Committees will base the call of a pastor on whether or not the pastor believes in the virgin birth. Mary’s personal life has very little to do with the birth of Christ. Certainly she was highly favored by God, but so was King David.
It has less to do with being sinful than it does with relationship with God. I am sure there were lots of waggling tongues in Nazareth when Joseph took his very pregnant wife and headed off to Bethlehem. But the story isn’t about Mary or Joseph. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. The issue of the virgin birth was never an issue until about 400 years ago. If you elevate Mary to a standing higher than human, you have to justify her actions. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:16) Paternity is established, it doesn’t matter who the mother really was!

Some people get all concerned about the fact that we don’t know the real birth date of Jesus. We do know it wasn’t December 25. We know two things:
The angels appearance with Mary takes place in the 6th month – probably August or September. When Jesus is born, the shepherds are out in the fields at night, watching their flocks – this is something that takes place only in the warmer months. This mostly likely means that Jesus was born late spring or early summer. But the day really isn’t what is important, is it?

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38)

We modern people like a predictable, cause-effect sort of world. I recall a line from the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks: Plant a carrot, get a carrot, not a brussels sprout. That’s why I like vegetables: You know what they are about.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.
What is told to Mary is not for Mary’s benefit, but ours. It is not about whether Joseph and Mary are good enough to be parents. It is a story about God’s love for us!

You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. Perhaps John said it best, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) No wonder the angels sung out, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

May we never lose the real meaning of Christmas. It is about God, God’s gift to sinful humanity. For nothing is impossible with God.” Mary said. “May it be to me as you have said.”

God’s Promise To Mary

Standard

Luke 1:46-55

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. Those words are very similar to the words of Hannah in the Old Testament. On one of Hannah’s visits to Shiloh she vowed before the Lord that if He would give her a son, she would devote him to His service. Her manner, speaking in an inaudible tone, attracted the attention of the high priest, Eli, who suspected her of drunkenness. From this suspicion she easily vindicated herself, received a blessing from Eli, and returned to her home with a lightened heart. Before the end of the year Hannah became the mother of a son, whom she named Samuel, approximately 1106 B.C.

When Samuel was old enough to be weaned, Hannah took him to Shiloh and presented him, with due form, to the high priest. The joy of Hannah found expression in an exulting song of thanksgiving. It is especially remarkable that in this song (2:10) the first mention in Scripture of the word anointed or Messiah was mentioned. As there was no king in Israel at the time, it seems the best interpretation of Christ.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus was the daughter of Eli, of the tribe of Judah and of the lineage of David, hence in the royal line. In the summer of the year Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph, was living in Nazareth, the angel Gabriel came to her with a message from God and announced that she was to be the mother of the long-expected Messiah-that by the power of the Holy Spirit the everlasting Son of the Father should be born to her. Informed by the angel that her cousin Elizabeth was within three months of delivering a child, Mary set off to visit her. Immediately upon her entrance into the house “Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice, and said, ‘Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!'”

In a few months Joseph found that Mary was with child and he was determined to “put her away secretly” instead of yielding her up to the law to suffer the penalty he supposed she would incur. But being assured of the truth by an angel, he took her as his wife. Soon after Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be enrolled for the taxing, and while there Jesus was born and laid in a manger. On the eighth day Jesus was circumcised. On the fortieth day after the nativity-until which time Mary could not leave the house (Lev 12:2-4)-she presented herself with her baby for their purification in the Temple. The poverty of Joseph and Mary is alluded to in the mention of their offering, “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.” There she met Simeon and the prophetess Anna and heard their thanksgiving and prophecy (Luke 2:21-38).

Are we aware of just how important this story is? God, is a God of promises. God has kept the promise of the rainbow. Even though the waters of life rise around us, we take courage. Mary takes courage because she believes God’s promise.

Paul reminds the Church as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:17)

It is so easy to try to vilify Mary. Was Mary the Mother of Any Children Other Than Jesus? Advocates of her perpetual virginity assert that she was not. Churches even put to the test of faith on whether or not she was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth. In the New Testament, it was a moot question. At Jesus’ baptism, As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16) At that moment paternity was established and nothing else was important.

What makes Mary great is the faith she puts in the promises of God. As children, lost in the woods are fearful of the sinister darkness — then suddenly hearing a sound from the sombre blackness a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice– so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean, “Here I am, Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark, terrifying world.”

Moses was a good man but someone who had difficulty believing in God’s promises.
Jesus took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

God did not have to promise anything to sinful people. But the fact that almost all biblical promises are those made by God to man indicates that His nature is characterized chiefly by grace and faithfulness. Grace prompted God to promise a new land to the Israelites. His faithfulness urged Him to fulfill that promise, despite of the nation’s disobedience. As Paul pointed out, God’s faithfulness and grace are particularly evident in His promise to Abraham. This promise was eventually fulfilled in the work of Christ. Christians should trust completely that God’s promise of eternal life is secure. God answers prayer; sometimes, when hearts are weak, He gives the very gifts believers seek.
Often faith must learn a deeper rest, and trust God’s silence, when He does not speak; for He whose name is Love will send the best. Stars may burn out, mountain walls might not endure, but God is true; His promises are sure to those who seek him.

I heard of a college student who asked his father for a car at the time of his departure for college. The father said to him, “I’ll give you a car if you’ll promise to read the Bible through while you’re away in school.” And the boy promised. On the day of the boy’s departure, a Bible was given to the boy, but nothing was said about the car. The boy departed; he spent four years on the college campus; and at the time of graduation, asked his dad why he had not kept his promise, giving him the auto as he had said. The father’s reply spoke volumes as he said: “There was a check in the Bible for your car. You promised to read the Bible. Had you kept your promise to me, you would have discovered that I had kept my promise to you.”

God’s Promise To Zechariah

Standard

Luke 1:5-25

In the movie Mary Poppins, the two children, Jane and Michael Banks, jumped into bed after their incredible first day with the amazing Mary Poppins. Jane asked, “Mary Poppins, you won’t ever leave us, will you?” Michael, full of excitement, looked at his new nanny and added, “Will you stay if we promise to be good?” Mary looked at the two and as she tucked them in replied, “Look, that’s a pie-crust promise. Easily made, easily broken!”

Personal and corporate honesty often pays off in dramatic ways. Donald Douglas, for example, built a reputation for his aircraft company and worked to preserve it. There was the time Douglas was competing with Boeing to sell Eastern Air Lines its first big jets. Eddie Rickenbacker, who headed Eastern, is said to have told Douglas that his specifications and claims for the DC-8 were close to his competition on everything but noise suppression. He then gave Douglas one last chance to out-promise Boeing on this feature. After consulting his engineers, Douglas reported back that he did not feel he could make that promise. Rickenbacker replied, “I know you can’t. I wanted to see if you were still honest. You just got yourself an order for $135,000,000. Now go home and silence those jets!”

A promise is a solemn assertion, by which one pledges his veracity that he will perform, or cause to be performed, that which he mentions. The Hebrews were called the “children of the promise”, as all true believers in Christ are called. These “who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” There are four classes of promises mentioned in Scripture: Those relating to the Messiah; Those relating to the church; Those relating to the Gentiles; Those relating to Israel as a nation.

Promises, not concrete successes, are the basis of Christian leadership. True worship always involves an element of mystery. God reveals Himself but rarely explains Himself. Christians do not live on explanations but on promises, and on deepening relationships. God deliberately keeps some things secret to keep us humble and trusting Him.

Jesus went to Jerusalem one Passover holiday and met a man who had waited thirty-eight years at the Bethesda pool for a healing. Tradition had it that every so often an angel of the Lord would stir the waters and whoever stepped in first would be cured. For thirty-eight years, this man had reached out for a healing only to be muscled aside by someone bigger and faster. Some folks say this man didn’t want to be healed, or else he would have pushed other folks aside and hustled into that pool himself. I say true patience is so scarce, we’re apt to confuse it with apathy. There’s a load of difference between the two. Apathy curls up into self-pity when times get hard. Patience quietly waits its turn, trusting that God will get around to making things right in his perfect time.

No one is greater then his/her word. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your `Yes’ be `Yes,’ and your `No,’ `No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33)

A promise is a promise! Steve McQueen was a top billed actor who lead a life as tough as the ones he portrayed on the screen. Success filled his life until alcohol and a failed marriage left him empty. In his despair he attended a crusade led by one of Billy Graham’s associates. McQueen made a profession of faith and requested an opportunity to speak with Billy Graham. A connecting flight in Los Angeles allowed Dr. Graham to spend a couple of hours with Mr. McQueen in the actor’s limousine. The great evangelist shared numerous scriptures in his quest to give spiritual hope and confidence. Steve McQueen struggled with the thought of God giving eternal life to a man who had such a checkered past. In Titus 1:2, Steve McQueen found his hope -“the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago.” He requested something to write down the verse but Billy Graham gave McQueen his Bible instead. Later, Steve McQueen died in Mexico while seeking experimental treatment for his terminal cancer. He passed into eternal life with his Bible opened to Titus 1 and his finger resting on verse 2. Regardless of our past, we have the hope of God’s eternal promise.

God’s promises are like the stars; the darker the night, the brighter they shine. The large tractor-trailer trucks that travel the highways of the nation are subject to a load limit. This means that there is a limit as to how much weight each truck is allowed to carry. There is a good reason for establishing such limits. If the trucks were allowed to exceed their weight limit, the roads would eventually fall apart, because each road is designed to support vehicles only up to a certain weight. Likewise, God knows how much we can bear when he allows us to be tested. He has assigned a definite “load limit” to each of us and never exceeds it.

As children, lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness — and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the blackness, a familiar voice. It is the father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself.

Thankfully, the star of Bethlehem isn’t an empty star, and I pray, that after claiming that star our hearts won’t be found empty when someone who is spiritually hungry comes calling. The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”