The Preacher’s Nightmare

Preaching is the greatest privilege given to a minister.  It is also the most ominous responsibility pressed upon a minister.

Each Sunday before worship, I pray this prayer:

Lord, I am not worthy to preach your Word.  I am tainted by my sin.  Do not let my sin taint the Word which you have given to me to preach today.  Let me get out of the way, so you can preach Your Word to Your people.

When I rise to preach, I do so with fear and trembling.  God is counting on me.  The people who are desperate for God’s Word are counting on me.  Everyone is counting on me, but I am counting on God.

Most weeks, God speaks clearly to me, His Word is in my heart and on my lips.  Those weeks, I am ever grateful for His gift and for His good work.  Those weeks I preach confident that He is using me to speak His Word.

Yesterday was not one of those Sundays.

I was preaching from John 7:14-24.  I had spent hours in preparation, exegetical work, personal reflection, commentary study, and prayer.  I knew the text forward, backwards, and upside down.  Despite these efforts, a sermon never came to me.

By Sunday AM, after 13 days to prepare, after panicked prayers, and after a sleepless night wrestling with demons, I had scrapped together a few thoughts and packaged them into terrible disarray.  When I rose to preach I had zero confidence in what I had and was terrified of the impending failure of the sermon.

I abandoned my notes and rambled like a mouse in a drunken stupor trying to escape a maze.  Perhaps the best thing I did was to keep it short.  Between services I went to my private prayer place in the church to pray and found myself weeping.

For the second service I came at the sermon from a different angle, but felt like I was drowning with each new word and phrase.  I preached a bit longer, hoping that God’s Word would finally explode from my lips and rest on at least one person’s heart.

I wanted to hide rather than meet’n’greet as the congregation exited the sanctuary.  I prayed that no-one dare say that the sermon spoke to them.  I apologized to a dozen or so folk for the mess I had made of God’s Word.  I refused to accept any compliment which was passed my way.

I had failed God!  I failed the congregation!  Every Pastor has had this experience.  This is one of those times when ministry is a heavy burden.

In my grieving, guilt, and shame, God reminded me of Isaiah 55:10–11:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (ESV)

He reminded me that my effort was not wasted not was it waste.

I cannot linger in these postpartum blues because it’s already Monday Noon and Sunday’s coming, again, and again, and again.

Lord, help me, your people are counting on You.

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My Jesus Fantasy

My Jesus believes in …..

This is how the fantasy begins.

From this common starting point individuals make Jesus into their own personal politically-correct God.  With their fantasy firmly fixed in their minds, they go looking for a church which and Pastor who embrace their Jesus Fantasy.

I was once visited by a couple who was new to the community.  They wanted to know about me and the church I served.  They rattled through a long list of questions:

Do you believe Jesus is God’s Son?

I said, “Yes!”

They said, “So do we!”

Do you believe we all sin and fall short of the glory of God?

I said, “Yes!”

They said, “So do we!”

Do you preach that we are only saved by the blood of Jesus?

I said, “Yes!”

They said, “So do we!”

Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?

I said, “Yes!”

They said, “So do we!”

By this point I was feeling pretty good about the couple.  It is not too often that the most recent guest at worship has a solid biblical faith.  We were on a roll.

After another 5-6 questions, each answered in the same way … they said, “We have one more question.”

I said, “Bring it on!”

They then said, “We are living and sleeping together, will that be a problem for you and the church?”

I quietly sighed and paused before responding.

It really did not matter whether if it was a problem for me or the church I was serving.  It was a problem for God.

When I explained to them that while they were welcome to worship with us, attend bible study, join in pot luck dinners, and serve on mission teams with us, they would not be placed in a leadership role nor would they ever hear any endorsement of their living arrangements from me or any other teacher in the church.

I was kind and gracious with my words.

They smiled and thanked me for my honesty, but I knew that I had popped their bubble because I did not fully endorse their Jesus Fantasy.

I never saw them again.

While I could and would pastor them, I could not and would not support their Jesus Fantasy.

As a Pastor, I am use to people leaving and going to another church because I cannot and will not support their Jesus Fantasy.  I have been amazed at how many Christians love me and my preaching until I burst their Jesus Fantasy Bubble.

I have had my own Jesus Fantasies.  I have fantasized that Jesus, that God, approves and endorses everything which I want to do or have done.

I was at peace with my Fantasy Jesus, until I started changing my mind about a matter.  Only to flip-flop again down the road.  My fantasy started to fall apart when I read Hebrews 13:8, which says: “God … Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow!”

I was glad to know that I could count on God.  Aren’t we all!

But what happens when in my Jesus Fantasy, my God changes because I have changed my mind, my desire, my preference for what is right and wrong?  God loses His permanence and I can no longer count on Him. 

If God is not immutable, changeless, constant, and consistent, then He is fickle.  I never trust fickle people.  If you are wise, neither do you.

While I longed to hold onto my ever-changing Jesus Fantasy, I had a deeper longing for a God, a Lord, and a Savior I could count on and trust.  I wanted a God who was true to His Word, rather than the ever-changing, frequently confused, God of my Jesus Fantasy.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul writes: “All scripture is breathed out by God!”  The Bible is God’s Word.  In scripture God tells the God-awe-full and the God-amazing Truth about Himself.

That is such wonderful news.  I no longer have to try and figure out “Who is God, today!”  I simply have to read and study the Bible in order to learn who God has been, is, and will be from the beginning of all life into His eternity.

Knowing I can count on God to be who He says He is, gives me peace and hope.

I must confess there are times when I will fantasize about who I want Jesus to be.  The fantasy is a cheap way to justify my sins.  This cheap grace wears off quickly and leaves my soul troubled and out-of-sorts.  It is then that I come to my senses and long for God and His immutable, unchanging, amazing, steadfast love, mercy, and grace.

I have yet to meet a Fantasy Jesus who is as great and loving as the real Jesus!

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Where Is the Grace?

Where Is the Grace?

1 Peter 3:14-16, 2 Corinthians 5:18, Romans 3:23, 5:8,

Psalm 51:3-4, and Matthew 5:22-24, 6:12

 Preached at Kishwaukee Community Church, April 14, 2013

(Click here to listen or to download the sermon)

 Paul Tripp in his DVD series, Your Walk with God is a Community Project, says: “If you are going to be a part of what God is doing, right now, you have to know what God is doing.”  This leads us to 2 questions we should always ask:

  1. What in the world is God doing?
  2. How in the world should I respond to it?

I have had one of those weeks, where I have been asking those 2 questions.  The questions reached a crescendo from 10 PM Thursday night till 4 AM Friday morning when I had a wrestling match with God.  God won!  His victory has led to this sermon

It all began last Sunday AM when I gave to Mark and Pam Bucey copies of my three favorite books about ministry. I wanted them to read them, so that as parents they would know what Camden would experience as a Pastor. These 3 books are:

  • This People, This Parish, by Robert Hudnut
  • Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson
  • Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp

Then, on Sunday afternoon, I traveled to a suburb of Chicago to moderate a congregational meeting of a church which has been in crisis for a year.  The church leaders and their Pastor had come to an agreement to dissolve the Pastoral Relationship.  My job was to moderate their congregational meeting.

I knew it would be a tough meeting. The Pastor had received hate mail. The church leaders had received hate mail.  Even, I had receive hate mail.  I had been warned not to come to the meeting.

The meeting was ugly, worse than I anticipated.  I was told I was an unwelcome guest.  I was cursed at with foul language.  Several members were ugly as they spoke about the pastor.  I even had to warn one member 4-5 times about his behavior.  Some horrible things were said at the meeting,  things which were not truthful,  which twisted facts, and which were unbecoming to God.

Three hours into the meeting we were in such a mess that I could not figure out how we could reach a graceful conclusion to the meeting.  However, by the grace of God, we were able to end the meeting with some grace after another 30 minutes of wrangling.  Yet,  I left the meeting with a heavy heart.

After the meeting, the Pastor asked me why no-one stood up to counter the lies and twisted truth.  Despite this, he was thankful the ordeal was over and seemed in good spirits.  Yet, with each succeeding day this week, he called me.  With each call I could hear his spirits spiraling downward and his bitterness increasing.

Thus, on Tuesday night when I went to our Session Meeting, I was grateful for our Elders and their spiritual leadership.  Things are not perfect here.  I am not a Pastor without failings.  After 2 1/2 years you know my warts, weaknesses, and mistakes.  I sin as well as anyone else.  I do not say this to boast, but to let you know I am painfully aware of my failures.

On Tuesday we had a good Session meeting, part of which included a recommendation by Sandy Williams that we ask you to join us for prayer every Wednesday evening at 6 PM here in the sanctuary.  We are praying for God’s direction for our ministry that He make clear to us how and where He wants us to focus our ministry for the next 3-5 years.  It will be a blessing to have us join us in this season of prayer and discernment.

Then on Thursday evening as I arrived at the beginning of the Women’s Annual Spring Banquet, I had a message from the Pastor I spoke about earlier.  He sounded like he was as low as a man could go.  I called him back and spoke to him.  He was in a deep dark hole.

He told me what he had decided to say in his last sermon, which he is preaching this morning.  He planned to stand up for himself, to call out those who had attacked him, to read his anonymous hate mail, and ….  At that point I stopped him.  I knew he was hurting, but I also knew that as a man of integrity, he would quickly regret getting his revenge.

I told him to look at 1 Peter 3:14–16 (ESV):

Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of those who attack you nor be troubled, but in your heart honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

After a season of prayer and some persuasion, he concurred that taking the high road was the right thing to do as he preached his last sermon.

Since I was feeling good after his call, I decided to make one of those calls I dreaded.  I called a church member who I had not seen in worship lately.  Aware of my own sinfulness and contentiousness, and to be defensive I asked God to be with me as we spoke.  The conversation went as those conversations have gone throughout my ministry.  The individual is thinking about leaving the church because of “some things which have or have not happened during my tenure as Pastor.”

At this point in the conversation, the temptation is for me to avoid getting into details because I might rear my ugly head in self-defense.  This leads to the temptation to say something superficial and spiritual.  But Thursday was different.  Paul Tripp who I quoted at the beginning of this sermon says that glossing over problems with superficial spiritual gloss is one of the worse things we can do in the church.  So, I pressed on in the conversation.

I hate broken relationships.  I hate being unreconciled with other Christians.  Even if someone is going to leave the church, I want to be reconciled with them.  Even if I have been hurt by someone, I do not want the relationship to end unreconciled, smoothed over with enough superficial love as a facade covering my sin.

As I spoke to this friend, the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:18 (ESV) were ringing in my ears: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

So I pressed on in the conversation and asked, “What things!”

Hesitantly the friend mentioned one thing.  I was guilty as charged.  I apologized and asked for forgiveness.

I asked if there was anything else.  There was.  I was guilty and apologized.

As the list grew, I began to wonder,“Where is the grace?”

Make no mistake, I was guilty of everything on the list, but I kept wondering, “Where is the grace?”

After a few more minutes, I wondered out loud,“Where is the grace?”

There was a pause and I wondered aloud some more:“If in the church we are about the ministry of God’s grace, where is the grace?”

My friend and I talked some more, the conversation was honest and cordial, we spoke truthfully.  I was fine until the individual said something.  What my friend said was not personal about me.  It was a simple honest statement, which I have heard frequently in every church I have served.  Usually, I hear this statement without any emotional reaction.  But this time the statement infuriated me.

I bit my lip and cheek and ended the conversation with sincerity and grace.

Yet, when I hit the end button, I found myself ready to throw my phone somewhere at something, but I am cheap and decided not to do so.

I was not angry at the friend.  The comment that had me so angry was innocent and not a personal criticism of me.

My thoughts were not very holy at that moment.  I wanted to go home, but I had promised Susan Moon that I would come in and listen to her testimony as she spoke at the Women’s Banquet.  Hesitantly, I stepped into the Fellowship Hall and sat by the doorway to listen.  Susan was just beginning to speak.  She did an excellent job, I wish every man, woman, and child could have heard her speak.

I was still angry when she spoke, yet her words were a healing balm for me.

Susan has given me permission to talk about her testimony.  There was a repetitive pattern in Susan’s talk.  She talked about how God had blessed her and how she usually responded by doing something, which was sinful and an offense against God and His ways.  As Susan spoke about her defiance, her sin, she paused and spoke these words before continuing, “But God was faithful!”

After a while, her refrain began to echo in my ears” “But God was faithful!”

Then it finally hit me, “There is the grace!!”  “But God was faithful!”

I left the banquet blessed, my spirit was soothed.  Yet, by the time I went to bed, my mind and discontent had wandered back to the events of my week, particularly the one comment in that last phone call.  I went to bed early, tired and exhausted.

That is when God started wrestling with me. He knew I was discombobulated, that I was not content, and that a storm was brewing in my heart.  So, we wrestled. I kept asking, “Where’s the grace?  Where’s the grace?”

The one comment made by my friends had become the thorn in my flesh.  You may be wondering, “What was the comment the friend made?”  You’ll be surprised when i tell you the comment because it is one we speak frequently.  The comment, “I promised them I would not tell you!”

How many of us have made that promise to someone?  All of us have!  A friend comes up to us,  we can tell they are upset about something.  We asked them, “What’s wrong!”

They sigh, twitch, and look both ways and then say, “I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone.”

Eager to hear what they have to say, we readily agree.  They then tell us that they are mad at someone, why they are mad at that person, and how the person who hurt them  is guilty and should burn in hell.  (That last phrase is an emotional, not literal translation of what they say.)

So, here we are, party to an unreconciled brokenness, standing in the awkward middle of two people’s brokenness, having committed ourselves to saying nothing and doing nothing.  This may work in the 7th grade, but it is deadly in the body of Christ.

I cannot tell you how many times as a Pastor when a member of the church comes to me with this problem:  “Pastor Rus, I do not know what to do.  So-an-so is mad at you-know-who and it is causing real problems because you-know-who either didn’t mean to hurt so-an-so or does not know they hurt so-an-so.  It’s is an unfortunate misunderstanding and these long-time friends in the church are at odds.  I promised, not to say a word to anyone, I cannot break my promise.  What should I do?”

The person seeking my counsel wants me to take care of the problem, but I have to promise them not to let so-and-so and you-know-who know that what’s-her-name told me.

Friends, this is the most destructive thing we can do in the church … promise others we will keep their anger under-wraps.  Whenever we do this we prevent reconciliation; we destroy any opportunity for repentance and confession; and we deny both parties to experience God’s grace as extended and received through forgiveness.

This is why I was so mad at the end of the call.  My friend knew someone was upset with me, but never told me because they promised to not say anything.  I had done something wrong!  I had not intended to hurt anyone, but I had.  I was blind to my sin AND NO ONE TOLD ME!!!!!  Not only that they hid my sin from me and a relationship that could have been repaired has remained broken and may never be repaired.  Furthermore, other relationships have been broken and may never be repaired.

Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot do this in the church.

We cannot ask others to keep our anger and hurt secret; promise to keep confidential your anger because of someone’s sin; and, deny someone an opportunity to repent, to confess, to apologize, and to ask forgiveness.

Whenever we do this, we destroy God’s church, we divide His body.

One sin grows into a mess with the hurt and brokenness growing exponentially because one person remains silent and others keep secrets.  I made an mistake, I offended someone.  I did not mean to offend them, I did not know I offended them.  Others knew, but no one told me.  So instead of one broken relationship, there are many.

Every one of us has been in the painful mess multiple times in our lives.  The mess keeps growing and we go around mumbling, “Where’s the grace!”

Countless numbers of people have left churches, joined a new one, only to quit again because we promised not to tell!!

Worse yet, countless other have turned their back on God and walked away from their faith because we promised not to tell!!

Whenever we promise to keep brokenness silent, we multiply the brokenness.

Thursday night, when I was ready to toss my phone, I wanted to leave ministry, I wanted to walk away.  But by the grace of God, I had promised Susan Moon to hear her testimony.  As I listened to her, I kept hearing the Good News … “But God was faithful …”

Friends, we have to be faithful and gracious like Him.  God has given us a ministry of reconciliation.

Friends, we cannot let broken relationships remain unreconciled because of a bad promise we made.  We cannot stand by and let God’s church remain broken because others coerce us into silence.

Remember what is written in Hebrews 3:13 and 10:24 and 25:

Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. … Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works. Encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day of Christ drawing near.”

The whole mess at the church I spoke about earlier,could have been solved if five people would have engaged in a ministry of reconciliation.  But no one did so.  Therefore, a great church is now broken and divided because Christians were unwilling to reconcile or to work for reconciliation.  A Pastor and his family have been broken.  The faith of his children has been shaken to the core.

The Pastor had not committed any great sin.  He had not preached heresy.  He had not had a moral failure.  He made two innocent statements, trying to be helpful when being pressed by a known enemy in the church.  A few people pounced upon these statements and would not take an apology from a brother in Christ.  Once the statements had been made, there was no grace.  People who could have ended the mess remained silent, thus perpetuating the mess.

Likewise, a promise demanded and extracted not to tell someone has broken our fellowship.  It’s not the first time the church has borne the burden of this sin, but friends, let’s make it the last time at Kishwaukee Church.

Every Pastor I know is frustrated and has been hurt and their congregations have been broken by with this carousal of unreconciled broken relationships.

It tears at and destroys the fabric of the body of Christ in both the local church and the community of churches.

Friends, if someone in our church has hurt you, please tell them.  If I have hurt you, please tell me … please tell me first.  I know Romans 3:23 (ESV) is about me, “We all sin and fall short of the glory of God!”

All of us sin.  We are all guilty.  Yet, as Susan said so well, “But God remained faithful  …”

Friends, God calls us to be faithful in the same way.  If someone has sinned against you, by commission or omission, intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or unaware, please be faithful as God has been faithful.

When we sin God forgives us.  In grace He waits and gives us the opportunity to pray, as David prayed in Psalm 51:3–4 (ESV):

Lord I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.

Paul tells us the best news about this in Romans 5:8 (ESV): “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

If someone has hurt you, if a brother or sister in Christ has sinned against you, forgive them!  Forgive them before they ask for your forgiveness.  Go to them today, and seek reconciliation.  Go today, remembering Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:22–24 (ESV):

Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; So if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Remember, God was faithful and did this for you.  He wants us to be faithful like Him, so we can pray as Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:12 (ESV) :  “Lord, forgive us our sins, as we forgive others their sins.

Posted in God's Grace, Humility, Love, Preaching, Sermon, The Church | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Changes Ahead

Friends,

For the past year my two blogs, this one,  Reclamation316 and Daily Bread Crumbs have been identical.  During the next few weeks, I will be redesigning both sites and changing the content of each.

This blog, Reclamation316 will include longer reflections about Real Life and the Christian Faith. It will be updated several times a week, but not daily.

My other blog, Daily Bread Crumbs will be a Christian Devotional Blog and will be updated with new posts and devotions at least once a day.  The devotion will be shorter and will include original writings or quotes from others which I find inspirational.

Each blog will have a new and distinctive look.  

I will appreciate your feedback on the changes as they evolve.

If you wish to subscribe to each blog you need to select the FOLLOW button on each site.

Blessings and peace,

Rus Howard

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A Most Difficult Sermon – Dealing with My Sin

Friends, several people have ask that I post the manuscript from my sermon from yesterday, March 3.  It addresses the need for us to deal with our sin before it deals with us.  It also includes some personal information about my struggle with a particular sin, which I have confessed, repented of, and ask God and the congregation at Kishwaukee Community Church for forgiveness and the forgiveness.  This is one of the most difficult sermons I have ever preached.  However, I am grateful I have done so.  Pastor Rus

Developing a Heart for God, 1: Dealing with Your Sin

Ezekiel 36:22-30 and Hebrews 3:12-13

March 3, 2013

Pastor Rus Howard, Kishwaukee Community Church

Ezekiel 36:22–30

22 Say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. The nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 

26 I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and to be careful to obey my rules. 

28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.” 

Hebrews 3:12–13

12 Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

===

In 1999, the Confessing Church Movement in the PCUSA which led to the formation of the New Wineskins Association of Churches, which led to Kishwaukee Church’s decision to become members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church began with a simple radio interview broadcast on WORD-FM in Pittsburgh, PA.

A woman in her mid 20’s was being interviewed about decisions she made which had recently transformed her life.  In the interview she tells the story of many single women in their 20’s.  She was raised Christian, was in love, and was living with her boyfriend.  However, she was not happy.  She decided that she needed God back in her life and went to worship at the local PCUSA Presbyterian Church, which she said was filled with warm and gracious people.  She did not hide the fact that she was living with her boyfriend, which we use to call, living-in-sin.  No one was bothered by her decision.  The congregation loved on her and the Pastor did not bat an eye when she went to him for counseling about what was wrong with her life.  She did not feel close to God and life was not any better, even though she had been worshipping at the church for a year.  Her live-in boyfriend did not worship with her.

One week someone invited her to attend another, more biblically conservative congregation.  The members were as loving and gracious as they were in the PCUSA congregation.  However, when she went to the Pastor of this church for counseling, looking for wisdom about how to feel closer to God and how to have a less difficult life, he responded differently to her admission of living with her boyfriend.

He essentially told her, God cannot bless you as long as you are living with your boyfriend.  You are more attached to your sin, than you are to God.  There is no room for God in your heart.  That’s why you do not feel close to Him and why you are having difficulties in your life.

He then told her, “You need to tell your boyfriend to move out, tonight.”

That evening she told her boyfriend that he needed to move.  She had doubts about doing something so radical.  Two years later she was on the radio rejoicing not only in her closeness to God, sense of His presence with her, and the changes in her heart, but the multitude of problems which had beset her life for years had ended.

Her story constantly reminds me of this truth: “If we do not deal with our sin, our sin will deal with us!”

While we naturally turn to the New Testament to read how God has chosen to deal with our sin, for those who come to Him, I frequently turn to Ezekiel 36 because I love the way it tells us how God helps us deal with our sin.

Sin corrupts and sickens our heart.  Sin leads to heart disease.  The more we cling to our sin, the worse our heart disease.  God’s desire is to cure your heart disease.

In Ezekiel 36:22-36 God promises that He will do all the work necessary to get get your heart healthy.  He has a plan to cure your heart disease and to deal with your sin:

  • He has promised to give you a new heart (Ez 36:26).
  • He has promised to cleanse your heart (Ez 36:24-25).  This cleansing will wash away your idols.  Your idols are you and the sins you hang onto for dear life.
  • He has promised that along with your new heart, cleansed of your sin, He will give you a new Spirit (Ez 36:26).

I love the language here … God says:

I will take you …

I will sprinkle you …

I will cleanse you …

I will give you …

I will put in you …

If you listened to your English or language arts teacher for only 5 minutes anytime between the 2nd grade and the 12th grade, you will know that God has promised to do all the work for you.  He is the actor, you are the recipient.

God is promising to give you a gift, which all you need to do is receive.  It’s like Christmas without having to buy gifts for anyone else.  It’s like a birthday party, but God is doing all the giving.

God is wanting to give you great things, a new heart and a new spirit.

There are two reasons God wants to give you a new heart and spirit.

First and foremost, if you re-read Ezekiel 36:22-23, He is doing this for His name’s sake, for His glory, for His honor, so that the world will see His holiness.  While it is humbling that God wants to do great things for us for His names sake, rather that because we are so wonderful, let’s rejoice that we are beneficiaries of His desire to prove the holiness of His great name by transforming us with His love and grace. (Ez 36:22)

If you are not numbed by your familiarity with Psalm 23 then you at least know God always acts on His behalf.  Psalm 23:3 reads, “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

God has promised to act on your behalf for a secondary reason.  Being second in God’s heart, just after Him, is a great place to be.  After His love for Himself, you are God’s next love.  I like knowing this.  It helps me feel better about myself.

The secondary reason for God promising you a new heart is that your current heart is like a stone, it is cold, dead, lifeless, devoid of love, compassion, and feeling.  If your cardiologist said, “Your heart is like a stone” you would not hear him because you’d be dead.

Without the new heart God wants to give you, you are dead to God.  Periodically, we hear someone say about a family member or former close friend, “He is dead to me!”  If you say this about someone you are recognizing that while the individual is still physically alive, you abhor that person, you hate them, you despise them, you have rejected them 100% with absolutely no chance of them ever meaning anything to you again in your life.

But God’s feelings and desires for you are the total opposite of this.  Instead of you being dead to Him and suffering the consequences of God’s curse, He wants you to have a heart which is alive to Him and in His love.  God does not want to say, “You are dead to me!”  Instead God wants to say, ”You are my people, and I am your God!” (Ez 36:28).

Not only does God desire to be your God, He wants to bless you with abundant provisions which will sustain you the rest of your earthly life.  He makes this promise in Ezekiel 36:29-30.  He wants you to be rich in His blessings of land, grain, and fruits.

God wants you to be able to sing Psalm 23:1 at the top of your lungs: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want!”

This is what God desires for you.  It was His desire yesterday, it is His desire today, and it will be His desire for you into His eternity.

What do you need to do to receive all of this?

Accept His gift, let Him do His work!

Have you ever been forced to receive a gift from someone whom you do not wish to receive a gift?  Of course you have, we all have.

Each of us painfully remembers what we felt when someone we hate, despise, don’t like, with whom we are angry, and towards whom we have a cold heart.  When this person shows up at our house with a gift, any gift, but worse yet a lavish gift of love, we stand before them frozen.

You say to yourself: “I don’t want this.  I don’t want a gift from you.  Please take it away because if I accept the gift, I will have to love you and I will have to make room for you in my heart and I do not want to do that!”

Jesus taught us that the Greatest Commandment in life is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

If I asked each one of you,“Do you love God?” I am confidant that each of you would say, “Yes!”

However, if I asked you if, “Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and you told me “Yes”, I am not sure I would believe you.  I would not believe myself, if I said Yes to you if you asked me this question today.

My disbelief may offend you, but let’s be honest.  All of us love ourselves and a few other things in this world, more than we love God.  It’s part of our human condition.  Remember Romans 3:23, “We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.”  Our first and foremost sin is that God is not our number one love.  This is our heart disease … God is not our first love!

When the Holy Spirit inspired to John to write the book of The Revelation of Jesus Christ, the Spirit told John to write to the church at Ephesus saying:

“You guys are doing a great job being faithful to so many of my ways. You can recognize a false apostle from a mile away, you have the patience of a saint, you have endured hardship and suffering without whining, and you even hate those people who endorse believers marrying non-believers and who write-off sexual immorality as an insignificant offense against me.”

If I heard these accolades from God, I’d be smiling a mile.  But, then God lowers the hammer when He tells John to also write:

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had for me at first.”

Haven’t we all.  Our sin is self-love.  Our sin is idolizing the self!  Our sin is self-indulgence!  Our sin, in whatever shape or form it has taken up residence in our heart prevents us from loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus said,

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Our sin is that we have loves which prevent us from serving God as lord of our life.  If you think you are exempt, remember the Call to Confession used earlier in today’s worship, it is from 1 John 1:8, 9

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Ours heart are diseased because of our sin.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews exhorts us to deal with our sin.  In our world which approves of doing anything we want this is a tough truth for us to practice, even in the church.  Listen again to what the writer of the Hebrews said:

Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

The writer of Hebrews makes two specific points:

  • A heart filled with sin and evil can become an unbelieving heart;
  • A heart filled with sin can become a hardened heart, a stone cold heart, dead to God.

A heart tainted by sin will reject God’s gift of mercy and grace.  It will reject God’s new heart and new spirit.  It will reject life in order to cling to the sin it loves, even when the sin is killing it.

His exhortation is clear.  Either deal with the sin which has captured your heart or sin will deal with you!

I have told you this today not only because it is The Truth and it is a Word for all of us, but it has become a Word specifically for me.

For several months I have been wrestling with God about a particular sin which set up camp in my heart before I cam to Kishwaukee, but which did not reveal it’s ugliness until after I began my ministry here at Kish.

Last week my brother in Christ Jim Yearsley and this week my Spiritual Advisor Hope Parks, God convicted me that I must confess and repent of this sin, confess and ask your forgiveness because this sin has hurt my ministry here at Kish.

My sin has diseased my heart.

For the past 6-8 months I have been struggling mightily with a multitude of stuff in my life.  For a long time I was convinced that my struggle was related to my circumstances, which if changed, would cause my struggles to disappear.  I had developed a long list of circumstances to blame.

This week God convicted me otherwise.  He told me that my struggles are related to the condition of my heart not my circumstances.

My struggle is related to my heart being out of sorts, out of tune, out of sync, with Him and with His heart.  Simply put my heart has wandered from my first love for Him.  I want that love back.  I need it back.  Losing it has come at great cost to me and, I fear, to you.

My sin has held me back from God.  My sin may not sound serious to you, but it has become a millstone for me, pulling me away from God and from people I love, i.e. you.

My sin is a fear of rejection.

All of us fear rejection.  While I fear rejection from my enemies, my friends, and others, the rejection I most fear is rejection by you. I will come back to this in a moment.

I do not fear rejection from God.  I have Romans 8:35, 37-39 down pat:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It sounds good that I do not fear rejection of God.  But this is my problem, I am so fearful that you might reject me, I take very little comfort in knowing that God will not reject me.

My fear of rejection by you has become so overwhelming to me that it is dominating my life.

Furthermore, this fear is paralyzingly my pastoral ministry with you and for you.  If you said to me, “Pastor Rus, I like you, but I don’t know if …” I’d understand.

My fear of being rejected by you me is preventing me from loving you, caring for you, and leading the church, in the way which God intends.

My sin, my fear of rejection by  you or I should say by the members of any church, began before we ever met.  You’d think that after being loved and cared for by you so well for the past 2 1/2 years, I would have overcome my fear of being rejecting by you.  But I have not.  My sin which is my fear, has taken deep root within me and is hurting us.

The skeleton in my closet is I was once betrayed, rejected, by multiple groups of Christians who I knew, loved, and served faithfully in a four year prior to coming to Kish.

I was rejected …

  • By clergy in the PCUSA who I had encouraged and supported in their faithfulness;
  • By members of the Peters Creek Church, people I had pastored well, but who did not want to leave the PCUSA;
  • By staff members who I hired, who I had believed in when no one else did and who I had fought to hire and to keep;
  • By members of the Peters Creek Church whom I had trusted and called close friends after we entered the EPC;
  • By leaders in the New Wineskins Presbytery with whom I worked and fought alongside in the trenches;
  • If this was not enough, I was then rejected by a very close friend of 30 years. Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”

The details of how I was rejected or whether I deserved this rejection are insignificant to me anymore.  Nor are these details something which Rori and I desire or plan to discuss in the future.  These are details which God has told us to leave in the past.

What is significant is that their rejection, the rejection of brothers and sisters in the body of Christ was so severe, my family and I, particularly Rori and I lost many of our dreams for our future.

I do not want to be hurt like that again.  I do not want Rori to be hurt like that again.  Three years ago, I promised myself that never again would I allow this to happen to us.

To protect myself from rejection, I have built walls around me.  You may not see walls, but I am sure you have felt them.  Please understand, you are not responsible for my building these walls.  Only I am.

These walls have prevented me from having genuine intimacy with you as your Pastor and friend.  Yet this is an intimacy and friendship for which I am desperate.  As you can imagine, my walls have kept God at bay.  In the process of protecting myself from rejection, I have kept God out of much of my heart.

John says you cannot hate your brother and claim to love God.  My sin, my fear of rejection by you, is a evil and insidious variation of this truth:

You cannot NOT love and not have intimacy with others and have loving intimacy with God!

Please hear what I say next!

It’s not that I do not love you, I love you with all my heart or the part of the heart which does not fear rejection.  I know that you love me.  If I have $100 for every time I have told someone that I am serving the most loving and caring congregation I have ever served, I could retire comfortably.

But here’s my sin, my problem, I have been afraid to love you to the point where if you ever did reject me, it would hurt me.

My focus on self-preservation has grown into a sin with serious ramifications in the 3 most important parts of my life:

  1. Spiritual – My fear has caused me to keep God at bay.  This is the most serious ramification of my sin.
  2. Personal –  I am denying myself the intimacy and friendship which I desire to have with you.  I, like you, need close friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ in my church.  Yes, Kish is my church.
  3. Pastoral – My fear has affected my leadership and service as your Pastor.  Your Elders who are the best group of 12 Elders I have ever worked, can attest to this.  I know that I am frustrating them.  I have been timid and erratic in my leadership.  I have been defensive and have become hyper-sensitive to any whiff of criticism or conflict.  I have been moody.  I have been distant.  I have been afraid to personally engage with you.  I have been like a skittish cat in your presence.  I have been unable to relax as your Pastor.  I have come to realize that even when I am trying to communicate love, compassion, grace, and mercy, I frequently communicate hardness and a harsh judgmental spirit.  I want the old Pastor Rus back, the Pastor Rus which many of you have never seen.

My fear, my sin has not served me well.  C Neil Strait wrote this about sin, which I am afraid has become a fair description of my ministry:

Sin does not serve well as a gardner of the soul. It landscapes the contour of the soul until all that is beautiful has been made ugly; until all that is high is made low; until all that is promising is wasted. Then life is like the desert, parched and barren.  It is drained of purpose.  It is bleached of happiness. Sin then, is not wise, but wasteful.  It is not a gate, but a grave.

I know that once I let God get into my heart again, He is going to take away my fear of rejection and He is going to help me to love you with abandon, as any Pastor should.  But, I hate to say it, but this scares me big time.  Because if I love you with God’s abandon, and if you ever reject me (which I no reason to believe you would), I will be crushed.

This is my sin, it is my problem.  You are not at fault for my fear of rejection.

So what am I doing about this sin which has taken up residence in my heart when God wants full claim to all my heart.

Since my sin, my fear of rejection has affected my ministry for God I must confess my sin, repent of my sin, and ask Him for His forgiveness. I have done this.  I have also asked God to restore my heart.

While I am mindful of the truth of David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51:4, when he prayed:

Against you Lord, you alone, have I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.

I am equally mindful that I have sinned against you.

My sin has affected my ministry with you, probably in more ways than I am aware.  I know that my sin has hurt you and has hurt us as a congregation and community of faith.  I apologize that I have clung to the pain of my past and in so doing I have hurt you.  I ask for your forgiveness.  I ask that you will pray for my healing and that I will let God bring His grace to me so I can bring His grace to you.

I am praying that I will let God soften my heart.  I am praying that I will accept His amazing grace and that I unchain myself from my sin, my fear, and that God frees me from hurts of the past.

On Monday, Hope Parks told me to read Deuteronomy 1:6-8 when God spoke these words to Moses:

“Moses, you have stayed long enough at this mountain.  Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country and into the lowland along the sea. I have set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land, enjoy the blessings I have set before you.”

Hope and Jim, on behalf of God, have been telling me the same:

Rus it is time to move off of your mountain of hurt, anger, bitterness, fear, and shame.  It’s time for you to break camp from your sin, your fear of rejection, and take possession of the good land and the blessings God has set before you.

They have reassured me that once I leave this mountain of bitterness and fear, God’s anointing will penetrate my heart rather than be like water which runs off of hard, dried-out, drought stricken soil and is wasted.

As God’s anointing penetrates me, my head and my heart, I will, again, be filled up with His grace, mercy, love, and acceptance.  Then as His love reigns in all of my heart, in all of my soul, and in all of my mind, He will remove from me my fear of rejection.

Then, like a miracle of biblical proportion, the walls of Jericho which I have constructed with such care, will come tumbling down and we, as Pastor and congregation, as sheep and the over-promoted shepherd, as brothers and sisters in Christ, can walk into His Promised Land together.

This is the work I have to do.  I am not asking for pity or sympathy, but I do want you to understand my struggle.  I need your prayers, your encouragement, and your forgiveness, as I begin this journey from my mountain of pain, bitterness, anger, loss, shame, and fear, to where God wants me to feast with you in the work of His harvest.

Closing prayer

Communion Invitation

For Communion today, instead of the Elders serving you in your seats,

I invite you to coming forward for Communion

Let your coming forward represent your decision

to confess and repent of your sin

to leave the mountain of your sin

in to come to His grace.

As you wait to come forward,

as you are coming forward,

and as you return to your seat,

join the congregation in singing the two songs

as lead by Julia and the Praise Team.

The words will be on the screen.

Remember God’s promise given in the Book of Isaiah:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: 

though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; 

though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Then your eyes shall be opened and your ears unstopped; 

Then you shall leap like a deer, and sing for joy. 

For waters break forth in your wilderness, 

and streams will flow in your desert.”

Benediction

Seven or eight years ago after worshipping with my Dad in my home church, he said to me, “I am concerned for our new Pastor, I really like him, but he does not seem to be connecting with the congregation.”

I said to him, “Dad there are 3 types of pastors.  The professional who does his work very well, but is emotional disengaged from his congregation.  There is the all-in pastor who is fully engaged, in personally caring for his congregation.  Then there is the pastor who use to be all-in, fully engaged personally caring for his congregation.  I will bet money your pastor has been hurt badly.  He’s wounded and he’s trying to protect himself.”

Never did I realize that my words to my Dad would be prophetic words about me.  But they were.  I put the emphasis on the past tense.  I know there may be days when I limp, but it is easier to run when you are not clinging to sin in your heart.

If you are limping because you are clinging to sin in your heart.  Leave the mountain and enjoy the blessings promised in Isaiah:

“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; 

the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, 

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 

The Lord will give you 

a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, 

the oil of gladness instead of mourning, 

the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; 

that they may be called oaks of righteousness, 

the planting of the Lord, 

that He may be glorified.”

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Demanding Your Rights

… He was not worried about claiming His rights …

Philippians 2:6

 

Jack Webb was a no nonsense TV detective on Dragnet.  I do not remember a single episode from the series (I was too young), but I do remember these words:

“You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to consult an attorney.”

 

These words form the core of what is know as your Miranda Rights, which since 1966 every police officer must recite before interrogating anyone.

 

Personal Rights have become an overarching issue in American society.  We talk about civil rights, the right to life, consumer rights, gun rights, the right to free speech, the right to the free exercise of religion etc.  

 

The Bill of Rights, which forms the first 10 Amendments of the  US Constitution were written to protect the natural rights of liberty and personal freedom in America.  

 

If someone seeks to limit or take away our rights, we become feisty and angry.  We might go so far as to hire a lawyer, file a lawsuit, and contact the media.   

 

What rights are you willing to give up for the benefit of others?  Before you answer, reconsider Philippians 2:6.

 

Jesus gave up His rights as God, comfortably enthroned in heaven with the freedom to demand that we worship, serve, and obey Him!

 

Why did Jesus give up His rights? 

… to live and die for the forgiveness of your sins.

 

What did Jesus gain in giving up His rights?

… rejection, ridicule, humiliation, whipping, suffering, and a public crucifixion.

 

Jesus knew what He was getting Himself into when He gave up His rights, but this did not stop Him.  Absolutely not.  In John 15:13 Jesus said: 

“There is no greater love than to give up your life for the ones you love!” 

 

And Paul tells us to think like Jesus.

 

I wonder what our world would be like, if we all thought and lived like Jesus?

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Developing the Mind

… have the mind of Christ …

Philippians 2:5

 

Your mind is as valuable to God as your heart because you make decisions about how you will actually live with your mind.  

 

While your heart determines how it want to live, it is your mind which sends impulses and messages to all the parts of your body, generating action.  

 

We know many people who say, “They would love to ….”, but at the end of the day, they act differently.

 

In Romans 12:2, Paul encourages us, “To be transformed by the renewal of our minds so we might do what pleases God.”

 

If you read further in Philippians 2, particularly verses 6-8, you will see how Jesus’ mind worked.  His only thought was to suffer because He loved us.  A perfect melding of the mind and the heart.

 

The mind of Christ is developed through 5 particular activities: worship, prayer, Bible Study, Christian fellowship, and compassionate care.

 

Many Christians fail to develop the mind of Christ because they are self-absorbed and focused on so many different activities.  

 

We frequently hear and say, ”If you put your mind to it, you can ….”!  

 

Individuals have mastered physics, business management, shooting free throws, home decorating, how to make friends, and auto mechanics by simply putting their mind to it.

 

Yet, many of the same people will tell me that developing the mind of Christ is too much work.  Phooey! 

 

Developing the mind of Christ is no harder than developing any other skill-set or body of knowledge.

 

The heart that desires to develop the mind of Christ can, if it puts it mind to it.

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