Saturday, April 29, 2017

James 1:2-4 - Hanging by a thread

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Four guys went mountain climbing one weekend.  In the middle of the climb, one of the guys slipped over the edge of a cliff and dropped about 60 feet, landing with a thud on the rocky ledge below.  

The OTHER three, hoping to rescue him, yelled, “JOE!  Are you OK?!?!”  

“I’m alive,” answered Joe, “but I’ve broken both my arms!”

“We’ll toss a rope down to you and pull you up.  Just lie still!”

A couple of minutes after dropping one end of the rope, they started tugging and grunting together, feverishly working to pull their friend to safety.  

When they had him about 3/4ths of the way up, it dawned on them that he had broken BOTH his arms.

“Hey Joe?!?  If you broke both your arms, how in the world are you hanging on to this rope???”  

“With my teeeeeeeeeeeeth…”

Some of you may feel like you are hanging on by your teeth this morning… barely making it… not sure how you will get through this… asking yourself what you “did to deserve this trouble?”

Life is hard.  And the first question we ask in times of trouble is often the last one to be answered – “WHY?”  “If God loves me, WHY am I going through this hardship?”  “Why me?  Why now?”  

The problem is, when we ask WHY we aren’t usually looking for real answers.  Often our questions sound more like accusations - blaming God for allowing this thing to happen.  

Problems make us question the value of faith, because we incorrectly assume that becoming a Christian will safeguard us from this life of trouble.

What we OUGHT to ask during times of difficulty is NOT “Why?” but “What?”  
  • “Lord, what would you have me learn from this?”  
  • What can I do that will help bring about Your purposes, Your will in my life?”  

When you start looking at your problems through the eyes of God, you will see how, far from a curse, your battles might actually be blessings.

James was the half-brother of the Lord Jesus and the Pastor of the church at Jerusalem.  The Christians under his care had suffered unprecedented rejection, hardship, and loss.  They didn’t know giving their hearts to Christ would mean that everyone around them would hate them.  

  • Their neighbors and friends refused to treat them with kindness.  

  • Their families wrote them off as though they had died.  

  • Their faith hung by a thread as they teetered on the brink of starvation.  

To THEM James says, “Count it all joy... when you meet trials of various kinds.

How is that even possible??  Can a person truly be joyful in the midst of suffering???  James will show us how.

So IF you are hanging on by a thread this morning, James offers three reasons God allows His people to be tested.  Notice…

1.  First, how trials MOVE us in v. 2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”  Trials have a way of jolting us out of the comfortable ruts we settle into.  They force us to look within… and more importantly, to look up.  The way we respond to trials shows us what kind of spiritual condition we are in – whether we are mature or fleshly – faithful or faithless.  They act as a measuring stick - they show us how desperately we need growth.

We are often TEMPTED during our trials too.  What kinds of temptations will you face when you find yourself in the valley?

First, you will find yourself tempted to withdraw from others… others who care about you.  God has placed you in a church family for support, accountability, and encouragement.  But when hard times come, there is something in us that wants to withdraw from those relationships.  

We incorrectly think we would do better if we were left alone.  When we are discouraged, it may seem more of a hassle than a blessing to have people around us who care.  We feel like we have to make everyone else feel better about our feeling bad.

Satan wants you to make that mistake - because
  • He knows there is strength in the family of God.  
  • He knows that we will learn some things - as we fellowship with others who have gone through similar battles.  
  • He knows that God has a Word for us that will be a lifeline in our distress.  And if we withdraw from our church family, we will likely miss instruction that the Holy Spirit can use to minister to us in our time of need.

When we pull away from those relationships, we drown in self-pity.

Second, you will be tempted to neglect spiritual things – your quiet time, your prayer life and scripture study will suffer because you begin to think that these things don’t really help you. Disillusioned, you will begin to feel that God has somehow failed you.  

And third, during your weaker moments, you will be tempted to turn to sin as the answer for what ails you. It's not when you are STRONG and CLOSE TO GOD that you are most apt to mess up your life, but when you are down, questioning the goodness, the FAIRNESS of the Lord that you are most likely to sin.

James wanted the church to understand – “God, has NOT failed you… but often shows Himself the strongest during our times of greatest weakness.”  

James describes our trials as “many.”  They come in all shapes and sizes… they come to all people in all seasons of life, regardless how mature you are or how faithful you are.  God isn’t picking on you.

James wants us to know that we are NOT unusual – or somehow less spiritual than others because we are walking through a valley.  

You will also notice that James doesn’t say “IF,” but “When.”  Trials are not electives in God’s University– but required courses.  

Sooner or later they will come.  And when they do, God has promised to provide what we need to successfully navigate those challenges.

James’ advice is clear - When you find yourself discouraged, allow it to Move You closer to God, closer to His Word and prayer, closer to your church family.  NOT further away.

2.  But not only do trials MOVE us, they also MELLOW us.  Listen to v. 3 – “for you know that the testing (or that which proves your faith true/real) ... produces steadfastness. (helps you remain under the load.) 

That’s why James tells us to “face our hardships with joy.” They are not mindless, senseless hardships unleashed upon us by cold, impersonal fate.  They are permitted by a wise and loving heavenly Father who is too caring to be unkind and too wise to make mistakes.  

Satan cannot touch you without God’s permission.  And even when God DOES allow it, He desires to work in your life.  He wants to produce something in you that you cannot get any other way.  God is using your trials to produce “steadfastness.”  God is stretching you so that you will remain “under the load.”

When you cross a bridge, you will see signs that tell the load limit of the structure.  Engineers have tested its strength – they know how much weight that bridge can support.  And from time to time they will inspect the structure to make sure it can safely support the load of traffic – because if they don’t, something catastrophic might happen!

You have a load-limit too.  God knows what hardships are coming your way and whether or not you can bear that load.  God strengthens you because He loves you and because He knows there are people around you who have heard you speak of your faith in the Lord.  He knows that some of those people are watching to see if your faith really does make a difference in life’s storms.

All of us have to learn this – even great men of the faith like Paul.  In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul referred to a problem he had as his “thorn in the flesh.” He shared how he had prayed three different times for God to take the problem away.  But what did God say??  “NO… My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in your weakness.”  And when Paul came to terms with God’s answer, he said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me... for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

James knew that his church was suffering terrible hardship… that they were paying a high price for their faith.  He also knew that the only way they would make it was by developing “steadfastness.”  God lovingly allowed them to suffer hardship so that later, as life presented its challenges, they would be strong enough to hold up under the load.

And the same thing is true for you.

Don’t believe for one moment that God is punishing you by allowing you to go through hard times.  

Think about it like this:  As a parent, you hate to see your children suffer.  You wish you could shield them from every heartache, that you could soothe every hurt, or spare them every difficulty.  But you realize they have to grow up.  You realize you can’t always be there.  And you realize that a lot of lessons are learned through failure – that by over-protecting, you might actually be hurting them - stunting them.  

You know, part of growing up is developing the ability to make good, WISE, decisions. And to do get to that place, you have to allow them to make decisions. Sometimes they choose well. Sometimes, not so much.

So, in love, you allow them to fall and teach them how to pick themselves up, because the day is coming when you won’t be there.  

Do you love them less because you don’t bail them out every time?  To the contrary, it is love that motivates you to let them develop steadfastness, They've got to take ownership of their faith. If they don't, they'll never make it to heaven.

3.  But not only do trials MOVE us and MELLOW us... They also MATURE us. Listen to verse 4, “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  

Maturity is a process.  Just as it takes years for a baby to reach adulthood, it will take time for you to grow up in Christ.  You won’t always respond well to the lessons God teaches.  So He must teach them again and again, so that He can make you like Christ – or as James puts it “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing..”

The idea behind the word “perfect” is not sinlessness – but maturity. A faith that can’t be TESTED, is a faith that can’t be TRUSTED.  But as your faith is proven true - as your resolve to cling to God is seen - then your faith takes on a compelling completeness that not even your adversaries can deny.

Paul used this same word when he spoke to the immature believers in Corinth and reprimanded them for not being more advanced in their faith, but were instead still in need of being taught elementary truths - the things they should have gotten back in children’s church, they needed to be taught again.

James challenged the Jewish Christians to allow God to complete what He had started in them.  “Don’t give up before the work is finished!  Be Patient!”

“Patience” is a farmer’s word.  The farmer plows and plants his field, but then he has to wait for harvest.

“Patience” is nature’s word.  Each fruit has a ripening process.  If you pull it too soon, it will be hard or bitter.  Impatience spoils the fruit.

And “Patience” is God’s word.  He’s never in a hurry.  It takes time for a child to become a man… for a Christian to become like Christ.

Impatience ruins the process.  And trust me when I say this - God is ALL ABOUT the PROCESS.

In this day of fast-food, quick entertainment, and instant messaging, we want everything NOW.  But when we carry this attitude into our spiritual lives, we get frustrated that growth seems to take so long.  We want maturity NOW – but God says “Wait!”  He delights in the process.

Warren Wiersbe writes, "Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to count it all joy! If we live only for the present and forget about the future, the trials will make us bitter, not better."


How can suffering make us better?  I can think of several ways according to scripture:


First, Suffering produces intimacy with God (Job 42:5).  God will never be more real in your life than when you are up against it.  If we allow our trials to force us into God's presence, our lives will be better as a result of the trial.  

Job, who endured unspeakable suffering, said, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you."  Reminding us that Intimacy with God is often borne in the furnace of affliction.

Suffering equips us to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).  Suffering gives us compassion for others who are hurting, enabling us to minister more effectively.  We are able to share how WE got through OUR pain… how God was faithful in OUR time of need, and through that, others are encouraged.  Those who have suffered make the most effective comforters.

Suffering refines us.  It purges the junk out of our lives.  We read in Isaiah 48:10 that "…I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction."  Pain and suffering have a way of bringing our strengths and weaknesses to the surface. God is working through our circumstances to purify us.

And according to our text, Suffering produces growth and maturity (James 1:2-4).  If we turn to God in our pain, He can use our suffering for growth. The early church provides a perfect illustration of this. After hearing their testimonies, few would deny that suffering had made them more like Jesus.

So you see?  There are some things we can only learn through hardship.  And those things are very valuable to God.  

So back to you.  Are you going through some things you don’t understand??  Maybe you’ve been asking the wrong question.  You’ve been wanting to know WHY – when the better question is WHAT… “Lord, WHAT would you have me learn through this?”  

You’ve got to remember how God loves you more than you can possibly understand… and that He has a plan for you – a plan to involves making you more like Jesus.

With that said, maybe you ought to come to this place of prayer and ask God to use your pain for His glory.  

Maybe you need to pray that God would strengthen you and help you hang on.  That your testimony would be seen by friends and family as they watch your dependence upon God deepen through this hardship.

I’ve seen my fair share of struggles, hardship, and pain.  And while problems come in a variety of forms, they all have ONE thing in common…they eventually end.
Maybe you need the strength to hang on till this thing comes to an end.  Will you pray about it?  

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Judges 16:15-22 – Samson, a lesson in failure

And she (Delilah) said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and you have not told me where your great strength lies.”  And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death.
And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.”
When Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, “Come up again, for he has told me all his heart.” Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her and brought the money in their hands.  She made him sleep on her knees.
And she called a man and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. Then she began to torment him, and his strength left him.  And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” And he awoke from his sleep and said, “I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.”
But he did not know that the Lord had left him.
And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles. And he ground at the mill in the prison.
But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.

Have you ever failed at something?  Of course you have.  Looking back you might be able to laugh about it NOW…

or not.  

For those of us who have experienced their fair share of failure, Stephen Piles has written a book, called, “The book of failures.”  It’s got some humdingers in there like the time back in 1978 when the firefighter’s union was on strike in England.  That strike made possible one of the greatest animal rescues of all time ⇒ almost.  

Valiantly the British Army had taken over all emergency firefighting.  On January 14th they were called by an elderly lady in South London to rescue her cat.
Arriving on the scene with impressive haste, they carefully retrieved her precious pet.  The lady was so grateful that she invited her “heroes” in for tea.
Driving away with fond farewells and warm waving of hands, they

- ran over her cat and killed it.  OUCH!  

Failure hurts.  Especially when that failure is public.  Especially when the person in question is a leader… or is respected.
28 years ago I was deeply troubled by a headline in my hometown newspaper.  It read, “Minister jailed over church sex scandal.”  The man in question pastored a church I had attended.  He was the man who led me to Jesus.  His son was my best friend.  I had eaten at his table and slept under his roof so many times that his wife referred to me as their “other son.”  And while I do not condemn or stand as his judge, his failure was catastrophic… many lives were affected … many hearts broken.
How do you respond to failure?  Are you disgusted by it and does that disgust lead you to condemn - judge?  OR, do you try to learn from it – realizing your OWN weaknesses …your OWN penchant for sin?
Maybe experience has tempered your judgment some, and you realize you have failed too many times yourself to be in a position of throwing stones at others.  

Failure is a hard thing to handle – but handle it we must for it is a BIG part of life… AND a BIG part of the Bible.
I LOVE the REALISM of the Bible – it pulls no punches – it refuses to sugar-coat the truth.  It tells the whole story… even to the point of shattering the image we might have had of some of the Bible’s greatest heroes.  Heroes like Samson.  

Samson’s whole life seems to be one long-running failure.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Samson was a miracle baby… the product of his mother’s prayer.  

Those were desperate days in Israel.  After Joshua’s generation died out, the people of Israel drifted away from the Lord… as is OFTEN the case, when lean times give way to more prosperous times… when war is over and old warriors hang up their shields, too often, it seems, they fail to pass their faith on to the next generation.  

The author of Judges even states, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”  People often forget God when the conflict is ended.  Resisting GOD’S authority, they became their OWN authority.
For such a time as this, God sent a man, Samson, to turn the heart of a nation back to the Lord.  From his birth, he was dedicated to God, raised to be an example of Godliness and commitment.  

WE remember him for his superhuman strength
  • …how he killed a lion with his bare hands…
  • and how he killed a thousand Philistine soldiers with the jawbone of a donkey.  
  • We remember how he carried away the gates to the city
  • and when he broke the ropes that bound him as though they were but threads.
In spite of his great strength, however… Samson was a man of glaring weakness.  

Though he could harness 300 foxes with his bare hands, he never learned how to harness his sinful desires; and as a result, his life ended in shame and tragedy.
The story of Samson spans four chapters of the book of Judges… but for the sake of time, we will hone in on three pivotal moments in his life.
My intent today is simple – to show you how even the most gifted and talented people CAN fall… AND to remind YOU - that failure - doesn’t have to be final.  Notice:

1.  First, Samson’s restraining favor.  At the beginning of his life, chapter 13 says, “the LORD blessed him.  And the Spirit of the LORD began to move him…”  

Samson owed all of his strength – all he had become, to God.  It was his relationship with the Lord that made him who he was.  God had set him apart for a higher purpose.  God had called him to do a great work – but even more importantly – God called him to be a great MAN.
Samson’s strength came from his commitment to God.  Even before he was born, God commanded he be raised a Nazarite.  

A Nazarite made a commitment to God - they promised God three things:
First, that he would not drink ANY alcoholic beverages.  God did not want his man under the influence or control of any spirit other than the Holy Spirit.  

Alcohol, according to Proverbs, is a “cruel mocker.”  It will make a fool of you.  And those under its influence find themselves making OTHER compromises – yielding to OTHER temptations.  This is why Paul warned believers “not to be drunk with wine, wherein is excess.”  The word “excess” implies “no self-control.”  When a person is under the influence of alcohol, he doesn’t have self-control … he does stupid things, regrettable things when he drinks.  

God wanted His man to have a clear mind… an honorable reputation… and a resolute will.  All of which are lost when a person is under the influence of alcohol.
Second, Samson promised the Lord he wouldn’t cut his hair.  In those days, a man leaving his hair uncut was a sign of devotion to God and separation from the world.  It represented his willingness to bare reproach for the Lord’s sake.  It was a sign of devotion and humility.
Even WAY BACK THEN, God wanted His people to STAND OUT from their peers.
He still expects that.  Regardless the pressure we face to conform to this world, God wants His people to stand out from the world.
And third… Samson promised he would not touch a dead body of any kind.  He was to stay away from ANYTHING that might make him unclean.
Christians are still called to avoid anything that would make them “unclean.”  Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:17, “Come out from among them and be separate…do not touch what is unclean.”  

What does that mean exactly??  Several things:
First, Christians must avoid unholy practices.  A Christian has no business involving himself in those things that do not please the Lord.  Too many Christians think it is ok to do the “Christian thing” on Sunday, but then they do the “worldly thing” the rest of the time.  NO SIR.  God has called you to be different.
Second, we must avoid unholy pleasure.  When you become a Christian, there will be times when you must say ‘No.’  When you are contemplating whether a thing is right for you to do, ask yourself what you would do if Christ was standing right beside you.  Why?  Because He is.
Third, if you would honor the Lord you must also avoid unholy people.  There are too many folks out there who are hell-bent on swaying you from doing the right thing.  Stay away from those people. If those are the kinds of folks you call “friends,” you have no understanding of the biblical concept of friendship.
Fourth, you need to avoid unholy places if you would please the Lord.  There are some places you don’t belong as Christian.  Nothing good can come from it – only compromise.

All of this was involved in Samson’s vow.  God was saying, “THIS is the kind of man I will bless!”  If you will abide by THESE RESTRAINTS, if you will say, “I don’t want anything in my life to challenge my love and commitment to God,” God will bless you – with influence, a testimony, with character and strength… God honors the man who is determined to honor Him.
Samson had made a commitment – and God gave him supernatural strength because of it.
2.  But not only do we see his Restraining Favor, we move on to witness his Recurring Failure.  Samson’s constant struggle is summed up perfectly by chapter 14 and verse 1:  “Samson went down to Timnah.”  

He had so much potential for good.  When he honored the Lord, the Spirit of God moved him and blessed him and made him strong.  BUT, when “he went down to Timnah,” his life began to unravel… his commitment fell apart.  How so?  In three ways:
On his way to Timnah, he was attacked by a Lion, and the Bible says that the Spirit of God came on him and he tore that lion apart with his bare hands.  

That was a good thing.  The Lord is showing us that the only way to defeat the Lion in OUR lives is by the aid of the Spirit of God!
But Samson forgot that often after great victories come great temptations.  When we are most confident - we get cocky - and lower our guard.
On his way back home, Samson came back to the place where he had killed the lion and noticed a beehive built inside the carcass.  He was hungry and gave into that hunger, that natural desire, and he broke his vow.  He touched the dead body in order to get some honey.  He traded that which is lasting for that which is temporary.
Not only did he touch a dead body, while in Timnah he attended a drinking party.  The Philistines loved to throw beer bashes, and Samson went down to Timnah and had himself a big ole time. - - As long as the wine was flowing, Samson forgot his commitment to the Lord.

All of which reminds us that when we start breaking our promises to the Lord, it gets easier each time.  His desire for fun and fitting in with the crowd, had become more important than his commitment to God.
While there, he fell in love with a woman.  But she wasn’t just any woman – she was a LOST woman.  He didn’t find the women of Israel interesting enough, so on two separate occasions, in violation of God’s clear command, he gave his heart to unbelieving women.  

  • Maybe he thought he could convert them???  
  • Maybe he thought they would change for HIM???  
  • Like some of you who rationalize disobedience to God - saying, “But it will be different for me.”

When Samson revealed the secret of his strength, when he gave that piece of his heart to her that had belonged to God, the mighty man of God became ordinary.
What might be THE SADDEST WORDS IN ALL OF THE BIBLE follow:  He didn’t know that the Spirit had left him.  

Samson neglected his commitment to God.  He didn’t think the details mattered.  He thought God would just forgive him and go on.  Not knowing that those little details MATTER TO GOD.
And what makes this story SO TRAGIC is how often it is repeated TODAY.  Church People - who know the power and blessing of God, bit by bit throw their commitment away until they are no different than anyone else.  Strength gone… influence gone… joy gone.  Not realizing that when you flirt with the world, you fail God.

Have YOU failed God?  Have YOU, like Samson, compromised your commitment to the Lord?  Maybe you never intended for things to go this far… but here you are, filled with regret, loneliness, and heartbreak.  If that’s you, there is one more point you need to notice:
3.  After seeing his Restraining Favor and his Recurring Failure, I want you to notice his Redeeming Feature.  Verse 22 tells us that Samson’s hair began to grow again.  There in that Philistine torture chamber, Samson remembered how blessed he had been when God was first in his life.  So verse 28 says, “And Samson called unto the LORD, and said, ‘O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray!’”
And the thing I love about that – is - God heard his prayer.  God forgave and restored him.  And in a final display of power, Samson killed more of God’s enemies in his death - than in his life.

It's a shame, though. Samson could have lived a long and powerful life… he could have made such a difference… but his failures cut his life, his influence short. Reminding us that sin always has its costs.
His ENDING also reminds us that there is NO SITUATION God cannot redeem… no case too far gone for God.  It doesn’t matter what you have done, where you have been, the lives hurt, the poor choices made…

God can redeem it IF you will turn from your sins and in faith cry out the Him.  God will forgive your faults and make you new, IF you will repent.
Right now, some of us have a longing for that.  Right now, we want to know what forgiveness feels like…what true joy and peace and love are like.  And God wants you to give it to you.  If He could forgive and restore Samson, He can do the same for you.  The question is, will you confess it to Him and call upon Him right now??
All of us – ALL of us, have known what it is to fail – all of us know what a mess can be made when we get outside of God’s will for our lives.
You are not among judges, friend, you are among those who know what it is to sin and suffer the shame and consequences of it.  The only difference is, some of us have cried out to the Lord, just like Samson, and have been forgiven and restored.  Some of us refused to be defined by our failures and sought the mercy of Jesus Christ.
Do YOU need to do that? How many here today would say, “Like Samson I have failed.  I haven’t honored my commitments​ to God.  And I need God’s grace to forgive me and restore me?”