The Hidden Work and Power of God’s Word

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Winter is coming.  And I hate shoveling snow.  But I’ve found a way to make it more bearable.

When I’m shoveling and I’m tempted to grumble I tell myself, “I’ll be glad for this snow next August when I’m eating sweet breat and butter corn on the cob.”  The effects of snow aren’t immediately observable.  But over the months as it lays on the ground and soaks into the earth, it has a hidden work and power.  God compares the hidden work and power of his word to that of rain and snow in Isaiah 55:10-11:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

When I’m preaching on Sundays I can’t see what’s happening in people’s hearts. I can’t see if any are born again, or encouraged or sustained or convicted. Some people may be smiling or nodding, but many have unreadable expressions.  If I were to judge by some peoples’ faces I’d guess nothing was happening in their hearts.  When we’d have family devotions when the kids were young, most days they were sleepy, distracted and squirmy.  I couldn’t tell if God’s word was having any effect on my kids.  Often when I share the gospel with someone I’m met with a blank stare or “Oh yeah I believe in Jesus. I go to church.”  They don’t cry out “Brother, what should I do?” like on the day of Pentecost.  And even when I read God’s word myself, I don’t experience fireworks or goosebumps. At times I’m convicted or challenged or encouraged by a Scripture, but many mornings my devotions feel rather routine and unremarkable.

But our lack of seeing immediate fruit in our children when we read the Bible to them or in fellow believers when we encourage them with Scripture or unbelievers when we share the good news of Jesus or even in ourselves when we read God’s word, doesn’t mean that something isn’t happening. God’s word is at work.

In Isaiah 55 God compares his word to the rain and snow that fall from the sky. When they soak into the earth, we don’t see anything happening. We can’t see the hidden work and power of water on the seeds buried in the earth. Yet the rain and snow make the earth “bring forth and sprout” and produce a harvest months later.  That’s how it is with God’s word. He sends it forth with a purpose and it never fails to accomplish that purpose. But we don’t see it right away. Snow in January produces corn in August. God’s word “SHALL succeed.”

Snow in January produces corn in August

So pastor, keep on preaching God’s word, even if it seems like nothing’s happening in your church. Mom, Dad, keep on teaching children about Jesus, even if they’re fidgety and punching each other while you do. Believer, keep sharing the good news of Jesus with people, even if no one gets saved when you do. Keep reading God’s word and meditating on it, even when you feel dry and lifeless.
God’s word won’t return to him void. You might not see the results, but God will. And God will be successful. His word never fails.

The Worst Advice You Could Ever Give Someone

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In “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot” Sting sings:

Let your soul be your pilot
Let your soul guide you
He’ll guide you well

Some of you may remember “The Land Before Time” (1988). In it Littlefoot’s mother says: “Let your heart guide you. It whispers, so listen closely.”

And Steve Jobs said: “Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Follow your heart.

That’s the worst advice you could ever give anyone. That assumes that our heart is the ultimate authority in our lives. That our heart won’t mislead us. That our heart knows what is best and right and true. But for believers in Jesus, we know, or eventually come to know, that our hearts are flawed and deceptive, and that lots of bad stuff can come out of them. That’s why God gives us his Word. Kevin DeYoung says:

“On every matter in which the Bible means to speak, the last word goes to Scripture, not to councils or to catechisms or to science or to human experience, but to the word of God.”

Psalm 138:2 says:

You have exalted above all things
your name and your word. PS 138:2

God’s word is above all other authorities. It gets “the last word.” So…

If Science tells us the universe came into being by a Big Bang and was not created by God speaking it into existence, then Science is wrong (and many scientists believe in creationism)

If Science tells us that man evolved from monkeys and not created by God out of dust then breathing life into man, Science is wrong (again, many scientists believe God created man).

If culture tells us that it’s ok for men and women to have sexual relations outside of marriage, then our culture is wrong.

If our culture tells us we’re all born basically good and our main problem isn’t that we sin and incur God’s wrath, but we just need more self-esteem, then our culture is wrong.

And even if the church tells you that you must be a conservative or a liberal or you must home school or send to Christian school or you must or must not vaccinate, then that church is wrong.

When I was a young Christian I heard someone say the following and it has helped me immeasurably over the years:

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

First of all if God said it, it’s true, whether I believe it or not. But for Christians, we must believe God’s word. We must accept it by faith, whether we feel it or not. That settles it. End of story. We don’t let our hearts guide us, but God’s word. Our circumstances may scream that God has forsaken us. But Jesus said he’d never leave us nor forsake us. So I believe it. That settles it.

Don’t let your soul guide you. Don’t let your heart or intuition be your final authority. Let the Word of God, be the final word in your life.

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

NOTE: I preached a message on this topic yesterday. It’s called “Breathed Out by God.” If you would like to listen to it you can hear it here.

Feelings Are Real. But Are They Always The Truth?

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There’s a new movie coming out about James Brown, who sang the hit song called “I Feel Good.” He’d wail, “I FEEEEEEEEEL good. I knew that I would now.” And of course in his song “Happy” Pharrell Williams gives us some deep insights into that emotion:

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

Have you ever thought about how many feelings we can have? God has created humans with the capacity for an incredibly wide range of subtle feelings. We can feel happy, playful, calm, confident, courageous, peaceful, joyful, comfortable, optimistic, delighted, encouraged, satisfied, jubilant. We can also feel angry, afraid, depressed, hopeless, confused, hurt, sad.

Our culture is feeling-oriented and feeling-driven. Of course, Nike tells us “Just Do It” whether we feel like it or not. But popular music tells us we can’t help falling in love, and can’t help it when the feeling’s gone. We say “I’m just not feeling it.” Rather than saying, “I believe we should do this,” we say, “I feel like this is the way to go.” Even as believers we use “feeling” language a lot – “I feel like God wants me to go into music.”

I don’t have anything against feelings. They are a gift from God. But I’m grateful that early on in my Christian life I heard a truth that helped me immensely:

Feelings are real but they are not necessarily the truth.

Feelings are real – we truly experience them. We don’t imagine them. They are real. But they are not necessarily the truth. They may be the truth but they aren’t always the truth. If we believe in Jesus Christ and feel like God loves us and accepts us that is the truth. If we feel condemned or or that God has abandoned us that is not the truth.

Feelings are a poor barometer of the truth.

As believers we live by faith, not by sight. Our circumstances may appear to indicate that God is not for us or that he is giving us too much to handle. Yet we live by faith in God’s word which says despite our circumstances God is for us and is not giving us too much to handle.

So it is with our feelings. We live by faith in God’s word not what our feelings tell us. We may feel hopeless. We may feel like we can’t go on another day. The challenge for believers is always what are we going to believe– our feelings or God’s word?

We must believe and obey God’s word no matter how we feel.

I’m sure that Jesus did not “feel” like going to the cross for us. But Jesus didn’t live by his feelings. He obeyed his Father whether he felt like it or not.

We may feel like we can’t go on. We may feel like it is impossible to forgive someone. We probably won’t feel like rejoicing in the midst of affliction or giving thanks in everything but we can and we must obey God’s word.

Of course to be able to live by faith in God’s word we need to know God’s word. If we regularly take in God’s word and meditate on his promises, our faith will increase and we won’t be dependent on our feelings.

So remember:

Feelings are real but they are not necessarily the truth.

Feelings are a poor barometer of the truth.

We walk by faith and not by feelings.

I hope that you feel great today. I hope you feel God’s love and pleasure today. I hope you feel happy and joyful and thankful. But if these feelings elude you, don’t be discouraged. Thank God anyway. Praise him. Ask him for the feelings you desire. And believe and obey his word whether you feel like it or not.

What Parts of the Bible are You Ignoring?

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It’s not easy to make sense of scripture. Parts of it are downright weird or even horrific. The story of Judah and Tamar, God’s interaction with Hosea and Gomer, and any story using the phrase “devoted to destruction” come to mind. They are the stories you don’t see in children’s Bible story books, or if they are included it is with some serious sanitation and airbrushing (a Thomas Kinkade version of reality, so to speak).

Those passages get ignored because they gross us out or break our fragile understanding of God. But there are other portions of scripture we ignore in an entirely different way – commands that are uncomfortable or nigh impossible to follow. It is so easy to willfully overlook them, much easier than learning how to reconcile them to my life and God’s reality.

Love your enemies.

Forgive 70 x 7 times (that means ALL of the times).

Bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you.

Honor you father and mother.

Children, obey your parents.

Give to any who asks of you.

Lay down your life and follow me.

If it causes you to sin, cut it off.

Husbands, love your wife as Christ loves the Church.

Do not covet.

Serve God, not money.

Do not commit adultery (which includes willfully lusting).

Consider others before yourself.

Pray without ceasing.

Judge not lest you be judged.

Take up your cross and follow me.

And so on.

We have so many rationalizations and excuses for overlooking and ignoring such commands. So often our mindset is that of a transaction: every disobeyed or ignored command is a debt owed, and we simply can’t pay them all back. We’re in over our heads, and it feels impossible to face our wrongs and admit them. But we must, and it’s good and freeing when we do because we are not settling accounts with God; we are being restored in relationship. God’s grace and forgiveness far surpass our willful ignoring of his commands (that’s in the bible too, don’t forget). His grace is so great that what the debt we do owe was paid already so that we can be free to come to Him for forgiveness, as children.

So be brave and ask yourself “what parts of the Bible do I ignore?” Then trust God’s grace for understanding and forgiveness as you would trust a good father, a perfect father. He gave us scripture to show us as much of Himself as we can handle. It is for our good, our peace, even if we can’t riddle it all out. We can trust the parts that tell us of His mercy, goodness, sovereignty, and forgiveness. We can rest in the parts that tell us of redemption at the cross and the coming of a perfect helper to teach and grow us. When we rest in these parts of scripture we will begin to improve at all those hard commands and come to terms with those tricky parts.

How To Avoid The Whirling Dervish Syndrome This Christmas

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Martha would be firing on all cylinders at Christmas. Beginning with a Black Friday marathon, she’d probably be a whirling dervish of baking Christmas cookies, hanging stockings, stringing lights, and dressing the family dog like Santa.  Her house would be a cacophony of lights and lawn ornaments.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Martha was serving her guts out.  She was doing a good thing – she was serving Jesus. She wanted him and her guests to enjoy themselves. She wanted to bless them. She wanted them to enjoy their challah and gefilte fish, bagels and lox and matzah ball soup and dishes of knish she’d prepared.

But Martha was “distracted.”  She was distracted by “much serving”. Martha was serving like a madwoman. But she was unable to focus on Jesus or concentrate on his words. She was probably catching some, but unable to think about what he was saying or reflect on it. “I heard him saying something about a lost sheep,” she said. “But who has time for stories? I got blintzes in the frying pan.”

Martha may have been joyful initially but now she’s getting annoyed at her sister.  She keeps glancing at Mary, hoping to catch her eye and motion for her to get in here and help.  But Martha’s enamored with Jesus.  Ahhhh this lazy sister of mine!  Martha thinks.  Now Martha is serving, but not joyfully.

Jesus said Martha’s problem was deeper than mere distraction about getting the meal on the table – she was “anxious and troubled about many things.” The cares of this life regularly choked out Mary’s joy and God’s word in her life.

In Martha’s eyes, Mary was being lazy and selfish. She wasn’t helping with all that needed to be done. Jesus said “one thing is necessary.” It is “the good portion.” What is this good portion? Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” She was focused on Jesus and his word. She was undistracted in her devotion to Jesus. She was simply putting Jesus first. Her relationship with Jesus, getting to know him, and meditating on his teaching was her priority.

We too can be distracted, anxious and troubled about many things. I talked to a friend recently whose stress on the job feels like a tsunami breaking over him. Another friend is battling cancer, which is not only incredibly miserable for him, but painful, sad and distressing for his wife. Another woman’s husband has early onset dementia. I know a number of families who live paycheck to paycheck. Most of us know someone who struggles with the fury of depression, or who has a sick child.

These are major temptations to anxiety and fear. Serious distractions. Now add to all this the additional distractions and stressers the Christmas season presents – presents to buy and wrap, getting a tree, decorating, family gatherings, travel, then there’s the gift wrap outreach and the food collection and the Christmas eve outreach with the live camels. Ok, most of us don’t have to worry about live camels, but you get what I mean. And if aunt Mary and aunt Jean come to our Christmas meal it’s going to be tense, and who knows if Joe is even going to come…you get the idea.

Only one thing is necessary.

To sit at Jesus’ feet. To listen to his word. To rest in him.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3).

To avoid the Whirling Dervish Syndrome this  Christmas, as hard as it is to do, we must seek to stay our minds on Jesus and trust in him. Don’t neglect to take time in God’s word and to pray this Christmas season. Put that first. Make that top priority. A little time every day in God’s word. Carve out a time to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his voice.