Monday, March 31, 2014

Celebrity Christianity


“They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’  But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.  Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’” (Mark 9:33-35 NIV)

Lately there has been a lot in the news and on social media about what have been dubbed “celebrity pastors.”  There is one in Charlotte, NC who has been the focus of several local news organizations because of the 7000+ square foot house he is building. He told his congregation, “it’s not that big of a house.”  There is another in Washington State who was accused by the New York Times of hiring a public relations firm to boost sales of his books and having his books ghost-written without attribution. He denied any wrongdoing, but did confess to his congregation of losing sight of his priorities as a pastor.  

One of the three temptations Jesus overcame in the desert was to be famous and have undisputed power over the world (Matthew 4:8-10).  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the twelve disciples were and modern-day pastors are tempted in the same way—to desire to be viewed as great. Many aspire to lead mega-churches, to have book deals, and to be regulars on the conference speaking circuit.  And they will be rewarded with adoring admirers and, often, great wealth.  But as with all temptations, it is a trap.

As Jesus told His disciples, trying to be first, trying to be the greatest, is the surest way to find yourself last and the least in the one Kingdom that really matters.  And those who have freely accepted the call to be pastors should be the ones demonstrating this truth.  And you can find them if you know where to look, but not necessarily on TV screens, book jackets, or on conference stages.  

There are pastors in the underground church in China who walk from village to village ministering to small congregations of committed believers for little money.  Pastors in India face persecution on a near daily basis as they seek to evangelize and disciple in a Hindu-dominated culture.  In South Africa, there are faithful pastors who labor in obscurity reaching out to men working in the gold and platinum mines.   And in our own country, there are pastors on Native American reservations, in small towns, in poor neighborhoods in big cities who faithfully and effectively minister in the name of Jesus.  You will likely never hear of them in this world because fame and greatness are not what they seek.  They seek only to be faithful in serving.  But make no mistake, they will be greatly rewarded when it really counts.  

Today, in an age where celebrity worship has infiltrated the Church, be on your guard.  The pastor (or any Christian leader) who seeks to be known and adored has forgotten his first Love (Revelation 2:4), and has fallen for the same temptation the devil served up to Jesus.  For in order to be first in the Kingdom that really matters, you must live in this world as a servant of the only One who is truly great. 

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014

Persuasion


“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart.  If we are ‘out of our mind,’ as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:11-21 NIV)

The question for the Church has always been, how do we best persuade people to follow Jesus?  And the answers have varied over the years. Popular when I was growing up was to scare people with thoughts of eternal condemnation and death.  “Turn or burn,” we use to call it.  There was also a heavy emphasis on the “end times,” again seeking to persuade people through fear of a final judgment.  

Shaming was also a popular tool back then.  “Come as you are” was not a concept most churches operated on.  To be accepted, you were expected to dress a certain way and act a certain way.  Otherwise, stay away until you get your act together.  

These approaches still exist in some corners, but have mostly fallen out of favor as unloving and unproductive.  Today there is a lot more emphasis on accepting folks where they are and seeking to persuade them Jesus loves them in spite of their sins.  This indeed has been a welcome change, but as with so many reactions, it has overshot its mark. No longer is the emphasis on becoming new creations, but rather recognizing your value as a creation of God.  There is no need for you to change because God loves you just the way you are.  

No doubt this line of persuasion has become very trendy because it works and is pleasing to the ear.  But it’s wrong.  Being reconciled to God in full requires transformation in our hearts and our lives.  We can come just as we are to Jesus, but we can’t remain as we are if we want to accompany Him on the journey to eternal life, because that journey is all about being transformed into His likeness so that we might also become righteous.  Simply put, you cannot continue to live and act as you want if you decide to follow Jesus.  Once you step onto that path, your life is no longer your own to do as you please (I Corinthians 6:19-20).  You have freely given up your rights in order to live in a way that is pleasing to Him.

Today, as you seek to persuade others to follow Jesus or be persuaded yourself, know that Jesus accepts us where we are, but does not want us to remain as we are.  Because He loves us, He wants to change us into new creations that look more and more like Him. He does not force anyone to follow Him, but once we make that decision, change is part of the deal.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Familiarity


“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.  It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “’Be holy, because I am holy.’” (I Peter 1:10-16 NIV)

The vast majority of students with whom I’ve worked over the years have been made up of those who have grown up in the church and made commitments of faith long before they arrived on campus.  One thing that is fairly consistent about many of them is they can be fairly ho-hum about their faith.  It may be Good News, but it seems like old news.  They’ve heard about Jesus since they were toddlers and heard the familiar Bible stories over and over.  Like a car bought brand new, after a year or so the excitement wears off and it’s just a way to get around. 

It’s difficult to stay excited about something old and familiar, whether it be a car, a relationship, or faith.  I decided to follow Jesus when I was 19-years-old and I can remember vividly the excitement of that time.  But I have to admit, as the years have gone by, there have been times where my walk with the Lord has been more out of routine than love.  I have gone through the motions because it is so familiar.

It seems to be the way of things in this life.  While familiarity may not always breed contempt, it definitely breeds apathy.  Anything—a marriage, a job—with an accumulation of years is prone to create apathy. And this certainly includes our walk with Jesus.

Peter tells us the Old Testament prophets longed to know the mysteries of salvation.  Even the angels, he says, would like to know more about it. So great is the salvation we ourselves have received!  Yet, it now has become so familiar to many of us that we easily can just be going through the motions. So what to do?  

Peter gives us this counsel: “With minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.”  He goes on to say to live our lives in obedience to the Lord.  In this we have our answer: Be intentional and be obedient. Be intentional about your appreciation for what a great gift you have been given and be obedient to the One who gives it.  

The greatest clarity and excitement comes when everything is new.  It gets harder after that.  But what can help us is to continually remember how great and marvelous salvation truly is.  We were destined for eternal death, but were granted eternal life because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.  There is nothing ho-hum about that!  And we can help keep it that way by living in ways pleasing to the Lord.  For by pleasing Him, we will continue to fuel our passion for Him.

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

White as Snow


"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD.  "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18 NIV)

This morning the landscape is covered with a blanket of snow. Everything is white.  The grass, the dirt, the litter along the road—all covered over.  If you didn’t know better, just by looking you would think nothing lies beneath.  

There is something beautiful in looking out over a snow-covered landscape.  Everything is so clean and fresh.  This is the image that comes to mind when I read these words of the Lord to Isaiah.  

Sin is dirty and ugly.  And its stain on our world has proved difficult to remove.  Think of all the programs, movements, and legislation in the last 100 years that have tried to reduce crime, eliminate hunger and neglect, and curb injustice.  Think of the wars that have been waged to bring about peace.  The stain still remains.

We can try various techniques and remedies, but the stain of sin is stubbornly resistant to removal.  Most of us resign just to cover it up by good works, denial, or distraction.  Out of sight, out of mind.  But it’s still there and the implications are eternal.  

So what a blessing it is to know there is One who can permanently remove that ugly sin stain, and make us as white and refreshing as new-fallen snow.  And not just once but every time we have a spill or take a fall.  He is there to remove the stain.

People have tried since the beginning of time to cover over the stain of their sins, using a variety of methods, but all have failed.  The truth is we are incapable of doing it.  That power resides outside of us in the person of Jesus.  Today call on Him and your life can be as clean as the freshly fallen snow.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Divine Appointments


“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.  This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
 and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
 so he did not open his mouth.  In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. 
 Who can speak of his descendants? 
 For his life was taken from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.  As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?’  And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.  When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.  Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.” (Acts 8:26-40 NIV)

It happened again last night—a divine appointment.  A student believing God wanted her to find a group of Christians on campus stepped into the small conference room in the student union after seeing the sign posted outside.  We were there learning together what it looks like to follow Jesus.  She was there because the Lord had sent her.

If you search the Scriptures, you will find many divine appointments—those times where it is clear God is directing a certain person to a specific place for a specific reason.  In this passage, the Holy Spirit leads Philip to the chariot of an influential Ethiopian official who is struggling to understand the writings of Isaiah in the Old Testament.  His heart is open, but he needs some assistance.  Philip helps him to understand the prophecy regarding Jesus and explains the Gospel.  As a result, the man comes to faith and is baptized.  The story ends, but tradition says the official returned to Ethiopia and proclaimed the Gospel, thereby becoming the first missionary to Africa. 

I have seen many divine appointments in my life.  Years ago, a young man struggling with cancer and the meaning of life heard music coming from a house on the edge of campus and came through the door to find students playing worship music and what he had been searching for. Another time, a student was driving through town, missed his turn, and passed a Christian bookstore.  He didn’t know why at the time, but he decided to go in and clerk asked him if he needed a Bible.  He left with a new Bible, headed up into the mountains, and began to read.  He has been following Jesus ever since.

So when this young woman came into the room last night, I knew it was a divine appointment.  She was there for reasons only known to the Lord, but I can guess it was to find something for which she had long been searching.   

Often we may feel as if God is distant and detached from our lives, but, in reality, He is more engaged than you could imagine.  When we are in need, He even orders our steps to lead us to those who can help us.  Or, when others are in need, to lead them to us so we might help them.  

Today, be on the lookout for divine appointments.  You just never know when the Lord will direct someone to cross your path and the impact it can have when you allow Him to use you.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Returning Home


"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father. 
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:17-20 NIV)

We pick this up in the middle of the story.  The younger son had demanded his share of the inheritance from his father long before he was dead, had taken the money and squandered it all on lavish living, and now he was broke.  Having come to his senses and realizing the desperateness of his situation, he decides to go back home.  Smartly, he decides to make no claims on his old room.  He will gladly sleep out back with the servants.  

When we come to the realization we have messed up, we instinctively know our unworthiness before God.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we feel the shame.  It is what we do with that shame that makes the difference.  

The Enemy will seek to reinforce our shame.  He will try to convince us we have truly blown it and now there is no going home.  If we try, there will be no warm greeting, only a stern lecture and a room out back.  And we would expect nothing else because that’s the way it should be. Actions have consequences.  If we screw up, we deserve what we get.

That’s the Enemy’s view anyway, and, probably, yours as well.  It’s what makes sense and is fair.  But it’s also hopeless.  No chance for redemption.  No chance of ever returning to the family.  As my mom used to say, “You made your bed; now sleep in it.”

I know, and have known, students who come to college and decide to go their own way.  Like the son in this story, they grew tired of living under what they perceived as the constraints of the Christian life.  They wanted to be free to live as they please and they have.  But there always comes a point where they have (or will) come to their senses and realize they have wasted their inheritance.  They are filled with shame and regret, and, likely, hopelessness.   They made their bed; now they get to sleep in it.

Yet, this is why Jesus told the story—to give hope to those who have messed up.  You can go home again!  Your Heavenly Father anxiously awaits your return.  No lecture is waiting, only a warm embrace.  You won’t have to endure the second-class status of a household servant. You will be welcomed back as a member of the family.  

Today, know Jesus has made it possible to return home to the Heavenly Father no matter how badly you have messed up.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014

Countering the Fred Phelps Legacy


“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:11-15 NIV)

For over 20 years, I lived just down the Kansas Turnpike from Fred Phelps, the infamous “pastor” of the Westboro “Baptist” “Church.”  Mr. Phelps died yesterday to the great relief of so many who had been the targets of the hate-filled protests he led.  I had a front-row seat to several of those—at the church I attended, at a Girl Scout convention, and on the campus of the University of Kansas.  

From the get-go of the protests, there was no doubt Mr. Phelps was not a pastor nor a Baptist, and the group of 20-30 family members he assembled certainly was not a church, at least to anyone with some knowledge of the Scriptures.  Yet, because of the outrageous slogans and signs (e.g., “God Hates Fags!”), along with the audacity of holding their protests at funerals, Mr. Phelps and his family became symbols for the world of the intolerance and hatred it believed were at the heart of the teachings of the Church.  Yet, as so often happens in the media and the world at large, they failed to understand how Mr. Phelps had grossly misinterpreted the Old Testament, as well as his total ignorance of the New Testament.  Taken together, they formed an impression of Christianity totally divorced from biblical reality.  

As Paul writes in Galatians 3, the intent of Old Covenant (the Jewish Law) was to lead us to Jesus because He is the only One who can save us from condemnation.  With only the Law existing, we are condemned because no one can perfectly keep it.  One screw-up and you’re toast! This is why the Hebrew writer spends much of his letter writing about the superiority of the New Covenant, which took effect upon Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The Law was replaced by Grace.  No longer are we who follow Jesus judged by the many tenets of the Law, but rather we are the recipients of His grace if we submit our lives to His Lordship.  “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)  Sadly, Mr. Phelps was unfamiliar with Hebrews or Romans, and his false teachings have led many others to believe Christians are more about condemnation than grace.  

Today, if you have been embarrassed, or even ashamed, by the legacy of Fred Phelps, don’t be.  He represented only his warped views and, basically, only his family ever believed what he was saying.  Only in the minds of those ignorant of biblical teaching did he represent God or the Church.  The best way to counter the Phelps legacy is to proclaim what the Scriptures actually say and live accordingly.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Being in God's Weight Room


“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4 NIV)

In preparation for an upcoming knee surgery, I am putting my body through many trials.  These trials will make my body increasingly stronger and better able to handle the recovery from surgery.  These trials are more commonly referred to as “weight training.”  Though the workouts are challenging and I am often sore after the fact, I am finding great joy in these “trials” because I know, by the time of the surgery, I will be prepared and in great shape for a quick recovery.  

The whole point of weight training is to demand of one’s muscles more than they are accustomed to doing, thereby making them stronger.  It is not without discomfort and challenge, but the end result is considered worth the cost.  I believe this is a good analogy to understand what James is saying here.  

Our tendency is to recoil from the bad things in life.  Instead of embracing them as a means of strengthening us, we seek to avoid them by being risk-adverse, or we attempt to escape their impact via drugs, alcohol, sex, hyperactivity, etc.  Few of us find joy in the hard knocks of life.

Yet, from James’ perspective, these tough and difficult times can be a source of great joy because, if we persevere through them, we will find growth and maturity on the other side.  I can attest to the truth of this. Both of my parents died after long illnesses during my college and grad school years.  Though extremely painful, I look back on those years as some of the most spiritually significant years of my life.  I learned so much that I would not be the man I am today without those experiences.  Much later in my life, my first wife left me.  It was an extremely difficult time, but, again, it shaped me spiritually in ways I would never have imagined.  As a result of these trials, and many others, my faith has matured and I am spiritually stronger than I would have been without them.  Why?  Because my faith was stretched and tested.  

Today, don’t be afraid of the trials you are facing or will face.  The Lord is allowing them so that you can have the opportunity to grow and mature in your faith.  Think of it as going regularly to God’s weight room.  As your faith is tested, it will grow.  It may be uncomfortable and even painful, but the joy is found in knowing what the results will be.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Toxic Relationships


“Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’" (I Corinthians 15:33 NIV)

Relationships with people are vital.  We are by nature social beings.  God created us to be in relationships.  But not all relationships are beneficial, even if they are between professing Christians.

The quality test of any relationship is this: Does it help to further and deepen your relationship with the Lord or does it lead you away from Him?  I call the latter a toxic relationship.  

Think for moment about the relationships you have, the ones from which you draw security and a sense of significance.  These may be either romantic or merely friendships.  Do they enhance your relationship with the Lord or do they distract you from Him?  Do they lead you deeper into spiritual maturity or do they hold you back?

We live in a culture that continually promotes romance and friendship. You can’t miss that if you spend an hour watching TV.  Much of our significance and purpose is found in our relationships.  The question we need to ask, however, is where these relationships are leading us spiritually?

Relationships in the Christian context have but one purpose—to glorify God.  There may be some in which we are getting little back from the person spiritually, but we are glorifying the Lord by trying to pour His love into that person.  We are to be His light in the world, thus we must build relationships with people to do that.  However, our other relationships, be they romantic or friendships, should be helping lead us into a deeper relationship with the Lord.  

Sadly, I see a lot of relationships that are toxic.  Romantic ones that are based merely on attraction and having fun, but with no true spiritual dimension.  Friendships that are based on mutual interests and hanging out, but with no real purpose of spurring one another on to greater spiritual depth.  The end result is either spiritual decline or a stunting in growth and maturity. 

It has always been true that bad company has a corrupting influence on us, even if our company happens to be fellow believers.  If these believers are not really growing, are not truly interested in the things of God or making them a priority, then they are potentially toxic to your spiritual life.

Today, think about the relationships you are in currently.  Do they encourage you spiritually?  Do they help spur you on to deeper maturity? Or are they holding you back?  Nothing is more important than your relationship with the Lord and no other relationship is worth holding onto if it negatively impacts that one.

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Happened to Sin?


“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:1-14 NIV)

Sin is out of vogue in much of the church these days, at least the personal variety.  One hears a lot about the generic version: “We all sin.” “We all struggle.”  “None of us is perfect.”  “Who are we to judge?”  “He who has not sinned cast the first stone.”  The implication of these cumulative messages has been to communicate that because we are all sinners, addressing specific sins is unnecessary, judgmental, and unloving.  They can even take us to the point where everyone is a sinner but no one truly sins.   

Many who proclaim these messages from the pulpit or the blog, I believe, are sincere in their understanding that we live under God’s grace.  But as Paul clearly tells the Roman church, grace is never to be used to justify continuing in a particular sin or sinful lifestyle.  God gives His grace freely, but that does not mean it is without cost to us.  The price of grace is confession and repentance (I John 1:9; Revelation 2:5).  It is also the most appropriate response to the kindness of God—to obey Him.  By not recognizing our sin and repenting, we cheapen God’s grace.  Did Jesus die so that we might just go ahead and do as we please?  

If you listen and read what many are saying, the practical conclusion to this question is, “Yes.”  There is no reason for confession or repentance because God covers over everything with His grace.  Just come bask in it and never mind your sin.  It doesn’t really matter.

Those who proclaim this make the same mistake many of the Roman Christians made centuries ago: They cheapen God’s grace and misunderstand its purpose.  It was not given as a free pass for sinners, but rather as a means to set them free from their sins.  

Today, recognize we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.  Yet, God’s grace is not intended to allow us to remain in our sin.  Rather, it is to lead us into confessing our sins and repenting from them.

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Life Worth Celebrating


“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)

Maewyn Succat was born into a wealthy English family late in the 4th Century.  When he was 16-years-old, Irish raiders attacked his family’s estate and kidnapped him.  They carried him back to Ireland where he was sold into slavery.  Maewyn was forced to work as a shepherd of sheep and his master was a high priest in Druidism, a pagan religion.  

During his six years of enslavement, Maewyn had dreams and visions from the Lord, convincing him to surrender his life to Him.  In one dream, the Lord told him it was time to leave Ireland and return to England.  Soon after, he escaped his captors, convinced some sailors to take him aboard their ship, and after an arduous journey of three days at sea and another month traversing 200 miles on land, he finally returned to his homeland.  

As a result of his conversion, Maewyn sought to gain a religious education and training for the priesthood, and so moved to Auxerre, France.  Upon entry into the priesthood, Maewyn took the name Patrick. In the midst of his training, Patrick had another dream.  In this one, the Lord told him to go back to the land of his enslavement to take the Gospel—back to Ireland.  And so he did.

In A.D. 431, Pope St. Celestine I consecrated Patrick as “Bishop to the Irish” and sent him to proclaim the “Good News of the Gospel” to the pagans.  And in the power of the Holy Spirit, Patrick spent the remainder of his life, around 40 years, loving the Irish and showing them a better way, a life devoted not to worthless idolatry but to serving the living God. Historians credit him as the impetus for the transformation of a whole culture from pagan to Christian.

Saint Patrick, as he has been known for centuries, lived out the command of Jesus to go and make disciples.  On the day of his namesake, when most of the focus is on wearing green, parades, and drinking beer, let us remember the man whose love for the Lord took him back to the land where he was enslaved to set his captors free.  Now that is something to celebrate and perhaps, in some smaller measure, to emulate in our own lives.

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fixing Our Attention on Jesus

(Author's Note: Next week is Spring Break, so, along with the students, I will be taking a break from writing.  See you back here on March 17th! Jim)

“Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest.  He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house.  Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything.  ‘Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,’ bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” (Hebrews 3:1-6 NIV)


As my wife and I returned from Charlotte last night, I had to fix my eyes and attention on the road immediately in front of me.  As we drove up into the mountains, the rain changed into heavy snow.  It took my full concentration to stay on the road as the snow covered over the white and yellow lines, as well as the tracks of the cars preceding us.  Any lapse of attention could easily have led us into the ditch, as did happen to several cars we passed along the way.  

The biblical writers use the word “fix” several times and the context each time is the presence of dangerous distractions.  In this passage, the danger is the popular belief that angels should be worshipped.  In Deuteronomy 11, it is similar—the looming temptation to turn from God to worshipping false gods.  In Proverbs 4, Solomon warns against forsaking wisdom and turning to the path of evildoers.  And in II Corinthians 4, Paul encourages believers to hold fast to their faith in the midst of severe persecution.  

If we have chosen to follow the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14), then we should know it is a road along which we will face many obstacles and distractions intended to drive us into the ditch of despair, doubt, and hopelessness.  Only the ability to fix our attention on Jesus in the midst of these will keep us safely on the road.  

Today, heed the warnings of the biblical writers to the dangers of being distracted from the Lord by what comes at you in life.  There will be many temptations and distractions meant to lead you off the road to Eternity. Recognize the danger and give your full attention to Jesus, Who will guide you safely along your way toward home.   

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ministry for Hire


“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV)

I recently saw a job posting for a senior pastor position.  One of the main responsibilities was this: “Ensuring pastoral care needs within the church body are met and demonstrating a love and interest in people through actions and consistent follow-up with those in need.”   This sounds like the typical expectation for a pastor by a congregation.  We hire you to do the work.

In my years of ministry, I have spoken at many churches and often it has been when the pastor has been away.  It doesn’t take long to learn how dependent a church is on their pastor.  I remember one time, soon after I arrived at a church to speak, the elders gathering around me nervously asking if I would be willing to also lead the prayer time, give the Communion meditation, and pray after the offering was received.  The responsibility was theirs, but they were eager to pass it on to someone else.  

This is an extreme example, but the thinking behind it is all too typical of how churches view the role of the pastor.  He is hired to do the bulk of the ministry—preaching, teaching, evangelism, visiting and comforting the sick, and increasing the attendance.  Job descriptions like the one I saw are the rule rather than the exception.  And it is one of the main reasons so many churches are ineffective in having a true impact on their members and on the communities in which they are located.  Instead of pastors being hired to train believers for ministry, they are hired to do the ministry.

The effect of this is to deprive believers of the opportunity to mature in their faith.  For Paul is very clear that the equipping of the saints for ministry directly leads to spiritual maturity and unity.  The idea that church leaders are to do all of the ministry is very foreign to the New Testament Church.  Instead, the expectation is that all believers are to be involved in ministering to others.  There are no spectators cheering on their team.  Everyone is on the field.  

And, of course, this makes perfect sense.  Parents train up their children by giving them increasing responsibilities as they mature.  A child for whom the parents do everything will likely become a very immature and ineffective adult.  It the same for the church.  If we are to become spiritually mature and effective in the work of the Lord, then we need to be properly equipped.  That is the role of our pastors and other spiritual leaders.  

Think about this: As a parent, would you allow your child to expect you to do everything for them?  If not, then why is it acceptable for spiritual children to expect those in authority over them to do all the work of ministry while they happily cheer them on?  

Today, recognize ministry is not to be hired out, but to be done by all according to the gifts they have been given.  The role of your pastor is to equip you, not do everything for you.  The sooner we all learn that, the more effective we will be as God’s servants.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hating Religion


“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:2-6 NIV)

I hate religion.  This may sound extreme and, to some, offensive, but I think I have good reason.  Religion poses as something godly when it really is something far apart from God.  It is a system, regardless if it is Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc., that poses as the way to God and a way to please Him.  It is a system filled with rules that, if obeyed, claims to draw followers closer to God.  

I hate religion because it is a lie and a tool of the Enemy to pacify those who have some longing beyond themselves.  Paul hated it, too.  That is why he was so upset with the Christians in Galatia.  They had embraced the Gospel and its central message that no one is righteous and, therefore, salvation can only come through God’s grace.  Now some people were telling them grace wasn’t enough.  They had to go further and be circumcised, which was a long held Jewish tradition, symbolizing God’s covenant with His people.  

Paul had been raised with this belief.  Yet when the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he realized the religious system in which he had been raised and to which he had committed his life was leading him away from God, not closer to Him.  

The great danger of religion is it gives us a false sense of security.  We go to church; we read the Bible; we’re a good person, or at least we think so.  We believe we’re in good with God, just as Paul did.  In reality, however, we’re far away from Him.  Why?  Because a relationship with God is not based on what we do, but on what He has done.  We cannot earn God’s favor by what we do.  

A relationship with God can only be possible when we recognize our own inability to establish it.  It can only come when we surrender our will to Him and accept His grace. 

Today, be very wary of any religious system.  Being religious doesn’t get you or keep you in a relationship with God.  Only God’s grace and your faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8-9) can do that.

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Sin Pile


“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14 NIV)

When I read this passage, I am reminded of when Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) and to the woman at the well (John 4:1-30).  Both women experienced condemnation, likely for much of their adult lives.  The former was obviously set up by the religious leaders because her lifestyle made her an easy target.  The latter appeared at Jacob’s well at an odd hour most likely because the women of her village despised her promiscuous life and shunned her.  

These women were shown no mercy and their lives revealed as much. Sin upon sin had piled up and the sense of resignation had long been in place.  They were sinners without hope.  Like wheels spinning in the mud, they just kept sinking deeper into their sin.  

At first glance, it seems odd that grace can teach us to say “no” to sin. One would think, rather, it would be the severe consequences.  Isn’t that what we’ve been taught?  You avoid doing wrong because you don’t want to get into trouble.  We put people in prison to teach them a lesson, to encourage them to say “no” the next time.  Yet, while it does work sometimes, the recidivism rate of former convicts is consistently high.  

What is at work, I think, is when the sins pile up and there is no hope, people stop trying to be better.  They just accept the labels put upon them and continue to live down to them.  Yet, when grace is shown—forgiveness is given—a light pierces the darkness and with it comes hope.  That hope can break the endless cycle and what can emerge is a new life, unshackled by the burden of a pile of sin.   

Thus, grace can teach us to say “no” to sin because with it comes the strength of hope.  The adulterous woman was freed from the burdens of her past, as, too, was the woman who had five failed marriages and was living with another man.  The Lord’s grace had set them free!  

If sin is piling up in your life and the guilt from it is overwhelming you, know the Lord’s grace is available to you.  He does not condemn; rather He forgives if we humble ourselves before Him.  

Today, let His grace remove the sin that is weighing so heavy upon you. It can give you a fresh start and give you the strength to say “no” to that which has been ruling your life.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, March 3, 2014

Expectations


“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I will beckon to the nations,
 I will lift up my banner to the peoples;
 they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their hips.  Kings will be your foster fathers, 
 and their queens your nursing mothers. They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; 
 they will lick the dust at your feet.
 Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who hope in me will not be disappointed.’” (Isaiah 49:22-23 NIV)

We tend to have a lot of expectations of life.  We have been told by our parents, teachers, politicians, and celebrities that we “can achieve anything we want in life,” if we only work hard at doing it.  Marriage is often portrayed as something that is idyllic and comes easily if two people are deeply in love.  And there are pastors out there proclaiming God wants the faithful to be rich and happy.  All of these messages create expectations of a life that goes the way we want it.  The truth, however, is it never does.

We live in a fallen world, a world that is broken by sin.  The reality of this world is a lot of disappointment.  The Lord was speaking through Isaiah to a people disheartened by life.  Their history, to that point, had been marked by much suffering, heartache, and sorrow, most of which they had brought upon themselves by not trusting in the Lord.  

The Israelites had had expectations of what life would be like after they left Egypt.  They were quickly disappointed (Exodus 16:1-3).  And throughout the Old Testament this disappointment is repeated over and over.  Consistently, their expectations of life fell short.  As a result, they often turned away from the Lord and became bitter.

At the very outset, the Lord warned them to have no other gods besides Him or to worship any idols (Exodus 20:3-6).  But in their disappointment, they quickly and often violated these two commands.  As a result, disappointment followed disappointment.  By the time Isaiah came onto the scene, the Israelites were a despondent and disillusioned people. And what the Lord told them remains applicable to us today: “Those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”

In order to avoid becoming bitter about life, our hope must be in the Lord. Inevitably, there will be many disappointments during our lives.  If our response is to turn from God, then we ensure disappointment will follow disappointment.  

Today, know the Lord has your best interests in mind.  When life hands you what you don’t expect, remember His promise made through Isaiah. Ultimately, you won’t be disappointed if you remain faithful to Him.  

© Jim Musser 2014