Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Standing in the Gap this Christmas

So, are you one of those Christmas crazies? You know, the brightest house on the block. Lit up with everything from Santa and reindeer to the angels and elves gathered around the manger. Maybe even some of those huge inflatable snowmen hanging out on your front lawn.

Crazy may not be the right word, but you do tend to go a little overboard. You have a different Christmas sweater for each day of the week, snowflakes on your socks and a wreath on the grill of your SUV. You had your tree up three weeks ago and you think the radio stations that started on Thanksgiving Day playing Christmas songs exclusively waited too long.

Add in the blow-the-budget shopping excursions, holiday baking extravaganzas and a little too much tipsy in the eggnog and you might be a Christmas crazy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with you, per se, but not everybody gets it that way. For many people the holidays don’t bring tidings of comfort and joy, but loneliness, depression and grief. For some, this is certainly not the most wonderful time of the year.

A couple of weeks ago one of the dear, faithful ladies in our church suggested we set up a way for people to call in with prayer needs. Those who might need someone to talk to, or simply ask for someone to pray for them or with them ought to know there’s somewhere to go. Someone who cares.

The only thing wrong with this idea is that I didn’t think of it myself.

So here’s what we’re doing. If you want someone to pray for you this season, call our Prayer-Line at 217-632-5937. That’s a number for the First Baptist Church of Petersburg. You can leave as much or as little information about your situation as you wish. If you’d like for someone to contact you and pray personally with you, give us your name and phone number and someone will call you back.

Whatever you’re going through, major stuff or minor. We will pray for you. And we will keep confidential information confidential. Sealed like a vault. Unless you unload something on us that we would legally be required to report. Then we’ll pray extra hard for you!

The holidays can be tough. You may be missing your deceased husband or mother or child or friend like never before. Maybe you’re dealing with a relationship problem that’s tearing you up. It could be a physical illness that’s got you down. You may be under such a financial strain that you feel you’re about to snap.

Perhaps you see everybody else in the world (seemingly) skipping merrily along humming “White Christmas” while carrying Macy’s bags in both arms as they sip a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha on their way to another party you weren’t invited to, and it just makes you sick. You want to experience some of the joy of the season (without being a Christmas crazy), but you can’t.

We’re here for you, friend. We’re standing in the gap for you this season. Ready to take your name, your need to the throne of Almighty God in heaven. The One whose heart aches for you to find rest for your soul in Him. The One who laid down His life so that you could have a new, abundant and eternal life. The One who wants you to know His joy, His peace, His hope and His salvation for yourself.

We want you to know that you are loved! There’s nothing wrong with you for not decorating like you’ve got stock in Illinois Power. It’s ok that you don’t have any desire to see “Miracle on 34th Street” this year.

Call our Prayer-Line. 217-632-5937. Anytime, day or night. We will pray for you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

When Life's Billows Rock Your World

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever. - Psalm 136:1

When was the last time you used the word “billow” in conversation? It doesn’t come up often with me, either. Except when my wife gets a cold during the night and asks me to get her another “billow, blease.”

A billow is defined by as a great wave or surge of the sea, which must be true because it was on the internet. It could also be used to refer to any surging mass, such as a billow of smoke. You probably knew that. It’s just not a word we use very often. We’re not really sea people around here.

But we can all understand the metaphor of the tumultuous experiences of life being like the great billows of the sea. You may be sailing along just fine upon the surface of quiet waters, when suddenly a storm arises that rocks your world and threatens to throw you overboard. Ever been there?

The death of a loved one. Divorce. Cancer. Depression. The company’s downsizing. Your son calls you from the county jail. The list could go on. The coffee pot’s on the blink.

How do you handle such billows in your life? Where do you go for answers? In whom do you find comfort? Can you make it through the next wave?

There are at least three great hymns of the faith that remind us of God’s goodness and power in the midst of the billows we all face.

One is called “Love Lifted Me.” The third stanza reads:

   Souls in danger, look above
   Jesus completely saves
   He will lift you by His love
   Out of the angry waves
   He’s the Master of the sea
   Billows His will obey
   He your Savior wants to be
   Be saved today

The billows are no match for the might of the Lord. No matter how high the storm surges, its waves can never overwhelm those whose trust is in the saving power of Christ Jesus. Remember the storm the disciples faced on the open sea? And you remember what happened when Jesus literally rebuked the wind and spoke to the waves saying, “Peace! Be still!” Immediately there was a great calm. Billows His will obey.

Another is the moving story penned by Horatio G. Spafford in 1873. I don’t have room to flesh out the details, but in the wake of the drowning deaths of Spafford’s four daughters, the Lord inspired him to write:

   When peace, like a river, attendeth my way
   When sorrows like sea billows roll
   Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say
   It is well, it is well with my soul

Somehow in the midst of this unimaginable tragedy, God flooded Spafford’s soul with a peace that passes all understanding. The Lord never says we won’t face sorrows like sea billows, but He promises He will be with us even through the valley of the shadow of death. And the power of His very presence provides peace for our soul.

Then there’s the song we often sing around Thanksgiving entitled, “Count Your Blessings.” This has always been for me a tremendously encouraging hymn. It’s easy to get down, discouraged, frustrated and burdened with the cares of the world, whether they be thrust upon you or self-inflicted. But when we stop even for a moment and think about the blessings God has poured out upon us, we wonder why we should grumble at all.

   When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed
   When you are discouraged thinking all is lost
   Count your many blessings, name them one by one
   And it will surprise you what the Lord has done

So go ahead and start counting! This Thanksgiving remember that the answer for dealing with life’s billows lies in the power and goodness of Almighty God.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Defining Church

Church. Just the very word brings all kinds of ideas to peoples’ minds. Good, bad or ugly, most people have an opinion about church. You probably have some thoughts on the matter yourself. What do you think about when you hear the word “church”?

For most people, a church is a building. It’s the place you go for weddings, funerals and Sunday morning services, at least at Christmas and Easter. If I were to ask you, “Do you belong to a church?” you would probably answer by saying something like, “Yes, I go to the one with the tall steeple on the corner.” It’s the building, the place.

For others, church is religion. Church is mass or communion or baptism or confirmation. Saying your prayers, giving an offering, bringing in some canned goods for the food pantry. It’s what you do to be religious.

Some conjure up images of dusty old songbooks, long, boring sermons (no one at FBC, of course), Christmas pageants, potluck dinners, Vacation Bible School, revivals, stained glass and wooden pews. It’s the activity and events and stuff they think of first.

Can I challenge your thinking for a moment? The Bible doesn’t describe church as a building, as religion, activity or stuff. Jesus defines church as those who give their lives to follow Him. Not just the Sunday morning crowd, but the 24/7 followers. Not just the ones who stick around while the music suits their taste or while the preaching is entertaining, but those who stick with Jesus no matter what and whatever the cost.

In the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, there’s a huge crowd hanging around Jesus. Why? Because they saw the cool stuff He’d been doing, like healing the sick and turning water into wine. Man, that’ll draw a crowd! And so there’s all these people waiting to see what Jesus will do next. And He doesn’t disappoint.

With a gathering of about 5,000 men plus women and children, Jesus starts handing out free food. The people go crazy. Kind of like the celebration in St. Louis after the Cardinals won the World Series. They’re ready to coronate Him as Israel’s king right then and there. Down with the Romans! The Messiah’s finally here!

Except that’s not the kind of kingship Jesus came for. Not yet, anyway. And these weren’t the kind of followers Jesus was after, either. They were only interested as long as the fish fry was on. As long as the bread sticks kept coming to their table. Oh, and could You do that thing where you turn some water into more wine for us, Jesus?

But when Jesus started saying some hard things, the people didn’t stay. When He started teaching them about His Father in heaven who sent Him to be the true bread from heaven, they didn’t like it. When He told them they must feed on His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life, they got a little creeped out.

What Jesus was saying was that to “eat” His flesh meant to believe in Him. And to “drink His blood” is not to be taken literally either. It means to trust in the shedding of His blood on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus died and rose again so that all of our spiritual hunger and thirst would be fully satisfied in Him. And when we receive His sacrifice for our sins, we also receive the abundant and eternal life He alone can give.

Many of His “followers” walked away that day. They weren’t sold out to Jesus. Just interested in the show. Jesus looked at His closest Twelve disciples and asked them if they wanted to leave, too. Answering for the group, Simon Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

That’s the church Jesus has in mind. Why not come and truly follow Jesus, and join us in the journey at Petersburg First Baptist Church?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Hope for Anybody!

One of my favorite bands has a song that speaks clearly about the compassion of God. Here’s the chorus:

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
Love for the broken heart
There is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing
He’ll meet you wherever you are
Cry out to Jesus

I bring this up, because, well, I think that every man and woman, boy and girl ought to have Third Day projects in their music library and on their regular play list. And because this song fits perfectly with what I’ve been preaching in Jonah for the past few weeks. You want to talk about a people who did not deserve God’s compassion, it was Ninevah. They were an evil, wicked and violent mess of humanity. And if you’ve seen the VeggieTales movie, you also know they went around slapping people with fishes.

Did God owe them even a chance to turn away from their sin and believe in Him? No! But He gave it to them because He is a compassionate God. Even for Ninevah there’s grace and forgiveness, mercy and healing. God warned them what would happen if they didn’t repent, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. Like Sodom and Gomorrah not pretty. But when they humbled themselves before God and turned from their wicked ways, the Lord showed that mercy triumphs over judgment.

Speaking of Jonah, did God owe His disobedient prophet a second chance? The one who defiantly shook his puny little finger in the face of Almighty God and said, “No, I will not go to Ninevah! Not gonna happen. I’m outta here.” Hardly. But He gave Jonah another chance to obey. By the way, aren’t you glad that your disobedience to God’s command doesn’t land you in the slimy belly of a great fish? Me, too.

Did the father in the parable of the prodigal son owe his rebellious child a great feast, a pair of new sandals for his feet, a ring for his finger or the best robe he could find for him? The one who took the cash and bolted for a far away land, then wasted it all on sex, drugs and rock n’ roll? No!

Did the woman in Luke 7, the one with a reputation as being (ahem) “a woman of the city,” deserve God’s compassion? Uh, no.

Did the much despised, tax-collecting thief Zaccheus deserve to have Jesus come under his roof and eat with him? Did he deserve Christ’s love and forgiveness?

Did Saul from Tarsus, the self-described “worst of sinners,” a violent persecutor of the church in any way deserve the compassion of the Lord?

I’m telling you – there’s hope for anybody! And let me assure you that there’s not a single person on the planet who is in the least bit deserving of God’s grace and forgiveness. None of us are worthy. There is no one righteous, not even one. Sorry to break it to you, but we all deserve death and hell because we’ve all sinned against a holy and righteous God.

But God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love. He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. He proved His love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And whoever humbles himself before the Lord in repentance and turns in faith to Jesus Christ will be saved. Saved from sin and its wages of death, and saved to abundant and eternal life in Christ.

Maybe nobody’s ever told you this before, so you might want to listen closely: There’s hope for you! Jesus saves! When you cry out to Jesus from wherever you are, you’ll find rest, love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and healing – and so much more!

Of course, if you’d have been listening to Third Day, you’d have known that already! Why not call upon the Lord of compassion right now right where you are?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Feeble Saints, God's Grace and Pastor Installation Service

I had the privilege of preaching at the First Baptist Church in Brownstown, IL, this past Sunday morning. The church was celebrating 25 years having my uncle Olen Evans as their pastor. In case you’re keeping score at home, that’s about 22 years beyond the average tenure of pastors in one church these days.

My uncle has been a hero of the faith throughout my life. Right up there with the men and women of God in Hebrews 11. He has been through the fires and trials, the pains and the sorrows, and the persecutions and sufferings that often accompany the way of Christ. And he’s persevered faithfully through it all. Or maybe I should say that the Lord has been faithful to deliver him through it all.

You didn’t think that following Jesus was all candy and roses, did you?

Some seventeen years ago the doctors said there was nothing else they could do for Olen. Kidney failure. Bone marrow disease. You name it, he’s endured it. At one point his weight plummeted to 79 pounds. They gave him six months to live. But rather than destroy him, the disease led him to a deeper dependence upon the Lord. And God delivered him. The result was a greater longing for heaven, a bolder witness on earth and passionate pursuit of holiness.

In his book, Journeys of a Feeble Saint, Olen also chronicles a period of intense spiritual warfare in his life. His family would often receive threatening phone calls. Doors would slam shut when no one else was around. Their dog’s neck had been sliced open. A family portrait was discovered with all their faces blacked out and a slash mark across my uncle’s throat. They found countless signs of intruders in the house with no forced entry. His family often felt the presence of evil around them. They came home once to find the words “Satan Lives” spray painted in large black letters on their house and occult symbols on the inside.

You didn’t think pastors were immune to danger, did you?

It’s not for no reason that the Bible admonishes us to “put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). It’s not in vain that we’re warned that our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Jesus assured His disciples that just as the people of His day hated Him, they would hate His followers also. He told them plainly that the day would come when they would be put to death on account of His name. No wonder He says that anyone who wants to follow Him must deny himself, take up his cross and follow. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).

You didn’t think the narrow road that leads to life would be a picnic, did you?

And yet God gives us the grace and the power for victory over the adversary. My uncle is a living testimony of faith in the Lord, and of God’s mercy, goodness, power and faithfulness to deliver him through it all.

I wish I had more room to tell you about how he has personally been an encouragement in my life. Maybe some other time.

I am excited to tell you that he will be bringing the message this Sunday afternoon, November 6, at 3:00 for the Pastor Installation Service at Petersburg First Baptist Church. I’m not real sure what an installation service is. I know what it means to install a microwave oven or a water heater, but how to install a pastor? Guess I’ll find out this Sunday. You can, too. Come and be our guest!