When God says ‘no’

Now, when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them.  Acts 16:6-7

I was 33 years old and minister of evangelism at the largest, most prestigious church (of our denomination at least)  in the state.  A few months earlier, our pastor had left and the leadership had handed me the assignment of preaching every three Sundays, every Wednesday night, and doing the Tuesday men’s Bible study for 150 fellows. All of that in addition to my regular duties.

I loved it.

One day, the chairman of the pastor search committee visited my cubby-hole of an office.  “Joe,” said Paul Moak.  “Do you believe God wants you to be pastor of this church?”  What a question.  Definitely a stunner that caught me off guard.  But I knew the answer.

“No, sir,” I said without hesitation.

“Neither do we,” he said.  (That seems funnier now than it did at the time.)

“But there’s a movement to make you the pastor of the church,” he said.

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Cheap Shots: Don’t do it, pastor!

A cheap shot in sports is when you catch your opponent off guard and give him an illegal hit that hurts him badly. The referee usually flags you for it and the crowd boos. Even your own fans are embarrassed that you would stoop to such.

To our shame, preachers do it all the time.

Not all preachers, but some of us make a practice of finding a weak spot in our targeted sinner, one undefended, in his most vulnerable area, and letting him have it.

It was Super Bowl Sunday, a couple of years back….

A friend on Facebook messaged me privately about his intended sermon. He was going to let the congregation have it that day about their addiction to sports, football in particular. He was upset and planned to preach about this modern-day form of idolatry.

He asked for my thoughts about his intentions.

I did not accuse him of hitting below the belt–the very essence of a cheap shot, from the boxing world–but I could have. (You could say I avoided a cheap shot myself by not doing that.) Instead, I suggested an alternative approach.

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Your sermon’s skeletal system: Putting meat on those bones

 

Warren Wiersbe called the sermon outline the “recipe” for the message. If you have that and nothing more, he said, you do not have a meal for your people; you have a recipe for them. Still much to do before they can be fed.

I like to think of the outline as the skeleton. It will need fleshing out, and then, most importantly of all, it needs the breath of life breathed into it.

 

No preacher should make the mistake of thinking the first part–the fleshing out of the message–can be done on our own while the second part–giving it life–is God’s business. It’s all about His presence and power and equally about our faithfulness.

An influential pastor, writing in the most recent issue of a popular preaching magazine, shares some great insights regarding the sermon outline which I’d like to pass along and comment on. (For good reason I’m not naming him or the magazine. We should not get hung up on whether we agree or disagree with a pastor on everything in order to learn from him.)

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God’s Word: There are not accolades enough

Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  –Romans 10:17

If I were Satan, I would do anything and everything possible to keep you from reading, enjoying, studying, and most of all, obeying God’s Word.  I would work overtime to undermine your confidence in that Word.  And for this, I would use two main ploys.

–I would tell you, “You already know this Bible.  You’ve read it.  It’s old news, and boring.”  That is a lie.  You do not know it.  You may know a lot about it, but you no more know this Bible than a scuba diver knows the Atlantic.

–I would tell you, “No one can understand the Bible.  It’s contradictory. It’s man-made.  It’s a harsh book of gruesome murders, a demanding God, and mean people.”  Again, that is a lie.  Even a child can find much to understand and love in Scripture, while a seminary professor may devote his entire career to one book of the Bible and come away knowing he has only touched the hem of the garment.

Those two lies are contradictory.  Satan says “you already know this Bible” and “no one can know it.”  He will do and say whatever it takes if the end result is to drive a wedge between you and God’s Word.

Unfortunately, his tactics are working on far too many.

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God wants you holy. Here’s some of what that means.

If there is a command in Scripture guaranteed to offend the modern mind  and set off a stubborn inner resistance that is dead-set on holding its ground and giving up nothing, it’s this: Be holy.

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 1:14-16)

The Apostle Peter is clearly quoting Scripture. Somewhere in the Old Testament, God tells us to be holy .

He does, in many places, actually. For instance….

I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. (Leviticus 11:44)

I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore, be holy for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:45)

The context makes it clear that the Lord has in mind His people shall be “a cut above” the surrounding population. They are to be “otherwise,” “the great exception,” what the KJV calls “a peculiar people.” Different from the rest. Standing out from the clutter.

 

Verses that surround Leviticus 11:44-45 make this clear. The Lord’s people were not to eat certain animals. “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of them or be made unclean by them.” (11:43)

We are to be clean.

I walked into the ICU at Tulane Medical Center to see a friend who had had a stroke. I expected to see him sedated and with tubes everywhere. Instead, he was sitting up in the bed and on the phone. He greeted me heartily and said, “What are you doing here?”

I said, “That’s my line. You’re clearly not sick.” He said, “The only thing wrong with me right now is I need a bath.” He had been 4 days without one.

The small blood clot that had attacked his brain, shutting down the use of the left side of his body, had dissolved, he said. The medical staff planned to release him later in the day.

He wanted a bath.

Not everyone misses cleanliness. By ignoring their unwashed state, they reveal a great deal about themselves.

Here’s a paragraph from John Steinbeck’s “Once There Was a War,” a collection of war correspondent dispatches. He was somewhere in North Africa; the date was September 28, 1943…

No love is lost for the Arabs. They are the dirtiest people in the world and among the smelliest. The whole countryside smells of urine, four thousand years of urine. That is the characteristic smell of North Africa.

So much for romantic Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman notwithstanding!

Why would an American soldier be offended by something the locals do not notice? Clearly Steinbeck was accustomed to bathing on a more or less regular schedule.

Only the clean are offended by the unclean.

Only after our public buildings and restaurants were purged of cigarette smoke did all us non-smokers begin to be repulsed by the smell of burning tobacco. Until then, we never noticed it. (I would almost bet the farm that a half-century ago, some visitor to America wrote home, “The characteristic smell of North America is cigarette smoke.”)

We’re not doing everything right these days, but ridding our homes and hospitals of cigarette smoke is a step in the right direction.

God wants His people holy. Clean.

“Do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (I Peter 1:14). The root of their problem was ignorance; the fruit of such ignorance was wrong-headed wanting.

We recall something close to this from Paul:  “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

It starts inside your mind. No wonder Peter ends his second epistle with, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (II Peter 3:18)

The Apostle Peter gives two reasons why God’s children are to be holy: they have been redeemed from all that is unholy, and children should look like their father.

First: We have been redeemed; we are not the same people as when we did those bad things.

The word “redeemed” in I Peter 1:18 literally means to release upon receipt of a ransom. The Greek word is a verb form of the noun lutron, a ransom.

(Another Greek word is often used in the New Testament and translated “redeemed” is exagora, from the word for marketplace, agora. Literally, that means “to buy out of the marketplace.” It’s a great concept. Christians are no longer for sale but are “off the shelf,” “off the market.” We have been bought with a price.)

We have been ransomed. Ask passengers on ships in Middle Eastern waterways that have been taken over by pirates and held for ransom what it means to be redeemed.

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from the futile way of life inherited from our fathers. (I Peter 1:18)

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from destruction (“the pit”–KJV), according to Psalm 103:4.

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). What was that curse? “The soul that sins it shall die.” If that law were still in effect, no one would be spared since all sin and fall short. See Romans 8:1-2 for the great news of the gospel regarding the law of sin and death.

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from iniquity or lawlessness (Titus 2:4). Romans 8:1-2 also points out that a higher law has redeemed us from the lesser law. We must never think that as Christians, we are lawless. Ours are higher and better laws.

Whatever else it means to be bought out of those conditions, it surely means we are not to return. No one sprung from a Ravensbruck or Auschwitz concentration camp would willingly go back into those sink-holes of death and hell-holes of despair.

We are to have nothing further to do with our old “futile” (“empty” NIV) lifestyle.

We are to have no further dealings with the pit of destruction, the curse of the law, or the iniquity of lawlessness.

We are holy.

Whereas I like to drop in the occasional paraphrase from Eugene Peterson’s The Message to give us another perspective, here he stays with the traditional translation. “God said, ‘I am holy; you be holy.’”

Second: Another reason for holiness in the believer’s life is that God’s children should “resemble” Him.

Anyone can live and act like the world. Jesus taught His disciples that the people of the world love those who love them (Luke 6:32), do good to those who return the favor (6:33), and give to those who plan to pay them back (6:34).

Jesus told his disciples, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they will invite you back and you will be repaid. But…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Don’t act like other people.  Act like your Father.

God loves those who hate him, does good to his enemies, and gives to the ungrateful.

Jesus went out of his way to touch the leper, welcome the children, rebuke the fat cats, and honor society’s fallen.

He said, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:35)

When you do that, the Lord said, “You will be sons of the Most High.”  Say what?

We must remember the Hebrew way of forming descriptive adjectives about people was to make them “sons of this-or-that.”

James and John had explosive, fiery tempers; they were “sons of thunder.”(Mark 3:17)

Joseph was nicknamed Bar-Nabas, “son of comfort,” because he was such an encourager. (Acts 4:36)

Those who love the unlovely, bless the hateful, and give to the undeserving are behaving precisely like the Heavenly Father. “Because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

Jesus added, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

This reminds us of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) People will see such behavior as God-like.

“Why, would you look at that! That’s just like the Lord Himself.”

The problem of lists

One of the worst slanders upon holiness is the way some have reduced the concept to a list of don’ts. Depending on who is reciting it, the list varies, but has traditionally included smoking, drinking, cursing, and movies (certain kinds or all kinds).  Some of us can recall when the no-no list also included  dancing of any kind, card-playing, and baseball or fishing on Sunday.

The problem with such lists is that they keep getting longer and longer and they have a way of granting exceptions. Movies at the theater were forbidden to some, however they would watch the same shows on television. Working on Sunday was a no-no, yet they themselves would eat out at restaurants or run by the store for a few items on the Lord’s Day.

It’s so easy to become Pharisees.

Mostly, the holiness-exceptions involved things the bearer of the list was already doing. Legalism is like that. I see your behavior as more sinful than my own.

“Your pastor is going to hell,” a visitor told one of my deacons.

The deacon, never one to over-react, said calmly, “And why is that?”

“His hair is too long,” the critic announced. (I have no memory of it being very long at any time. Probably I was just overdue for a haircut.)

Our deacon said, “How long should it be?”

“About like mine,” the visitor said, thus furnishing me with my favorite illustration of legalism.  Legalism forever sets itself up as the standard for measuring everyone else.

Lord deliver us!

To be holy is to be different from the world, but that alone is insufficient. A green three-headed alien from another planet would be different but not holy.

To be holy is also to be like our Heavenly Father.

That is a process, not a state to be achieved once in this life and thereafter maintained. It’s a daily grind, of subduing the stubborn will, humbling the wayward heart, calling the will back into submission, and seeking God’s will in every aspect of our lives.

A fellow I know likes to say, “God can do more with one person who is 100 percent surrendered than with a thousand who are 99 percent surrendered.”

That’s a great quote. But I find two major flaws in it.

First, it implies God only uses the perfectly submitted. A check of the Old and New Testaments dispels that in a heartbeat. Practically every instrument of the Lord was flawed, from rebellious Jonah (whose bad attitude was present throughout his Nineveh preaching) to hypocritical Peter (whom Paul called to task for being one thing among the Jews and another with Gentiles) to David himself, whose flaws were scandalous.

And secondly, it leaves the impression that there is a level we may achieve where we are now completely surrendered, even to the last decimal point.

If there is such a level, my strong conviction is that those who arrive there keep slipping off. Holiness seems more of a continuing process of staying close to the Lord and obedient to His will.

The last thing we want to do is obsess over the final percentage point of our commitment. “Oh, I wonder if I have submitted this chocolate chip cookie to His Lordship.” “Have I prayed about which news program to watch?”

That’s not holiness; it’s bondage. A tyranny of bad mental health, if you ask me.

Such an obsession is just one more embodiment of legalism, dressed up to look like spirituality.

Don’t be taken in by crude imitations of the real thing.

Let’s stay in the Word, look for ways to serve the Lord, continually pray the favorite prayer of Scripture (“Lord, what will you have me to do?”), and go do it.

But, whatever else we do, let’s not obsess over holiness. It’s just being like Jesus, and everything about that is precious.

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Tell people the truth about God. Even when it’s hard.

For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.  –Acts 20:27

A friend going through a difficult time sent a message concerning a situation she was facing. Toward the end of the letter, making a case for straight-shooting from my direction, she said something I will not soon forget.

Pray for me if you like. Send me scripture if you like. Put me on a prayer chain if you want. But please don’t lie to me about God.

She was not trying to be dramatic, only to convey how strongly she wanted the truth. Even if it hurt, even if it went contrary to everything she was doing and believed, she wanted to know.

You have to respect that.

My impression is that so many doctrinal inquiries we preachers get are merely asking us to confirm what the questioners are already doing, to endorse all they have previously believed.

God help us not to lie to others about God.

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Sometimes the opposition of the world works for the best

“And they went and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.” (Matthew 27:66)

For good reason, God’s people learn to rejoice in adversity and to thrive under persecution.

Fire burns brighter under pressure.  Ask any ninth grade physics student.

Sometimes those intent on stamping out Christianity end up assisting it.

Scripture teaches  that the opponents of the Lord remembered that He had predicted He would rise from the dead. (Matthew 27:62-63)  It appears the wrong guys were taking literally the things Jesus had said! The poor disciples, forgetting the Lord’s promises, were mired down in their sadness and grief, all  of it the direct result of not understanding and believing Jesus’ promises..

When the opponents of the Lord went to such lengths to secure His tomb, they inadvertently provided additional evidence for His bodily resurrection.  Note their three actions: they made the grave secure, they put a Roman guard in place, and they set a seal on the stone.

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Forgive? Of course! It’s what I do.

Freely you have received; freely give.  –Matthew 10:8

Dr. Watson was complimenting Sherlock Holmes on a brilliant observation no one else had noticed.

“Of course,” Holmes remarked. “It’s what I do.”

Forgiveness and grace—that’s what we believers do.

Here is one page from Ruth Bell Graham’s 1989 book, “Legacy of a Pack Rat,” with a parenthetical, explanatory remark of my own.

“Someone has said, ‘If there had not been a Stephen, there might never have been a Paul.’” (Paul watched Stephen being stoned to death for nothing more than preaching Jesus. As the stones beat the life from him, with his dying breath, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” –Acts 7:60 Paul never recovered from seeing this good man die.)

“A tribal war was raging in Uganda. The soldiers led a line of prisoners to a bridge over a crocodile-infested river where they could shoot them and dump their bodies into the water for the crocodiles to dispose of.

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Assumptions people make about Jesus and His People

Who but God can forgive sins? (Mark 2:7)

A while back I wrote the author of a book on the political events of 1940 to express my appreciation.  I added this note:

That year is also special because I made my appearance on March 28, 1940. But don’t think me old just because I was born in 1940.

Later, I wondered why I’d gone to the trouble to say that, as I do not know that author and don’t expect to meet him. Why did that matter?

I decided it’s a personal thing.

None of us want to be pigeon-holed because of demographics or statistics, and not  for preconceptions or ignorance. Being a Southerner does not make you a redneck. Living in Mississippi does not mean you are barefooted. All Louisianians do not speak Cajun. All Yankees are not rude.

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The sufferings of Jesus are beyond us. Unimaginable.

And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. Mark 15:37

The old gospel song says “None of the ransomed ever knew how deep were the waters crossed, nor how dark the night that the Lord passed through ere He found the sheep that was lost.” (“The Ninety and Nine”)

I’m one of the ransomed.  I have no clue.

You and I stand outside the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. We hear His prayer in the Garden on the night before He was arrested. We see the sweat drops of blood and we sense His agony. Then we see Him hanging on the cross in great pain as He bore our sins and paid the ultimate price. But we have no way of knowing what He was enduring.

We stand outside, at a distance. We stand in awe.

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