Monday, January 20, 2020

Sweet Freedom of Forgiveness

Someone has said that the two most important words in the English language are, I’m sorry. There is power in those words, power to heal and power to set free. Perhaps the second most important words in the English language are, I’m forgiven. But what happens when we ask for forgiveness and we don’t really believe we have received it? Or we say, “Well, I know the Lord has forgiven me, I just can’t forgive myself.” Friends, that’s an awful place to be, yet it’s home for many people who refuse to accept the sweet freedom of forgiveness that is offered in Christ.

C.S. Lewis said, “I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”

I love the story of the young boy who was throwing rocks one day down by the barn and he decided to do the very thing his father had told him not to: he took aim and fired off a few rounds at the chickens. Then he was horrified when one of his salvos hit his father’s prizewinning rooster, a bulls-eye to the head, and the rooster fell over dead. The boy was sick to his stomach with fear, and tearfully replayed the event over and over in his mind, hoping for a different result. The bird was still dead.

So the boy tried to cover his sin by hiding the rooster, but that didn’t work. He was miserable with guilt, and in bondage like he’d never experienced. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t even play because of his guilt. So finally he retrieved the evidence of his sin and went to confess to his father. To his surprise and great relief, his father embraced him, forgave him, and together they buried the rooster.

The boy was free again. He could eat, play, sleep, and work without guilt. For a while. Then he lay in bed one night and played back the tape in his mind of the rooster-slaying incident until, overcome with sorrow again, he went out into the moonlight and dug up the carcass. He carefully brushed it off, cleaned it up, put it in a box and carried it to his father, asking for forgiveness with tears. The wise Dad embraced his son once again and told him that he had already forgiven him, and together they buried the bird one more time.

All was well for a few days, until one of his friends began to ride the boy pretty hard about the rooster, reminding him of how many prizes it had won. The boy tearfully dug up the bird again, but it had decomposed badly in the summer heat. He cradled this object of his father’s past affection and went to pay for his sins once more.

You see, the boy had been forgiven by his father’s grace, though he didn’t deserve it. But he never released his guilt and accepted God’s gift. Because he was more me-focused than God-focused, he fell right back into bondage by trying to ‘earn’ something God had freely given.

The sweet freedom of forgiveness cannot come through the flesh, through our works, or through anything we do. The most precious of all freedoms can only come through the work that Jesus Christ did on the cross. Freedom and forgiveness are works of God’s grace!

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Don’t Get Used to the Dark

Vance Havner said in a sermon years ago that he walked into a restaurant that was “a dimly lit dungeon,” so dark that he was tempted to ask the waiter for a flashlight so he could see the menu. He had to feel his way to the silverware on the table. The food came, and he said, “We sat there and ate by faith and not by sight.” After a while he could begin to make out a few things on his plate. That’s when his companion for supper said, “Isn’t it amazing how you get used to the dark?” He was speaking literally, but there is a spiritual truth there that relates to fighting the good fight of faith.

I believe one way we know we are getting used to the dark is when the fight has gone out of us and we are just floating with the current, kind of like dead fish. That’s the situation David found when he visited the battle, or the non-battle, between the Philistine’s champion, Goliath, and the army of Israel. Goliath strutted and mocked, taunting the army of Israel, challenging them to send their champion out to fight him. There were two problems with the army of Israel. First, not one soldier moved a muscle because they were all afraid. They were doing all they could to avoid a fight. Courage leads to action. Fear leads to apathy. Perhaps the reason most Christians do not contend for the faith is because we have become accustomed to our fear-born apathy. When we first got saved our faith was stronger than our fear and our joy in the Lord for saving us made us bold witnesses for Him. Remember, believer? We were not always the wisest witnesses, but God can work with that. Then the edge of our joy began to wear off and we began to settle into a routine. We got used to the encroaching darkness around us and gave up the fight.

There’s a second thing we see about this army of Israel that helps us understand what it means to fight the good fight of faith. The soldiers whom David observed that day were no longer practicing the disciplines they had first learned in the army. There was no one even in the bullpen warming up to face Goliath. The fight was gone out of the team and the game was over. Though they were trained warriors, no one was using his training. David showed up on the scene, heard Goliath’s blasphemous taunts, and immediately signed up to get in the game. He said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” He defeated Goliath because he was not afraid of him, because he was well trained in the weapons of his warfare, and because he used those weapons by faith. When Goliath mocked David, the young soldier replied, “You come to me with a sword and a spear and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts.” David brought the fight to Goliath and brought glory to God.

Have you grown accustomed to the dark? Or are you fighting the good fight of faith? Examine your heart for fear and its companion, apathy. Examine your life for the disciplines that keep us always in the fight, with the Word of God and prayer being our primary training table. There are also courage-producing books that will help you think through the taunts of the enemies of faith. One that my wife and I are reading together now is Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. Rebecca McLaughlin tackles the toughest questions that confront us, with the Word and with logic. Questions like these: “Aren’t we better off without religion?” “Hasn’t Christianity denigrated women?” “Isn’t Christianity homophobic?” “How could a loving God allow so much suffering?” And many more. This book will arm you with answers and encourage you in the fight of faith.

Don’t get used to the darkness. Light a candle.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Things I Heard Along the Way

It is my practice, on the last Sunday of the year, to share a few things I heard that year, and hopefully learned. If I may, I would share part of that sermon with you in this column.

God calls us to co-labor
Read 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 for the context. This is a passage that leapt off the page to me as I read it on January 4. I wrote in my journal, “Paul didn’t stay in Troas because Titus wasn’t there. An argument that ministry should be done with others. Or that Paul wanted a companion to encourage him and bring him joy in the hard work of ministry.” Elijah was so discouraged in his ministry as a prophet that he wanted to die and told the Lord so, adding, “I have been very jealous for the Lord…, (and) even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away.” God told him that there were seven thousand in Israel who were, in effect, standing with Elijah. He also sent Elisha to him, to travel with Elijah and eventually to take his place. We are never alone. But we also must seek out others to co-labor with, as Paul did, and as Jesus did.

Habits of Grace
One of the best books I read this year, and then took two young men through, is “Habits of Grace,” by David Mathis. Mathis focuses on various practices and habits of Christians that will sweeten our walk with the Lord, help us grow up in him, and make us more useful for the work he has called us to do for his name’s sake. But the author issues a caution right up front: “The grace of God is gloriously beyond our skill and technique. The means of grace are not about earning God’s favor, twisting his arm, controlling his blessing, but readying ourselves for consistent saturation in the roll of his tides.”

I love that he includes wonderful quotes from some of my favorite authors, like Donald Whitney: “One of the costs of technological advancement is a greater temptation to avoid quietness,” and so we “need to realize the addiction we have to noise.”

SMART goals
I don’t remember when I first heard this acronym, but I wrote about it in my journal in February.

Specific: Non-specific goals are not goals at all. For example, a goal to “read more in my Bible this year” is not specific enough. To “read through the Bible” is better. Or, “to spend a month in a single book of the Bible, reading it over and over, before moving on to another book in the next month.”

Measurable: we all know what that means. How will you know you reached your goal if you cannot measure it? To become “better acquainted with the Bible” is not as measurable as, “Commit a chapter of Scripture, like Ephesians 1, to memory.”

Attainable: “Telling everybody at my workplace about Jesus,” is not attainable if you work at a large company. “Tell one new person about Jesus each week” is a reasonable goal.

Realistic: To travel to every state in the country this year is not realistic. To take your family on a vacation for a week is, and if you haven’t done that in a while, I highly recommend it. Jesus told his disciples on occasion to come apart for a while and rest. As Vance Havner said, “If you don’t come apart for a while, you will come apart!”

Time-Bound: If you are going to pay off a debt this year, set a reasonable time limit. Put a date on when you plan to finish writing a letter, or a song, or even a book. Then do whatever it takes, without sin, to meet your own deadline. Plan your work, then work your plan.

May the Lord bless you with great fruitfulness in Him this year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Word for the Weary

My column today was written by my wife, Cindy, as a message to the women of our church. She shared it with me, and I loved it so much I wanted to share it with you. With her permission, of course!

“The holiday season can be one of the most stressful times of the year. I sometimes feel that I bear the burden of the planning, organizing, shopping, baking, and decorating, as well as getting out our annual Christmas letter and trying to make sure our family gatherings are "special.” I honestly love so many things about this season, but it's easy for me to lose sight of the meaning and the relationships when I'm just trying to get stuff done.

When my children were little, I wanted to make sure they knew the true message of the Christmas season. We used an Advent devotional, putting felt symbols about the birth of Jesus on a felt Christmas tree (this was before the time of the Jesse tree). We displayed nativity collections, made a birthday cake for Jesus, and taught our children about why He came, to save us by giving His life for us.

We gave to faithful ministries, put together Operation Christmas Child boxes, went caroling to neighbors and shut-ins. You name it, we did it. And I haven't even told you about sugar cookies, fudge, making gifts, and other traditions.

I loved building memories through doing all those things, but sometimes this mama was exhausted by Christmas Day.

When the angel came to the shepherds, hard laborers with little to give them hope, he exclaimed, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

For all the people. Not just special people, rich people, or mamas who have their lives together. This is the best news that was ever given...for all of us! And the celebrations of this season are to help us remember the good news of great joy, that a Savior has been born...and the great joy of a Savior is for us all.

Don't be discouraged Mama, Daughter, Friend. "Let not your hearts be troubled. Neither let them be afraid."

In our own strength, we can't change our souls, our cluttered minds, and even sometimes our busy lives, but we can lift our eyes to Jesus, and He can change them all. Look to Him and allow Him to remind us of the good news of His great joy that will be for all the people.

Dear Father,
We are prone to wander, and we lose sight of the good news and great gift that you've given us. May we turn our eyes to you and be reminded of how much you love us. May we experience your joy as we release our burdens in the power of your Holy Spirit who abides in us. With hearts of gratitude, amen.”

-Cindy Fox

From our household to yours, may the Lord bless you with His peace, and give you a very Happy New Year!

Monday, December 23, 2019

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. I daresay every one of you can sing along with me on any of those tunes, and many more besides. They have become synonymous with the American Christmas experience. They help, some say, “get you in the Christmas spirit.” Along with eggnog and stockings and George Bailey and Charlie Brown.

I love those American Christmas traditions. And they can have a place in our celebrations, I think. But like the cattle in the Bethlehem stable, they simply become window dressing or background scenes to the real story. Because Christmas is not Christmas without Christ. This is the season in which the whole world, even many who do not believe, celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. You can try to bury the truth in a mountain of gift wrap and candy canes, but facts are stubborn things.

Imagine at your next birthday party, all of your friends gather to celebrate. But instead of bringing you gifts and singing Happy Birthday to you, instead of eating cake and ice cream, the celebration is wildly different. One stands and sings a happy little song about the stork that “brings presents to all.” Another gives a thirty-minute lecture about cabbage, complete with pictures and props. Then everybody eats and drinks until they cannot move. There is not a single word about you and your birth. Not a single story about how your life has impacted another. No gifts, no cards, nothing about you at all. It was your birthday, but you were not even mentioned the whole evening. Could that really be called your “birthday party?”

If I told you I had shared meals with Buddy Greene, and we exchange Christmas cards, that would not mean anything to most of you. But if I started singing, “Mary, Did You Know?” you would probably be able to sing along with me. Mark Lowry wrote the words and gave them to Buddy, who is a Christian singer and songwriter living in Nashville, and Buddy wrote the music the next day. The song has been recorded by dozens of artists. I believe this song captures, much better than “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” what we celebrate as followers of the Lord Jesus.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would some day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary did you know---

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb---.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great--I--- AM---.

Ahhh. Now that is a song that celebrates the real deal. So, without apologies at all to those who wish we Christians would just stuff ourselves with turkey and keep Christ out of it…I wish you all a very merry, Christ-centered, Christmas.




Monday, December 16, 2019

The World Changed Forever That Night

It was the night of nights. There was an appearance like none the world had ever seen. There was an announcement like none the world had ever heard. There was adulation like none the world had ever experienced. And the world was forever changed.

The shepherds were watching their flocks that night. That’s all. Just a normal night for a shepherd. Maybe they were glad to have sheep to watch. Maybe they were wishing they had something else to do for a living that wasn’t so cold and didn’t smell like sheep. It was quiet. And dark. Then everything changed in an instant as the sky lit up when an angel of the Lord appeared. The angel was not there. Then he was. It wasn’t like the shepherds looked way off in the distance and saw a dim light moving in their direction. Like one turned to the other and said, “Hey, Levi. What’s that coming yonder?” Levi answered, “Don’t know, Jake. But it’s headin’ this way, and I ain’t never seen nothing like it.” No. They didn’t see the angel approaching. There was no warning whatsoever. The angel was on them in an instant. And, “The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” The shepherds were not slightly amused. Or curious. Or mildly irritated. They were terrified. The pictures that men have painted of this scene over the years are almost comical. They often portray the shepherds as rough-hewn burly men, and the angels as delicate women with curls and rosy cheeks and wings. The paintings often make you wonder, who was afraid of whom? The paintings make you think the shepherds should be saying to the angel, “Don’t be afraid little lady. Us big ol’ shepherds won’t hurt you. Come on down here and don’t be shy. You can talk to strangers. It’s Ok.” No! The angel was awesome and the shepherds were terrified, but the amazing thing is that God would choose these blue collar guys to be the first witnesses of the most glorious sight the world had ever known. This was the night of nights and the appearance of an angel changed everything. Because he came with news.

The angel said, “Do not fear, for I bring you good news of great joy!” Do you see that? It is the good news that is not only the answer to all of our fears but is the source of all our joy. All our fears, gone. All our joy, now here. Who? Where? The angel answers their questions before the shepherds can ask. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The one who is born in Bethlehem that night was Savior and Christ. You could say that is what Jesus came to do on earth: to save us from our sins as the Christ, the Anointed One, the perfect sacrifice. But he came from heaven as Lord. The angel might as well have said, “That’s who he is. He is Lord! He made you. He made everything you see and everything you cannot see. He is both the agent for creation and the all-sufficient agent for your redemption. The only hope for mankind is found in this baby born in a manger.”

And with that, the one angel was joined by a battalion of angels, and they all began to praise God. It was adulation like none the world had ever experienced, as these angels joined the chorus, exalting God for this night of nights, when the plan of salvation was revealed to a few lowly shepherds on a Judean hillside.

Here we are today. Still celebrating that first Christmas, when Jesus came as Savior, Christ, and Lord, and we were given all we would ever need.