Sunday, May 25, 2014

Suffering Brings Endurance; Endurance Brings Salvation

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you are involved in various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, lacking nothing." (James 1:2-3)

James, the Brother of our Master, Jesus, tells us in his letter that enduring various trials and troubles tests one's faith, but that this testing produces endurance and completeness.

Jesus, also, in the Parable of the Sower, says that the seed that falls on good ground are those "who, in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, persevere, and bring forth a crop." (Luke 8:15.)

Many today wish that their lives were temptation free, and believe that if they just have faith, God will make things perfect for them simply because they wish it to be so. They hope that they can avoid pain, suffering, illness, the death of loved ones, and also win from God the joy of many earthly riches.

But Joy, writes James, comes FROM the suffering. And Jesus says that suffering and trails are inevitable in this life.

He warns that persecution for pursuing righteousness WILL happen, and that we will be persecuted, insulted and lied about (Matt. 5:11.)  Again, in the Parable of the Sower, those without tough roots fall away after hearing Jesus' message. They superficially believe that all things will be delivered to them on a silver platter, JUST because they've made a confession about Jesus. But Jesus calls us to hear and obey, not just to let his words wash over us and evaporate in the wind.

The teachings of Jesus come from God, and Jesus teaches that if we prepare ourselves and our hearts to receive his teachings and put them into practice (Matt. 7:24) we will be made fit to endure all that life throws at us.

Our faith isn't a guarantee that we'll become rich, invulnerable to sorrow, or that we'll never be criticized or even persecuted. Such a doctrine goes against all that Jesus taught.

Instead, we will be perfected by our struggles and by our sorrows. We'll grow from the pain we endure. And our endurance will make us ever more stronger so that we may enjoy TRUE Joy - the joy gained not instantly by wishing it were so, but a joy that is mature and strong, able to endure anything!

We are saved by Jesus not from the trials and troubles of the earth, but from those troubles crushing us and destroying our spirits.

The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus says (Mark 13:13) that everyone who endures to the end will be saved. And our endurance and salvation is built solely upon hearing and heeding his words and following his most perfect example, asking God's forgiveness when we fail to live up to it.

Let us go forth and endure!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Let us build the Kingdom of God Together!

"I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also. For this reason, I have been sent." (Luke 4:43) Nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst." (Luke 17:21)

The ministry and mission of Jesus was to preach the beginning of God's Kingdom on the Earth.

We are called by Jesus to use all that we have - our skills, our talents, our abilities, our Reason, our compassion and our treasure - for the advancement of God's spiritual Kingdom, and for the benefit of our fellow human beings.

The greatest lie ever told was that the Kingdom of God was not yet among us. Jesus clearly taught that it was present and "at hand" when he began his ministry (Mark 1:14-15) and he was clear that we were to build it, with God's help and guidance (Matt. 6:10.)

He left no doubt that this spiritual Kingdom was not a political one - designed to throw out the Caesars and place himself on a vengeful throne as Vindicator of his fellow Jews. No, he clearly said to pay Caesar what was his, but also give God what was His (Mark 12:17.)

Nor was God's Kingdom to be a kingdom of wealth, ease and prosperity. No, he taught the inconvenient belief that serving money and wealth is at odds with God's Kingdom, that material goods fade and rot, while Spiritual goods last forever (Matt. 6:19; Luke 12:33; John 6:27.) He did not guarantee easy times for those who followed him, but instead, persecution, division within families, and the leaving of possessions behind, as people became Reborn into God's Kingdom (Matt. 24:9; Luke 12:52; Luke 14:33.)

And belief in God, in the Kingdom, and in the mission and person of Jesus, while the first step on the journey, was hardly the last one required of the Believer. Those who looked back (Luke 9:62) who didn't take on a humble, obedient mindset (Matt. 11:29) or who didn't do the will of God, our Father, were not fit for God's Kingdom (Matt. 7:21.) Only those who endure in the faith will see eternal salvation (Matt. 24:13.)

Tough words, and hard for most in Christendom to hear, given the centuries of false teaching that implies that the Gate to eternal life are wide and is easy to obtain with a simple prayer and a small, shallow, works-free faith, or that we will somehow not face God's judgment for our unrepentant evil deeds (Matt. 16:27.) This has made many think the Kingdom was a future place, or a future event. But Jesus' eternal words (Mark 13:31) do not teach us this (Matt. 7:13-14.)

If we claim to be followers of Jesus, and to serve the God Who sent Jesus to us, then none of us are ever unemployed. We are all charged with the Good Work of going out into the world teaching what Jesus taught, serving like Jesus served, loving like Jesus loved, and preaching that God's Kingdom is here NOW, and it is looking for more followers to expand its reach! (John 12:44; Matt. 28:20)

God's spokesman, this man, Jesus, calls us to press into the Kingdom of God without delay (Luke 16:16.) Jesus shows by his fully human life that a human being may fully serve and please God, and that God's will for our lives is neither unreasonable nor impossible (John 13:15; 1 John 5:3.)

So, may God's Kingdom come - as Jesus taught: on EARTH just as it is in Heaven! Let us be God's instruments in this great task, and let's not wait a single more day to begin anew!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

God's Kingdom is why Jesus Lived and Preached

Why was Jesus born? And what was the purpose of his life and ministry?

Was he born simply as a bag of flesh, destined only to later die as a ritual sacrifice that would appease an angry god and "cover" our future sins with his remote and perfect goodness, if we simply believed he existed?

We find nothing in his words to suggest that scenario, despite the popularity of this misguided belief.

Or, instead, did God choose this righteous man to spread a good and beneficial message and to be our perfect example of how God wishes us to live? Jesus' own words suggest this is far closer to the Truth, such as when he says, "I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I WAS SENT FOR THIS PURPOSE” (Luke 4:43.)

Jesus' ministry and life's message was entirely focused on this Kingdom of God - the ideal realm of Heaven that Jesus said should be made a reality here on earth, "as it is in Heaven" (Matt. 6:10.) That this is a spiritual and not a temporal one is also clear from his own words (John 18:36.)

It's a kingdom in which we are called to be righteous, merciful, and complete ("perfect") just as God is (Matt. 5:20, 5:48, Luke 6:36) and just as the man Jesus - whom God chose as his spokesman - modeled for us with the example of his selfless life and death (John 13:15; 1 John 2:6.)

"Seek first the Kingdom of God" he tells us (Matt. 6:33.) He warns us to not store up treasure on earth that can rust or rot away, but to instead seek Heavenly treasure that lasts forever (Matt. 6:19-20.)

He calls us to love our Creator with ALL of our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30) and to not only love our neighbors as we love ourselves (12:31) but extend that love and compassion to strangers we encounter on the roadside and to even our enemies (Matt. 5:44.)

Long ignored by Christian ministers as quaint or out-of-date, Jesus' call to "whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" (Matt. 7:12) summaries his entire ministry and the Hebrew Bible's teaching.

In all of this, we see that our actions matter. We will be judged according to our deeds (Matt. 16:27) and our eternal life in God's presence will be determined by our acts, not our vain words (Matt. 6:7.)

We are called to "remain in his love," and we may do this by obeying him and following after his example.

"If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commandments and remain in his love," he tells us (John 15:10.)

Jesus makes it clear that entrance into this Kingdom is NOT without commitment on our part. It's not a wide gate the entire world will choose (Matt. 7:13.) Only those who DO the will of God, our Father, will gain entry to it (Matt 7:21.)

The teachings Jesus left us are the most valuable legacy we can inherit. His words will never pass away (Mark 13:31.)

The death of Jesus was a continuation of his life – his message of extreme self-sacrifice and love for others, and a voluntary act of devotion to both his "friends" and to God. Who are his friends? Those who do as he commands (John 15:12-14.) Those who would make his death into a magical charm that gives them a "get out of jail free" card so they can continue to sin and forgo Good Works are degrading and spitting on Jesus' cross, not honoring it.

And those who are quick to say "Lord, Lord!" but forget it means "Master, Master!" should remember that by claiming Jesus as our Master and God's representative, we must obey his teachings, not just praise his name.

The words, life, teachings and death of our Master, Jesus, challenge us to do, to act, to follow, to serve, to be better, to do more, to try harder, to be humble yet Righteous, to serve God not money, to lose ourselves, but gain eternity.

This is a faith worth having and a Master worth serving - a faith that bring us life, and life more abundantly (John 10:10.) Those who would throw it away by minimizing and glossing over Jesus' words are throwing God's Kingdom away, and this is one thing all who love God must never do.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

We Possess The God-Given Gift of Reason

All of us are born with the God-given gift of Reason, the ability to think, analyze and question, and we are called to use that for the glory of God, the advancement of His spiritual Kingdom, and for the benefit of those around us.

Reason and Faith are not opposed to one another, but are instead necessary for us to understand God and God's will for us. Rationality walks hand-in-hand with Spirituality. When irrational elements of religion are stripped away, we may focus clearly on the mission God's Anointed One sends us to do.

God gave us Reason and the ability to obey Him, and Reason is a God-given gift we must use to discern His Will.

The Book of Proverbs begins with a beautiful poem praising wisdom, understanding, Reason and knowledge:

"To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth  - Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Prov. 1:2-7)

God has created us as thinking beings, capable of perceiving, learning, growing, and expanding in knowledge and great understanding.

By use of Reason, we can either choose to understand the words God and His spokesman, Jesus, sends us for our own benefit, or choose freely to HATE knowledge, wisdom and reproof, turning our backs on God and those whom He sent us. We will "eat the fruits of our way" if we do so, however (Prov. 1:29-31) and will be judged according to our Works.

Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is to, "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37.) Loving with our hearts and our very being (our Souls, our psyche) is one thing, but we are called also to use our MINDS - our understanding and our knowledge. These are not dirty words that spit upon faith, and our God does not diminish them at all, nor does his chosen and adopted Son, Jesus.

Some might now cite the Proverb, "Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding," (3:5) and it's certainly true! Anyone who has begun seeking higher education knows how much we simply do NOT know! But a humble acknowledgement of our lack of understanding itself points to our need to acquire it, and God loves those whom he corrects (Prov. 3:11)

Rev. George Harris (1794-1859) wrote, "Because we are required to submit to the divine authority, we should be assured, before we receive any doctrine that it is divine; and this it is evident we can only learn by bringing the doctrine before the high tribunal of Reason. Reason is unquestionably a divine law, written with indelible characters upon every human heart; and no laws can be divine which are a contradiction to our Reason, or which are plainly repugnant to that sense of right and wrong which is implanted in the mind."

When looking at scripture, we therefore must examine it cautiously - rejecting narrow, small-minded Literalism and mindless (often out-of-context) proof-texting - and instead interpret it using our God-given gifts of Reason and common sense, and knowing these books were written by men, selected and chosen for inclusion in a Bible for men, and are interpreted by men. Just as Jesus tells us the Sabbath was created for us, and not us for the Sabbath, use of our gift of Reason to examine God's message for us only makes sense.

In our moral lives, as well, we must employ Reason as a tool by which we may be guided.

The Rev. Joseph Priestley wrote, encouraging young men in college, "Above all things, be careful to improve and make use of the reason which God has given you, to be the guide of your lives, to check the extravagance of your passions, and to assist you in acquiring that knowledge, without which your rational powers will be of no advantage to you."

We have not been given impossible tasks by our God and by His Prophet, Jesus. Our senses have not been dulled nor our understandings darkened so much that we cannot turn to God and repent of our shortcomings.

If both Reason and our Hearts, along with our Teacher, Jesus, compel us to obey God, love Him, serve our fellow human beings with every fiber of our being, how can God's Kingdom NOT appear on the earth as we walk it?