Friday, July 25, 2014

When You Fall Short (Matthew 26:69-75) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do you look at a glass as either half empty or half full?  For example, a baseball player is more likely to describe his 250 batting average as - “I get a hit one out of four times at bat”, rather than - “I make an out three out of every four times I come to the plate.”  Pitchers too have a tough time describing pitches that miss their location and end up right in the center of the plate.  Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Bob Patterson described his pitch which the Cincinnati Reds' Barry Larkin hit for a game-winning home run: "It was a cross between a screwball and a change-up. It was a screw-up."

You don't have to be a baseball player to know what it feels like to strike out.  Right?  Yes, there are moments, there are days when we are not at our best.  Anyone here know what I’m talking about?   When our best is not enough, when our efforts come up short, times of personal failure, of not reaching our personal expectations or goals, of disappointing ourselves or others, of regrets, of mistakes that hurt others, of not fulfilling our best intentions, of guilt over something we did or forgot to do, of behavior we are not proud of.    Yes, we all fall short. 

If only I could turn back the clock; if only I had asked for help; if only I hadn’t spent so much money; if only I had thought it through better; if only I had been there for my friend; if only I had told the truth; if only I had made a better decision; if only I had communicated better with my children; if only I had been there when my family needed me or worked harder at my marriage.”  Millions of Americans attend support and recovery groups to deal with just such realities.

Falling short, failures, cut both ways; there are acts of commission and omission – we do something wrong or we fail to take action, to do anything at all.  We live in a culture which worships success and shuns failure.  We don’t like to be reminded of our faults and foibles and how often we succumb to them.    We tend to hide or deny our regrets.   Failure brings shame in our culture.

Deeply entrenched and painful memories are some of the hardest things to deal with in life.  If we allow them too, they can consume us and take over our lives by controlling our thoughts, attitudes, emotions and behavior.  They can invade our nights with sleeplessness. They can adversely affect our health.  Dwelling on our mistakes, becoming obsessed with some personal failure, can hurt us or even destroy us.

The story in the Bible of the prodigal son comes to mind, this younger brash son utterly failed his family and  brought shame upon the family name.  Fortunately, the story has a happy ending.  Another is a disciple named Peter.    Peter oused charisma.  He was an intense, dedicated, passionate, natural born leader.   Recall that it was Peter who defended Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane by slicing off the ear of a Roman soldier.  If there was anyone who truly loved Jesus, who was truly devoted to him, it was Peter. 

And yet Jesus spoke these unforgettable words to Peter. “This very night you will fall away on account of me, for it is written:  and the flock will be scattered.” Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”   Jesus answered: “I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” 

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. 70But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. 71Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”  Then some bystanders said to Peter:  “Certainly you are also one of them, your accent betrays you.”  Peter swore an oath, “I do not know the man.”  At that moment the rooster crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said.  And he went out and wept bitterly.   It was undoubtedly the lowest moment of Peter’s life.

What can we learn from this story?  First, remember that everyone fails!  You are not alone. Failure is universal.  Everyone disappoints themselves or others in life.  You do, I do.  It is humbling to look in the mirror and admit I blew it.   Today Disney Corp rakes in billions from merchandise, movies and theme parks around the world, but Walt Disney himself had a rough start. He was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” After that, Walt Disney started a number of businesses that didn’t last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure.  He kept plugging along, however, getting support from his brother, and eventually found a recipe for success that worked.

Never in his wildest imagination did Peter ever think he would let Jesus down and deny knowing him.  The Bible says: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  
Have you ever not spoken up or stood up for your faith when you had the opportunity?  Was it because of peer pressure or because you were afraid?   If so, then you have walked in Peter's shoes. Yes, Peter feared for his life.  To deny knowing Jesus is a major failing.  Peter knew it and most of us here today know it as well.  Can you think of other ways you have let God down?  I can think of ways I have.

Peter simply lost his nerve and succumbed in a weak moment.  Has that ever happened to you?   Evangelist Billy Graham, who has preached the gospel to more people than anyone in history, when asked after he retired if he had any regrets said:  “I wish I had spent more time with each of my children.”     

Second, the story reminds us that failure is not final.  Failing doesn't mean you are a failure.  There is a huge chasm between failing at something and being a failure.  Never confuse the two.  Failure isn’t fatal.  In the Bible, King David failed morally when he committed adultery with Bathsheba.  The prophet Jonah failed to obey God when he refused to go to Nineveh to bring God's word and instead ran away from God.  Moses failed in leadership when the Israelites whom he delivered out of Egypt turned away from God and worshiped idols in the wilderness. 

And yet, these men eventually became some of the greatest leaders in Israel.  God used them for great purposes in His plan for the Jews.   Like the apostle Peter, they knew failure, they had regrets, they had to deal with guilt, they knew what it felt like to let themselves down or let others down or let God down.  But you can also see from the success they had in life, that their failures did not get the best of them.  These failures didn't define them.  It didn’t thwart God's purposes and plans for their lives.  Your failures, my failures, won’t stop God from using us for His glory.

We must never allow other people to define us or label us by those times when we are not at our best.  We must not do it to ourselves either.   Former first lady Barbara Bush's press secretary, Anna Perez said there was a time when she dreamed not of having a White House office, but simply of having a roof over her head.  When Perez was in the fifth grade she came home from school one day and found her mother, two brothers and two sisters sitting on the street.  They had been evicted. "Mom had to split up the family."  "I lived with my fifth-grade teacher for a while. But no matter how bad things got, I remember what my mother kept telling us:  “We are not defined by our circumstances.  We are defined by our ability to overcome our circumstances.”

God wants us to learn and change and grow from regrets and personal disappointments.  God's word is – “I love you, you belong to me, your failures are not final nor fatal.”  We can choose to dwell on them, to wallow in them, to allow them to cause us to spiral downward or we trust in God and pray for God's power and grace, we can reach out for help from others, to overcome them, to triumph over them, to find hope and light out of them.

Third, remember, God is a forgiving God.  God is a merciful God.  God seeks to restore us when we let ourselves, others or God down.   Even though Peter had absolutely failed Jesus as a friend and a disciple, Jesus gave him another chance, another opportunity.  Why?  Because the God you and I worship is gracious, merciful, loving, and forgiving.  Jesus met and accepted Peter after his resurrection.   Jesus forgave Peter, he welcomed him.  Jesus didn’t reject Peter even though Peter rejected Jesus.   Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, which meant to lead his church into the future. 

Recall these promises of the Bible: “Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will not be angry forever.”  And another from scripture: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.  But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”  

The final lesson is humility and learning to forgive yourself.   Humility comes from going to someone you have let down or hurt or disappointed and asking for their forgiveness.  To say you are sorry.   And if restitution is needed, you make it.  You can't guarantee how they will respond, but Jesus wants you to take this course of action. 

And further, it is essential to ask God to help you to forgive yourself.  To believe you are worth forgiving.  To believe you are forgivable.   We have a tendency to hold ourselves more accountable than we do others, to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold others. 

Years ago, it took me a long time to forgive myself because I was wracked with guilt and the fear of what might have happened, when I was late picking up our son Matthew from elementary school when he was about 7 years old.  I was late because I was at church packing up a van for a ski trip with a bunch of our church's high school kids.  When I pulled up in front of the elementary school, the gates were shut, the street deserted, and Matthew was standing alone on the sidewalk crying, afraid I had forgotten him.

Dwelling on personal failings robs you of the energy you need to be the person God has created you to be. There is a difference between forgiving yourself and forgetting what you did.  Forgiveness is forgetting in spite of remembering.  It is being set free from the emotional baggage of a painful memory.  

Turn to God and ask for God’s power and grace to help you find the power to forgive yourself.  Ask God to help you regain your faith in yourself, to restore your sense of value, worth and self-confidence.   For until you are able to forgive yourself, you will never know inner-peace, peace within yourself and peace with God.

Jesus forgave Peter.  And the apostle Peter’s failure proved to be a profound turning point in his life, for out of his brokenness came greatness.  In his lifetime, he won many to Christ and continued to be a loyal and courageous follower of Jesus until his death as a martyr.

We cannot turn back the clock and undo something we did.  But we can resolve to open our hearts to the Lord and experience God's forgiving and healing peace.  When we truly repent, God is willing and ready to forgive you, to forget what you have done, to accept you, and to restore you to a righteous relationship and to the adventure of living the life God has given you.    Amen!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Be an Encourager! (Acts 4:32-37; 20:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

“You know dear, I’ve been thinking about taking up oil painting, what do you think?”  Well, to be honest, I just don't think you have the self-discipline to stick to a hobby, you know how you are, and it’s pretty expensive, besides, I’ve never seen you show any artistic talent.  Do whatever you want, but if it were me, I’d just drop the idea.”    

“Hey dad, I’m having trouble with my homework, can you help me?”  No, not now, I’m too busy.  And I don’t know why you’re having trouble anyway.  Why, when I was your age, I didn’t get any help from my folks, and besides I was a good student, I worked hard, and got good grades.”  

So let me be direct, are you a discourager or an encourager?    Let's start with a cold hard fact of life.  There is and there always will be an abundance of things in life to be discouraged about.  This has never changed.  Please tell me if I'm wrong?  If you or I had to wait until everything was perfect, until we were totally happy with life and our situation, would we ever be an encourager?

Look at yourself or your circumstances.  Are you totally happy or satisfied or content?  You might be thinking about your health, your job, your finances, where you lack talents and abilities, your appearance, we can always find things we don't like about ourselves or our circumstances and this can lead to being discouraged.

Look at your relationships.  Relationships with family or at school, or at work, or in the neighborhood.  Relationships are often less than ideal. There are always aspects of our relationships that are less than we hoped for, that have not met our expectations which can lead to our becoming discouraged.

Or look at our local community, or the government, or politics, or the economy, or immigration, or global warming or climate change, or crime, or corruption, and we can easily become discouraged.   Everything is terrible.  We are just victims of life's problems.   Like the man who said to the pastor:  “My life is a mess Rev. there is nothing you could say to encourage me, but go ahead, just try, I dare you?”

Why then have you and I met people in our lives who are encouragers?  Think of one person who encouraged you at a critical time in your life.  And why does the bible exhort followers of Jesus in spite of circumstances to be encouragers?

What does encourager or encouragement mean? It comes from the ancient Greek, what a surprise.  What did the father, Gus Portokalas, say in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “Give me a word, any word, and I will show you the Greek root of that word.”    The Greek word is paraklesis, and means a holy urging, a personal urging, an urging of the Spirit.  Recall Jesus promise to his disciples – “I will send you another comforter who will remain with you forever.”  That word translated as comforter is Paraclete in Greek, the same word as encourager paraklesis. 

Now this word is shaped by the context; it has many connotations.  It can be translated as: comforter or to comfort, to encourage, to exhort, to inspire, to warn someone, to spur on or urge on, to hearten, to embolden, to fill with courage or confidence, or strength of purpose.

An encourager is being a channel of the Holy Spirit in another's life.  Encouragment is the work of God's Spirit.  It is a holy work.   The Holy Spirit, the paraclete, is operating through you, when you are urging someone to carry on, to believe in themselves, to trust in God, take some action, to find comfort and peace.

Which leads us to a beloved man of the early church; Barnabas.  He was an associate of the apostle Paul on their missionary journeys.   Did you know that Barnabas was not his given name at birth?   We read in the book of Acts 4:36:  “There was a Levite, Joseph, a native of Cyprus, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas, a name which means Son of Encouragement.”  Joseph, was renamed Barnabas by the apostles, because of a stellar character trait – he encouraged other Christian believers. 

Barnabas sold a field he owned and turned the money over to the apostles for their mission.  He convinced believers in Jerusalem to accept the apostle Paul, formerly known as Saul who persecuted Jews who had become followers of Jesus Christ.  He taught new believers and exhorted them to remain faithful to the Lord.  “Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith and many people were brought to the Lord.”  Yes, people were literally brought to the Lord through his witness.”   In fact if you are looking for a name for a new baby you just might want to consider Barnabas, though it is probably more appropriate for a boy than a girl.  

Are you an encourager?  Think for a moment, when is the last time you encouraged someone?  For isn't it often our nature to judge, to criticize, to reprimand, to humiliate, to gossip about, to ridicule, to point fingers at others than encourage?  

We are pretty good about encouraging children.  We cheer them on to say their first word or to take their first steps.  We are pretty good at encouraging our grandchildren.   And what a joy it is to do so.   And no I won't  say our grandchildren are the cutest in the world, but they are close.  But what about your spouse?  Or your friends, your neighbors, or your colleagues at work.  What about your friends in Christ here at PB?  

We read in Acts 20 that the Apostle Paul on his missionary travels encouraged the believers in the early churches in Asia because their faith ran counter to the culture them found themselves in.

An encourager isn’t blind to human flaws and weaknesses, his or her own or others.  An encourager recognizes sin and shortcomings and yet seeks a constructive approach to others.  An encourager tells the truth to another if they are hurting themselves or others, but in a way that builds bridges rather than burns them and focuses on what is positive and possible in persons.  An encourager has patience, energy, and commits others to prayer.

Like the story about an audience at a concert who just finished hearing a solo by a squeaky tenor.  When finished, the applause was less than enthusiastic.  One member of the audience exclaimed:  “Extraordinary!   Wonderful!”  “Excuse me,” said a puzzled man sitting in the next seat. “I can claim some knowledge of the subject, and I think his voice was very poor.”  “Voice replied the other man.  “I wasn’t thinking of his voice.  I was praising his nerve!”

Jesus summons us to envision what a person can be, what someone can become in faith, to see possibilities of growth and change, to see unrealized potential. 

Albert Einstein was four years old before he could speak and seven years old before he could read and understand his first word.  He had to be tutored in math.   His family had little hope that he would amount to anything.  Pablo Picasso was born prematurely and left to die by his mother on a table in the house because he was considered too sickly to make any contribution to the world.  Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, was advised to give up her dream of becoming a writer and find work as a seamstress by her family.  Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who told him he lacked ideas.  

As a pastor I have worked with many families over the years, and I have seen the damage – how spirits, confidence, one's identity, hopes and dreams can be shattered and crushed when others have discouraged them at a critical moment.

Steven Covey, in his book Principle Centered Leadership which describes 8 characteristics in leaders writes:  “Once my wife and I felt uneasy about the labels we and others had attached to one of our sons, even though these labels were justified by his behavior.  By visualizing his potential, we gradually came to see him differently.  When we believed in the unseen potential, the old labels vanished naturally, and we stopped trying to change him overnight.  We simply knew that his talent and potential would come in its own time.  And it did, to the astonishment, frankly, of others, including other family members.  We were not surprised because we knew who he was.” 

Jesus calls each of us by His grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit to the ministry of encouragement.  And what a powerful and astonishing witness it can be.  Some of the greatest success stories of history have followed words of encouragement. A boy who loved music was bitterly disappointed because he could neither play nor sing.  One day he shared his disappointment with Amati, the violinmaker, who said:  “There are many ways of making music.  Some play violins, some sing, some paint pictures, some carve statues, while others till the soil and grow flowers.  Each sings a song and helps to make the music of the world.  You can make music too.”  And so Antonio Stradivarius grew up to make music by making violins.

An elderly member of my former church at Santa Monica received this note following surgery:  “Dear Bill: I just heard that you and I have a lot in common, our love for our Savior Jesus Christ and having major surgery on our rotator cuff.  I just wanted to drop you a note of encouragement.  It has been eight months since my operation and I have already been out playing golf and throwing a baseball.  My trainer tells me that I am way ahead of my rehabilitation schedule--besides playing golf, I can also lift weights.  I know that you, too, will have the discipline and patience that it takes.  There will be great challenges, but I know if I can do it, you can too.  Please be assured of my prayers for your recovery.  We have a great God.  During my rehabilitation, I have taken this verse for my own encouragement and I want to pass it along to you: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”  Phil. 4:13.  Sincerely, Orel L. Hershieser. 

I personally am very grateful for brothers and sisters in Christ who have encouraged me  in the church I grew up in and in the churches I have served as pastor over the years.    I am grateful for teachers, professors, friends, and family members who have encouraged me.  Their words and support has made all the difference.  May your walk in the Spirit be a ministry of encouragement to others so that God may use it for His glory.  Amen!  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Christian Liberty (I Peter 2:13-17; Galatians 5:1-2, 13-14) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A man writes:   “While I was attending graduate school in the early 1980s, I stopped for coffee in a Malibu, California, restaurant.  Coming from a non-political family, I knew nothing of political activists—but I met one that day in the restaurant.   He told everyone what a mess the United States had become.  He ridiculed our government and our educational, industrial, and banking systems. He was on such a roll that he had everyone in the restaurant on his side except for two people: an old man and me. The activist for some reason decided not to approach me, so he went after the old man.  As he approached, the old man continued slurping his soup. The activist sat down at the old man's table and offered, "Mister, if you can tell me just one thing the United States has ever done for you, just one measly thing, I will leave you alone."  Finally, the old man looked up. He licked his spoon clean and set it down on the table. His red face indicated years of laboring in the sun.  With a heavy Russian accent, he replied, "Ve hold zees truz to be self-evident, dat all men created equal, life, liberty, perzuit of happiness." Then he went back to the soup. The activist could not argue against what the old man had experienced growing up under communism before immigrating to this country.

On Friday America celebrated Independence Day.  We went to a park with Nancy's family and then to her mother's home and watched the spectacular display of fireworks all over the city.  I hope you had a good 4th of July.  Independence Day of course celebrates one thing – freedom, liberty, opportunity.  According to many observers it is what America represents to the world.   What does freedom mean to you? 

Historically, political, economic and religious freedom was the motivating force in the American Revolution, with cries for independence from Great Britain, self-government, freedom of worship and fair representation.  This July 4, celebrates 238 years from that historic moment in 1776 when the Continental Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.   Since that momentous day we have celebrated Independence Day with fireworks, picnics and parades.   The second president, John Adams said: "I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival," he wrote his wife, Abigail. "It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other."

We have built a nation based upon a Judeo/Christian covenant, a covenant with and under God.   We believe that freedom is a God endowed and unalienable right.  We believe freedom is worth making the ultimate sacrifice for.    We believe freedom must be protected and defended.  We believe freedom comes with a cost, it is not free.  We seek God's guidance and blessing in our life together as a nation and praise God for our freedoms.  We thank the men and women of our military, who have sacrificed their lives to ensure the liberty which we enjoy.  

Recall these famous words from the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”     

The drafters of our Constitution sought to strike a balance between a strong central government and one that protects personal freedoms and rights for both states and individuals.  Our first amendment protects rights of: free speech, freedom of religion, peaceable assembly, freedom of the press, and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances. 

Today we frame it as that balance between personal freedom and the public good, between individual liberty and national security.  This takes many different forms.  There is the NSA and surveillance of citizens vis-a-vis the right to privacy of our personal communications.   We value our freedom and yet we also value security and safety for our posterity, our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  In regard to immigration, there is the controversial and emotional debate about the God given human right and freedom to travel, to move from one country to another, and the dream of people seeking freedom in America verses a government's right and duty to restrict and ensure an orderly process of immigration.  I think of the recent Supreme court ruling of the rights of corporations on the basis of religious freedom, that government cannot mandate corporations to provide contraception coverage to employees.   A recent concern is the Federal Court ruling that New York City can bar religious groups from holding religious worship services in public school buildings on weekends.  Churches regularly meet in schools in Pacific Beach, San Diego and all over in CA.  What is that about?

We see how precious religious freedom is when we see the growing intolerance and change in policies in Egypt, where Muslim mobs are attaching and burning churches and killing Coptic Christians, and where the courts are now jailing Coptic Christians on charges of the contempt of religion, meaning of course, Islam.   I think of countries like Pakistan where converting to Christianity and renouncing Islam is a capital offense. 

Our scriptures declare that human freedom originates from God, not from a king, not from government, but from God.  Galatians says:  “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”   You and I were created by God to live free lives in our relationships with God and one another.  Christian freedom is a divine gift; it is God’s will.   Our freedom is grounded in the liberating work of God in Jesus Christ.   

The Bible is realistic about human freedom.  Pure freedom is a fantasy.  It says that human beings are never totally or fully free.   We are always subject to some lordship or power, always vulnerable to some yoke of slavery.  If we are not under the lordship of God, then we shall be to some other ruler or power in this earthly life.   We think of some today who are slaves to their feelings; they have self-control and anger management issues which is made manifest in spousal and child abuse.  We think of some who are addicted or slaves to drugs, to pornography or alcohol, or gambling or money or power.  Why - scripture says human beings are slaves to sin, that is, to self-centeredness, to self-worship, to idolatry, to rebellion against their creator.  And yes, we can become slaves to evil, to the evil one, to Satan.   The question is – to whom are you going to be in bondage?

But the good news is this - For freedom Christ has set us free!  Through faith in Christ, we can begin to experience the freedom which God intended for us.  Therefore, stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 

What is Christian liberty?  It is a paradox - Christian freedom is becoming a slave to Christ.  Christian freedom is being a servant to God.  I Peter says:  “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.  Honor everyone.  Love the family of believers.”   We read in Galatians:  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”   We read in I Corinthians:  “Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win some of them.  To the Jews, I became as a Jew in order to win Jews.  To the Gentiles, I became as a Gentile in order to win Gentiles.  To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.” 

The 16th century Reformer Martin Luther wrote:  “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all and subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all and subject to everyone.”  Christian freedom is at the same time freedom from the controlling power of sin and Satan and freedom for loving God, worshipping God, service to others, and for loving others in obedience to the command of Christ.  We are only truly free when we are a slave to Christ.

Author Elden Trueblood writes:  “We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound.  But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matters is the character of our binding.  The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or on the track. His failure to train rigorously and to practice abstinence denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance.  Slavery to self-discipline is the price of freedom.” 

And isn’t that true also of our jobs, our marriages, of making commitments to the church or community, of raising a family, of being a mother or father, of getting an education, of learning a craft.  We are most free when we are bound, a binding that leads to loving others, to service, to sacrifice, to sharing, to generosity, to accomplishing a goal.

Our contemporary idea of human freedom as one author put it "Began in the Renaissance, blossomed in the Enlightenment and rose to its climax in the 1960s." "You are confined by no limits.  Human freedom is limitless potential apart from God.”  Karl Marx: "Man is free only if he owes his existence to himself."

The Christian faith declares that God sent Jesus, who submitted to the slavery of death, so Jesus' followers might be set free from the power of sin through faith for life.  The letter of Philippians says:  “Jesus Christ through in was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, so that we might find new life and freedom in him.”  That's the radical difference between the contemporary idea of freedom and the biblical truth of Christian liberty.  For freedom, Christ has set us free.  Amen

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Discerning God's Will in my Life (Philippians 2:12-13; Romans 12:1-2) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember an elderly woman at our church in Santa Monica who was a zealous evangelist.  She was petite, about 5'2'', and would come right up to you, look you in the eyes and say:  “Have you saved a soul for Jesus today?”  At times church members, upon seeing her approaching, would quickly dart away.  One made the comment, “Oh Oh, here comes Virginia, convinced she's doing the will of God.”

"Why Am I here?" "Why Am I Alive?"  Have you asked such questions?  Good questions which should be asked.  Like George Cameron, who thinks about these questions daily.  He is alive due to the kidney donation of Clay Jones, a high school football player in Texas, who died in an accident.  Cameron writes: "I gambled, I drank to excess, I didn't take care of myself.  But knowing that I carry the kidney of this young man has really affected me.  It awakened faith in me.  I wonder why God spared me.  I have changed for the better and now work harder at being patient and loving and respectful of my life and the lives of others.”

Yes, God desires for you and me to seek, to know, and to follow His will.  Why?  Listen to God's word in the N.T. Letter of  Colossians: “We pray and ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will, in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might.”    A good prayer is “Lord, fill me with the knowledge of your will.”

Last week I spoke about discerning God’s Will in general.  I identified 3 aspects.  First, God’s Intentional Will which means God’s will for all people from the time of creation: to worship and love and honor and obey God and love one's neighbor, to lead a moral and just life, to discover and use your God given talents and abilities, to use your brain and your heart, to share your time and resources, etc. 

Second, God’s Circumstantial Will, which means that God is involved in all of the events and circumstances of your life, guiding and leading and working each day.  It doesn’t mean that everything that happens to you is God’s will.  It means God can take the disappointments, the defeats, the failures, the accidents, the set-backs, even evil and weave them together for His good purposes. 

Third, God’s Ultimate Will, that because God is the sovereign ruler and Lord, because God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present, God’s will for creation, for human history and for our lives, will never be defeated but will ultimately be fulfilled.  And here is the paradox, God's will is sovereign, nothing can defeat it or change it, or stop it, vis-a-vis human free will, going back to Adam and Eve. 

Today we are examining the question of discerning God's will in your life.  Will this message answer all your questions.  No, probably not.  But I hope it doesn't confuse you further or generate even more questions.

Scripture declares that God’s Will is knowable, you and I can know it.  Romans: 12: “Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  It can be seen, felt, perceived, sensed, heard, incorporated, discerned and understood.  One of the gifts of coming to faith is the ability to personally discern God's will.  Yes, it is a mystery, and yet God will unveil or reveal this mystery to us at times in our lives, when we seek it and pray about it.    

What kinds of situations have you sought God’s will about?  “Lord, I need guidance in this decision,”  “Lord, how do I solve this problem,” “Lord, should I change jobs or go back to school to change careers,” “Lord, how do I handle the problems I’m having with my child,” “Lord where can I get help for my marriage,” “Lord, should I volunteer in the community,” “Lord, where do you want me to serve in the church,” “Lord, where can I get help with my finances,”  “Lord, should I have this surgery or not.”

Further, scripture says God's will is not only knowable it is achievable.  By faith, God gives us the power and grace to fulfill His will in our lives, to make the decision God wants us to make, to put it into action, to be where God truly wants us and to fulfill what God wants you to do.  The words we hope to hear when we meet Jesus after we die, are these scriptural words – “Well done, good and faithful servant, well done, enter into my kingdom.”   

Sometimes we know God's will in advance.  For instance, recall God’s call to the Apostle Paul.  “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, come over to Macedonia and help us.  After Paul had seen the vision, he got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel there.”   The apostle Paul knew God's will for him was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.

I think of a contemporary example, Christian song writer Amy Grant.  She grew up in Nashville in a Christian home imbued with faith, traditional values, love and support.  She knew early on that God was calling her to a career in Christian music.  By the time she was 16 Amy had released her first album and was on her way to becoming a dominant voice in the Christian music movement.  She has sold over 30 million albums; won six Grammy's and has performed in the White House.  She has taken Christian music to a wider audience than any other artist in the Christian genre.

On the other hand, Scripture also teaches that we don't always know God's will in advance, like the Apostle Paul or Amy.    II Cor. 5: 7 says: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”   Abraham was called by God to go forth to a land that God would show him in the future.  God didn't tell him where the land was but  upon arriving, Abraham knew this was the place he was to settle in. 

A pastor writes:  “I have found that God’s will for me is meaningful more in retrospect than in prospect.  I find when I step out in faith, rather than waiting around for some sign, and move ahead, God unfolds or shows me His will, that is, how He desires to use my life becomes clear.  I see God’s hand far more when I look backward than when I try to look forward.”   I find that oftentimes is true for me.  God decides how and when he wants to use us for His glory.  Your job and mine is to be alert and ready and have the courage to trust in God and go forth in faith.

Since people are different God reveals his will to us in various ways.  God uses many avenues, not just one.  Since the circumstances of our lives vary, and we find ourselves at different stages of life, God  reaches us in a way that is appropriate for that occasion.   Recall the verse from Philippians:  “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”    

I've spoken to people who have sensed a clear call to a career: becoming a missionary, serving in the military, a lawyer, an artist, a pilot, a doctor, a teacher, a police officer, a craftsman, a professional athlete, an actor.    “I was born to do this,” they will tell you.

I’ve spoken to others who have sensed God’s leading them in special activities or callings: such as serving in the church or community, or volunteering at a hospital or in the public schools, or taking on some cause in the community, crime, or homelessness or environmental issues, or grandparents commiting to raise their grandchildren, or a couple adopting a child, or caring for an ill neighbor.    Psalm 138 vs.8 says: “The Lord will work out his plans for my life; the Lord will fulfill his purpose for me, your love oh Lord, endures forever.”    

The biblical truth is this – God has more than one plan for your life.  God's will for you to please him will vary depending upon the circumstances of your life, upon where you are at a particular time in your life.  Rest assured, you are never too old to be beyond the purposes of God.   God desires to use you for His glory until the last breathe you take.

Where do we find God's will?  How do you discern God’s will for your life?  Here are some biblical ways God reaches out to us.  God may reach you in one way or in multiple ways.  God doesn't use the cookie cutter approach.  God uses the individual custom approach.

First, God speaks through His Word, the Bible.  Read it prayerfully and regularly.  Everything we need for living a life that pleases and honors God is found in Scripture.  As you get to know God’s Word, you will get to know God’s will.  Psalm 119 says:  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

But you need to be careful how we do this.  A man was facing a major dilemma in his life and decided to seek an answer by turning to the Bible.  He flipped open the Bible and randomly put his finger on a page and read the verse; and Judas went away and hanged himself.  He was a little startled, so he tried it a second time, and placing his finger on another verse read: “Go and do likewise.”  He thought, I’ll give it one more try, and randomly selected a third verse, and read:  “Thus saith the Lord.” 

Second, God speaks through your own faith and intuition and judgment and common sense and conscience.    You will be a-tune to God’s will if you are daily walking with God, the Holy Spirit will guide you.   Pay attention to the voice within you.   Many times I've found a thought arises: go see this person, go call this person, and I have and they say, wow, I was just thinking about you, or I really needed to talk to someone.  Listen when God speaks to your inner self.

Third, God speaks through the circumstances of your life.  Oswald Chambers put it this way:  “God speaks in the language you know best, not through your ears but through your circumstances.”  Think about those times when you said: “It was meant to be, it happened for a reason, it was a God thing.”  Your life is not accident.  What you do each day matters to God.   You can be doing God’s will and because it seems so natural, you are not even aware it’s His will for your life.  Consider this - you may be doing now what God wants you to do.  You are where God wants you to be.  Celebrate it. Rejoice in it.  Give thanks for the opportunity to serve the Lord.

Fourth, you discern God’s will by how God has shaped you, designed you, wired you in terms of your spiritual gifts, attitude, aptitude, abilities and talents, your personality, your passion, your interests.  What motivates you?  What energizes you?  What could you see yourself doing?  God’s will is to match your divine design on the one hand with your work, your opportunities, your decisions, your service, your vocation and avocation on the other.  

If you are not technical by aptitude, God’s will is not likely that you should be an engineer or computer scientist.   If you can’t sing a note, God’s will is not likely that you should sing professionally or in a choir.   If you have a poor sense of direction, God’s will is not likely that you should become an air traffic controller.  If you have no sense of humor, you don’t get jokes and can't tell them, God’s will is not likely that you become a comedian.  We discern God’s will by knowing ourselves and how God has put us together.  I remember a Sunday School teacher at a former church who came into my office after church on her first day of teaching Sunday School and said:  “I am sorry pastor, but I resign, I discovered that I really don't like children.”

Fifth, we discern God's will through the wisdom, counsel and faith of others.   As you seek God’s will, don’t be afraid to talk to others, to people you respect and trust.  God wants us to seek out and listen to one another in the community of faith.  Listen with open ears. Don’t get defensive if someone says something you don’t want to hear.  You want to hear the truth.  Listen for the word of God from these people. 

Sixth, oftentimes God reveals His will only after we take the first step, a leap of faith.  I’m sure you’ve experienced those times in which you have prayed and prayed but nothing seems to happen.  I have.  You feel like God is not listening.  We sometimes must act first, step out in faith and trust that our decision is in accord with God’s will.  Only later, do we find the answer.

Seventh, we sometimes discern God’s will most clearly when we need help, when we are most vulnerable.  We go to God in our hour of need.  We have nowhere else to turn.  It is a time of crisis or confusion or illness or brokenness.  In such times we are most receptive and honest and open to God’s word and will.   It is in such times that God can reach us because we are ready to listen with patience and humility.       

You may know and be doing God's will right now.  Praise God.  If you are truly seeking His will, be assured, God will reveal it to you.  Dear Lord, fill us with the knowledge of your will.  Amen!