Red Moon Rising

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.
See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.”
(Matthew 24:6)

bloodmoonDid you get up to see the lunar eclipse this week?  If you’ve been paying any attention, then no doubt you’ve picked up on the talk about the Tetrad, a series of 4 consecutive total eclipses occurring at approximately six month intervals.  The first total eclipse on April 15, 2014 will be followed by another on Oct. 8, 2014, and another on April 4, 2015, and another on Sept. 28 2015.  Such an occurrence is pretty rare.  According to the NASA website, “During the 21st century, there are 8 sets of tetrads, but this has not always been the case.  During the three hundred year interval from 1600 to 1900, for instance, there were no tetrads at all.”

Coinciding with the beautiful pictures of this rare phenomenon has been a lot of buzz from “End Time” Prophets that the Blood Moon is a sign of the coming apocalypse.  Please remember, when the article begins with “best-selling author and televangelist…” that should say quite a lot about the reliability of what you are about to read.  Keep in mind, Tetrads have happened before, and were probably received with the same caliber of hype and doom-saying from the prophets who profit off fear.

I recently concluded a series of sermons working through Matthew 24-25, never knowing that this whole “tetrad” thing was coming.  Still, I thought, given the current attention of the news, it might be good to offer a quick reminder of the basic premise of Jesus’ teaching about the signs of the end times.

  • Christ is Coming - While it’s easy to get caught up in the signs and mysteries of the end times, the primary purpose of Jesus’ teaching was to remind His disciples that He is indeed coming back.  In each of the gospel accounts, Jesus’ teaching on the “signs of the close of the age” are always found just prior to his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion.  Jesus is about to be taken away, about to give up His life for us, but He wanted His disciples to know that He would be returning.  Not only would Jesus return, He would return in great glory, to gather His people to Himself (Matt 24:30-31), and to judge the nations (Matt. 25:31-32).
  • Watch for the Signs - Because He is coming, we are instructed to watch and wait for His return, and part of this watching and waiting involves knowing the signs of the age.  Jesus wanted His disciples to be prepared that in advance of His coming, there would be wars, famine, natural disasters, persecution, tribulation, lawlessness, and even a great falling away from within the visible church (Matthew 24:3-14).  All these are but “birth pangs,” signs that something greater is coming.  Therefore, when we hear of wars, when the moon turns red and stars fall from the sky, when there is division within the body of Christ, these things should not cause us to panic, but should serve to remind us that Christ is coming, and we are to be prepared.
  • Do Not Be Deceived - While we are instructed to watch for the signs, we are not to be deceived.  Jesus made it very clear, “See that no one leads you astray… but concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  It floors me whenever I hear a “preacher” (and I use that term cautiously) say, “THESE ARE THE SIGNS THAT JESUS IS COMING” (aren’t they usually shouting?).  No one knows the day or the hour.  The signs have been happening for centuries.  There were natural disasters in the NT era that made people think they had missed the return of Christ.  There have been wars to end all wars – I remember when the first Gulf War was the sign of the apocalypse – and here we are almost 25 years later.
  • Be Prepared - Rather than becoming preoccupied with end time signs and hoarding up for the apocalypse (remember Y2K, anyone), how should Christians wait for Christ’s return – by being prepared.  We do not know when He will return, so we must assume He will be back at any moment.  The parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and the goats teach us to watch and work – supplying ourselves with the means of grace that have been given (oil for the lamps), putting that grace to work for God’s Kingdom (the talents), and caring for the least of these (sheep and goats) as we would care for Christ.

Ultimately, there is nothing for those who are in Christ to fear.  He is coming for His elect.  The signs may be alarming, disturbing even, but do not be dismayed.  These are signs to remind us that Christ is coming, and before His coming there will be trouble and struggles for His people.  Yet through it all, God is on His throne, He holds all things in His hands, and there is nothing that can separate us from His love for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

SDG

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Peace in the Church

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
(Matthew 5:9)

I was taught long ago that “If two people agree on everything all the time, one of them is unnecessary.”  One should expect to face conflict or difficulty in every relationship.  Best friends, spouses, teammates, colleagues; no matter how much you love and care for one another, there will come a time when you don’t see eye-to-eye, when you struggle to get along, and when it may seem easier to just give up and walk away than to stay and work things out.

The same goes for the church.  We are, by definition, a community of the redeemed; each of us are sinners who have been saved by grace and called to new life in Jesus Christ.  We are striving for the Promised Land, each of us called to encourage, exhort, teach, and pray for one another along this pilgrimage.

There are times when the Church is a thing of beauty, a glimpse into the splendor of the coming Kingdom of God.

Then there are times when it is not.  There are times when the Church looks like the triage center of a battlefield hospital, where those wounded by sin and pierced by death come for healing and life, and that healing takes time.  There are times when the old wound is aggravated, when we forget that the guy we’re arguing with is our brother in Christ, and we forget who we have been called to be.

Friends, there is no perfect Church.  There never has been.  Every church that’s mentioned in the Bible had its faults.  Even the Church in Ephesus, of whom Paul writes such glowing praise, in the book of Revelation is chastised for having “lost its first love.”  The Church in all its glory, is still just a foretaste of the coming reality of Heaven; like an appetizer, always leaving us wanting for just a bit more.

We need to remember that every member, and every leader, of the church is a sinner redeemed by Christ.  None of us has reached our destination.  None is above reproach.  We are all still limping between the “works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.

Works of the Flesh

Fruit of the Spirit
Sexual Immorality, Impurity, Sensuality, Idolatry, Sorcery, Enmity, Strife, Jealousy, Fits of Anger, Rivalries, Dissensions, Envy, Drunkenness, Orgies

Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-Control

As a Church living in the power of the Spirit, peace, not warfare should characterize our relationships.

“We have been called by God to let Christ’s peace rule in our lives as we relate to one another since we are “one body” in Christ.  Each member, then, is responsible for the peace and unity of the local church.  Each individual makes a difference as to the outcome of any conflict in the church.  Imagine what it would be like to be part of a church in which every member thinks of himself as one of God’s own “peace corps.”  Each member would face conflict by thinking and acting as a peacemaker.  Each would work for a just and righteous peace rather than competing against one another to win a fight or to beat down the opposing party.  Every church in the New Testament struggled with maintaining unity and harmony.  It is no different today.  Without constant peacemaking efforts, all churches will eventually break apart or live in perpetual warfare.”*

*(Adapted from Alexander Strauch, If You Bite and Devour One Another, Lewis and Roth Pub, 2011.)

Where do you stand as a peacemaker in your Church?  Do you see those who differ with you as opponents and obstacles to overcome, or as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ?  Do you begin by giving others around you the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they have the best of intentions at heart, or has sin so jaded your heart that you automatically assume that everyone is out to get you?  Do you freely extend the forgiveness that God has given to you to those around you, or has forgiveness and grace become a commodity to be rationed to only the deserving?

Friends, may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ reign and rule in your hearts and in His Church today!

SDG

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Oh, Be Careful Little Eyes What You See

“I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.”
(Psalm 101:3)

I am a recovering TV junkie.  I never needed a TV Guide, I knew the schedule by heart.  If challenged today, I could probably tell you within the first 5 minutes of each “Law and Order” episode who did it and why.  Same with “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” “M*A*S*H*” – name me an 80’s or 90’s TV show, I probably saw it.  I cannot begin to estimate the number of hours wasted in front of the TV; it would be depressing to even venture a guess.

A couple of years ago my family “cut the Cable.”  We were paying for a couple hundred satellite channels, but always complaining that nothing was on.  The price for this “entertainment” kept going up, but the quality kept going down.  That, and I knew that I was watching too much TV, and my children were beginning to follow in my habits.

Since we left TV behind, some amazing things have happened.

We talk a lot more as a family.  Sure, our children are getting older, and their schedules are hectic.  We spend a great deal of time shuttling them from one place to the next.  There’s not a lot of time for TV.  But when we are home, it doesn’t have to be on.

We read more too.  We go outside to play (when outside isn’t covered in snow).  In general, I cannot think of one adverse effect from having disconnected the “idiot box.”

That being said, I read recently that the daily average of television viewing in the US is 5 hours.  That’s 5 hours a day.  The same report showed that while the average American youth will spent 900 hours per year in school, the average youth will watch 1200 hours of TV.  By the age of 18, an average television watcher will have seen over 150,000 violent acts on TV, and been enticed by over 16,000 television ads.

Compare this to recent studies regarding Americans and their Bibles.  A 2013 study by the Barna Group showed that while more than half of Americans think the Bible has too little influence on a culture they see in moral decline, yet only one in five Americans read the Bible on a regular basis, according to a new survey.  The study revealed that 57% of those who have a Bible read that Bible less than 4 times a year.  A year!

Here’s an interesting experiment for you to try:  take a small notebook and right down at the end of each day how many hours you spent watching TV and how many hours you’ve spent reading the Bible.  That should be quite revealing.

My dad used to have a sign above his computer that simply said, “GIGO” which is simply translated, “Garbage in Garbage Out.”  The basic premise is that no matter how sophisticated the computer, what you put in is what will come out.  If you enter flawed and erroneous data (garbage in), the results will be flawed and erroneous (garbage out).

Now I don’t want to equate the human mind to a computer by comparison, but the saying “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” applies to our lives just as much as it does to our computers.  If all you feed your mind is lies, garbage, nonsense – the stuff that’s on the “boob tube” – it stands to reason that you can expect your life to be filled with lies, garbage and nonsense.  How can you “set your mind on things above” if it is constantly being filled with the things below?  The apostle Paul put it this way, “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33).  How much time are you spending with your TV?

I know how tempting it can be.  You come home after a long day at work, and all you want to do is “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” to “veg”.  But we don’t, we can’t really “veg.”  The problems at work, the things said about you in the hall between classes, that stuff keeps running through your mind. We hope the TV will drown out all the stress, but it just pushes it off till later, and gives us some pretty terrible advice on how to deal with out issues.  All those voices clamoring for your attention will lead you down the primrose path.

Turn instead to God’s word.  Begin and end each day with God’s Word of truth, the truth that establishes the way you look at the rest of the world.  Begin and end each day with God’s Word of promise, and let that promise be the source of your hope and peace.  Begin and end each day with God’s Word of love, forgiveness, and grace in Jesus Christ, and allow that love to be the strength and source of your love.

Grace and peace,

SDG

PS – I highly recommend reading this – A Stranger in our Home

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Ethan’s Aphorisms

“Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight…”
(Proverbs 4:1)

Rather than my usual “devotional” writing this week, I thought I’d share some of the little proverbs that I’ve been jotting down as they come to me in my study time.  I call them: Ethan’s Aphorisms.

  • A pastor should never complain about his congregation.  All their faults and failures may be precisely what God is using in his sanctification.
  • A congregation should never complain about their pastor.  All his faults and failures may be precisely what God is using in their sanctification.
  • Those who leave a church because they don’t get along with the congregation or the pastor eventually find their problems follow them.
  • Rather than complain about something, pray for something.
  • Love covers a multitude of sin. (Okay, that’s not mine, but it is still good.)
  • The lack of prayer reveals a lack of faith.
  • The desire to pray is prayer itself.
  • Distractions in prayer may be promptings to pray.
  • The one who is most ready to live in Heaven is best suited to serve on earth.
  • What you believe has tremendous effect on how you live.
  • How you live ultimately reveals what you believe.
  • If you don’t know what you believe, you don’t really don’t believe it.
  • If you don’t read the Bible, you are likely not living according to the Bible.
  • A husband who will not put his wife before himself will not put Christ before himself.
  • A wife who will not submit to her husband will not submit to Christ.
  • Your child’s relationship with you is a good indication of your relationship with God.
  • A Christian’s trials are never the wrath of a judging God.  Christ has borne that wrath.  A Christian’s trials are the fruitful discipline of our loving Father.
  • That which you cannot live without has become a god to you.
  • Your sin is great.  God’s grace is greater.
  • It is never too late to repent.
  • Lost people do lost things.
  • If you are not aware of a sin from which you need to repent, you aren’t paying close enough attention.
  • The sin you despise in others is usually also found in you.
  • The more time you spend in the presence of Christ, the more you will begin to live like Him.
  • You are either connected to that which brings you life or that that which brings you death.
  • Even just a little sin, a little disobedience, a little death is too much.
  • You are either growing closer to God or further from Him.
  • Those who say they can worship God just as well while alone in nature as they can while with a congregation don’t understand what it means to worship God.
  • What you get out of worship matters far less than what you give in worship.
  • The most important thing about you is not what you do, what you’ve done, what you have, or who you know.  The most important thing about you is that you are loved by God and called His child.

SDG

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A Need for Grace

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”
(2 Peter 3:18)

In the midst of this Lenten Season, a time of devotion, dedication, and discipline, I thought I’d offer the following prayer from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions:

O Lord,
Thou knowest my great unfitness for service,
my present deadness,
my inability to do anything for thy glory,
my distressing coldness of heart.
I am weak, ignorant, unprofitable,
and loathe and abhor myself.
I am at a loss to know what thou wouldest have me do,
for I feel amazingly deserted by thee,
     and sense thy presence so little;
Thou makest me possess the sins of my youth,
and the dreadful sin of my nature,
so that I feel all sin,
I cannot think or act but every motion is sin.
Return again with showers of converting grace
to a poor gospel-abusing sinner.
Help my soul to breathe after holiness,
after a constant devotedness to thee,
after growth in grace more abundantly every day.
O Lord, I am lost in the pursuit of this blessedness,
and am ready to sink because I fall short of my desire;
Help me to hold out a little longer,
Until the happy hour of deliverance comes,
for I cannot lift my soul to thee
if thou of thy goodness bring me not nigh.
Help me to be diffident, watchful, tender,
lest I offend my blessed Friend
in thought and behavior;
I confide in thee and lean upon thee,
and need thee at all times to assist and lead me.
O that all my distresses and apprehensions
might prove but Christ’s school
to make me fit for greater service
by teaching me the great lesson of humility.

Grace and peace,

SDG

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Pass the Chocolate

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
(Isa 58:6 ESV)

This being Ash Wednesday, the beginning the Lenten season, everybody’s talking about what they’re going to give up as an act of discipline.  Some have turned off social media, some will try to quit smoking, others have promised, somewhat humorously, to stop shoveling snow.

If taken seriously, the practice of forsaking those vices that tempt and try your soul is a commendable thing, especially if it leads to a permanent victory over a besetting sin.  However, to merely give something up that is not inherently bad, depriving yourself of a God-given pleasure, to somehow feel “closer to God” for 40 days, only to take it back up again in the end seems… how do I say this… NUTS!

I don’t think this is a Biblical teaching.  It may be rooted in tradition, but at the heart of it, the notion of a Lenten Fast to demonstrate devotion and discipline smacks of works righteousness, declaring, “Hey God, I gave up caffeine for 40 days, just for you.  Aren’t you proud of me? I may have been a terrible grouch, but didn’t I prove to you my spiritual fortitude?”  Now where’s that jewel in my crown?  Have you ever stopped to ask how many people are actually drawn to the Gospel of Jesus Christ because you gave up wearing polyester pant suits for 7 weeks?  Did anyone even notice?

Now, if I haven’t totally offended you and you’re still reading, here’s my suggestion: Rather than give up some trivial pleasure this Lent, fast from something that doesn’t belong in the Christian life anyway, something that you, the Church, and your community would be better off without for good.  Here are a few suggestions:

Complaining – Nothing has ever really been gained by a grumbling and complaining spirit.  Yes, yes, the squeaky wheel  gets the oil, but it also eventually gets replaced.  Look through the history of Scripture, never once did God commend the complaining spirit.  Complaining about your lot in life, at its heart, is really telling God that you know better how your life should be going, that you have a better plan.  Complaining, if we take the Israelites in the wilderness as our example, is always looking back at what’s happened in the past, always looking down at what’s happening right now, but never looking forward to what God has promised, to what God is doing.  I will not say that God cannot use a complaining spirit, but when He does, it usually isn’t a good thing.  Stop complaining.  Remember, God is using the very things you are complaining about to work transformation in your life – it has a holy purpose.  Give up complaining for 40 days, you, and everyone else around you, will be better for it.

Comparing – Connected to the idea of complaining is that of comparing.  We like to compare ourselves to others all the time.  We compare ourselves to those who are less fortunate and say, “Well, at least I’m not that bad.” We compare ourselves to those who seem to have everything and say, “When is it going to be my turn?”  Constantly comparing yourself to others to demonstrate your righteousness will get you nowhere with God.  Constantly comparing yourself to others to make excuses for yourself doesn’t have any standing before God either.  Stop comparing yourself to others, and comfort yourself in the knowledge that God has put you where you are, given you the gifts that you have, and is working his grace within you now, that you might grow in the likeness of Christ.  If you must compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself with Him – then cry out to him for mercy and grace.

Bitterness – Nothing hinders the Gospel, nothing quenches the Spirit, nothing obscures the witness quite like a bitter and unforgiving Spirit.  “God is love,” we say.  “I’ve been forgiven,” we celebrate.  “But it will be a cold day in you-know-where before I forgive him…”  I love the phrase “nursing a grudge” because that’s exactly what it is; you are keeping that grudge, that bitterness, that hostility alive, feeding it and nurturing it so that it is always there.  Rather than fostering love, forgiveness, and peace, a bitter and hostile spirit leads to division, animosity, and tearing one another down.  If you have been forgiven, you will forgive.  If you are unwilling to forgive, have you really been forgiven?  This Lent, try fasting from bitterness, and feasting on forgiveness.

Despair – Now by this I don’t mean grief.  There are certainly occasions where grief is appropriate, especially when grieving over the death of a loved one.  By despair I mean that hopeless, pessimistic burden that comes when we forget the Gospel message.  When we look at our sin, our guilt, our shame, and we say, Well, I’ve certainly done it this time.  God surely can’t, won’t, forgive me now.  This despair comes when we turn our eyes from God, from His love for us in Christ, from the earth-shattering power of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, from the wonder-working power of His Spirit in us.  This despair comes when we stop listening to His promises, stop dwelling in His Word, stop fellowshipping with His Church.  We despair when we forget who He is, who He has called us to be, and who we truly are in Christ.  Give up this unhealthy, unfaithful, un-gospel despair, and rejoice in the fact that He has called you His child – and so you are!

So there you have it, just a few suggestions; feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below.  May this Lenten Season be a time when you can cast off every weight and sin which clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race set before you, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.

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On Church Membership

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
(1 Cor. 12:27)

I recently started reading Mark Dever’s, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible.  I am particularly interested in how we can encourage and continue to develop in our congregation a Christ-centered, loving community that loves to worship and serve together.  I found Dever’s chapter on The Membership of the Church informative, and thought I’d share some of the highlights with you.*

Each year, our session asks the members of the congregation to prayerfully evaluate their standing in the Church, and to consider how they can be “better members of the body.”  Usually, though, there is very little explanation as to what a “better member” would look like.  Dever identifies three specific areas of responsibility of the member: 1) Responsibility as an Individual Christian, 2) Responsibility toward the Congregation, and 3) Responsibility toward the Pastor.  I share these with you for your consideration.

Responsibility as an Individual Christian:

Church members are to be baptized and regularly to attend the Lord’s Supper.  They are to hear God’s Word and obey it.  They are regularly to fellowship together for mutual edification.  They are to love God, one another, and those outside their fellowship; and they are to evidence the fruit of the Spirit.  They are to worship God in all the activities of their home, work, community, and life.

Responsibility toward the Congregation:

As followers of Jesus Christ, Christians are obliged to love one another.  Christians are members of one family, even of one another.  Absent a life of love for one another, what other duty of Church members is satisfying or worthwhile.

Church members are obliged to seek peace and unity within their congregation.  Given the sin which remains in believers in this life, however, unity often requires effort.

Love is expressed and unity is cultivated when Church members actively sympathize with one another.  Other duties follow: to care for one another physically and spiritually; to watch over one another and hold one another accountable; to work to edify one another; to bear with one another, including not suing one another; to pray for one another; to keep away from those who would destroy the church; to reject evaluating one another by worldly standards; to contend together for the gospel; and to be examples to one another.

Responsibilities towards the Pastor:

If Christians expect their pastor to fulfill his biblical responsibilities, church members must make themselves known to him.  They must regard him as a gift from Christ sent to the church for their good.  The ministry of the Word is a steward of God’s household and an under-shepherd of God’s flock.  His reputation can and should be defended, his word believed, and his instructions obeyed unless Scripture is contradicted or facts are plainly distorted.  The faithful minister should be so regarded simply because he brings God’s Word to his people; he does not replace it with his own.

Church members should give themselves both to praying for their ministers and to assisting them in every way they can.

In every church I’ve encountered, there are aspects of these responsibilities that the Church and her members do well.  There are also areas where every church can grow in grace and love.  I encourage you today to ask yourself, “How am I doing as a member of my congregation?” and pray for God’s grace as you grow, in and with your church, in the likeness of Christ.

SDG

*All quotes from: Dever, Mark.  The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, (Nashville, TN. B&H Publishing, 2012) pgs. 40-45.
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