THE BATTLE OF BETHLEHEM CONTINUES

28 12 2019

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One of my all-time favorite stories is Charles Dickens’s, “A Christmas Carol.” Last December, I read a wonderful biography about Dickens. Did you know that in many ways, Mr. Dickens is known for redeeming the Christmas Season and bringing back the joy of the holiday?

I’ve seen almost every tv and movie version of “A Christmas Carol.” I loved Felix and Oscar’s take on it in a classic episode of “The Odd Couple.” When it comes to the big screen’s presentation of the scary ghost story, Alistair Sim gets my vote as the best Ebenezer Scrooge. As a matter of fact, after the last of the Christmas Eve Services have ended after midnight, I always come home to this. Over the years, I’ve even attended numerous live productions in New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Omaha and Philadelphia. Here is a bit of personal insight, as a kid, I performed as Scrooge in a junior high version of the play. I still can quote verbatim most of the lines.

A Christmas Carol is like most memorable stories that we all know and love in that it features a wicked villain whose chief goal is to make Christmas as miserable or nonexistent for everyone. If you look closely, the one common denominator in almost every holiday film is that there is always an antagonist. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it’s Mr. Potter who battles George Bailey. My very favorite movie of all time, the 1947 version of “Miracle on 34th Street” has cynical Mr. Sawyer who is convinced that Kris Kringle is looney. “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” has the Abominable Snow Monster. “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” has, well, the Grinch! “Home Alone” has the bumbling wet/sticky bandits, Harry and Marv. Don’t forget the Burgermeister, Mesiterburger who outlawed toys in “Santa Claus is Coming To Town. And being an avid watcher of all things Hallmark Channel, there is always somebody in every script who is a heartless, money loving, narcistic developer who attempts to bulldoze, evict and spoil whatever yuletide joy there may be. Thank God for Candace Cameron-Bure, Lacey Chabert, Erin Krakow, Danica McKellar, Alison Sweeney, Alicia Witt and all the other Hallmark heroines who jump in to save the day!

The reason I bring this all up is because the original Christmas story had its own monster. He and his cruelties were far from cute and from what we know, he never turned the nasty pages of his heart to rewrite his tale for the good. Herod was a legitimate villain, which is why we try to avoid him in all of our December memories. I don’t know of any nativity sets that include this maniac. Yet, Herod figures very prominently in the history of the birth of Jesus. To ignore him is to not only ignore the world into which Jesus was born, but to miss an important thread in God’s grand plan of redemption. Underneath the silver and gold glow of our nostalgic scenes of Bethlehem, is a very real and awfully dark thread of violence. There were signs of a spiritually driven cosmic clash between the old serpent, the dragon and the coming of the Christ!

In history class, we learned of many famous bitter battles. There was the “Battle of Bunker Hill,” the “Battle of Gettysburg,” the “Battle of the Bulge,” and Christmas which hosted the high noon showdown known as the “Battle of Bethlehem.” Like it or not, Jesus was born into a warzone.

In the months after that holy night, when the shepherds witnessed Jesus in the manger, Joseph and Mary stuck around in Bethlehem, making their temporary dwelling in David’s City. The magi were still on their way, following the star to take them to the newborn King. These pagan experts knew more about the sacred texts than the religious priests of Jerusalem. When they finally got to Jerusalem, they knew they were close and there was no stopping them now as they made this journey to honor the newborn king and pay tribute to his majesty. They began to ask around, “Where was he born the King of the Jews?”

Herod the Great was a power hungry, madman, paranoid sociopath. He actually gave himself his own nickname about being “great!” He built his legacy to give him the appearance that he was omnipresent. In addition to his fortresses at Herodium, Sebaste, Machaerus, and Masada, he also built palaces in Caesarea, Jericho, and Jerusalem. At any moment, he could have been in any one of them, so at every moment, he might as well have been in all of them. As far as it was on his watch, there could only be one ruler in Judea. When Herod heard of these learned men and their quest, his blood began to boil when he heard the words “king” and “Jews” in the same sentence with no mention of himself.

The Bible calls our enemy, the devil, and defines him as the one who wants to steal, kill and destroy anything good and godly in our lives. He knew that this Baby Jesus was under two years of age so he went on a murdering rampage eliminating every male child two years of age and under. He tried to con the magi into giving him the exact location of God’s Son but an angel prevented that from happening. It was another heavenly messenger that got Mary and Joseph out of town taking Jesus to Egypt. The Gospel of Matthew says, all of Jerusalem “was disturbed” (Matt. 2:3 NIV). The population was disturbed because the king was ticked. And like in a home where Mom isn’t happy, nobody is happy, Herod began to raise hell on earth.

There is a personal lesson we should learn from the life of Herod this Christmas. Jesus calls Christians to a lifetime of following Him and receiving His will and His way into our worlds. But too many times, when God’s kingdom threatens our meager control on our own agendas, we too begin to whine to the One we should be worshipping. The Lord doesn’t share the throne with us. If you want to be king, and someone else comes along saying He is the king, somebody has to get out of the way. Jesus is the Leader and we come to know who we are when we recognize Him as who He is. Only one person can be King of kings and Lord of lords and it isn’t us!

It’s easy for us to point to the tyrants who ruled in Jesus’ day and to the egotistical politicians who try to intimidate us today and think that we are totally innocent of ever doing right the wrong way. As long as we call earth home, there will always be a tug of war happening in our hearts. There is part of us that wants to come and adore only Jesus the Lord. There is another Herod side that will always root for our own self-centered pursuit. Herod serves as a powerful reminder that we cannot be neutral about Jesus. We are either for Him or against Him. He is either Lord of all or not at all. If God be for us, then who can be against us? This Christmas time, recognize the villain for who he or she is. There is always going to be opposition. As long as we play offense for heaven, hell is on the defensive. The Battle of Bethlehem must be won and when we lift Jesus up, we are victorious.





CHRISTMAS SHEPHERDS AND US!

23 12 2019

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Christmas is a powerful reminder that what is important in heaven is often unimportant on earth. While the world was sleeping, snoring and snoozing the Son of God made His grand entrance with little to no fanfare. If I was to try to get people to sign up to gather to sing Christmas praise songs in the middle of Cape May Court House on Christmas Eve, something tells me that the clip board would be passed from hand to hand with very few signatures upon it. It would be my guess that most people would choose to do other things they deem more important. Yet when the call went out for the angels to join the heavenly choir on the night that Jesus was born, there wasn’t a celestial being that was even tempted to miss the ministry. When the Bible describes the band of holy crooners as a host, it literally means that there were too many to count. Can you imagine the view the shepherds had as they attended the greatest concert ever held this side of glory? In reality, God brought the big show to them!

Shepherds in a nearby field were showered with an angel song, but what makes it so amazing, was that so many more could have sung along! Caesar Augustus should have been there but he wasn’t. Herod should have been there but he wasn’t. The Religious Pharisees should have been there but they weren’t. Joseph and Mary’s Family should have been there to support the new born baby, but they were too ashamed to even associate with the blacklisted couple. So, who showed up to the birthday party when nobody else could fit Jesus into their busy schedules? The Lord who is our Shepherd made sure that those who had experience tending sheep would get the first glimpse of majesty in the manger.

For four hundred years, God had been silent. There were no prophets, no angels appearing, nothing miraculous occurring in the daily happenings. But on a midnight clear, suddenly now the heavens couldn’t and wouldn’t keep quiet. And the top story came to the people you’d least expect to employ as your messengers of this good news. That is unless of course, you were a shepherd yourself. Public relations professionals get big money working hard at securing opportunities to get their guests in front of millions of eyeballs. I’m sure they would have worked tirelessly to get Jesus on Oprah or Ellen or Dr. Phil or the Wizard of Oz for that matter! When God announced the birth of Jesus to the world, He used the opposite approach. He didn’t send Jesus to 30 Rock but sent the host of heaven to a common field outside Bethlehem. And the people He chose as His spokesmen were unpolished, sweaty, uncouth shepherds. Actually, if you are a student of the Bible, you wouldn’t expect God to do it any other way! I’m so glad God loves the underdogs!

There is something significant and powerful about the inclusion of shepherds in the Jesus story. Luke is reminding us, by mentioning the shepherds, that the kingdom of God isn’t just for the rich and famous and religious bigwigs. Jesus came for those that were on the outside looking in. He came to seek and save the broken, the battered, the defeated and the lost sinners like you and me. If you are ever going to truly celebrate Jesus, which is what the word “Christmas” actually means, you are going to have stop looking in all the wrong places. Maybe we all better start looking in the faces of the least of these that the real Jesus can be discovered with.

I have made my decision to stand by my Savior no matter where He may be found. Jesus invites people of every tongue, tribe, nation and background to follow Him. When you decide to really hang out with the One who was born in that manger 2000 years ago, you might just see some things that you never expected to discover about the Lord of all. While Jesus loathed prostitution, He still loved on the prostitutes. Jesus knew the whole tax collecting system was corrupt and unjust and yet He purposely sought out Matthew and Zacchaeus. His stand was against the sin doing human beings in but He never alienated the very lost sheep that desperately needed to find their way home. God still moves in those mysterious and miraculous ways even today!

People are not the enemy. For too long, today’s church has been playing a game of “Us against Them!” Contrary to popular opinion, we wrestle not against flesh and blood. People are the ones the very Creator of all humanity has called and empowered us to love. Love your family, friends and yes, even love those who are nothing like you. God loved us while we were running the other way! He didn’t wait until we cleaned up our act to come to know Him. He knew we would be powerless to do that on our own! Only God can change a heart! Only God can transform a life! What good is it if all the believers remove themselves and run and hide from the very pool of humanity that Jesus came to die for too? I shudder when we Christians become holier than thou to the point that we forget that without the grace of God, we too would still be wandering around in circles of chaos and confusion too. What good is it if Jesus said He is the way and yet we who represent Him keep blocking the path to get to Him? There is so much joy in Heaven when we earthly shepherds leave behind the 99 already found to fervently seek and lead home the one that got away! Who needs to be pursued by you with the love of God this December?

Christmas is all about a Shepherd who left the comforts of glory to come and find the lost lambs that could not have been rescued any other way! When the shepherds left their flocks that night to go and see what the angels had told them, they discovered that the baby was wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Do you know who else wrapped their babies in cloths and put them to sleep in a feeding trough? The shepherds did, that’s who! When the shepherds saw the Messiah lying in a manger, they related to Him instantly. He was just like them. He was there for them! Maybe this Christmas is the right time to finally get the story straight. We don’t have to become who we are not to be loved by God. God came to love us as we are and then transform us into who we would never be without Him. Could it be that the best Christmas present of all is finding our hope and future in His Presence? So, stop looking around and look up this December 25th and see what too many missed 2000 years ago. God so loved the world that He gave us His one and only Son that whosoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday Jesus.





Moving From Admirer to Devoted Follower!

11 12 2019

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Growing up, I admired many people. Lots of those individuals just happened to be athletes. As a kid, watching the New York Mets, I became very passionate about baseball. I ate, drank, lived and slept baseball. My heart would literally race with excitement whenever I saw Tom Seaver pitch. I purposed in my heart that whatever Tom Seaver had for breakfast, I wanted the very same thing. If Tom Seaver used a certain aftershave, I was going to splash the same lotion all over my face, and I was only 10 years old. I threw the ball the way he did. I copied his every movement. I read articles about him and would repeat his motion over and over again. I was so good at being like Tom Seaver that when I would listen to the ballgame on the Radio, I would be in perfect sync with what Tom Seaver was doing on the mound even though I couldn’t even see him. Basically, I wasn’t just an admirer of Tom Seaver. I was a full-blown disciple. I was definitely a learning-active follower of everything about him.

Most of you are not in that category. Those of you who are older like me, probably admired Tom Seaver, much like I used to admire Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning, but I can honestly say that none of those men impacted my life. Anyone who knew me then understood by my behavior that I was devoted to #41 who was known as The Franchise.

An admirer is impressed. A follower is impacted forever. An admirer claps. A follower is committed. A lot of people admired Martin Luther King. Some marched with him. Not many went to jail with him. Not many got their houses bombed like he did. A lot of people admired Mother Theresa. Not many people followed her to live among the destitute and dying.

When Jesus would do his teaching here on earth, there were always two groups of people listening to him. Many would stand amazed at his teaching, because Jesus taught them as one who had authority, not as their other ordinary teachers of the law. While Jesus was teaching, something miraculous began to happen in the hearts of a few of them. Suddenly admiration from a distance was no longer enough. As Jesus would share words of life, their hearts would pound and their minds would race and something deep inside them said, “This is it. This is what I have been longing for my whole life without really being able to properly communicate it, without knowing the spiritual name for it. I have hungered to be cleansed and yearned to be forgiven of all my sin and finally get rid of all that junk that for so many years has had me weighed down. I suddenly want to know God and not just be content with information about Him. I want to go on beyond being informed to allowing the Holy Spirit to totally transform me. I’m weary of worrying and falling into dedicating myself to deeds that I’m not proud of. I know I need more than just stuff. I admit that I need a Savior. I long to be rescued, redeemed and restored. I want to have confidence beyond the grave, to not be afraid of death anymore. I won’t settle for anything less. I would rather have Jesus and give up everything else in the world, than to have everything the world could offer me and then have to give up the Lord. I will pay any price. I don’t care. I will do whatever He wants me to do. I will go wherever He wants me to go. I will give whatever He says I ought to give. I will be whatever He says I should be. Today, I am leaving the fickle crowd of admirers. As of today, I’m a Jesus Fanatic. I am ready to love Jesus no matter what anybody else says or thinks. I will live as a fully devoted follower of Jesus.”

This Christmas, are you just an admirer that doesn’t yet fully follow Jesus? Are you holding back from God because you are afraid of losing what you can’t keep anyway? Are you flirting with the Lord rather than surrendering your whole heart? Are you just dating God when what you really need to do is make a commitment to Him?

Last week, Terri and I celebrated our 37th Wedding Anniversary. We reminisced a bit about a crucial weekend during Easter 1982. I was getting ready to graduate Bible College and begin ministry. Terri was just a sophomore at the time and so a big decision had to be made. Our relationship was at a crossroads. Either I was going to make the commitment and marry Terri or break up with her. It wasn’t a question of love. I loved Terri and admired everything about her. Nothing was going to change that. But if we were going to move forward together, it was going to take a step of movement on my part to make the lifetime commitment of getting married. Too many people try to build a commitment upon love but that doesn’t work. It must be the other way around. God didn’t commit to us because He loved us. He loved us because He was already committed to us.

I talked to all my trusted advisors at the time for their opinion. I prayed and asked God to reveal His will. I believe that He said, “It is up to you.” You see, this was not a question of right or wrong. It was a matter of going from dating to marriage. I came back and on that Easter Sunday night, I said to Terri, “I’m yours if you want me.” We have been together ever since.

Jesus didn’t come to just be buddies. He longs to be our Savior and Lord and so the next choice is up to you. He stands at the door of your heart and He knocks and says, let Me in but if I come in, it is to be your God and not just another trivial pursuit. If you are going to move forward in your faith, you can’t just cheer from the crowd. You must obey and follow the Lord. Jesus promises that He will lead us into eternal life but you won’t know that until you take Him at His word and you can’t do that from a distance.





CHRISTMAS SONGS AND YOU!

3 12 2019

Copy of Copy of Be Still...I want you to think about at least one song that when you hear it at Christmas time, it actually gives you the blues. What Yuletide carols actually expose the emptiness and loneliness that you feel inside? Rather than fill your heart with joy, when these tunes are played on the radio, they make you experience the pain of someone poking your heart with an icepick. Not everyone is up for a holly jolly December.

There is a lot of music that is associated with Christmas. Some of it is childlike, some of it brings hope, some of it not so much. I’m sure that most of you are familiar with these words, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light, From now on your troubles will be out of sight.” This song debuted in the movie musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland and the greatest crier ever to grace the big screen, Miss Margaret O’Brien. When Judy holds Margaret in her arms to sing what would become a classic, it is far from a happy, touching scene in the movie. As a matter of fact, the clip is downright dark and gloomy.

Judy and Margaret play sisters and they and the rest of the family are about to leave St. Louis at the turn of the century when the World’s Fair is coming to town and relocate to New York City. Nobody wants to go and everybody is putting on a brave face, but on the inside their world is collapsing. Judy sings to try to cheer Margaret up, it backfires because as soon as the song is over, Margaret O’Brien suffers a major breakdown and goes outside in her nightgown to knock over with a baseball bat all of her snow people.

It could have been worse. Here are some of the original lyrics to “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Judy could have sung, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, It may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past.” Now that certainly doesn’t put fresh winds of optimism beneath your sails. Aren’t you happy that the writers changed it to the more optimistic version that we are all familiar with? Basically, we are all moving away from the only home we have ever known to go to a place that none of us want to be, and even though we’re going to leave all of our loved ones behind, let’s somehow have a Merry Christmas in spite of nothing going right!

For so many people, the holiday season is the most dreaded time of the year. December can be a real pressure point because expectations are so high, it only sets us up for lots more disappointments. And because we all are looking to have the best Christmas ever, we tend to over magnify our problems, be even harder on our imperfections, and beat ourselves up for falling far short of the Currier and Ives perfect portrait!

If you are by nature a Type A super busy person, it is a sure bet that you will be even busier and more stressed to make up for any lost time in December. If your family relationships are strained, this time of the year can be really tough because there is always pressure to pretend that things are much better than they really are. Even the genuine Waltons weren’t really like the Waltons we watched on television.

Joni Mitchell penned these words, “It’s coming on Christmas, They’re cutting down trees, Putting up reindeer, Singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river, I could skate away on. But it don’t snow here, it stays pretty green. I’m gonna make a lot of money, Then I’m gonna quit this crazy scene, I wish I had a river, I could skate away on. Maybe where you are in the present is so depressing that a nostalgic but not necessarily an accurate look at Christmas past, makes today no better. Where are those songs of joy and peace that Joni sings about? What are they? Where is that life that was far simpler back then? Has living always been such a struggle? What is the solution to bring lasting peace and purpose to the chaos taking place all around us?

America may have more stuff under the tree than anybody else, but it has lost its soul in the pursuit causing us to become a deeply unhappy nation. And unless we get really specific about receiving the gift that God gave to us in that stable 2000 years ago, all we will do is proceed in going thru the motions of trying to find meaning in a hectic season when it only can be discovered in knowing personally the Savior. I don’t care how many decorations you put on a Christmas tree, if it is artificial and dead, there is nothing you can do to make it come alive. Only God can do that. Have you allowed Him to do that in you?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who can’t wait for the Christmas season to be over. If you can believe it, one survey found that 45 percent of Christians actually dread the holiday season. We are told that Christmas should be the most wonderful time of year, yet according to the National Institute of Health, Christmas is the time of year that people experience the highest incidence of depression. Hospitals and police forces report the highest incidences of suicide and attempted suicide. Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals report a significant increase in patients complaining about depression. There is not much there to sing and shout about.

When will we learn that we aren’t going to find happiness in Christmas traditions unless they flow out of the truth and fruit of a real relationship with Jesus? We won’t find happiness by buying bigger and better Christmas presents, if God’s presence is not at the center of it all. We won’t find happiness by watching more Hallmark Christmas movies complete with scripted happy endings, if we haven’t discovered that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus. Literally, Christmas means the celebration of the Christ. God so loved the world that He sent us His Son and He delivered Him in a place where even the lowliest shepherd would be welcomed to find Him.

The greatest need in our world today is the greatest need that mankind has always had and that is receiving the gift of real love. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her king.” We can’t speak for the planet, but we can decide for ourselves. Are you looking for love in all the right places? Are you seeing real grace and peace in just the right faces? Maybe to get it right, we need to ignore what the world is saying and listen to what the Word has already communicated to us.

I just read the horrible news that 67% of babies diagnosed with downs syndrome are aborted before they ever get the chance to be born. Now I know that society has gotten that one wrong. I have two brothers with Downs and I wish I was more like them than I wish that they were like me. Who is anyone but God who has the right to define what lives are valuable and what lives can be thrown away? This Saturday and Sunday Night at 6PM, Kathy Troccoli will be doing a Christmas Concert at The Lighthouse Church. Tickets are free and you can get as many as you want by calling the Lighthouse Church at 609-465-6690. But during that program, an offering will be taken and 100% of that will go to an organization called, “Up For Downs.” Kathy sings, “Go Light Your World,” and I can’t think of a better way to strike a match for those who need our voice to speak up for them.

For God so loved that He gave. God is a Giver. Maybe there would be more meaning if we received the King and then shared Him with everyone we can. Only knowing Jesus has kept me alive this long in spite of all the many darts and arrows that have tried to steal my joy! Do you know Him?





GIVE THANKS!

26 11 2019

unnamedThis Thanksgiving, your mission is not to try to just feel grateful; it’s to be grateful. Grumbling comes easy. Nobody needs to be reminded to whine more. Nobody needs to be taught to complain. Entitlement has become a truly bad habit for our culture and unfortunately, we are really good at it. The Bible’s word for ingratitude is discontent. Moaning is the result of us missing God right smack dab in the midst of everyday life.

Have you ever heard of a person groaning about all that is going wrong, they wouldn’t recognize a blessing if it bit them in the leg? Did you know that you can be lured away from optimism quicker than almost anything else? We live on an imperfect planet, with bodies that are falling apart, surrounded by people who are never happy, facing disappointment almost every day like clockwork? God takes our attitudes quite seriously. It is our approach that determines our outcome.

Did you know that the average human being takes approximately 23,000 breaths every day? When was the last time you thanked God for even one of them? The process of inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide is a complicated respiratory task that requires physiological precision. We tend to thank God for the things that take our breath away. And that’s fine. But maybe we should thank him for every other breath too!

God was so good to the Israelites. He gave them freedom, took especially good care of them, provided them the guidance they would need by personally dictating to Moses the Ten Commandments, led them through the wilderness and knocked the walls down in Jericho so that they would have no resistance in entering the Promised Land. Still overall, there was more bellyaching than expressing to God love via a heart of worship.

Gratitude leads to a life of blessing but until we receive the benefits that come from the hand of the Lord as good gifts, we will be more grouchy than glorious. On Monday morning last week, I was grumpy. Do you ever wake up grumpy? There are two kinds of people in the world: people who love to wake up in the morning, and people who hate people who love to wake up in the morning. I didn’t feel like preparing my message and yet I knew I had to. I started out the week by not feeling thankful, but as I hung out with the God who made it all, my focus shifted, and so did the way I proceeded to behave the rest of that day.

When God presented His Son Jesus that first Christmas, the angel said that we would call His Name Emmanuel which means God with us. A spirit of Thanksgiving will not come from more acquisitions, possessions and property. The more aware we become of God’s abiding presence wherever we may be and God’s never-ending supply of goodness even surrounded by lots of badness, the better our chances that we will celebrate the positives without having to escape the negatives.

In 1955, when Disneyland was opened in California, what would you have done if Walt himself gave you a call with an invitation to spend a day at the park accompanied by him? How fascinating it would have been to go through that wonderland with the creator of the magic standing right by your side. Think of how many insights you would gain just by the company you kept. The God of the universe has given us the option of traveling through life with Him leading the way. The closer we stay to Him, the deeper our wisdom will become and the purer our perspective will be. Why would we ever want to wander aimlessly trying to fend for ourselves without the One who made it all to show us what we are missing when we don’t have to? Appreciation is a by product of what we see and who we see it with. The Bible has a lot to say about this. In the Psalms it says, “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things.” Every life is filled with benefits from God. His goodness and grace rains down upon believers and unbelievers alike. Humans are blind to them most of the time. We come to know the wonder of it all when we receive what God has given us with open and surrendered hands.

Jesus is calling us all to the Thanksgiving table of grace and mercy. Scriptures tell us that God sings over us with love. Many individuals will roll their eyes in indifference as they are preoccupied with the music of society. A precious few will humbly raise their hearts in unceasing praise. What group will God find you in? This is so much more than just speeding through grace before you eat. This is learning how to discover the timeless truth that God is the benefactor of limitless blessings and for those of us who forget not his benefits we become the beneficiaries of faithfulness we couldn’t earn and we don’t deserve but receive freely anyway.

A. J. Jacobs is the acclaimed author best known for completely immersing himself in his research. He read an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica for his book The Know-It-All and spent another year living like an Old Testament Hebrew. Among his unique quests, he once embraced the original version of Thanksgiving. He came to realize it was quite a celebration with games, riddles, races, contests, and foods like eel and lobster. Most profound to Jacobs was the realization that this time of gratitude in 1621 followed a year in which forty-eight of the original one hundred two Pilgrims died. Scurvy and exposure claimed half of them, yet they rejoiced with thanksgiving. His conclusion was, “If they could appreciate life amid such chaos, pain, and uncertainty, I could give thanks for all the good things in my relatively cushy life.”

This week, I challenge you to give up grumbling and be on the lookout to practice gratitude. Linger longer at the table with one another. Don’t be in such a hurry to get to what is passing away that you forfeit the treasure of investing in all that never ends. Love people and use things. Dance along to the tune that God croons just for the two of you. Stop declaring, “I want,” and start deciding, “I worship You Almighty God for there is none like You.” Make a list of all the blessings you are surrounded by and practice humility, hospitality and honesty. Happy Thanksgiving!





A SEASON AND SAVIOR FOR GIVING

13 11 2019

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When 67-year-old carpenter Russell Herman died, his will included quite a number of lavish bequests. Included in his last desires and wishes for immediate distribution were more than two billion dollars for the City of East St. Louis, another billion and a half for the State of Illinois, two and a half billion for the national forest system, and to top off the list, Herman left six trillion dollars to the government to help pay off the national debt. That sounds amazingly generous, but there was a small problem. Herman’s only asset when he died was a 1983 Oldsmobile. He made grand gestures, but there was no real substance involved. His contract of promises was meaningless because there was nothing concrete to back them up.

True generosity is not determined by the amount of talk that we do, but it’s validated by the actions we make to actually give our best away. When Jesus saw the widow give her two cents in the Temple, He commended her sacrificial gift by complimenting publicly how much she loved God and His will in her life. The best way to determine what our true treasure genuinely is and where our valuables can actually be found is by following the trail of how we spend our time and our money.

I think when people pass on and stand before the Lord, nobody is going to be saying, “I sure wish I would have piled up more stuff that I just left behind back on earth.” Nobody is born lugging a suitcase down the birth canal. I think greed and financial worry cause nothing more than headaches, strain and endless anxiety. We have a God who promises to supply all our needs if we simply trust Him. Could it be that our appetite is bigger than our basic necessities?

When I was in grade school back in the 1960’s, I wrote a letter to then President Lyndon Johnson. He wrote me back. Recently I learned that on the wall of President Johnson’s White House office hung a framed letter written by General Sam Houston to Johnson’s great-grandfather, George W. Baines. Baines had led Houston to Christ and the general was a changed man, no longer vulgar and an egomaniac, but a content and compassionate man. When General Houston was baptized, he said that if my sins are being washed away in this body of water, God help the fish. It was an incredible event for those who knew him. He was suddenly looking for opportunities to help others. When he offered to pay half the local minister’s salary and someone asked him why, he said, “My wallet was baptized too.” Sam Houston literally and practically demonstrated the reality of God’s grace to him by reciprocating that grace through living and giving. Another way of saying this is that God fills us to spill us to bless us and bless others through us.

Nobody can out give God. If the Lord meets your needs, it is just Him keeping His promises to us. We don’t have to hoard His blessings to us. We should always be willing and ready to share them. My Parents had 7 children of their own and adopted 30 more. There was no way on paper to work out the details of how this family made it financially. It was the presence and power of God. It was also the simple faith of my Parents that believed the Lord would keep His word. One of the many ways He supplied was the Saturday night doughnut runs that I would make from Peapack, NJ to the Butterfly Bakery in Teaneck, NJ which was just before the George Washington Bridge. We packed the 15 passenger Sheptock van with bags and bags of amazing pastries, cakes, bread and other delicious delights. As soon as I got home, only minutes later, my Mom would send me out with repacked bags to share with friends and neighbors around us. If God could supply tonight, He could do so next time so there was no freezing what tasted so much better fresh and ready.

True followers of Jesus are generous people. It is just part of our new nature in Christ. Terri and I have always promised God the first cut of any income we receive. The Church pays us and we give back to the Lighthouse. How can I ask others to give if I don’t lead by example? But I challenge all of you reading this today, if you have never been a giver, what are you waiting for? Take God up on His word. God so loved the world that He gave us Himself. He didn’t make a contribution to humanity. He sacrificed His very life laying it down so that we could be in eternity with Him forever. What is too much to do for a Lord that was willing to do all that for us? How can we serve a Lord who has no limit when it comes to sharing from His bountiful supply with a greedy and selfish spirit?

I was thinking about this. Very often in our services before the offering we’ll say something like, “If you’re just visiting today, you don’t have to observe the Bible’s commands to be generous. Just let it go.” It’s kind of interesting. We don’t say that about other truths in the Bible. We don’t say, for example, “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but if you’re just visiting today, don’t worry about that one.” This is something for anybody, even if you don’t believe in God. Just test God’s generosity challenge. See if it is not true that when you become generous, God enhances your life in every regard.

Thanksgiving is in a few weeks. Why not practice this principle? Every time that God prompts your heart to give, just do it. Even if it defies common sense, be adventurous with your resources. I am not just talking about money. I am challenging you to be liberal with your time, your talents and your faith. If you ever are going to learn about the faithfulness of God, you must practice giving from a grateful heart. I’d love to hear what happens because of your trust in the Lord. The principle from Scripture is timeless and it goes something like this: “There is a powerful relationship between our true spiritual condition and our attitude and actions concerning money and possessions.” Don’t just pretend to share all that God has given you. Really do it. Let’s make it a November to remember by being the most generous believers Cape May County has ever seen!

 





NO MASK FOR THE FACE OF GRACE

7 11 2019

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Halloween may be over but not everyone has taken their masks off. Every single day, too many human beings don’t realize how much they really do put on a show with every minute that ticks by. Life ends up being more of a show than it is a reality. We play a role that is assigned to us by those who intimidate us and we oblige the crowd by only saying the sentences the audience scripts for us. We surrender to political correctness and our own voice is silenced. This is no time to be somebody else. If ever our world needed men and women of integrity, willing to stand up for what they truly believe in even if it isolates them from the popular majority, it is now! How about you?

When someone asks you what you believe in, do you hesitate when it comes to making it public? Are you willing to allow your light to shine bright even if it annoys those around you because the rays are getting in their eyes? Deeds that contradict the way that the Lord is calling us to live must be done in darkness. There is way too much rationalizing away the truth because let’s face it, to do what is right takes a surrendered heart. God created us with a void in our soul that works best when it plugs into Him. But if you choose to find another power source, it doesn’t make you free. It only labels you a slave to whatever mode has mastered you.

I was born with an overactive conscience. At the tender age of 5 years old, I remember lying in bed at night, with sweat pouring down my forehead, begging God not to send me to hell. I already knew I was a sinner. I desperately wanted to be perfect. I wanted God to love me. I just reasoned that I was unlovable.

When I was in Catholic School, growing up, I was regularly bullied because I was the good kid. I was the perennial Teacher’s Pet. I hated it. The Nuns didn’t always help my reputation. Right in front of the whole class, they would say things like, “Why can’t you all be like Rudolph?” I would shrink down in my seat because at that moment, I wanted to be any other person on this planet other than Rudolph. I never ran around with the rough kids. My heart wouldn’t let me. They were always in trouble and I didn’t want anything to do with detention. But even though I was held in high esteem as the model child and student, I knew there was a problem because I was miserable.

One Halloween Night, I lost my bearings. I was sick of being Howdy Doody. In North Jersey in the 1960’s, the evening before Halloween was knows as Mischief Night. You would actually get dressed up in your costumes and roam the neighborhood looking to raise a little ruckus. I would normally guard our house making sure that I exposed anybody looking to mess with the Sheptock home. But one year when I was 7 or 8, I went out looking to be bad.

Inside the costume, I originally felt empowered. I would have some fun going against the grid and nobody would even know who I was. At least that’s how I rationalized the plan on paper. I joined the other kids and soaped some windows, threw some eggs, destroyed some pumpkins and tossed lots of toilet paper. I hated it! Nobody could see the tears in my eyes as I pummeled the pumpkins on the street because all I could think of was how I was hurting the little ones who creatively carved them. When all of a sudden, the lights came on at one of the yards we were littering, all the other kids ran. I was too new at this. I froze in place like a deer in the middle of Route 9! I saw our neighbor lady and when she cried out, “Who is that?” I had so much guilt and remorse in my gut, I confessed instantly. I might have gotten away with it because I still had my costume on, but God knew it was me and I knew it was me and at that moment, I never wanted to do something as stupid as this again. I cleaned our neighbor’s home and car. I took the punishment from my disappointed Mother. And I went to confession because I knew I wouldn’t enjoy getting candy on Halloween unless I did so. I owned up to everything and from that moment on, I vowed to never allow the crowd to do my thinking for me again.

God created you to be you. Leave no room in your life for deception. Ask yourself the same question in every situation and with every decision: What’s the right thing to do? If you consistently ask yourself that question, you will never be a deceiver. It all starts with being a receiver of God’s grace and truth. I finally surrendered my rituals and religion and opened my heart to a relationship with the Savior, Jesus, in 1975. I have learned that the greatest fulfillment comes when I stop masquerading and just simply make sure that I am following Jesus.

The other principle that keeps it real is to guard my soul against all forms of rationalization. It’s much to easy to do something just because, “everyone’s doing it.” But the reality is that not everyone is doing it. Everyone has never been doing it. Ask yourself this question, “What’s my motive?” People may see your actions and you might con those closest to you but God always sees our hearts. Your motives matter. David prayed to the Lord, “Create in me a pure heart,” because he knew how easy it was to wander from the way. I don’t want to be sorry just because I got caught. I want to confess my mess because I know what my sin has done to the God who loves me.

Please make no apology for allowing Jesus to take the wheel. Even when those around you let God down, please keep lifting Jesus up. No costumes. No tricks and smoke and mirrors! It all comes around to grace and truth and Jesus in charge! If anything good happens in life, it is from Jesus.

If anyone could have rejected us because of our shortcomings, it was the Lord. But Truth tells us that He made the first move to love us while we were still out shopping for a new mask to hide behind. Thank you, Lord, that your love allows us to leave the costumes at home. Halloween is over. A season of Thanksgiving has begun. Let your light shine bright and allow it to show others the way to freedom and life.