LOVE CHANGES THE BELOVED.

Love Changes

Imagine that my sister is a drug addict. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close. Because of God’s love for us, our best good has become fully intertwined with God’s best good.

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Download Ephesians 2;1-10

EPHESIANS 2:1-10

If I could use only one chapter of the Bible to summarize Christianity, it would be Ephesians chapter 2. Everything is here. It is Christianity 101. But one of the challenges of that is that it’s so “big.” I grew up in the country of Papua New Guinea. It’s an amazing place, and pretty much unlike anywhere else in the world. When I was younger, and people found this out, they would say, “What was that like?” I understand the kind spirit behind the question, but frankly, it was unanswerable. Growing up in New Guinea was my entire life, it formed who I am today. There were many things about my childhood that affected me profoundly; I had many remarkable experiences, and traveled more in my first 18 years than many people travel in a lifetime. If I hadn’t grown up there, I would be a very different person than I am now.

So, usually I answered the question by saying, “It was nice.”

But this Ephesians passage is like that. It is everything. The truth that is here has a deep, and profound effect on those who believe it. It forms who we are today. There is no way that I can do it justice. In the short time I have here. But I approach this passage, as always listening for what the Holy Spirit might want to draw out at this moment in time.

About 500 years ago, this verse, and a few others like it, shook Western civilization to its foundations. One of the men who was involved in that process was Martin Luther. Luther used to talk about the tensions in the Christian faith as if it were like riding a horse. It takes a certain physical grace to keep your balance on a horse. Some people fall off the right side, and others the left. (I myself, when I was young, managed somehow to fall off the back of a horse, but that story is irrelevant to my point here).

The left side of the horse is where we essentially take God’s love for granted. Of course God loves everyone – that’s part of what it means for him to be God, right? “Because God loves me,” (say the left-siders), “it doesn’t matter at all how I behave. I have a free ticket to heaven, so I can live however I want to, here on earth. God’s love is so great, that he doesn’t really care. He just wants to affirm me as I am.”

In our culture today, if there is one thing that most people believe, it is that every person should be the best version of themselves that they can be. To make it personal, I should try and best me that I can be. God made me, and so he wants me to be me. Since he made me, and loves me, everyone should just accept me how I am, and not try to change me, or put rules or restrictions on my behavior. But if this is how you think, I believe you haven’t yet understood what love is all about. Real love does not accept the beloved with no desire for change. Real love desires the best for everyone, and that usually means change.

Let me give you an example. Suppose a friend of my cousin is a drug addict. As a drug addict, my cousin’s friend is harming his body. He is destroying his relationships. He is ruining his financial future. He is inexorably deteriorating physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. If I find out about this concerning someone I don’t know – like my cousin’s friend – I may say, “Gee, that’s too bad.” But honestly, I’m not particularly motivated to make sure that that person changes. Do I except my cousin’s friend as he is, because I love him? No, in fact it’s almost the opposite. It is because I don’t care about him that I’m content to let him be “who he is.”

Now, imagine that the drug addict is not my cousin’s friend, but my own sister. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close.

Listen to how Paul describes our situation apart from Christ:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2 in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. 3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. (HCSB Free. Ephesians 2:1-3)

I want to make sure that we don’t skim over verse two. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient,” means demonic forces, possibly the devil himself. Apart from Christ we are pawns of the devil. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we are in deep trouble. We are most certainly not okay as we are.

Sometimes Christians get the sense that once they are saved, they have a ticket for heaven and now they can live however they want to live until it’s time for them to go to heaven. That too, is the attitude from the left side of the horse. That too, is wrong. The deeper we get into this, the more you’ll see that, but I will just say that the end of this passage is in contrast with the beginning. In the beginning, apart from Christ we were “walking” in sin and trespasses. By walk, or walking, Paul simply means our way of life. But at the end, once we are redeemed in Christ, saved entirely by his grace, there is more. Still continuing on by grace (not by works). God has prepared good works for us to “walk in” (verse 10). So we are to go from living in a way that is contrary to God’s loving desire for us to a way of life that God has prepared for us, a way of life that brings honor and glory to himself.

But we don’t get there on our own. Remember the horse? We’ve been talking about the left side. The right side of the horse is to put too much emphasis on what you do for God. In Martin Luther’s time, everyone was falling off the right side. Almost everyone believed that they would be saved by being good people and doing good things. That might sound OK, at one level, right? I mean, it means people will try to behave well, and that’s good thing. But people who are trying to justify themselves are ultimately people who will hurt others in order to help themselves. They are under tremendous pressure to perform right, and to judge how well they are doing. Very few people can avoid also judging how everyone else is doing. People start making up rules so that they can know that they are “safe,” and they quickly become harsh and unloving.

Luther’s great task in life was to show those people that they were wrong, that God’s grace, as this passage teaches, has nothing to do with our efforts. Not only do our good works accomplish nothing, but apart from Christ, our good works are energized by the devil. That’s a scary thought. Sometimes, in our pluralistic society, we can sort of think that people who don’t trust Jesus are kind of in neutral territory. I hope that we Christians often meet people who think and believe differently than we do, and I hope we can be respectful and kind and loving to them. But we need to be very clear about what the Bible says here: there is no neutral ground. Now, let me be clear: we should never imagine that other people are the enemy. But they do live under the influence of the enemy. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we walk “according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient (2:2). Apart from God, we have no hope of actually being morally good, because there is no moral good apart from God.

This is offensive to those who fall off the right side of the horse, but it is what the Bible says. The text says, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” A corpse can’t “try hard.” A dead person can’t “do the best he can.” No, if you are dead, your actions are taken completely out of the picture, because a dead person can’t do anything. There is nothing we could possibly do for ourselves, spiritually. We don’t “do our best and God does the rest.” God does it all. We can’t do our best. Our ‘best’ is sin and gratifying the desires of our corrupt nature. Our ‘best’ results in us being used as pawns of the devil. “Doing our best” is ridiculous, because a dead person can’t do anything, and we were spiritually dead. Now, bearing that in mind, look at what Paul says next:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Now, I want to make sure we understand God’s grace fully. Let me start by taking human beings down a peg or two. (I am going to say “you,” but please understand, I include myself in this.) Life is not about you. Once again, this is in contrast to our culture, which is all about people being the “best authentic selves” that they can be. Self-fulfillment is a by-product of trusting God, but it should never be our goal. God does not exist to help you become a fulfilled person. He does not exist to fix the people around you, or to make your circumstances better. If God is, in fact, God, than the Supreme Good in the Universe is Himself. If He is the best and most wonderful thing in existence, than it is only right that he should seek to please Himself, to glorify Himself. There is nothing better than him, no greater good than His own pleasure. So, just as we should seek to honor and glorify God because he is the Highest Good, so he should seek to bring honor and glory to himself – for the same reason. That is God’s focus. That is His continual, ongoing activity. We are not necessary to God’s happiness, nor to his glory.

But here is the amazing part: he has chosen to bring glory to Himself by being gracious and kind to us in Jesus Christ. We are part of God’s plan to glorify Himself; we are part of God’s plan to please himself. In his love, he has made us part of the best thing in the Universe. We get to be a part of this highest, best good. That means, it becomes part of the best thing in the universe for us to be saved by Jesus. Our best good has become wrapped up in God’s best good.

Imagine a billionaire who wants the world to see him as a kind, generous man. So, he buys two square miles of slum in the worst part of the city. He tears down all the houses, and builds a resort-style complex, and then settles all the former slum dwellers into million-dollar homes there. The billionaire might be building this for selfish reasons, but there is no way that the result is actually selfish. He has chosen to make the well-being of poor people necessary to his own sense of self as a generous person. He does this not because the poor people have pleased him, but rather, because it pleases himself to do it, and to have others see it.

That is a little bit like God, except that, because he is God, it is good and right for him to please himself. But he didn’t have to include us in that plan – he just did, because he is so gracious, kind and loving.

So, we need to fully understand what we do contributes nothing to our salvation and cannot earn God’s approval and grace. Those things have already been given freely to us and we receive them simply by believing and trusting that God has given them to us in and through Jesus Christ. That’s it – no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”

With that firmly understood, let’s go back to the good works I mentioned earlier:

For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Being a part of God’s plan to glorify himself means that he has prepared good works for us to walk in. These are not good because we do them, but rather because God has already set us up to do them.

Let me explain it like this. Consider a family that has adopted a baby. The child belongs to the family for one reason only – the family loves her, chose her and wants her. There is nothing that a tiny baby could possibly do to earn that love. It starts with the love of her parents, long before she can ever return that love. This is how it is with us and God. After all, we already saw in Ephesians 1:5 that,

“In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will…”

Now think about an adopted child again. As she grows older, she will start to behave in certain ways simply because she has already been adopted. She may hug and kiss her mommy and daddy. She’ll come running to them with her fears and problems. This adopted child will probably grow up speaking like others in her family. She’ll fight and forgive and love her brothers and sisters. Her parents will train her concerning the rules, and will have to discipline her at times, and at times she’ll have to adjust her behavior. She will do these things, not to try and get into the family, but rather, because she is already in it.

Can you imagine a little boy who cleans his room daily, is always kind to his brothers and sisters, mows the lawn and fixes supper twice a week? I can’t either. But just suppose there was. Suppose his parents asked him why he did these things, and his response was: “Well, I want to get into this family. I want you to love me, and I know if I don’t do these things you won’t love me and I can’t be part of the family.” That would break the heart of any parent. We don’t accept our children on the basis of what they do for us. We accept them and love them because they are ours.

Consider it from another angle. Imagine there was a boy from another family who came over to your house and washed the dishes, cleaned the rooms and spoke to you respectfully. Would you, simply because he behaves well, adopt him as your own child? Of course not. Good behavior is not enough to make someone part of your family. It would be ridiculous if it were.

So, we are God’s children. There are certain things that the Lord wants us to do. There are certain behaviors he would like us to either change or start doing. But we do these things because God has already adopted us. We do them because that’s part of what it means to be in this family. There is no way that we can get into the family in the first place by trying to act like family members. We are adopted by God’s choice. “Doing” is a result of our adoption, not the cause of it.

In fact, we are God’s creation (not our own) and he has created certain things for us to do. There is a stunning truth about our good works: they aren’t ours anyway. God has already prepared in advance the good things he wants you to do. You see, when God made you, he had already planned certain things he wanted you to do.

God has worked for years to bring you to the place in your life where you are now. He created you and at the same time he created the opportunities for you to do certain things that only you can do. The Bible says that God formed your inmost being and put you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16). The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah this:

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose.” (Jeremiah 1:5, God’s Word version).

Those words are not just for Jeremiah – they are for you too. You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that he has already set up for you to do. You are unique, and the good works that you are to do are also prepared by God uniquely for you.

Now, we can take this uniqueness a bit too far sometimes. It would be ridiculous to say – “well, I was not uniquely created to do the good work of obeying the commandment, ‘do not lie.’ Honesty is just not one of the good works I was created for.” No, because we are in the family, there are certain “good works” that are common to everyone. In other words, God created all of his children for the good work of honesty, and the other things in the ten commandments. Scripture is in fact very clear about the good works that are common to all believers in Jesus.

But there are good works uniquely prepared for you to do. Those things, also, are to show off God’s glory. We used to walk – to live our lives – in sins and transgressions, under the influence of the devil. Now, through God’s incredible grace, we are included his plan to glorify himself. You have a place. You have a purpose. You, as you trust in Jesus and walk in the good works he puts in front of you, are bringing glory to God. You, by God’s grace, are a part of God’s glory. I know you don’t always feel that that is true. But we are called to believe God’s Word (the Bible) even more than our own feelings. He says it is true. Rest in it. Do not sell yourself short, or undervalue your worth in Christ Jesus.

By the way, we do those good works not through striving, but through trusting. The more we believe what these verses say the more room the Lord has to work in and through us. Trust him, he will fulfill his plan to make you part of the best purpose in the universe. Thank him for his grace. And stay on that horse!

LOVE IN ACTION

love-in-action

What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches.

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Download Matthew Part 88

Matthew #88. Matthew 25:31-46

PLEASE BEGIN BY READING MATTHEW 25:31-46

Our passage for this time is a parable, and parables are usually intended only to make one or two main points. When we get down to it, the points Jesus is making are pretty broad and straightforward.

I do realize that other issues are raised by this story, but I want to start by taking the text for what it is. If we need to, I’ll address the other issues in the next sermon.

First, let’s remember our context. Jesus has been talking about the end of the world, and the fact that his followers need to be prepared for it. In verses 14-30, he tells a parable to illustrate what he means about being prepared: we should use our lives, and everything we have been given as managers. We don’t own what we call our “stuff,” and we don’t even own our lives; therefore we should invest what we have been given in the interests of the Master.

In the next parable – our text for this time – he is now giving us a specific example of what it means to invest ourselves in God’s kingdom. The example he gives is this: we should care for our fellow Jesus-followers.

I think many of us, when we read the passage today, have a certain picture of what this looks like. We think we are supposed to go out on the streets and find people who are hungry, or inadequately clothed, and give them food and clothing. We think we should go visit random people in jail or hospital. If we examine our thoughts carefully, we would find a disconnect between doing those things, and how we live our daily lives. Even at best, most of us probably picture dashing out and doing “homeless ministry” once a week, and then coming back to our “normal life.”

Those sorts of thoughts would have been strange to most Christians in New Testament times, but not for the reasons you might imagine.  Some of you may be a little unfocused, and perhaps you didn’t notice something important about Jesus’ words. Let me say it again with emphasis: this parable teaches us that we should care for our fellow Christians.

Let’s look at the text:

40“And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ (Matt 25:40, HCSB)

In the New Testament, the Greek word adelphon (“brothers”) can mean, obviously, “male siblings.” Far more often, throughout the New Testament, the word is used to mean, in general, “followers of Jesus, whether male or female.” Now, unless Jesus is talking specifically about James, and Jude (his half-brothers, each of whom wrote a book of the New Testament), he means “my followers.” The context shows us that he was obviously not talking about James and Jude. The “sheep” in this parable are commended for feeding, clothing, welcoming and visiting followers of Jesus, specifically.

One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is that we have lost this understanding. We think we should do good “for the poor and needy.” Then, we fervently hope that the “poor and needy” are some remote group out there that we can keep separate from our own lives. We have no actual relationship with the poor and needy, and we typically skip over helping people with whom we do have relationships. Far too often people in churches throw money at a problem, or rush out and spend an evening serving food to the homeless, or spend two weeks on a mission trip, but we always go back to a kind of status quo of not really living in meaningful community with one another. We’ll serve food to the homeless, but ignore the lonely single person in our church who would enjoy coming over for dinner once in a while. We pay a pastor to go visit the sick and those in prison, and we thank the Lord that we, personally don’t have to do such things, because we just don’t have the time. We will give money to a homeless shelter, but balk at opening our home to a visiting missionary.

Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is good to give money to organizations that genuinely help to relieve poverty in the world (like Compassion International). I think it is worthwhile to go serve supper to strangers at a homeless shelter. Short term mission trips don’t usually give much real, long-term help to the people in the countries that are visited, but they do have some value in opening the eyes of Americans to different cultures and conditions around the world.

So those are OK. But did you know that virtually every example of charitable giving in the New Testament, and almost every single instruction about such giving, refers to either providing financial support to those who teach the Bible, or to helping other Christians?

What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches. It is certainly what Jesus is teaching in this parable, as I have already pointed out, by saying “to the least of these, my brothers.”

Consider these other verses, which are only a few of many. Bear in mind that “brothers” in each of these verses means “fellow Christians.” I have italicized certain parts to make my point clear. The first is another one from Jesus, found earlier in the book of Matthew:

40 “The one who welcomes you welcomes Me, and the one who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me. 41 Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet  will receive a prophet’s reward. And anyone who welcomes a righteous person because he’s righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple — I assure you: He will never lose his reward! ”

Again, Jesus is teaching the value of love-in-action toward other people who follow Him. Next, John records these words of Jesus:

34“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

This verse is frequently ignored. The world does not know we are His disciples because we do good deeds for the world, or show the world how much we love them. Instead, the world will see Christians loving and caring for each other, and the beauty of that testimony will show outsiders that we follow Jesus. Trust me, when the world sees Christians fighting, and gossiping and hurting one another, they are not seeing Jesus there. Who would want to become a Jesus follower, if it means joining a group that barely tolerates its members, but tries to show love only toward outsiders? Or who would want to join a “community” where you will hardly get to know each other? The first Christian church grew, in part, because people were attracted by the warm, loving, family-style relationships they found there.

Here are a few more passages:

6 The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal 6:6-10, HCSB)

10Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. 12No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us. (1John 4:10-12, HCSB)

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (James 2:14-15)

Am I wrong about all this? Aren’t these all commands for Christians to love each other? Don’t you dare say, “Yes, sure, but we must also love the world.”  Don’t you dismiss this lightly! You need to start where Jesus and the apostles start, which is this: love your fellow Christians. You cannot properly love those outside the faith if you don’t love your fellow-Christians.

In fact, the whole point of our text today is that if you don’t love your fellow Christians, there is probably something wrong with your faith, and with the relationship you have with God. Lack of love for fellow Christians may be a symptom of the fact that you are a goat, not a sheep.

The church in New Testament times became like a family for those who followed Jesus. Sometimes you fight and wrangle with those in your family. But in the end, you are committed to one another, and you take care of each other.

One reason we have such trouble loving each other is because, by and large, we don’t have these close, family-style relationships with other Christians. The way we engage in church is often a major obstacle to this. Worshipping together is one part of loving fellow believers. But it is only one small part. The first Christians understood this, and they not only worshipped together, but they shared their lives with each other.

8We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. (1Thess 2:8, HCSB)

 42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. 43Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, HCSB)

Even Christians who were strangers to each other recognized that they were bound together in love and common faith. On one of their journeys, Paul and his companions arrived in a strange city, and sought out the Christians in that place. There they fellowshipped, and stayed with these strangers for a week. Luke describes it:

2Finding a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we boarded and set sail. 3After we sighted Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we sailed on to Syria and arrived at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. 4So we found some disciples and stayed there seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. 5When our days there were over, we left to continue our journey, while all of them, with their wives and children, escorted us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray, 6we said good-bye to one another. Then we boarded the ship, and they returned home. (Acts 21:2-6, HCSB)

These days, most of us just go to church on Sunday, and then go home. That is not Christian fellowship, and real Christian love doesn’t develop well in those circumstances. In contrast, the Christians of the New Testament walked through life together. They spent time in each other’s homes, they ate together, they laughed together, they fought with each other at times, they forgave each other, they grieved together and celebrated together. If one of them was in need, they helped each other. They lived in real Christian community, and developed real love for each other.

Notice that in the parable of Jesus, the sheep are surprised. “When did I do that?” they ask. This is because when you are in real, loving community with others, good works come naturally. Visiting sick people that you love comes naturally. Visiting prisoners that you love is easy. When someone you love is in need, the normal, natural thing to do is to help them.

Some folks might say, “OK, but in my circle of Christian community, everyone has enough food, clothing and a place to live. So how can I really practice this?”

That’s an excellent question, and I’m so glad you asked it. There are two answers that might be helpful. First, perhaps your Christian community needs to be open to welcoming some Christian brothers and sisters who don’t have it all together yet. In other words, maybe, as a group, you need to include some Christian people who aren’t like you.

Second, I believe that the needs listed in Jesus’ parable can also be understood spiritually. Perhaps there is a person in your group who is not literally a stranger, but who feels lonely. You can minister to them as “the stranger,” in this parable, and invite them to be more a part of your lives. Maybe there is someone else who is not literally in prison, but who suffers from the “imprisonment” of depression. You could make room in your schedule to spend more time with that person. There are all sorts of spiritual and emotional needs that we could minister to, even among those who are physically OK.

If we are to really live as this ministering Christian community, however, several things must happen. First, we must find a relatively small group of Christians with whom to be in community. You can’t have real community and fellowship with a hundred people at once. Second, within that community, we must commit to being vulnerable and open about our struggles. This is an emotional and psychological risk, but we can’t minister to one another if we don’t know what each person needs. Third, all of this takes time. Most people in America probably need to cut something else out of their schedule in order to have real Christian community, and thus to minister in the ways Jesus is talking about. We need to be available to each other outside of Sunday morning.

Now, you might consider all this and say: “Wow. I’m in trouble. I don’t much care for my fellow Christians, and I’m not really in true fellowship or community with other believers.” So what do you do about it?

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. First, do not try and fake it. I mean seriously, do you think God won’t know whether or not your love for your fellow Christians is genuine? If your good works do not come from genuine trust in Jesus, and real love for fellow-believers, you aren’t going to fool God.

Second, admit that you have a problem. Confess it to God, and, if it seems appropriate, to others.

Third, ask God for help. Part of this means giving God permission to change your lifestyle. I remember a time when I realized I didn’t really love my Christian brothers and sisters. I also realized that if I was really going to learn to do it, I would have to change my lifestyle, so that I could be in real Christian community with others. I’m an introvert, and that thought was extremely scary. But I confessed my sin, I asked God for help, and I gave him permission to work in my life as He pleased. God responded to those prayers. My comfortable, introverted little life was changed, and to my great surprise, I have been consistently grateful that it did. I feel tremendously blessed by all the people I have come to know so well, and I can honestly say that I love them. I’ve never wanted to go back to the “faith in isolation” that I used to have.

Let the Lord speak to you about this right now.

TALENT ON LOAN FROM GOD

Burying-His-Talent

We don’t do good works in order to be saved, we do good works because we are saved. Good works indicate that Jesus is alive and active within you, and is conforming you to His character. Understanding that, you need to realize your entire life, and all that is “you,” and all that is available to you, is on loan from God, and is a talent to be invested for His kingdom.

 
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Download Matthew Part 87

Matthew #87. Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus has been talking about his return, and the importance of being ready. It’s always helpful to remember that the verses and chapter divisions in our modern Bibles were not there originally. Personally, I think Matthew 25:1-13 belong with the words of Jesus that came at the end of chapter 24. It is, in fact, one more admonition to us to be ready for his return. Let us look at it briefly.

The setting is a Jewish wedding. In those days, in much of Israel, weddings were the most important social events, after religious festivals. A large proportion of the population lived in poverty, and even, at times, on the brink of starvation. A wedding was a chance for them to eat their fill of good food. Most people had to work hard from sunrise to sunset, but a wedding was a chance to relax and celebrate. The 10 virgins that Jesus is talking about were part of the wedding procession – roughly equivalent to bridesmaids in the present day (though not exactly the same). This was a rare moment in their lives when they got to dress up, relax and have fun, and eat their fill of good food. It would be bitterly disappointing for such girls to miss out on a wedding where they were bridesmaids.

One of the key parts of weddings in ancient Israel was the procession of the bridegroom. He paraded through town to the place where his bride waited, and then they paraded together, accompanied by the “bridesmaids,” and others, to his home, and to the feast! This procession took place after dark. Anyone who was part of the wedding would be expected to carry lights to add to the joy and festivity of the procession. If someone was out on the streets without a light, they would rightly be considered a stranger, someone who was not part of the wedding.

People in those days did not have watches or clocks, so time was a pretty fluid thing. As the bridegroom progressed through the streets of the town to his bride, he might pause to greet friends and family, or stop off at various houses to receive blessings and gifts from various people. Therefore, no one knew exactly when a given bridegroom would arrive, and when the procession with the bride (and after, the feast) would begin. The bridesmaids waiting to meet them would have to be ready, because no one knew exactly when he would come.

In the parable, some of the bridesmaids were not prepared to wait for very long: they did not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning for a long period of time. Without lights, they would be considered strangers, and not accepted in the wedding party. Because they were not prepared, they had to leave to get more oil for their lamps, and when they got back they found out that they had missed out, the gates were closed and they would not get to participate in the wedding feast. There would be no leisure, no celebration, no joy, no good food. It’s hard to emphasize how deeply disappointed these girls would be.

I want to point out a few things about this parable.

First, it is told for people who think, “I’ll wait until the end of my life is closer,” or “I’ll get right with God someday – just not right now.” You never know when Jesus is coming, and it will be too late to get your spiritual affairs in order once he is here. Jesus is telling us to be prepared, now and always.

Second, in this parable, part of being prepared includes being ready for it to take a long time. The five foolish virgins were ready at first, but they weren’t in it for the long haul. If the Christian life is a race, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes life can feel long and difficult – part of being ready for Jesus is about being able to endure through those times.

Third (and this is my favorite part of this parable), before this, Jesus has been telling us to be prepared in order to avoid the negative consequences. This parable, however, paints his return in a positive light. This is something we won’t want to miss out on. There will be joy, and laughter, and feasting and celebrating. It is like a long awaited vacation. This is something we should be looking forward to, something we will want to be a part of. A wedding, for most of Jesus’ listeners, would have been one of the most fun, satisfying and joyful events that they could look forward to. Heaven should be that for us – only not “one of” the best things to look forward to, but rather “the very best thing” we have to anticipate.

So, up until this point, Jesus has been telling his disciples – and us – to be prepared for him at all times. Starting in 25:15, he begins to tell us how to be prepared. What does it mean to be ready? What does it look like? He starts with another parable, the parable of the talents. I want you to read the parable yourself. It is a little long, and I don’t want to use up the space here. Read Matthew 25:15-30, and then come back and finish reading this message.

Let’s make sure we understand the parable. Our English word “talent,” as in “ability,” can be traced back to this parable of Jesus, since he clearly intended us to understand this is about how we use what God has given us (and not only about money). But at the time Jesus told this story, a “talent” was simply a measurement of money, roughly equal to about 6,000 denarii. Isn’t that helpful? Well maybe, if you know that a single denarius was acceptable pay for one day’s wages for a manual-laborer (see Matthew 20:1-2). In today’s money, if we assume a manual laborer makes $80 per day, one talent is roughly equal to $480,000. If you assume a laborer makes $100 per day, then a talent would be more like $600,000. Another way to calculate it is that one talent represents the total earnings from 16-20 years-worth of manual labor.

To make it simple, it is reasonable to picture it like this (as of 2016 in America): The man with one talent had roughly $500,000; the one with two had $1 Million; and the man with five had about $2.5 Million. In other words, this is a significant amount for investment. Even the one who had the least was dealing with a sum equal to twenty years-worth of earnings. Now, obviously, this parable is not about money. Very few people in any generation are given that sort of money all at once. Jesus was talking to his disciples, and none of them ever had nearly that much money. But the point is this: What God has given you is very valuable. Even the least amount is still worth a very great deal. And he wants us all to use what he has given, for his glory and his purposes.

So what are your “talents”? Your natural abilities are certainly part of what the Master has entrusted to you, to use for his purposes. Maybe it is musical or athletic ability. Perhaps it is the way people look to you for advice or for comfort. It might be your ability to listen, or to talk, or to sing, or dance, or make others laugh, or to be real. If you know how to put people at ease, that is a talent on loan from God. If you know how to appropriately challenge people and encourage them to grow, that is also from God. Your personality, your voice, your face, your body, your intelligence – all these are on loan from God, and are supposed to be used for His purposes. Don’t insult your own body, or any of your talents: to do so is to insult God, who made them, and has a purpose for them.

Some people are given monetary wealth. This too, is on loan from God, and is intended for use and investment in His Kingdom. Your situation in life is also part of what God has given you. Many of my readers were born in the United States of America, and that gives you opportunities and privileges not found in many parts of the world. You may not feel privileged, but you are. Even the poorest Americans have more wealth and opportunity than much of the world. Those opportunities and privileges, like your natural abilities, are “on loan” from God, and he expects us to use them for His purposes. Esther was given this sort of “talent,” and God wanted her to use it. She was made a queen, with a position of influence. When there was trouble for God’s people, Mordecai, her uncle, told her this:

If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” (Esth 4:14, HCSB)

In other words: “The opportunity and privilege you have has been given by God. Use it for Him. If you don’t, God will still deliver his people, but it won’t help you. But perhaps God has given you this privileged position for this very moment in time.” So we too, who are better off in this world, are supposed to use that privilege for God’s purposes.

Our relationships, our connections, are also gifts of God to be used for Him. Can I make it simple? your entire life, and all that is “you,” and all that is available to you, is on loan from God, and is a talent to be invested for His kingdom.

Now, I hope you have a few questions. The big one is this: doesn’t this parable make it sound like we will be welcomed into heaven if we use what God has given us for His glory, and we will not enter in if we don’t? In other words, doesn’t it seem like we are saved, not by God’s grace, but by what we do? It seems to contradict what the Bible says elsewhere:

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9)

I understand why, at first glance, someone might think there is a contradiction here. In order to resolve it, we need to understand the role of “good works” (good things, done in the name of Jesus) in the Christian life. This will be very important when we look at the next parable, also.

I think you should write this down somewhere, because it will help you through so many parts of the Bible: Good works indicate that Jesus is alive and active within you, and is conforming you to His character.

Good works are not absolute proof that you are a Jesus-follower – many non-Christians do all sorts of good works. But if you claim to be a Jesus-follower, and your life shows no evidence of the character of Jesus, there is a problem. You might say that the presence of good works does not necessarily prove anything, but the absence of good works is a strong indication that something is spiritually wrong. Let’s look at the verse from Ephesians again, only this time, I’ll include the part I left off:

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10, HCSB, emphasis mine)

Being saved by grace (not by works) goes hand in hand with walking in the good works that God has already prepared for us to do. Salvation and good works go together. We don’t do good works in order to be saved, we do good works because we are saved.

When we refuse to use what God has given us for God’s purpose, it shows us that there is a problem in our relationship with God. We are telling him that we aren’t interested in what he wants. So the man who refused to invest his talent was rejected, not because he failed to make an investment, but because, by his refusal, he showed that he wanted nothing to do with the Master.

So where does all this leave us today? Are you ready? Are you in this for the long haul? And do you use your life like it belongs to God, and is only on loan from Him? If you don’t, why don’t you? What prevents you?

What is the Lord saying to you today, through the Scripture? Spend some time praying about it, right now.

Lord help us to recognize that all we have belongs to you. Help us to recognize that you have saved us for a purpose. Let us realize that you want to use all you have given us for that purpose. Help us to allow you to do so. Where we have been selfish, and withheld from you, please forgive us, and restore us to a right, healthy relationship with you.

As you continue praying, please also remember this ministry in your prayers. Through this ministry, we are trying to do what the parable speaks about – invest our talents for God’s purposes. Please pray that the investment here is fruitful, that we continue to have all that we need to do his work. Thank you!