Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Insights From The Men Who Followed The Light In The Night

I think all of us get re-fascinated with the story of the wise men in Matthew 2 at this time of year.

For us there is great sentimental value in the narrative. For Matthew this true account afforded him an opportunity to foreshadow the eventual fulfilment of ancient prophecy that Gentiles would come to Christ in large numbers from all over the world.

I find some helpful lessons for life and leadership here. Some personal applications show up.

For starters, when you are called to a place of service, recognize that God has been preparing you for a long time. These pagan men, perhaps from Persia, had been exposed to Old Testament scriptures because Jews, living there since Daniel's time, had probably talked about them. Maybe Numbers 24:17 was a text they mentioned. The Lord uses a variety of people and situations to shape and equip us for future ministry. He doesn't call us and then abandon us.
To be effective in Kingdom work, we've got to be willing to take some risks. These pilgrims boldly decided to embark on a long, long journey with lots of uncertainties because they really wanted to see this long-predicted new king. Sometimes churches need to think and act outside the box. All of us need to consider getting out of our comfort zones and going on that overseas mission trip, perhaps, or helping plant a new church, or using our retirement years on some big projects for the Master. These men would've missed a lot had they settled for ease in their land.
Wise leaders understand that you should never fear where the truth leads you. These seekers stirred up the waters when they rode into Jerusalem and started asking questions about the birth of a new ruler nearby. Confusion, anxiety, and Herod's hostility resulted. God used all of that, though, to bring about the completing of His purposes. Sometimes secrets and lies and unhealthy systems and tradition-based but unproductive programs have to be brought into the light, exposed, examined, and jettisoned in order for a fresh work of God to begin. Painful? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. Whether we like it or not, occasionally the boat has to be rocked.
This story certainly reminds us that the scriptures are to be our final authority. The Magi got their most crucial, reliable information about the location of little Jesus from those Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem who went back and delved into the Old Testament prophecies, like Micah 5:2, that announced where the Messiah would be born. Then the seekers proceeded on in confidence and joy until they found Him in Bethlehem. It is essential that we immerse ourselves in the Bible if we would experience a fulfilling Christian walk or be strong spiritual leaders. If our priority is worshipping and pleasing Jesus as these men did we will find contentment and victory in our journey. The star was helpful, but the scriptures gave a precise, clear word.
These travelers also remind us that it is good to leave something of value behind us as we move through life. In an act of adoration, these guys placed gold, frankincense, and myrrh in front of this small child. As symbolic and significant as these gifts were in themselves, they were probably used in a very practical way by Mary and Joseph to provide the financial resources needed for that emergency trip to Egypt they had to make to protect Jesus from Herod's wrath. In our estate planning, we should remember the Lord's work. In our day to day lives, as we turn loose of things and give them away, whether books or artworks or tools or dollars, we must trust that the Lord will bring good out of them for others. As we share toward the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, we should rejoice that our missionaries are being helped.
And by all means, remember that how you finish is important. That's true of a ministry. It's true of life itself. The wise men did not slack off in their listening to God's revelation after they had visited Jesus.They heeded God's voice as it came in a dream and altered their return travel plans. They refused to compromise the safety of young Jesus. They were willing to change course. Beginning a career or a task or a life with flair and energy and determination is good, but staying at it with faithfulness and consistency all the way to the end is to be prized. These pilgrims could be justifiably proud when they got back home because not only had they started off with a bang on the trip of a lifetime, and not only had they actually spent time with the Messiah, they had been obedient and used in the hands of God to further His divine program. A celebration at a conclusion is a lot more satisfying than a party at a launch. Hearing the Lord's "well done, thou good and faithful servant" will mean much more than the temporary relief we might get from quitting a difficult job and throwing in the towel because not enough people are noticing or appreciating us.

Have a very Merry Christmas. It's a joy serving among you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Helpful Reading

When the wise men, following a star, traveled hundreds of miles to find the long awaited Christ child, they stopped in Jerusalem to ask questions and get further directions.

The Jewish religious leaders there searched their ancient scriptures and were able to tell the inquiring pilgrims that the predicted location for the baby's birth was nearby Bethlehem.

The reading of those helpful materials provided crucial information for these journeying seekers and gave them the inspiration they needed to continue their quest.

Perhaps during the hectic rush of this holiday season you're searching for some good books to nourish your spirit. Maybe with the shorter days and longer nights of this time of year you'd like to devote a little more attention to reading. Or it could be that you'd like to purchase some quality, soul-refreshing writings to give as gifts to friends or family at Christmas. The right kinds of books can make a real difference in our lives.

Allow me to recommend some works that have enriched me personally.

Timothy Keller's Counterfeit Gods(Dutton, 2009) is all about the idols we make of money, sex, and power and how they can never really satisfy the hungry soul. Keller's last offering, The Prodigal God(Dutton, 2008) is also a worthwhile read that will spiritually encourage you.

Looking for some counsel on distressing personal issues? Two books by well-known people-helper June Hunt blend biblical teachings with psychological insights to provide wise advice. Her Counseling Through The Bible Handbook(Harvest House, 2008) and How To Handle Your Emotions(Harvest House, 2008) both deal with concerns like depression, fear, anger, grief, and loneliness. Eating disorders, dysfunctional family styles, sexual problems and a variety of other topics get discussed, too. Healing The Scars Of Emotional Abuse(Revell, 2009) by Dr. Gregory Jantz skillfully outlines how to recover from the various types of abuse we may have experienced in the past and how to handle the negative stuff we sometimes get from other people in the present.

Anything by Philip Yancey is always thought-provoking. His newest book, Grace Notes(Zondervan, 2009) is a compilation of some of his writings over the years placed in a daily devotional kind of format and touching on a wide range of soul concerns.

If you want a work with some intellectual muscle try The End Of Christianity(B&H Publishers, 2009) by Christian philosopher William Dembski. It grapples with the problem of evil in light of the Christian conviction that God is good, and traces evil back to the Fall with some scholarly reasonings. This book, like those by Lee Strobel and Ravi Zacharias, is a good apologetic tool to assist the believer in defending the faith.

Hunting for a new Bible for yourself or someone else this Christmas? I'd suggest buying a study edition since you'd not only get the text but hundreds of helpful explanatory notes as well. My favorite is the ESV Study Bible(Crossway, 2008). It's packed with very illuminating information. It's thick, and a little expensive, but a fabulous investment.

My top recommendation this time around is Randy Alcorn's If God Is Good(Multnomah, 2009). It is a rich, full, warm examination from a biblical perspective of the pain, evil, and suffering in our world. Alcorn looks at it from a wide variety of angles. He uses a lot of illustrations and presents dozens and dozens of encouraging principles. If you can only read one book this year, it probably ought to be this one! It will greatly expand your vision.

You may recognize Alcorn's name since he also wrote the bestselling work Heaven(Multnomah, 2004). That book is still available and is the best offering on that subject I've ever seen. He answers, from scripture and from sanctified imagination, tons of questions about the Christian's eternal home. His basic premise is that Heaven will be a place of meaningful activity and fulfilment, not an everlasting retirement village where we sit on clouds and strum harps! James L. Garlow and Keith Wall present a very similar picture in their Heaven And The Afterlife(Bethany House, 2009). In this shorter work they take up a lot of inquiries about Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, and death.

For the lover of biographies, there's John Piper's new book, Filling Up The Afflictions Of Christ(Crossway, 2009). This brief but interesting volume tells the story of three great Christians, William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton, and how they endured much and suffered greatly for their faith.

Do something good for yourself. Imitate the wise men of Matthew's Gospel this Christmas by not being afraid to stop and ask questions. You may find the answers to those questions on the pages of a good book!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Miscellany 2

EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP: I am gratified at your response to Dr. Bob Davis and his message the other Sunday. I got some very favorable comments regarding his ministry among us. Bob is a good friend. I guess I've known him for 30 years now. The Lord has used him all over our country as he has preached the simple gospel.

Dr. Davis is an evangelist. That means his primary task is reaching the lost, preaching the news of salvation in Jesus to them. In Ephesians 4 Paul mentions that evangelists are gifts to the churches to assist them in witnessing to unbelievers. Congregations ought to bring in these guys from time to time as they are divinely skilled to help gather in the harvest.

The giftings and role of a pastor are a little different. Even though he should occasionally "do the work of an evangelist"(2 Timothy 4:5) his major responsibility is developing the saints, those who are already Christians. He is to feed and instruct them. Disciple them. Guide them. Build them up in the faith so that they become strong, solid, serving, Christ-like followers of the Master. His sermons will usually not be of the same type as those of the evangelist. Theoretically he should be offering deeper, stronger stuff. If he does his job some soulwinners will eventually spring up from within the church.

After one has been evangelized(gotten saved, become a Christian) he should advance and progress and mature as a disciple. So assemblies benefit from the unique ministries of both kinds of servants in reaching and then strengthening converts. It is likely that we will invite Bob back to be with us again at some future time. We'll use other evangelists as well. Between their visits let's study and dig and pray and get stretched and grow to become all that God wants us to be spiritually.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Yesterday I was perusing a Christian book in a local bookstore and was impressed with it and almost bought it. Something kept me from doing so. Later, at home, I got to reflecting. I think I already have that book. This morning I started searching through all my stacks and sure enough, I had purchased that work, a few years back! I found it. That set off more reflection. A spiritual lesson emerged. How many people are longing for something to fill their souls and relieve the emptiness and are trying anything and everything to be happy when all the time what they crave most is so close at hand(Romans 10:5-13)? It's Jesus we really need. Isaiah 55:1-3 is a great text on this. Booze and drugs and wild partying and promiscuous sex can never ultimately satisfy. Trying to find love in an extramarital affair when genuine intimacy can be found right at home with one's spouse(Proverbs 5) or seeking to discover fulfilment by overwork at the office or plant when incredible joy can be yours right in your house by building stronger relationships with your kids are foolish pathways. By the way, not that it matters to this discussion, but just in case you're wondering, the book I rediscovered in my own dwelling is Dallas Willard's neat work on developing Christ-like character, The Renovation Of The Heart(NavPress, 2002).

Saturday morning I literally wept through almost 2 hours of the show on HGTV called Extreme Makeover:Home Edition. A large group of designers and builders and just ordinary folks built, from scratch, in one week's time, a palatial new house for a widowed young pastor's wife with 5 kids who had been living in an old inadequate trailer. And they refashioned that trailer, too, and gave it to another impoverished single-parent family, much to their surprise and joy. I fell in love with that TV program! It set me to cogitating. When I saw all those volunteers united in purpose, working on a common task, each with their particular talents and abilities, laboring hard and quickly, I believe I got a glimpse of what church ought to be like. We are to be builders, you know(1 Corinthians 3, 1 Peter 2:4-6). Building our individual lives up on the inside but also constructing, under God, a spiritual, ever-growing congregation. And, it's good, too, for a fellowship to every now and then perhaps do a big hands-on, physical labor kind of project to help people. In eternity we'll still be constructing things(Isaiah 65:21-22). I can't wait to travel throughout the universe designing and building homes to the glory of God...even though I don't know the first thing about hammers, nails, lumber, and saws now!!!!