Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The "Vanilla Factor"

What's the most popular flavor of ice cream, do you think? Answer? Vanilla. However, it's not enough to say that vanilla is the most popular; that only tells part of the story. Vanilla is not just the most popular, it's more than three times the popularity of the second place flavor, Chocolate. 29% of respondents say vanilla, compared to Chocolate at 9%. It's not even close. Let's call this the "vanilla factor..."

A few years ago a large and influential American church began to take a hard look at how effective they were at accomplishing their mission of making disciples. "Sure," they said; "we have lots of people coming to church, tithing, our small groups are large, people are serving, but is any of it making a difference?" "Are people more in love with God and each other than they were? Are people moving closer to Christ?"

After surveying themselves, and then thousands of churches and hundreds of thousands of people just like you and me, trying to pin down what helped people actually grow closer to Christ, one finding jumped off the page. Bible. Specifically, reading, reflecting, and applying God's Word to your life.

Many things can help us grow, they found; serving, fasting, praying, journaling, being in a small group, attending worship services, Bible studies, tithing, belief in certain key doctrines...all of these are catalysts. However, Bible was the vanilla factor. It wasn't even close. Not just reading God's Word, but reading it, meditating on it, and living it out.

It is the vanilla factor for spiritual growth.

"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12).

So the question, it seems, isn't "how do I grow closer to God?" The question is "are you getting into God's Word often, reflecting on it, applying it, and living it?" What is your plan?

"Your words were found and I ate them,
And Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart;
For I have been called by Your name,
O LORD God of hosts." (Jeremiah 15:16)

Friday, July 22, 2011

We Need to Be Found (2 of 2)

First, you must read part 1...this is the second part of two posts. (Click here)

Picking up where we left off, there at least 2 other points I want to make from these parables.

2) We need the shepherd, and we need the flock.

When we wander off, we are lost to ourselves, lost to the flock, and lost to God. The shepherd can leave the 99 by themselves because they have safety in numbers; and yet the 1 who has wandered off is in grave danger. Isolation is never good. I believe it's one of Satan's tricks. I worry about some of my fellow believers who, disillusioned by something in the local church have wandered off to do their own thing. They may not know it, but they are in danger...they've been isolated from the flock. No, the local church is not perfect, (far from it...I mean, we are all sheep), but it's the way God set it up. In the flock we learn to love each other through our imperfections. This was God's plan from the beginning...to live in community with each other and to build His church.

3) There is a party when we are found. 

Check this out...it's amazing! The partying is being done by the shepherd/woman in the parables. They're the ones who found the sheep/coin, they're the ones who can't contain their joy, they're the ones who invite their neighbors and friends to join them, and they're the ones rejoicing. Look at verse 10 again; who's doing the celebrating? The angels are present, but it's almost like they're watching the party. It's God, Jesus, who is celebrating in the presence of the angels. Don't miss this - the essence of this passage is that the shepherd's joy is so great, he cannot celebrate alone, but must gather with his friends.

Second, the party is triggered by repentance. We commonly assume this means repentance unto salvation, but again, that's not what the text says. Whenever anyone repents; that means you and I, Christian, there is joy in the Father's heart. Want to start a party in heaven? Confess your sin to God and repent of it, and you will trigger a party. The word repent has an "ongoing" essence to it. Repentance is not something you do once...it's something we do constantly. It's both a change of mind, and change of action. The bottom line is that God is over-joyed when we repent. One commentator put it this way; "there is nothing here of a reluctant shepherd scolding the sheep..." - only joy. Pure joy.

These parables show us the amazing heart and compassion of our Father. His love is vast and He will stop at nothing to find one of His lost sheep. Have you been found? Are you wandering off?

Monday, July 18, 2011

How Big He is, How Small I am

We're in the midst of a series looking at pride and humility. This week's message will focus on Jesus' humility, and how He demonstrated this humbleness. This got me to thinking about how all of us instinctively place "self" at the center of our lives and erroneously live, at least at the sub-consicence level, believing that it's all about us. Consider for a moment...

  • The Milky Way Galaxy contains between 200 and 400 billion stars. That's 200,000,000,000 stars.
  • The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the closest galaxies to our own Milky Way...it is only 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away.
  • There is an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Each galaxy contains between 10 million and 1 trillion stars. That means that a safe estimate gives us 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe...and any one of those stars could have a planet or two (or 9) orbiting around it.
  • To point, there have recently been about 350 planets found in our own milky way galaxy. Now let's just say there's another 200 planets in all those other galaxies out there (1 of the 100 billion). 350 x 100 billion = a very large number! And that's just what we've found so far.
  • How big is the universe? Nobody knows for sure, but estimates put it at about 90 billion light years in diameter. One light year = 6 trillion miles (approximately). Let me say that again. 1 light year = 5,878,625,373,183 miles, and the universe is estimated at 90,000,000,000 light years in diameter.
  • Oh - and we know that the universe is constantly expanding at a rate of approximately 50 miles per second. That means in the next 24 hours, the universe will have expanded about 4.3 million miles.

So let me ask you a question; does it make sense to think we know more about our lives than the God who made this universe? I mean, in comparison to how big, how awesome, how utterly incomprehensible He is, we are nothing. We are a speck. We are like a grain of sand that you blow away. We are a fog that appears in the morning, and by afternoon is long gone.

Now consider this; "For God so loved  ___________ [insert your name here], that He gave His one and only Son..."

This God; awesome, huge, gigantic God, who creates from nothing, chose to create YOU and ME in HIS IMAGE. Stop. Let it sink in. Even though we are but a speck, He knows you.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well. (Psalm 139:13-14)

As I write this, I am overwhelmed with the love of God for us...for me. Every hair on my head is numbered, every day I live has been written down by Him, planned, thought out. Every cell in my body, every gift I have, everything I am is because of Him. I am a product of His creation, His thought, His creativity. Whenever I open my mouth to speak to Him, He hears. Whenever I repent of sin and turn to Him, He rejoices. Whenever I do something in His name, He smiles. He knows me...and He knows you.

"So what can I give, what can I do, but offer this heart Oh God, completely to you."

That is the refrain of a popular worship song we have just taught at our church and the reason I love it so much is because in that one line, it sums up my response. I can't do anything or give anything that would ever be enough, but I can give the 1 thing that God most desires from me; my heart...to Him, completely, totally, surrendered.

He is Worthy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

We Need to Be Found (1 of 2)

Have you ever heard someone say something like this? "_____ just needs to find God." Or maybe you've even said it as part of your testimony? "I was _____, but then I found God." I believe that not only is this theologically incorrect, but this thinking also causes us to miss the heart of Jesus.

Luke 15 contains three amazing parables, stories that Jesus taught that reveal His heart for us. I want to focus on the first two, which you can read here; (pointless to keep reading this post until you click on that link and read the parables).

In the first parable, Jesus is the Shepherd, and we are the sheep. A few observations about sheep...
- They're dumb, stupid, and they stink all the time
- They're constantly dirty and need the shepherd to keep them clean
- They're weak...they can't defend themselves and rely on the shepherd and the herd for protection
- They are helpless...without their shepherd they'd never find food or water

Sound like you and me?
- We think we're smart and in control, which only shows how dumb we are...we have NO control
- We sin constantly, and need forgiveness daily to keep us clean
- We're very weak, insecure, fearful, and constantly succumb to temptation
- We're helpless to save ourselves...our one chance is to live a perfect life and, well that didn't work out so well.

In steps Jesus, the Good Shepherd. What does He do? Hang on.

In the second parable, Jesus represents the woman, and we are the lost coins. One of us gets lost. What does the woman do? She searches high and low, inside and outside, lighting lamps and basically, not resting until she finds her lost coin. And when she finds it? It's a party! Let's stop there and make some observations.

1) JESUS FINDS US. We don't have to figure out how to find Him, He finds us. The sheep doesn't get hopelessly lost trying to figure out how to get back to the flock, the shepherd leaves the flock to find the sheep! When a sheep wanders off, the shepherd would leave the flock and go on a search. He may end up walking miles to find that 1 lost sheep. And what happens when he finally finds the sheep? He scoops up the hungry, scared, wounded sheep, places him on his shoulders, walks him all the way back to the flock. Same thing with the woman; she loses a coin and immediately drops everything until she finds that missing coin.

Notice what Jesus doesn't do...
- He doesn't send someone else to go after the sheep while he hangs out with the 99
- He doesn't "let it go" (I mean, after all, it's only 1 sheep/1 coin...I have many more)
- He doesn't sit tight and wait for that wandering sheep to figure out how to get back to the flock

In the same way, when we wander off, Jesus comes to find us. When we are lost, He finds us. We need to be found. He will go any distance, to any place to find one of His sheep. This should change a little bit how we pray for those who are "lost" - we don't pray that they find us, or find God, we pray that God finds them. They are lost, and they need to be found. And this is good news!

Stay tuned for part 2 of this post...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Dangerous Trap

This past Sunday our Senior Pastor (Jeff Geise) preached on pride vs. humility. To say the least, it was a convicting message. This brought me back to a passage of Scripture that I had read recently, Galatians 6:4. Let's take a look in three versions...

"But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another." (NASB)

"Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else" (NIV)

"Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else." (NLT)

There are a ton of angles and things to talk about when dealing with the issue of pride. If you're like me at all, you probable drift in and out of being prideful and humble. However, let's just take a look at this one verse. (If you want to go deeper, check out Jeff's message here).

The heart of this verse is quite simple; examine, test, and pay attention to your own actions. Don't worry about what others are doing, and don't compare yourselves to others. They have their own struggles, gifts, challenges, etc. You, (and I), should pay attention only to the job we do. If we do this, then we can feel good about the job we've done.

The bottom line? It's what I wrote in my journal after reading that verse. "We should only measure our successes by comparing ourselves to ourselves." In other words...
- Was my motive pure?
- Did I do my best?
- Am I striving in accordance with my potential?
- Did I bring glory to God? 

I can take pride in pleasing God...and I know I please Him when I answer "yes" to those questions. It's when I come to Him, feeling smug about myself because I _______ better than someone else...that's when I'm headed for a downfall."

So let's make a pact this week; focus on your actions, and compare yourself to yourself. Try to do things for God's glory, to the best of your ability, ultimately bringing Him glory and honor. And then rest easy for a job well done.