Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Do you stand out in the crowd?

“…Look! The tears of the oppressed, and no one was there to comfort them. And there was force from the hand of the oppressors, and no one was there to comfort them.” Ecclesiastes 4:1 MEV

We know God comforts the oppressed, by why would God care about comforting oppressors too? God has a much bigger vision than we do. The closer we grow to God, the more we’re able to see beyond painful experiences, and see the people who’ve hurt us with eyes of compassion and forgiveness. True forgiveness gives us eyes to see how people who’ve been used by evil to hurt others are victims of that same evil as well. Instead of burning with revenge, we want to see them healed, because forgiveness has healed us first and all the pain of the past is gone.

Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, was an evil man by all accounts. He was a Jew who was a traitor, a henchman for the Roman oppressors, a blatant thief who extorted money from his own people to pay off Rome and pocket the rest. He was filthy rich and hated by the Jews of Jericho where he lived. He had to watch his back because Jewish zealots who carried concealed daggers would happily assassinate him if they had a chance. Being a tax collector for Rome was a great-paying job, but it meant being expelled from the synagogue and the Temple in Jerusalem. It meant being forbidden to speak to his own family. He was worse than a pagan, because he’d been born into the Chosen People but had chosen money over God. 

Jesus came through the city gates with a huge crowd clamoring to be close to Him. The news of His miracles and amazing teachings had spread far and wide. He’d become a celebrity of sorts, and the curious Jews were expecting a very holy man, just like their Pharisees and temple priests. But Jesus did something very unholy. He saw that greedy little thief up in a tree, pointed him out and announced that He was choosing Zacchaeus’ house to eat and spend the night. Of all the people there, why Zacchaeus? Why would Jesus ignore all these poor Jews of Jericho who’d been oppressed by the Romans for years and choose to honor the house of their oppressor? 

Jesus had eyes to see past the superficial labels that everyone else saw. Among that crowd of admirers, only two had caught Jesus’ attention that day. The first one was Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who’d been shouted at by the crowd to sit down and be quiet, but instead of rejecting him, Jesus had healed him. The second man was Zacchaeus, the thief. God singled out those two men, because no one else in that town had a passion for Jesus as they did, and He knew it. One, an oppressed beggar, the other, the oppressive thief. Only Jesus could see their burning desire for God at that moment in time, and He transformed both of their lives forever.  

Our lesson is:

  1. Holding grudges against enemies and withholding kindness from the suffering, make us lukewarm and useless to God.  
  2. Forgiveness enables us to see things through God’s eyes, to have compassion on our enemies, and believe in their ability to change.
  3. Jesus doesn’t care about the past, He cares about who we are at this very moment, and whether or not we’re ready to act by faith.
  4. Be careful who you assume is unworthy of God’s blessing – Jesus sees beyond labels, and so should we.
  5. A passion for serving Jesus is what makes us stand out!

When they saw it, they all murmured, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I will repay him four times as much.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”  Luke 19:7-10 MEV

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Being wise about who your friends are

“Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’” This small verse in 1 Corinthians 15 is a powerful warning. An overly confident Christian who believes he can uphold his morals no matter who he spends time with is playing with fire. 

A natural result of being a child of God is that the company of people with little or no love for God is just not enjoyable. It’s not that you look down on them, it’s just that they’re incapable of seeing the world with spiritual eyes and offer nothing to your life whatsoever. The inspiring quotes they post on social media don’t prove that they serve Jesus as their Lord and don’t qualify them as “good company.” On the other hand, if you’re born of God, you’re automatically fascinated by those who love and know God too, and you want to be as close to them as possible. If that isn’t happening, maybe it’s time to question whether you even have God’s nature yet.  (Just an FYI: Christian celebrities and church leaders may have a lot of admirers, but are not always true Christians. Look for the fruit of their conduct and the testimony of their lives, not their popularity.) 

Lot made the worst choices when it came to the company he kept. Lot had journeyed with his uncle Abraham through the wilderness until they finally settled in the Promised Land. Lot knew about God, His amazing promises, His faithfulness as they traveled, and about Abraham’s fierce devotion to this unseen God. Lot was a good man, but good wasn’t enough. Sure, he believed in God – he just didn’t value Him very highly. When Abraham gave Lot a chance to settle wherever he wanted, Lot greedily chose the greenest and most fertile land, leaving his uncle to fend for himself in the desert. Abraham didn’t complain, because he trusted that God would take care of him no matter where he settled, which is exactly what happened. But that tempting green land was actually the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, and a few chapters later, the Bible shows us that Lot didn’t just settle in the area, he had no qualms about moving right into the city of Sodom itself.  

Most of you know the story of how God had to send angels to warn Lot to pack up his family and run for their lives, not even to look back. Sodom and Gomorrah were so full of evil, perversity, and sexual abuse that God had to destroy them with fire and brimstone. But the story also depicts how entrenched and comfortable Lot’s family was in Sodom. Some of his daughters had married men from there who only laughed at Lot when he gave them the angel’s warnings. Lot’s wife was so attached to Sodom that she looked back at her home and turned into a pillar of salt. Widowed and homeless, Lot and his two unmarried daughters ran and hid in the mountains, in caves, barely escaping destruction by the mercy of God. Why didn’t he decide to rejoin Abraham and Sarah? Why didn’t they cry out to God and seek His guidance, or at least offer prayers of thanksgiving for having their skins saved? Lot and his daughters believed in God, but were calloused toward Him. They’d been influenced by life in Sodom, where God had been put on a shelf.

The unthinkable happened next. Lot’s daughters were convinced they there was no hope for the future. They were living like animals in a cave with no prospects for a husband, so they devised a plan to get their own father drunk on wine and sleep with him while he was unconscious. Their incestuous pregnancies brought about sons. The descendants of each son became the Moabites and the Ammonites – two of the enemy nations that hated and tormented Israel for generations. Their demon-influenced choices mushroomed into hundreds of years of bloodshed and misery. But it all started when Lot was so reckless that he thought he could mix his faith in God with the enjoyment of worldly company. 

Don’t overestimate your spirituality, and don’t underestimate the potential repercussions of reckless choices. We all need to be sharpened and uplifted with the faith of others who are stronger, or just as strong as we are. I’ve seen too many people receive answers to prayer, get baptized and then drift off with that overconfident attitude that they know what they’re doing and can handle life alone. The Body of Christ is meant to be a lifeline for all of us. The more we love Him, the more we long to be connected to each other, to be more connected to Him.

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season; its leaf will not wither, and whatever he does will prosper.  Psalm 1:1-3 MEV

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Joy in the eye of the storm

“God used to feel so close, but now my prayers seem dry as if He’s not listening anymore.” Everyone goes through dry lonely stretches in their walk with God. But what you do during those times determines how soon, and how strong you come out of them. God wants to know, is our faith based on warm fuzzy feelings, or on the rock-solid truth of His word? God is light, goodness, joy, peace, and all the attributes of the fruit of the Spirit listed throughout the Bible. It’s not wrong for us to want to feel those godly emotions, in fact it’s good to develop a heightened sense of His presence.

But there is no comparison to the deep eternal joy of the Holy Spirit, and moods that come and go with changing circumstances. God wants us to experience deep supernatural joy and peace in the midst of dry times, in the midst of trials and demonic attacks. That’s the only way we can know that we’re truly bearing the fruit of the Spirit, when fleshly emotions fail us and we let God’s heavenly qualities motivate everything we do.  

Do you want to feel God closer and see Him clearer? Then get excited about dry times! Don’t be afraid of demonic attacks. That’s the perfect climate for the rich and abundant fruit of the Holy Spirit to be borne in you. It’s the last thing you may want, but in the middle of a storm, standing firm in your determination that His Word is true, is when miracles and answered prayer manifest. The eye of the storm is where you can be filled with a greater joy and sense of victory than comfortably hiding from problems in your home, clutching whatever worldly security you have. When you defy your storm by faith, the roar dies to a whimper. God shows Himself strong in supernatural ways, and you will never be the same again. 

When Jesus left the earth and gave the Great Commission to His disciples, His final promise was that He’d be with them until the very end. It’s no coincidence that the promise came just as Jesus finished telling His followers to go out and get busy spreading the gospel to every nation, to all the world, making disciples, fully knowing that many would be tortured and killed for their faith. While risking life and limb to obey the Great Commission, they could be sure His presence would never leave them. It doesn’t mean that He’s not with those who stay at home, and it doesn’t mean that we have to be thrown to the lions to prove our faith, but it does mean that we can be sure to see His presence alive and shining when we’re willing to take risks to put His Kingdom above all else.  

A lot of people misunderstand why our church encourages people to make sacrifices to God. Some even find an excuse to disappear from church during that sacrificial season, and mysteriously reappear when it’s all over to avoid the discomfort of hearing those messages. A sacrifice that honors God has to be given out of the freewill of the giver, and not by compulsion or guilt trips, otherwise there’s no spiritual benefit and it just causes bitterness and resentment. But if that challenge is taken up with the right spirit, prayerfully and in sync with God’s prompting, it creates that “perfect storm” where you’ve chosen to put God above everything else in order to advance the cause of His Kingdom. Not everyone is called to leave their homes and families to preach the gospel around the world, but all of us are called to be a part of that Great Commission. Getting busy doing God’s will, places us in the eye of the storm. We witness miracles that otherwise would not have been possible, our testimonies save lives, and best of all, we see Him more clearly and experience profound joy.  

The tougher the struggles, the deeper our experiences with God, as long we remain faithful. Being battered by life because you abandoned your faith doesn’t count, but the moment you turn back to Him, the growing season begins again. Don’t shirk from opportunities to grow, or be resentful of challenges. Wherever He leads, He’s present, and in His presence is fullness of joy

You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand there are pleasures for evermore.  Psalm 16:11 MEV

Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.   Matthew 28:18-20 MEV

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Celebrating as an act of faith

Right after the Jewish Passover came a countdown of seven weeks (49 days) when the Feast of the Firstfruits was celebrated, which ended at Pentecost – literally meaning the 50th day. These ancient feasts may seem like useless Bible trivia, but God never does anything trivial. So what was so special about the Feast of the Firstfruits?  

It was when the new spring crops of grain, fruit and vegetables were given to God in the confidence that He was going to provide for the entire year ahead. It was the first small harvest at the very beginning of the planting season. Other harvests, that would sustain them through the cold winter would continue to be brought in up until the autumn months of September and October – if the rain and sun were plentiful that year. There was no guarantee of a good year, no guarantee that drought wouldn’t wither their crops. They could work hard, but the right proportions of rain and sun came by the providence of God alone. If they didn’t fully trust in Him, they could lose everything. Their firstfruits weren’t much, but they were a declaration that God would provide, a celebration of faith that big blessings would come.

Imagine enduring a tough winter in Israel, carefully portioning out the grain and dried fruit you’d stored up for your family until the next year’s harvest. When spring finally arrives, fresh new crops provide hope that you no longer have to scrimp and save. But instead of devouring it right away, God commanded that the first crop be set aside for Him. They were to give sheaves of grain to the temple priests who would wave them towards the four corners of the compass – they were to offer some grain as flour baked into loaves, a basketful of their first fruit and vegetables, as well as the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb. They were to bring it all to His temple with joyful singing and celebration. The small crop was the first evidence that God’s huge blessings were on their way, and in that faith they were commanded to have a party! Only after that celebration, could they return home and enjoy the rest of their crops.

Today, God still wants us to celebrate every time we see the tiny beginnings of a miracle making their appearance. He wants us to give thanks for the first “harvest” that comes into our hands, in a joyful manner, in the knowledge that it’s just the beginning of what He’s going to do for us. If it’s our salary, then that firstfruit is a tithe. If we’ve been praying for a loved one who’s made a slight change for the better, our firstfruit is to give thanks with the certainty that something new and powerful is beginning, no matter how small the change seems.  If it’s news of an improved medical exam, then our firstfruit is to give our testimony, proclaiming that though we haven’t yet seen the final result, we’re sure that God is moving and that He deserves all the praise. God expects us to take the small insignificant signs of His handiwork as absolute proof that He is faithful to His Word and will accomplish exactly what He promises. After all, the consummate definition of faith is:  “…the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

We have a serious problem of thinking that being cynical and hesitant is a sign of maturity, but in the Kingdom of God, that’s hogwash. How many times have we seen positive signs of change, but hang back and say something like, “Hold on, I don’t want to get my hopes up just yet. Let me just ride this out and see if anything comes of it”?  How many times has God done something amazing in answer to prayer, but because it’s not the final answer we had hoped for, we won’t give Him the public honor He deserves by giving our testimony? Why do we think that talking about what God has done for us, whether big or small, is being proud and showing off? Why are we embarrassed to give our testimonies? All this is hogwash. The Bible teaches us that there’s a good kind of boasting – when we boast about Him!  (Galatians 6:14) Robbing God of our firstfruits isn’t just refusing to pay our tithes, it’s refusing to celebrate the small signs that He’s providing for us. And when we rob God, we lose blessings.  

Giving our firstfruits with joy is a declaration of faith that says: 1. Everything good comes from God alone, both big and small, and 2. We have to celebrate the answer to our prayer even before we see it happen.  When we honor Him this way, we open doors for His abundance to flow… Let’s grab every chance we have to live out the spirit of the firstfruits – giving our possessions, our praise and our testimony to Him in the faith that He will be good to us in every way. 

And it must be, when you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, and you possess it, and dwell in it, that you shall take from the first of all the produce of the ground which you shall bring from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide. You shall go to the priest in office at that time and say to him, “I profess this day to the Lord your God that I have come into the land which the Lord promised to our fathers to give us.”  (Deuteronomy 26:1-3 MEV)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dreams, passion and your inner drive

An article in a top business magazine reveals how interviewers look for certain personality traits when hiring employees, that personality can outweigh an impressive resume.  Skills and education are great, but if a person doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done well in the real world, they’re not much use to a company that wants results.  Who you are – or at least who you project you are – is crucial to how companies hire their staff.  Interviewers may not know it, but they’re tapping into a God-given instinct to see beyond the superficial and look for real substance.  God looks beyond the superficial as well, only He does it far better than any of us.  

You can find story after story online of rags-to-riches successes, men and women who had nothing and created world-renown companies through a passion for their dreams.  Many had little to no faith in God, but they wanted what they wanted so badly that they pursued that dream no matter how impossible it seemed.  Some were homeless and lived out of their cars, others were forced to work three jobs doing manual labor, others had come from abusive homes and the foster care system, but all of them latched onto their dreams until they came true.  Their inner drive made them able.

Take that to a higher, more powerful level, to the level of faith in God.  He is telling you every day: “You can!  Not because you are able, but because I will make you able!”  When we assume that our skills and abilities are the only tools God can use to bless us, we limit Him.  If we were raised in a home without the resources for a great education, or without the love and support we needed as kids, if the absence of those resources caused us to struggle and make poor life choices, it’s normal to believe that we are now saddled with a rotten past.  But that’s what being Born of God is all about – getting rid of that “saddle” and becoming fresh and new again.  God wants us to know that it doesn’t matter any more, because He’s not looking at our resume, He’s looking for our passion for Him.  That’s all.

Take a look at these statements and see if they accurately reflect who you are: “I trust God so much, that I’m willing to do whatever He asks, even if it feels like He might not come through.  I may look like I’m failing to everyone else, but since everything I do is to please Him - how could He allow me to fail?  He’s been so merciful and has given me more than I deserve, so how could I ever complain about my life?  I can’t wait to spend time with Him every day, I love training my ears to hear Him speak, and I love the challenge of obeying Him even in scary moments.  I can’t see the details of how my prayers will be answered, but the dreams He gave me are as real as if I held them in my hand. He is so real, and no one can convince me otherwise.”

That’s a life that reflects loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength as the 10 Commandments requires.  It’s a faith of passion and conviction that causes His eyes to be drawn to us as He searches to and fro to strengthen those who are totally devoted to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9).  That’s the kind of faith that God has pleasure in, that He loves to honor with answered prayers and miraculous changes.  

Don’t worry any longer about your disadvantages, about your flaws or lost opportunities.  God doesn’t care one bit about any of those, but He does care about the passion and trust you have in Him right now.  If you fear Him, you passionately desire more of Him, and you passionately fear losing His presence to the point that you will do whatever He asks of you.  If you’ve been basing your faith on earning His approval by being “good”… stop!  Know now that He is merciful.  Place all your hope on Him, trust in the dreams He has given you, and see where that kind of faith will take you.

He delights not in the strength of the horse, nor does He take pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His mercy. Psalm 147:10-11, MEV

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Quality over quantity

How oblivious are we to the fact that choices we make on our journey towards heaven greatly impact our eternity there?  Of course we are to remain faithful until the end, never trade our salvation for the things of this world and never be lured away by sin – hopefully these are well-established truths for every Christian.  But our reward isn’t just escaping hell.  God intends to reward us richly based on the choices we make in this short life on earth right now.

He’s looking for quality – a quality of faith that can withstand fire and storms, a quality of love for Him that doesn’t worry about the approval of others, but pushes on to build up His Kingdom, His church, His people despite criticism or misunderstandings.  This world can’t even see that level of quality, and religious traditionalists are blind to it even more.  God saw the qualities of a king in a shepherd boy, David.  Jesus saw the qualities of raw faith in a Roman centurion who recognized His authority.  Gideon, the weakest of his tribe and clan was hand picked by the Angel of the Lord because of his spirit of revolt, which was the quality God needed to say, “Go in this your strength!”  No one would have chosen them by worldly standards, but there was eternal value in each of them that God gladly used.

The standards of the Kingdom of God are far above us.  When others are praising the greatness of philanthropists and poets and movers and shakers of this world, God is looking to see whether anything of eternal value exists in their lives.  If they have no faith in Him, all the good they do will be burned up in the end along with the praise and accolades of the world, and their future will be torment.  Not because God chose it, but because they did.  

And if someone does have faith in God and is headed towards heaven, God searches for anything of eternal value in them beyond their salvation.  They may be extremely active in their churches, coming home exhausted from evangelizing, scrubbing the church toilets and organizing for the next big meeting, but if their hearts are set on gaining the approval of their pastors and being seen as important in the eyes of others, God sees all their hard work as piles of stubble and hay.  If they turn their backs on others who don’t fit into their mold of the “perfect Christian” and spread rumors or gossip, they nullify the good that they do, because they are laying foundations that are worthless.  Churchiness is of no value to God.  Faith and faithfulness regardless of what others think, or do, is.

Every man or woman of God who was used in the Bible was a surprise, a misfit and even a shock to people around them.  The risks they took to please God were priceless diamonds to Him, but usually offensive to others.  Only after they were tested by fire, did those risks prove their eternal value.  Moses, Esther and Mordecai, Daniel, Elijah and Elisha, Mary the sister of Martha, Matthew, Peter, Simon the Zealot, Paul, and the list goes on.  If our hearts are set on impressing others, we will have little to nothing of eternal value to show for our lives once we make it to heaven – if we make it to heaven.

In these few decades of life on this earth, we are given the choice to build lasting and permanent foundations, which will often mean doing things that no one will ever thank us for or acknowledge.  That’s where our faith is truly tested – we say that we love Jesus more than anything, but do we love Him enough to live a quality of life that only He might see?  Do we give up when we don’t gain immediate recognition for our good deeds?  Or even worse, do we not even bother to strive for a quality faith because we assume that we’re saved anyway?  A heart with that kind of attitude is so far from God, and may not even be saved at all.

Like Matthew 6:1 says, “Be sure that you not do your charitable deeds before men to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Let’s decide to live every day laying down the most precious and lasting treasures that will honor God today and last forever.  

For no one can lay another foundation than that which was laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble, each one’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If anyone’s work which he has built on the foundation endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss. But he himself will be saved, still going through the fire.  1 Corinthians 3:11-15, MEV