A great story can actually change your life

“And without parables (great stories!) Jesus did not teach” (Mark 4:34).

I once sat through a long session of a convention of realtors just to hear a motivational speaker.  The story with which he opened quickly became a mainstay in my arsenal of great illustrations and sermon-helpers.

Time well spent.

I’ve read entire books and come away with one paragraph that became a staple in my preaching thereafter.  It was time well used and money well spent.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling “Eat, Pray, Love” (which I do not recommend, by the way), attended a party and heard a story which became one of the defining principles of her writing career.  “Sometimes I think this man came into my life for the sole purpose of telling me this story, which has delighted and inspired me ever since.”

That’s how it works.  One story, a lifetime of benefit.

Gilbert says the man told of his younger brother who was an aspiring artist.  Living in Paris and struggling to get by, he seized every opportunity to get his name before people.  One day, in a cafe’ he met a group of people who invited him to a party that weekend at a castle in the Loire Valley.  This was big stuff and he eagerly accepted the opportunity to hobnob with people of wealth and influence.

This would be the party of the year, they said.  The rich and famous would be in attendance, as well as members of European royalty.  And, they said, it was to be a masquerade ball where everyone went all out on their costumes.  “Dress up, they said, and join us!”

All that week, the little brother worked on a costume he was sure would knock them dead.  His outfit would be the centerpiece of the ball, the one sure to generate the most interest and conversation.  When the day came, he rented a car and drove three hours to the castle.  He changed into his costume in the car and walked up to the castle, head held high, confidence and excitement exuding from the pores of his skin.

Entering the castle, he quickly realized his mistake.

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Truths which Satan uses to stop people from praying

The forces of hell will do anything to keep us from praying.

Satan tells lies to keep us from praying.  He uses pleasures and misinformation and our laziness to keep us from praying.  He uses false teachers and busy schedules and great television to keep us from praying.

He also has been known to use…

The truth.

As odd as it seems, the dark prince does not hesitate to speak the truth if it will make us think we shouldn’t pray.

Here are eight true statements Satan uses to put a stop to the most powerful force in the world, the prayers of God’s people…

1–God already knows what you need. No point in asking.

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Sixteen lies Satan feeds us about worship

“God is Spirit. And they who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; tremble before Him all the earth” (Psalm 96:9).

If worship is powerful–that is, if kneeling before Almighty God in humility and rising to praise Him in gratitude and going forth to obey Him in faithfulness has power in the world to change lives and redirect society–then the enemy will be working to put a stop to it.

Count on that.

If God uses our worship to transform sinners, starting with us, then the enemy will do all in his power to neutralize it.

So–how is your worship these days?

Are you working at worship, at learning to humble yourself and praise Him more effectively?  Are you giving yourself anew to the Savior throughout the day, every day?

Notice the one question we did not ask: Are you getting anything out of your worship? Scripture does not allow us to ask that.  We are promised nothing from worship.  In worship, we do the giving. We give Him praise and prayers, offerings and love, our time and our attention, and ultimately ourselves.

Warren Wiersbe used to say, “Worship pays. But if you worship for the pay, it won’t pay.”

What has the evil advisor told you in the secret recesses of your mind and heart to dissuade you from worship?

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The report from Bethlehem: A shepherd signs in

“Now there were in the same country shepherds abiding in their fields by night….” (Luke 2)

(Herewith we present a report from the youngest shepherd of that fateful night in the field outside Bethlehem, with the occasional editor’s remark in italics.)

I was not supposed to work that night, it being a school night. My friend Elihu asked me to fill in for him.  Now, my father is not real thrilled with me hanging out with some of these characters who work night shifts with the sheep.  Shepherding is the ultimate unskilled labor and only those who can’t do anything else–or hesitate to show their faces in public in the day–need apply.

But Father knows I’m a good student and agreed that we could use the money.

Anyway, that’s how it happened that I had the most amazing experience of my young life.

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There’s something for everyone in the Christmas story

“Now, the birth of Jesus came about in this way….” (Matthew 1:18).

Do you like a true-life adventure story?  This one is the best. It’s found in only four chapters in the Bible: Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.

You like genealogies?  Then check out the birth narratives about our Lord Jesus. See Matthew 1:1-14 and also Luke 3:21-38.

You like mysteries?  Try to figure out how those two lists of ancestors works out for the lineage of Jesus.  If you finally give up, then (and only then) go to a commentary written by a Bible-believing scholar. Your church library probably has several.

You are a history student?  Then check out Luke 2:1-3 where “the beloved physician” gives the historical setting for the birth of our Lord. Then, move up one chapter and see how Luke does the same thing for the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry some three decades later.

You love conspiracies?  (There’s a lot of that going around today.  Anything involving Hilary Clinton.  Was General Patton murdered? What about President Trump’s claims?) Then, check out King Herod in Matthew chapter 2 and notice his murderous rampage against anyone who appears to be a threat, even little babies. What a monster.  And notice how the Lord Jesus sent the Magi with funds (“gold”) to finance the trip of the little Holy Family to Egypt, just ahead of Herod’s legions. They slipped away just in time.

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Options the Lord did not leave open to us

“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12)

The Christian faith is not a cafeteria from which one may pick and choose what to believe and leave the less appetizing choices behind.  It is a turn-key operation, to change the metaphor.  “It is finished,” said our Lord from the cross.  Salvation will not be needing my touches, God’s wisdom will not be helped by my cleverness, and the gospel will not be enhanced by my talents.  The gospel is a done deal.

Scripture says the revelation God has given us is sufficient.  “So that the (child) of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy  3:17).

Nothing is missing from this amazing salvation given us in Jesus Christ.

But we keep trying, don’t we?  Consider these attempts of ours to cherry-pick doctrines and truths…

One.

Some people insist, “The Bible is not a book of science. It is not a history book, in the same way it’s not a cook book or a travel guide.  It is reliable in terms of spiritual matters, but should not be expected to get all the other things right.”

Many would say that sounds right.

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The cure for the common sermon

“Now when they heard the preaching of Peter and John, they were marveling and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”  (A free paraphrase of Acts 4:13)

Hey, pastor, next Sunday let’s hit one out of the park.

Let’s preach a sermon that will thrill your own soul, knock the dozing member out of his lethargy and onto his feet, and bless the hearts of your sweetest, finest people.  Let’s have a sermon that will stun your critics, surprise your mama, gladden the heart of God, and grab the undivided attention of the unsaved.

Let’s put an end to the common sermon.

You know what a common sermon is, I’m sure.

It’s uninspired in its conception, boring in its plan, and dull in its delivery.  In preparing it, you have to force yourself to stay awake.  When you preach it, the congregation takes a holiday. When it’s over, you wonder if you shouldn’t find some other line of work.

When common sermons follow common sermons like rail cars behind the locomotive, the preacher is probably in a rut.  And we all remember what a rut is–a grave with the ends knocked out.

In a “common sermon,” the outline is often uninspired and may look something like this: 1) The Power, 2) The Point, and 3) the Product.  Or, pehaps 1) The Application, 2) the Attraction, and 3) the Adoration. The introduction, the message, the conclusion.

Bo-ring.  But then, you knew that.

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Joseph writes home from Bethlehem’s stable

(Joseph’s letter to his parents is in bold print. His thoughts to himself are in italics.  If I were doing this as a performance in church during the Christmas season, I’d have someone off stage reading the “thoughts” parts while I spoke the “letter” portions.)

Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Davidson

c/o Davidson Carpentry Shop

Nazareth of Galilee

Dear Mother and Father,

I promised I would write just as soon as we arrived in Bethlehem and got settled.

We’re here, but not quite settled yet.

There’s so much I want to tell you but can’t.  For one thing, I don’t dare tell you we’re in a stable where barnyard animals have been staying. We put in clean hay, but other than that, it’s not the most sanitary place in the world. Mother would freak out if she knew.

Here’s what happened.

As you predicted, Dad, the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was arduous. Whether she was walking or atop the donkey, poor Mary had a hard time of it. But you know my sweet wife. No way was she going to complain. After all, she’s the one who insisted that I bring her along.

In future years, people will look back at this event and wonder why in the world we brought Mary all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and her almost due to give birth.  The answer is this is one strong young woman. She was bound and determined to be with her husband when the Child was born. And since I was required to make this trip, we just threw ourselves on the care of the Lord and started out.

We came to Judea through Samaria in order to shorten the distance, but as you know, there are still plenty of hills and hollows and the roads are rough and uneven. A couple of times kind travelers gave Mary a ride in their carts, but I’m afraid the jostling and bumping were small improvements over walking.

We’re so thankful to have made it all the way to Bethlehem, because Mother, just as you predicted, Mary began having labor pains as we entered the town. Thankfully, we were able to find accommodations all to ourselves. It’s private too, and that was a special blessing since we had an eventful evening, the baby coming and everything.

Private accommodations, ha! If they only knew.  If it’s up to me, no one will ever know where we spent last night. I have to find a house as soon as possible.

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When resolving conflicts, try not to start new ones

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

There is no problem-solving section of the Bible.

Sorry if that disappoints you.

What we do find across the New Testament are large servings of healthy food of the spiritual kind, instructions on how to serve God and live well and relate to one another in the close confines of the forever family. Imbedded throughout are insights on resolving collisions between the Lord’s children.

Hold on.

Do you mean to say that from the beginning Jesus expected clashes and collisions within His family? That His disciples would be torn apart by jealousies and competitions and divisions?

Not only did He anticipate such conflicts, He observed them firsthand among the twelve. Here are a couple of instances…

–A disciple said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). How modern is that? Our denomination is best; the rest of you are failing God.

Jesus was tolerant of a lot of things, but not this kind of spiritual elitism.

–“And hearing (that the sons of Zebedee had tried to gain the advantage over the other apostles by asking for the best places in the Kingdom), the ten began to feel indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41). The genes of competitiveness have been among us from the beginning.  “We shall now give our ranking of the top ten churches in our denomination.” “My church is better than your church.” “We may not be the biggest church in town, but we’re the best.”

Sometimes people want to drop out of church altogether because every church they’ve found seems to have trouble of one kind or the other.  They cry out, “Where are the New Testament churches?”

Answer: They’re all around us, doing exactly what the churches of the First Century did–evangelize, preach, give, love, bicker, fight, and divide.

Welcome to the real world.

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Broken pastor, broken church

(This is our account of a difficult three years in our lives–‘ours’ referring to my wife Margaret and me–when we pastored a divided church in North Carolina. The article ran in the Winter 2001 issue of “Leadership Journal,” a publication of Christianity Today.  The explanatory notes at the end may be of interest to some.)

How could I lead a congregation that was as hurt as I was?

My calendar for the summer and beyond was blank. I usually planned my preaching schedule for a full year, but beyond the second Sunday in June–nothing. I had no ideas. I sensed no leading from the Spirit. But it was only January, so I decided to try again in a couple of months. Again, nothing. By then, I suspected the Lord was up to something.

A member of my church had told me the year before, “Don’t die in this town.” I knew what she meant. She didn’t envision Columbus as the peak of my ministry. Columbus was a county-seat town with three universities nearby, and, for Mississippi, cosmopolitan. I felt Columbus, First Baptist, and I were a good match. The church grew. We were comfortable together. My family was settled. Our sons and daughter had completed most of their schooling, and after twelve years, they called Columbus home. My wife, Margaret, and I had weathered a few squalls, but life was good–a little quiet, perhaps even stagnant, but good.

And suddenly I could hear the clock ticking. Did God have something more for me?

First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, called in March. I ended my ministry at Columbus the second Sunday of June and began in Charlotte one month later.

After I’d been in Charlotte about a month, the man who chaired their search committee phoned. “I have some people I want you to talk with,” he told me. He picked me up and drove me to the impressive home of one of our members. In the living room were a dozen men, all leaders in the church and in the city. Another man appeared in charge.

“We want to offer you some guidance in pastoring the church,” he said. “There are several issues we feel are important, and we want you to know where we stand.” He outlined their position on the battle between conservatives and moderates for control of our denomination and on the role of women in the church. He wanted women elected as deacons, one item in a full slate of changes he wanted made at the church.

Charlotte’s web

I was beginning to see what I had been told: a handful of very strong lay people had called the shots for more than two decades, and this was part of their plan.

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