Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Gospel for April 22, 2018

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
John 10:11-18
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This is one of the several “I Am” statements made by Jesus in the Gospel of John.  Taken alone, it is a wonderful metaphor that Jesus uses to illustrate his care for his “sheep”  and his willingness to die for them.  But as part of the string of “I Am” statements it is also a testimony to his close identification with the great I Am that I Am of Exodus 3:14, the Lord of all.

Considered as a description of his ministry, though, it is also very powerful.  He draws a contrast between the good shepherd and the hired hand – the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep in the face of danger; the hired hand runs away.

So there are two threats to the flock here.

One is external — first, in John 10:10 Jesus references the thief who:

only comes to steal, kill, and destroy.

Second, there is the wolf.

And then there is a third threat, the internal threat — those who have been entrusted with the flock who run away when there is danger because they care nothing for the sheep.

Not only does the good shepherd lay down his life for the sheep, there is also a relationship between shepherd and sheep:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and I’m known by my own.

And this relationship between shepherd and sheep is predicated on Jesus’ relationship with the Father: the Father knows me and I know the Father.  There is an interrelatedness here from Father to Son, Son to Father, and through the Son to God’s people.

However, this is not an exclusive relationship.  Jesus has:

other sheep, which are not of this fold.

They too will hear the voice of the shepherd and follow him.  The image Jesus gives would have been familiar to a culture where sheep herding was common.  A flock of sheep will “imprint” on a shepherd, and recognize his voice when he calls.

And Jesus makes it clear that though he is calling sheep from other places, all will be united in him:

They will become one flock with one shepherd.

Finally, Jesus alludes to the source of his unique relationship with the Father:

Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life,  that I may take it again.

In other words, Jesus is obedient to the Father, and though he be crucified will be raised from the dead.

In as clear a statement as can be made, Jesus declares that he is not a “victim” or a passive player in this drama. He says of his life and death:

No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.

His care for the sheep, even to the point of death, and his obedience to the Father, is completely his choice.

APPLY:  

We see here Jesus declaring to us that he is the Good Shepherd:

  • He lays down his life for us.
  • In his relationship with the Father is found the grounds for our relationship with the Father.
  • Jesus will call people from throughout the world to be a part of his flock.
  • We will all be one flock belonging to the one shepherd.

But who are the hirelings who run away when the wolf comes?  Are we best to not focus on their cowardice and/or indifference?  Are they the pastors who teach contrary to God’s Word, or who just don’t show up when the chips are down?

Obviously, those who truly belong to Jesus, according to his own description, are those who know him, follow his voice, and who seek to bring others into the flock that belongs to Jesus.

RESPOND: 

I have always been a little reluctant to call myself “pastor,” which means “shepherd.”  We have one Shepherd, who is Jesus.

Instead, when I was still serving a church, I facetiously told people that I was merely a sheepdog. The sheepdog is the one who tries to run around rounding up the sheep at the behest of the Good Shepherd, and maybe barks at them a little.

But my own goal is to know the voice of the Good Shepherd and to follow him at all costs.

Lord, for your willingness to lay down your life for the sheep I am supremely grateful.  Keep my ears sharp for your voice and lead me wherever you would have me go.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
“Great Pyrenees Sheep Dog Guarding the Flock” by Don DeBold is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
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Epistle for April 22, 2018

1440388740_de24b2ee9b_o (1)START WITH SCRIPTURE:
1 John 3:16-24
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

The First Letter of John reminds us of the composition of a fugue, with an evocative interweaving of the themes of love and knowledge.  John brings these themes together in this phrase:

By this we know love

He then illustrates the incarnational and sacrificial nature of love as demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ:

because he laid down his life for us.

If anyone wants to know what love looks like, he’s saying, they need only to look at the crucified Christ.

Therefore, by analogy, believers are to be like Christ as well:

And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

Love by its very nature is sacrificial.  But this sacrifice need not be limited to martyrdom.  True sacrificial love means compassion for someone who is in need.

John poses the question:

whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love of God remain in him?

Love is action, not words.

John points out that the true assurance that a person belongs to Jesus is found in their obedience to this simple principle:

This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded.

John also offers reassurance for those who are insecure about their faith:

if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

Confidence is not to be found in mere feeling, but in true faith and obedience.

Even more, the believer can know that they are united to God:

He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.

There is an echo in this passage of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John 17:20-23:

  Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word,  that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me.  The glory which you have given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one;  I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you loved me.

The proofs are all there — believers know God because they follow God’s commands, which means they believe in Jesus, they love their neighbor, and this is made possible by the Spirit that God gives.

APPLY:  

There are two very exciting applications of this passage for us —

First, that we can know we have a relationship with God based not on how we feel but on how we love.   Feelings come and go, but the love that follows the example of Christ is grounded in sacrifice and action.

Second, that we are to show love. As Eliza Doolittle sings in the Hollywood musical “My Fair Lady,”  “Don’t talk of love, don’t talk at all, show me.”

John says:

 My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth.

Thus, to follow Jesus doesn’t require literal martyrdom; but it does require faith in Christ, and a robust, active love of others.

John also explores some of what Jesus teaches in John 17:20-23, cited above. He says:

 He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.

There is a sense here of what G.K. Chesterton calls the mystery of “coinherence.”  Jesus says that he is in the Father and the Father is in him – from our perspective this is a clear reference to the interrelatedness and relationship of the Trinity.  But this also applies to us! As we become Children of God, God is in us and we are in God!  This is made possible also by the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

RESPOND: 

As with so much of scripture, I find this passage both inspiring and daunting.  To say I want to be more like Jesus is one thing.  But am I as loving and as generous and as compassionate?  Is my love even .01% as sacrificial as is his love for me?

This is where I must rely on his grace, and see my own Christian life as still a process:

if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

Lord, fill my heart with your love, not just by example but as you spiritually fill me with your Spirit.  Only then can I truly live in you and you in me.  Amen. 

PHOTOS: “This Is Love” by Rene Yoshi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Psalm Reading for April 22, 2018

The Lord is my Shepherd. He restores my soul.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
Psalm 23
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Before David was a king, he was a shepherd.  This Psalm is a shepherd’s song.  We can imagine David the shepherd, gazing out over his grazing flock as the sun is setting, with a deep sense of serenity. The parallels between a shepherd’s watchful care of his flock and the Lord’s care for his people are obvious.

But for our purposes, we find a Psalm that begins as a kind of lyrical hymn that develops the metaphor of God as Shepherd.  The Shepherd guides his flock along paths of righteousness  to peaceful, safe, green  pasture, and to still waters. This is an important detail.  Sheep tend to be shy of drinking from swift brooks.  Placid pools or ponds are more inviting to them.

This metaphor of water prevails when David says his relationship with Yahweh is like drinking the still waters:

He restores my soul.

Then in verses 4 & 5 the Psalm becomes a  prayer to God.  The third person becomes second person — no longer “He” but “You.” This more intimate voice occurs as the Psalmist describes God’s presence with him in the valley of the shadow of death, and also as he describes God’s protection and provision in the very presence of his enemies:

Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.

The rod and staff are used to discipline and guide the sheep, but also to protect them from predators.

Obviously there is the comfort of provision, protection, and God’s presence in this Psalm.  But we also notice that he speaks of his head being anointed with oil.   Anointing with oil was used for healing and for cleansing in the ancient world, but in a Biblical context it was also used to signify a holy office, such as a prophet, a priest or a king.

David sums up his supreme confidence in Yahweh that will endure in this life and forever:

Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.

APPLY:  

Our most familiar acquaintance with Psalm 23 occurs at funerals. The reasons are self-evident — language that describes a comforting Shepherd who guides us through the valley of the shadow of death where we fear no evil, and then finally assures us that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever is indeed reassuring in the face of death.

But we do well to notice that the Psalm also offers promises for this life.

goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life

God’s provision, guidance, and protection are not postponed until death.  We need the Good Shepherd now and  at the hour of our death.

RESPOND: 

This is a Psalm that I can recite by heart, but it is also frequently my prayer — that the Lord will be my Shepherd, provide for my needs, restore my soul, protect me in the midst of danger, and be with me to the end of my life, and beyond.

Lord, I trust in You as the sheep trust their shepherd. Amen. 

PHOTOS:

"The Good Shepherd 130" by Waiting for the Word is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Reading from Acts for April 22, 2018

bold faithSTART WITH SCRIPTURE:
Acts 4:5-12
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

What has gotten into Peter? The frightened fisherman who denied even knowing who Jesus was, and huddled in terror among his friends in the Upper Room after the crucifixion, is now boldly declaring his faith openly before a council of the elders in Jerusalem.

Although he knows that his message is unwelcome and unpopular with them, he declares to their face that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was crucified by them, and that God raised him from the dead!

What are the circumstances that prompted such boldness, and what has empowered and inspired Peter so?

The context for this “hearing” before the rulers and elders and teachers of the law is the recent healing of the lame beggar near the gate called Beautiful.  Peter makes it clear to the startled onlookers that the power to heal this man has come from God through faith in the risen Christ.  And Peter has spared no one in his honest assessment of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.  He accused the people who were in attendance that day of their complicity in the death of Jesus, but also has promised them remission of their sins!

So, the current hearing is an attempt by the Sanhedrin to “get to the bottom” of things.  They ask the question of Peter and John:

By what power, or in what name, have you done this?

This gives Peter a “preachable moment” to make his witness about the power of the risen Christ in this official hearing as well.  And once again he lays the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus squarely at their feet!  Moreover, he makes it perfectly clear that this is totally consistent with the Hebrew scriptures from Psalm 118:22:

the stone which was regarded as worthless by you, the builders, which has become the head of the corner.

This image of reversal is a central theme in the New Testament — the stone once rejected by the builders is now exalted to the vital role as cornerstone. Christ, rejected by both religious and political authorities, is the exalted Lord.

And finally Peter makes an audacious claim to these gathered religious leaders:

There is salvation in none other, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, by which we must be saved!

Peter is making the claim that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus, and from no other source: not the law, not the temple sacrifices, not religious status.

So we ask again: what has gotten in to Peter that has given him this boldness? The text itself tells us: he was filled with the Holy Spirit.

APPLY:  

We can only marvel at the dramatic, even radical change in character that we see in Peter.  This is attributed completely to his infilling with the Holy Spirit.

His witness is direct and confrontational: he sums up the kernel of the Gospel in a trice.  Jesus has been crucified and raised to life and by the power in his name we may be saved.

Are we so bold to proclaim our faith in the face of hostility today?  Peter did not back down from this “august assembly” although these were the same people who had been responsible for starting the process that led to the cross!

When we hear of Christians beheaded for their faith, or their churches burned, or any number of persecutions, we in the Western church should be grateful for how “safe” our profession of Christ is.  Protected by the First Amendment, for example, American Christians can still worship as we please and speak as we please.

How bold are we to share our faith with the non-Christian neighbor, or the skeptical secularist, or the sad sinner looking for hope?

RESPOND: 

I have been blessed in my Christian ministry over the years.  Since I began preaching the Gospel in 1980, I have usually spoken to polite and even receptive audiences.  Only occasionally have I been confronted about a message that someone found controversial.

I wonder how I would fare as a pastor or Christian in ISIS occupied Syria, or in Egypt, or Communist China, or Indonesia?  Would I have the same boldness that Peter had? The same faith that so many Christians in that part of the world have?

I would hope to say yes, but only if I have the same source that Peter had — the power of the Holy Spirit.  Left to myself, I would be terrified and curled up in a fetal position.

I daresay, Peter experienced that sense of terror — until he was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Lord, I pray for those who are modern martyrs. There are those where Christianity is not the religion of the majority, and where civil rights are not respected, whose families, livelihood, and even their very lives are at risk.  May I be bold in preaching the Gospel.  Amen. 

 
PHOTOS:
Background texture for “Bold Faith”: “Texture 157” by Thanasis Anastasiou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Gospel for April 15, 2018

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
Luke 24:36b-48
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

In Luke’s Gospel, this is only the second appearance of Jesus after the resurrection.  The initial evidence of the resurrection was circumstantial — the empty tomb and the testimony of the two angels left the disciples with a sense of wonder, but no empirical evidence that he was alive.

The first actual appearance of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is the ‘walk to Emmaus’ with Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple.  As they walk with this ‘stranger’ to Emmaus, a gradual dawning begins as Jesus interprets the events of his death and resurrection to them. They only fully recognize him when he breaks bread and instantly vanishes from their sight. They run back to Jerusalem to relate to the other disciples what they have witnessed.

That very evening, as our passage begins, Jesus appears very suddenly in what seems a paranormal manifestation to all the disciples in the Upper Room. The disciples are understandably terrified, and Jesus reassures them:

Peace be to you.

He then assuages their doubts and fears with empirical evidence:

  • He draws attention to his scarred hands and feet to prove that he is indeed their crucified Lord.
  • He invites them to touch him to prove that he is truly in the flesh.
  • He asks for food to eat so that he may illustrate that he is no phantom.

He follows these “signs” as he so often has done in the past by turning this miracle into a teachable moment.  As he has done with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he begins to provide evidence from the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms that all of these things have happened according to the Scriptures.

Jesus then sums up both his message and their mission:

Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day,  and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.

The essentials are all succinctly included:

  • That the Gospel is indeed the continuation of the promises of the Old Testament.
  • That the death and resurrection of Jesus were necessary to fulfill the Scriptures.
  • That the mission of these witnesses is to preach to all nations that Jesus’ death and resurrection provides the foundation for the possibility of repentance and remission of sins.

APPLY:  

It is important for us to bear in mind that the disciples initially greeted news of the resurrection of Jesus with the same reaction people in our time do — wonder, doubt, fear.

We need to pay close attention to what Luke calls the many proofs in Acts 1:3.  Jesus provides empirical evidence of his identity (his scarred hands and feet); and that he is not a ghost but is appearing to them in the flesh ( he invites them to touch him, and asks for food to eat).  This is no mere hologram, or “astral projection.”  This is a bodily resurrection.

We also know from this passage that the message about Jesus and the message of  Jesus are consistent with the revelation of the Old Testament: the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms. As Jesus himself says in Matthew 5: 17:

Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill.

The message about Jesus is the incarnation of God in human form, with the unique designation as the Son of God; and includes his redemptive death on the cross, and his life-giving resurrection.

The message of Jesus provides the life-changing realities of the Christian experience — repentance and remission of sins in his name, together with the new birth and the work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our lives.

And this Good News has become the powerful impetus for the witness of the church for the past two thousand years!

RESPOND: 

Twice Jesus is described explaining and interpreting to the disciples that all that has happened to him was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies — first to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then to all the disciples in the Upper Room.

I only wish Luke had a detailed record of all that Jesus said, including these explanations and interpretations. But then I realize that this is ultimately the task of faith, and of discipleship. I must come to faith, along with the church that continues to bear witness to the risen Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit that he imparts.  And I will have to do my own digging in the Scriptures to confirm my faith.

Fortunately, the New Testament authors themselves offer copious examples of the fulfillment of Scripture.  Yet even they admit that there are many more proofs that they have omitted simply because there wasn’t enough time or space.

What I have experienced by faith in Christ has been sufficient to inspire me to devote my life to sharing the best news in all of history: Jesus is alive, and gives all of us the promise of a future and a hope!

Lord, your life, death and resurrection are central to my faith as a Christian, as for all Christians.  Though I cannot see you or touch you as those first witnesses could, I have your Holy Spirit and your Word to confirm my faith, and to form the foundation of my witness to others.   As you once said to Thomas, who had the benefit of seeing you with his own eyes, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Amen. 

PHOTOS:
Background photo for “Message ABOUT Jesus. Message OF Jesus”:
“Samsung 40-inch LCD screen for Hire” by AV Hire London is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Epistle for April 15, 2018

got holiness

 

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
1 John 3:1-7
CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

There are two key words that continue to appear in the lovely epistle of First John: love and knowledge.

Love appears in 1 John 27 times, second in the New Testament only to the Gospel of John (39) – no surprise there, since we are pretty sure the same Apostle John wrote both documents.

Know appears 32 times, which is only behind two other New Testament epistles (1 Corinthians has 37; Romans has 34). Although the usage of the word know is in close company with Matthew (33) and Luke (39), all of them trail behind the Gospel of John (83) and Acts (50).

This quick, superficial and non-scholarly overview is intended to illustrate the central themes in 1 John:

  • Love is the essence of God’s character, and therefore the Christian character.
  • A relationship with God is grounded in a sense of assurance (i.e., knowledge).

The knowledge of which John writes is not the “secret knowledge” of the Gnostics, nor is it a knowledge reserved only for the intellectual.  This knowledge ultimately comes from love as well!

So what does this love do?  Because of the Father’s love, Christians are called children of God.  This is a terrific honor.  John’s Gospel makes clear that Jesus is uniquely related to God the Father:

The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (emphasis added).

Moreover, God’s children will be transformed into the likeness of Christ when he appears at the end of the age. This is a gift that  results from the love that the Father lavishes on them. And when Christ appears, God’s children will know him fully and be transformed into his likeness:

But we know that, when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is.

Along with this promise comes a moral demand:

Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure.

In other words, the child of God is to be purified as Christ himself is inherently pure.

Note that this purification is not the prerequisite to the Father’s love, it is the result of that love.  That is a significant difference.

John stays with this ethical concern for a moment, touching on the issue of sin.  He offers his diagnosis that sin is the violation of a known law.  However, he also offers the antidote to sin. He says that Christ:

was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin.

John also corroborates both Paul and the writer of Hebrews in describing the sinless character of Jesus: in him is no sin.

We should note that this is radically different from the character of every other human being.  John has made that clear in 1 John 1:8:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Jesus is uniquely without sin by his very nature; all other human beings have sinned, and are delivered from their sin by him.

This is where the mind begins to reel a bit, when John makes the audacious claim:

Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him and doesn’t know him.

John further warns his readers not to be led astray:

Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.

APPLY:  

love GodThis excerpt from 1 John begins with great comfort, and then ends with great challenge!

We are reminded that God’s love is lavished on us, and because of that love expressed through Christ we have become children of God.  This is in keeping with Paul’s doctrine in Romans 8:14-17 and Galatians 4:4-5.

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent out his Son, born to a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of children.

But then, as the old timers used to say, John quits preachin’ and goes to meddlin’.  Not only are we now God’s children, but we are also being transformed into the likeness of Christ!  In some traditions this is called sanctification.

And John is very clear that we are to purify ourselves as Christ is pure. Now, let me be very careful here, and reiterate what I said above — we do not purify ourselves in order to become children of God.  God’s love, expressed in Christ and received by faith, is what makes us children of God and then purifies us.

Nevertheless, it is presupposed that if we are children of God we no longer live as sinners. Like the church marquee that I’ve recently cited, “Holiness is not the way to Jesus.  Jesus is the way to holiness.” And also one of my favorites: “God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

Most Christians would agree that if we are pardoned from sin then in some sense we must also be delivered from the power of sin.  The rub comes with our human experience, doesn’t it?  We want to be free from those things that we know estrange us from God, but we find ourselves drawn back to them like a bug to a bug zapper! Lust, covetousness, pride, anger, just to mention a few.

How do we reconcile our experience with this radical demand for holiness?  Only by first recognizing our constant dependence on God’s grace.  That’s when we must refer ourselves back to what John has already taught us: 

If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth (1 John 1:6).

In other words, we are called to walk the paths of light, which means the paths of holiness and righteousness.  However, John also realizes our dilemma:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).

Nevertheless, he has given us the remedy — we begin by acknowledging our sin, and submitting it to God; and God is the one who forgives and gets the sin out of our lives:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Salvation is not mere “fire insurance” or “cheap grace” that “gets us into heaven” with a minimum of cost.  It cost Jesus his blood and life.  And his goal is to save us to the uttermost, to renew us and to make us like himself.

This transformation may take a lifetime, but it doesn’t come with any kind of card that we might have gotten in a Monopoly game, that says “Pass Go and collect $200.”

But while we are called to purity and to a sin-free life, we are also aware that this is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.  Our part is to obey and to repent when we become aware of sin in our lives.  And keep on walking in the light!

RESPOND: 

know GodI knew a man one time who got himself into a pickle.  He had mismanaged some funds that had been entrusted to him, and faced possible criminal charges.  When I visited him, he acknowledged that he’d done wrong.

He had been raised in church,  so he knew that the standard of the Gospel didn’t allow for cheap grace.  And he made the statement, “I’ve been relying on the verse ‘If we confess our sins God will forgive our sins,’ but I’ve neglected the rest of it: ‘and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'”

I fear sometimes that this is the case with many of us, at least those of us who are Western Christians. I include myself in this indictment.  We know we have been justified by faith.  And sometimes we seem to act as though that means we can live as we choose, without paying much attention to the moral and ethical demands of the Gospel.

If we love God as his children, then it follows that as we mature in him we will want to live as his children, holy and full of love.

We are reminded that God does hate the sin but loves the sinner; and he hates the sin not because it hurts him, but because it hurts us.  So our love for God means we will obey his commands through his power, and grow into his likeness.

What a profound challenge and reproach this is to me, Lord!  It makes me keenly aware of how grateful I am for your grace; but also how I still fall far short of “Christ-likeness.”  Please finish what you’ve started in me.  Make me reliant on your grace and love, and not dependent on those silly things that this world offers that won’t be mine a second longer than I draw breath!  Amen. 


									

Psalm Reading for April 15, 2018

Spiritual Benefits Psalm 4

START WITH SCRIPTURE:
Psalm 4
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OBSERVE:

This is a prayer of supplication.  The Psalmist, identified as David, is beseeching God to hear his prayer for relief from unidentified distress, and to be merciful to him.   These first verses are addressed directly toward the:

God of my righteousness

In the next verses, however, the Psalmist becomes more polemical.  His focus is no longer on God but on idolators who are pursuing delusions.  He is accusing them of turning glory into dishonor, loving vanity and seeking after falsehood.

The last verses, from 3 to 8, are an expression of confidence in God, and peace.  The Psalmist trusts that God hears his prayers.  He in turn admonishes his “audience” to turn away from sin, and to search their hearts in silence – presumably so that they may recognize the sins of which they must repent.

He ties the inner spiritual life with the outward expression of faith by exhorting his audience:

Offer the sacrifices of righteousness.
Put your trust in Yahweh.

Even if this Psalm precedes the Temple era, it is very consciously observant of the sacrificial system that undergirds the liturgical worship of Israel.

Finally, the Psalmist touts all the benefits of this confidence and faith in God:

  • Prosperity
  • The ‘glory’ of God that shines on the worshipper’s face – reminiscent of Moses’ shining face after each audience with the Lord
  • Joy that exceeds those times when grain and wine are abundant
  • The peaceful sleep of those who feel completely safe

APPLY:  

We desire all the benefits mentioned in this Psalm: prosperity; the “glow” of God’s grace; joy in abundance; peace and a sense of security.

Where do these benefits come from?  The answer is embedded in this Psalm. All of these benefits flow from:

  • The soul searching that leads to true repentance.
  • The sacrifice of our own will to God’s will.
  • Complete and utter trust in the Lord.

This is not a pretext for the so-called “prosperity Gospel.”  The Psalmist makes it crystal clear that his peace is derived not from prosperity:

You have put gladness in my heart,
more than when their grain and their new wine are increased.

Rather he says:

you, Yahweh alone, make me live in safety.

This is akin the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  He tells us not to worry about what we shall eat or drink or wear.  Instead, he says:

 seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33).

RESPOND: 

I confess. I worry too much.  And my worry is a symptom of a lack of faith. Or at best anemic faith.

So, I am applying the lessons of this Psalm in my own life:

 Search your own heart on your bed, and be still.

I make the decision to turn from the sin of worry and lack of faith.

And I place my complete trust in Yahweh.

Lord, only in you will I find joy, true prosperity that is not dependent on what the stock market or the job market gives or takes away, true pardon, and true peace and security.  Grant me that peace.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
 “Spiritual Benefits”uses the following photo as background:
 “Arrows showing up (Blender)” by FutUndBeidl is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.