Monday, February 01, 2016

Faith Demonstrated

My Life Group lesson for Jan. 31, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

What are some examples of the organization and symbols in the military to recognize order and chain of command?

You respect the stripes. There’s a lot of snapping to attention and saluting. Lots of “yes sirs.”

Recognition of authority is important when lives are on the line. Commands must be given and obeyed to bring order.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 8:1–9:34

*** The past four weeks we studied the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus. Today we see Jesus go out and display His authority and power through His deeds. (Jesus was a man of great words and great action.)

*** After His sermon, Jesus immediately healed a leper, a centurion’s servant who was near death (8:5-13), and Peter’s mother-in-law of a high fever (8:14-15). Jesus then controlled demonic powers (8:16-17,28-34) and the raging storm (8:23-27).

*** Jesus showed his authority over sickness, of evil, and the earth.

ASK WITH HUMILITY (Matt. 8:5-7)

5 When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!” 7 “I will come and heal him,” He told him.

*** An unlikely fan.

--- A “centurion” was a Roman officer in charge of approximately 100 men. He would have been a Gentile, someone Jews viewed with disgust.

--- Roman soldiers were despised by Jews, and likewise the soldiers wouldn’t be big fans of those they had conquered.

--- This makes it all the more remarkable that he would come to see Jesus, to believe in Jesus, and to ask for His help.

*** The right attitude.

--- Luke 7:1-10 tells the same story, and both accounts make it clear that this soldier was acting on behalf of a suffering servant, which sets him apart from most Gentiles and Jews.

--- Even though the centurion was a man of authority, he approached Jesus in humility. Luke’s account explains more fully that the request was made on behalf of the centurion by Jewish elders who vouched for the centurion because “he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5).

--- That a Roman centurion would address any Jew, even a recognized teacher like Jesus, with the term “Lord” is remarkable.

--- It’s just as remarkable for a Jew to go to the home of a Gentile.

(Recall the vision given to Peter so that he might be willing to go to the home of another centurion, Cornelius. Peter explained to Cornelius’s household: “You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner” - Acts 10:28.)

--- Yet Jesus was always willing to respond to anyone who approached Him with humility and faith.

ACKNOWLEDGE HIS AUTHORITY (Matt. 8:8-9)

8 “Lord,” the centurion replied, “I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant will be cured. 9 For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”

*** Question authority?

--- There’s a popular bumper sticker that says “Question Authority.” It sums up our inner rebellion to anyone telling us what to do.

--- This also affects our relationship with God. We are being taught to question Him as well, not to trust that He will do what He says.

*** The centurion’s faith.

--- The centurion was an authority figure. He spoke and his 100 men did what he said. And he spoke with authority from his superiors, and ultimately even Caesar.

But he knew that Emperor Tiberius wasn’t healing anyone. Jesus could command disease and demons and nature.

The centurion recognized Jesus’ greater status and unlimited authority, so much that he didn’t think himself worthy to have Jesus come to his house.

--- The centurion genuinely believed that Jesus could heal from a distance without even touching the servant.

--- You must ask in faith while believing.

James 1:6-8 - But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.

--- Exercising our faith means we allowing God to do it His way. The centurion trusted that Jesus could do it without being there. How often do we insist instead that God do it our way?

*** Question – What does it mean that we humble ourselves before God?

(Humility is esteeming God more highly than ourselves. With regard to others, we should love them and treat them with kindness and compassion. With regard to ourselves, we should acknowledge that we are God’s handiwork, made in His image. We should celebrate this fact and love ourselves while giving God the glory.)

ANTICIPATE IN FAITH (Matt. 8:10-13)

10 Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! 11 I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus told the centurion, “Go. As you have believed, let it be done for you.” And his servant was cured that very moment.

*** Whoa. (Keanu Reeves face.)

--- Only twice in the Bible does it say that Jesus was amazed at something, and this was the only positive time. The other time was in Mark 6:6 when He was amazed at the lack of faith in His hometown of Nazareth.

*** All are invited to the table.

--- Jesus then throws shade at Israel, saying that He hasn’t found anyone there with such a strong faith as this Gentile scum, so to speak.

--- In a larger context, Jesus is saying that Gentiles are welcome at the table of salvation ("many will come from east and west") with the Old Testament patriarchs. There would be many to spread the faith beyond Israel.

--- Galatians 3:28 - There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

--- Jesus then says that without change the Jewish people will find themselves "in the outer darkness."

--- Jesus' message is that salvation is for everyone, and relying on your ancestry is not a guarantee of God's favor.

Today as well, just growing up in church or having parents who are believers does not automatically give you eternal life. You must be reborn in spirit through grace.

*** Great faith is rare.

--- The only other account in the Gospels where Jesus responded to the request for healing from a Gentile is story of the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to cast a demon from her daughter. After an uncomfortable exchange, Jesus granted her request with the following words: “Woman, your faith is great” (Matt. 15:28). Once again, it was faith that provided the catalyst for Jesus to perform a miraculous deed on behalf of a Gentile.

--- Without entering the centurion’s house, Jesus spoke and the servant was healed right away.

--- Moments like this caused people to marvel that Jesus’ authority was unlike the authority of the scribes, Pharisees, or anyone else they had ever known.

*** Question - What does it mean to you to have faith in Jesus, despite so much pain and suffering in our own lives and the lives of those we love?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Has your child ever come to you in a bad mood and demanded something from you in a disrespectful manner?

How likely are you to give in when this happens?

What attitude and characteristics do you like your children to exhibit when they make a request? Hopefully respect, humility, kindness, and an acknowledgment of authority.

Our Heavenly Father certainly deserves this as we, His children, approach Him.

*** Matthew 7:11 - If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!

--- God loves us and wants to answer our prayers, but we must approach Him with humility, compassion, respect, and faith, acknowledging His authority as we saw demonstrated by the centurion.

*** Do you really believe that what God says is true? Do you trust what the Lord says will happen?

*** Let's try to amaze Jesus with our faith this week!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Two Paths, One Choice

My Life Group lesson for Jan. 24, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

“Where do you want to eat?”

Who has had lengthy arguments about this question?

If that’s the hardest decision you have to make this week, then Hallelujah, am I right?!

What other simple choices can cause great debate?

Small but important debates might include: When to let your daughters get their ears pierced, wear makeup, go on dates … On a trip do you take the shortest route or the scenic route … Do you watch channel 3, 5, 13 or 24 for severe weather coverage? (Hopefully 13. Just sayin'.)

Of course, many daily alternatives may not matter greatly, since the consequences are not serious or long-lasting either way.

However, some choices matter greatly.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 7:1-29

*** We've spent the past few weeks discussing Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. This week we'll wrap it up.

*** Chapters 5 and 6 describe how we as Christians are supposed to act. The Beatitudes promised blessings on those who act according to His character. Jesus called for us to be salt and light to the world. Jesus called us to go above and beyond the law of the Old Testament and be more righteous than the hypocritical leaders. Jesus then provided a model for how we are to pray and fast with your heart in the right place.

*** Jesus ended his sermon with warnings for those who would build their lives on anything other than Jesus and His teachings.

NARROW VERSUS WIDE? (Matt. 7:13-14)

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. 14 How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.

*** The road not taken.

--- We have the free will to choose between two paths. One leads to glory, one leads to damnation.

--- I don't know if Robert Frost meant to evoke Christian imagery in his poem "The Road Not Taken," but he was certainly onto something when he ended it with "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."

--- Jesus is the only path to truth, so in his sermon He wanted people to understand where the alternative path leads.

--- When I leave work I have to go around a dozen different potholes on Highland Avenue, plus construction at the 40/240 flyover, but it's worth it because it leads me to the promised land of my wife and children (who may not run to the door in delight anymore but I'm glad to be home).

--- Likewise, the narrow path to the narrow gate of heaven may be rough, full of persecution, but it also brings joy and blessings.

--- People may be traveling the wide path without even really knowing. It's the natural path, appears to be more pleasant, without risk and all the cool people may be on it. How could so many people be wrong?

--- However, things are not always as they seem: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).

--- If you notice surveys they always seem to show a majority of the country considers themselves Christian (78 percent in a 2007 survey of 35,000 Americans), which means a lot of people have been fooled by Satan into thinking they’re on the correct path.

*** Question - What keeps people from choosing the narrow path?

Deuteronomy 11:26-28 provides an example of God’s desire for us to choose wisely: “Look, today I set before you a blessing and a curse: there will be a blessing, if you obey the commands of the Lord your God I am giving you today, and a curse, if you do not obey the commands of the Lord your God and you turn aside from the path I command you today by following other gods you have not known.”

GOOD VERSUS BAD? (Matt. 7:15-21)

15 Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit. 21 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven.

*** Don’t be a big faker.

--- Verses 13 and 14 dealt with salvation. In these verses Jesus deals with false prophets, those who claim to speak and work for God but aren’t, and those who have deceived themselves into thinking that they are on the right path.

--- These wolves in sheep’s clothing are dangerous because they work from within the church and among believers, speaking with a lot of influence.

--- God knows who the pretenders are, so it is a doomed strategy to pretend to follow Him.

--- As believers we have to be careful which teachers and preachers we allow to shape our lives.

*** Let your light shine.

--- We will recognize whether prophets or religious leaders are genuine by the fruit they produce.

--- Fruit in the New Testament is a metaphor for good works rooted in a life devoted to God.

--- The inner change that following Jesus brings is shown through our conduct in public. The way we act isn’t a path to salvation, but proof of it.

--- True believers still sin, but we should also be striving to be more like Jesus and to do His will.

*** Cut off from God.

--- It's going to be a rude awakening in the end days when many people who thought they were on the fast-track to heaven are turned away.

--- Jesus used this metaphor several times, such as John 15 when he said that branches that don't bear fruit would be cut off and thrown into the fire.

Jesus cursed the fig tree, so did He also curse the temple because it was not producing the fruit God intended—namely, to be a house of prayer for all nations (Matt. 21:12-13,18-19; Mark 11:12-17).

*** Question - How can you tell whether a Christian is producing fruit?

ROCK VERSUS SAND? (Matt. 7:24-27)

24 Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!”

*** Two sets of Jones'.

--- Jesus compared the choice facing His hearers with the building of a house on sand or on rock.

--- In their day, they mostly lived in houses made of mud bricks and thatch roofs. Heavy rains and flash floods were pretty dangerous. If you didn’t build on solid rock then woosh! See ya!

--- Likewise, choosing to live your life on anything other than Jesus Christ and the Bible leads to disaster.

*** How we respond to Jesus’ teachings.

--- If we act on what Jesus has taught us correctly, then we’re building a solid foundation.

--- If we don’t act correctly, then it will be very apparent when the storms come.

--- What is a house but security from the outside? That’s why our spiritual security is not in our deeds but in Jesus.

*** Question – (Out of curiosity) Does anyone have a story about riding out a hurricane, a tornado or even just a really bad storm? What was the experience like? Did it matter what kind of building you were in?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Making choices is part of our everyday experience. While many choices don’t result in severe consequences, some choices matter greatly. Regarding spiritual choices, we have alternatives to Jesus. How we choose will determine our eternal destiny and the life we will experience. Today’s session was about making the choice to follow Christ every day.

*** Do you know anyone wrestling with an important choice? Is there something you can do to help them make the right choice that affects their eternal destiny?

*** Have you built your spiritual home on rock or on sand? Are you prepared for what comes your way?

*** Trusting Jesus is the only way to experience a real, fruitful and stable life. Any other way leads to destruction.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Carrying His Values

My Life Group lesson for Jan. 17, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

So none of us here won the Powerball lottery last Wednesday night. If you did, you wouldn’t be here, you’d be in hiding with your new personal accountant. Y’all would be in the Caribbean planning your life of luxury.

Whether you have 1.6 billion dollars or just a few, we put a lot of faith (*cough*) into our money. What gives our money its value?

Our money used to be backed by gold, which meant that there was a solid foundation for it. Now we just have faith in what the Federal Reserve tells us is its worth.

Our Scripture today teaches us about our spiritual foundation.

God would have us as Christians to value all human life as well, as much as He does.

Jesus teaches us to love and show kindness, even to those who are less than lovable.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 5:17-48

*** We back up a chapter from last week, when we talked about the Lord’s prayer and hypocrisy in fasting. These verses come between that and the Beatitudes, which we studied two weeks ago.

--- In the Beatitudes Jesus offered eight traits of a believer, all of which the religious leaders of the time weren’t showing.

*** In these verses we’ll talk about how Jesus not only upholds the Old Testament’s laws, he provides context to show the religious leaders how they should have been interpreting it all along.

LOOK TO THE SCRIPTURES (Matt. 5:17-20)

17 “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

*** I’m your Huckleberry.

--- In the movie "Tombstone" we see two examples of how to run the law in a town, obeying the law strictly or leave some gray areas. Some are Wyatt Earp, some are Doc Holliday.

--- The religious leaders of the time – especially the Pharisees – not only enforced Old Testament laws strictly, they had an additional 600 (!) interpretations.

--- Jesus stressed that he didn’t come to abolish the Old Testament. What He wanted was for the people to see how the Old Testament points to Himself as the Messiah.

--- The leaders accused Jesus of undermining the law. (Picking grains on the Sabbath to eat! The horror! – Matthew 12)

--- On the contrary, Jesus said that even the smallest aspects of God’s law will endure “until heaven and earth pass away” (v. 18).

--- The Pharisees were always trying to rank the importance of laws. In verse 19 Jesus said that even what they considered the least of them should be treated the same as the ones considered most serious.

*** Jesus was speaking against legalism.

--- Religious leaders at the time had the belief that salvation can be earned by obedience to laws.

--- It was a frequent target of criticism in the New Testament writers who pointed out that Jesus Christ is our redemption, the whole point of those Old Testament laws.

--- Galatians 2:16 - know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.

--- Jesus wasn’t criticizing the Pharisees for obeying the laws (“whoever breaks one of the least … will be called least in” heaven, v. 19). Obeying God is required.

--- But the leaders loved being seen and praised for their adherence to the laws without the right inner attitude. (ex. - Healing on the Sabbath in Matthew 12)

Think of Jesus’ story of the Pharisee who prayed to thank God for him being better than others, and the tax collector who rightly prayed for God to forgive him as a sinner.

*** Righteousness above and beyond.

--- Jesus probably shocked the crowds by saying that they could surpass the righteousness of their religious leaders.

--- How? The Pharisees weren’t humble and weren’t listening to Jesus as the Savior. Their hearts weren’t in the right place. They thought that they were destined for all the coolest rewards in heaven because of how awesome they were.

(Just as the disciples argued over who got to sit next to Jesus in heaven, Jesus replied that those who think they’re most worthy for their actions on earth, aren’t.) (Luke 9:46, Luke 22:24)

--- You can never make yourself righteous enough to enter heaven. We have to depend on God. Make yourself righteous by following Christ, who changes hearts and minds.

Romans 3:10,21-22 - as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. … But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets —that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction.

*** Question – What is wrong with the opinion that salvation is achieved and maintained through the keeping of God’s law?

VALUE HUMAN LIFE (Matt. 5:21-22)

21 You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.

*** But wait, there’s more!

--- You know how infomercials hook you into their awesome product but you're not quite ready to pick up the phone and buy it, but then they say, "But wait, there's more!"

--- The religious leaders in Jesus' time were all about following the letter of the laws. Jesus, however, said, "But wait, there's more!" He pointed to the intent behind the law.

--- Jesus gives six examples of higher righteousness that fulfills the law:

1. Murder: God intended that believers avoid not just murder but also anger and hatred, the root causes of murder.

2. Adultery: Jesus said you have to address lustful thoughts that lead to the act.

3. Divorce: Many men were abusing divorce laws for selfish reasons. Jesus emphasized consequences of divorce.

4. Oaths: People were making promises by things associated with God without using God specifically, as if God wasn't aware of loopholes. Jesus said to stop taking oaths altogether and be honest.

5. Revenge: Instead of “eye for an eye” Jesus countered with a demand to “turn the other cheek” and go the “second mile.”

6. Love your neighbor: He called for an above-and-beyond attitude to love not only your neighbor but your enemy as well.

*** Thou shalt not, and then some.

--- In verses 21 and 22, Jesus reaffirms the law against murder, then goes one further to say that unrighteous anger also makes you subject to judgment.

--- The sixth commandment says not to murder, but refraining from killing someone wrongfully is easy. Jesus goes deeper and says that the root cause also must be addressed.

--- Anger shows itself in hatred, revenge, pride, or bitterness. When we disrespect another person in any way, we break God’s law.

It's a lot harder to obey when Jesus says not to be angry than just to say, "Don't murder."

*** Question - Why do we consider anger to be a lesser sin than murder? Under what circumstances might anger be appropriate?

Ephesians 4:26 doesn't say all anger is bad, but it needs to be under control: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.

Have any of you seen someone whose life is worse for uncontrolled anger? What happens?

LOVE BEYOND EXPECTATIONS (Matt. 5:43-45)

43 You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

*** Say what now?

--- Perhaps the most demanding of all, Jesus challenged His listeners to exhibit righteousness by loving others beyond expectations.

--- This is one of the key doctrines that sets Christianity apart.

--- Everyone was perfectly happy when the law said that you could love your neighbor (Lev. 19:18) and the people assumed that meant they could hate their enemies (not Biblical). To them, “neighbor” meant other Jews and friends. That's easy peasy.

--- But they missed the spirit of the law. Jesus excluded hatred of anyone.

--- In His story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus saw a neighbor as anyone who needs help. He placed no limits on love.

--- Jesus showed us this kind of love on the cross. He prayed for the forgiveness of His accusers and tormentors. He defined sacrificial love for Christians.

*** Question - How do you relate to a person who holds different political, philosophical, or religious views from yours? How do you maintain a warm relationship with a fellow believer with whom you differ in spiritual matters? (Which is more difficult?!)

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Last Tuesday the president delivered his final State of the Union address.

For the past seven years, President Obama has spoken against cynicism in the government. You can decide for yourself if he was a cause or a victim.

The message in all of Washington is usually the same as ever: If you agree with me, you’re reasonable. If not, you're my enemy.

Dealing with government is certainly one of the harder things for a Christian to do. Government forces Christian companies and colleges to pay for abortions, forces bakers to bake wedding cakes for gay weddings, and treats believers of other religions with more respect and tolerance.

In today's verses Jesus makes obedience a matter of the heart and not just an action that everyone can admire. One way we do that is by showing love to those who oppose us.

*** How is your heart today? Are you following the Lord with your heart or just what everyone else sees?

*** Are you having anger issues? Pray about how God can change your attitude.

*** Pray for those who persecute you, or those whom you just don’t like. It’s a lot harder to actively hate them and might actually change your heart if not theirs.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Approaching the King

My Life Group lesson for Jan. 10, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

Who spent much of the holiday season watching Hallmark Christmas movies?

(Who won’t admit it, but your spouse says yes?!)

Every movie follows a familiar formula. What is it? What makes it work?

In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus offers a formula for effective prayer and how we are to connect with God from the heart through prayer and fasting.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 6:1-34

*** We continue our study of the teachings of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.

*** In Matthew Chapter 6 Jesus describes the proper motivation of a Christian's practice of faith.

*** Jesus gives us instruction on effective prayer and fasting.

BETWEEN HIM AND US (Matt. 6:5-6)

5 “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! 6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

*** Everyone! Look at me! I’m super!

--- Jesus calls out hypocrites who are full of pride praying without sincerity just to get the attention of those watching.

--- True righteousness emanates from a desire to honor God, not a motivation to get public accolades.

*** Top secret.

--- Jesus stressed that our relationship with God is private and intimate.

--- One advantage of removing yourself from others to pray is that it reduces disturbances and the temptation to pray to impress others.

--- Your only audience is God. The reward is a richer relationship with your Heavenly Father.

--- Jesus didn’t prohibit public prayer, which has an important place among worship and groups of Christians gathering in Jesus’ name.

*** Question - What can you do to protect your regularly scheduled prayer times from distractions?

HONEST COMMUNICATION (Matt. 6:7-8)

7 When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him.

*** Babble, babble, babble.

--- How many times have you rolled your eyes or chuckled at someone’s prayer in church? Either it goes on for a long time, they say “Dear God” after every sentence (guilty?), or they use flowery language such as “O God, Eternal Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, we beseech Thee this day that Thou wouldst bestow up us, Thy vassals, benedictions of mercy and grace, commensurate with thy great loving-kindness.”

--- The disciples heard a lot of bad prayers in their day, especially by pagans who thought they could manipulate their gods through meaningless speech. (You know, sort of like speeches in Congress. Boom!)

--- Question - Do you find yourself using the same words or phrases often in your prayers? How might you go about freshening up your prayers by limiting the use of tired, worn-out phrases?

*** Stay on target.

--- Jesus says that God already knows what you need, so don't beat around the bush. Stay focused and be honest. You aren't fooling Him.

--- Luke 18 stresses that we should keep asking God for what is believed to be His will. Jesus here is telling us that God isn’t impressed with quantity of words.

*** Question - If God knows our needs, then why is prayer important? Why does God want us to approach Him?

--- Prayer is a matter of relationship, not ritual.

--- When we pray we’re admitting that we meet our spiritual needs. We are dependent on God.

RESPECTFULLY REQUESTED (Matt. 6:9-15)

9 Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, Your name be honored as holy. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.] 14 For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. 15 But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing.

*** Follow me, I know the way!

--- This is called the Lord’s Prayer, but God doesn’t need to pray it, we do. This is a model for our prayers.

*** Glory to God.

--- Look at all the great prayers by the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament authors, and it’s about how awesome God is, not any kind of “name it and claim it” self-indulgence.

Ex. Jeremiah 32:17-25. Jeremiah sits in prison and prays, giving God glory first and foremost. Jonah chapter 2, Jonah praises God with thanksgiving while he’s in the belly of a fish.

--- Jesus also stresses that we address God as our “Father.” God’s not distant and cold. God says to call him “Abba,” the Aramaic word for “Father,” the same word Jewish children used on their dads.

--- The focal point of the prayer is on the glory and the kingdom, the honor of God, the extension of His kingdom, for God to rule over the world.

--- This is not about getting what you want, but His will. We need to pray and read the Word so that we know His will.

*** God provides relief.

--- Now we’re talking about petitioning God for His favor:

(1.) Day to day we need God’s help to keep us from an empty stomach. You never know what circumstances come up. (Illness, losing a job, etc.).

(2.) Sin separates us from God. We need His forgiveness. As a believer who has repented you have been forgiven, so you are to forgive others just as God showed you mercy.

(3.) We need God’s help to keep the Devil at bay. We’re going to be weak, and we need God to strengthen us in those times to endure the trials and testing. Jesus picks us up when we are knocked down, but when we pray to keep evil away we can knock down the devil!

***Question - Verses 14-15 emphasize the importance of forgiving. Why is this important as we prepare to approach God?

(((We make ourselves out to be hypocrites if we ask God to forgive us when we aren’t willing to forgive others.)))

Is there anyone you have had trouble forgiving? Consider how this creates barriers in our prayer lives.

WITH RIGHT MOTIVES (Matt. 6:16-18)

16 Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

*** Keep it secret. Keep it sacred.

--- In addition to praying with the wrong motivation, religious leaders were hypocritical in their fasting.

--- The context here has to do with the Pharisees. In Jesus' day they fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12). Instead of using these days as times for genuine prayer and heart-searching, they had a holier-than-thou attitude to impress people with their super-duper spirituality.

*** Question - How did the Pharisees call attention to themselves when fasting?

((Made it look like they were starving themselves instead of just letting the previous night's chili cheese fries settle.))

--- Are you looking to be sincere, or make it a good show for others? The reward is between you and God.

*** Not just about food.

--- In the Bible a fast is understood as abstaining from food. But we can give up anything that we see as turning our focus from God.

*** Question – Where else in our lives can we show discipline in an attempt to get closer to God?

(((What else? Technology. Hobbies. Work. ...))))

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Thursday morning Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong announced that he was stepping down to become the head of security at St. Jude.

In his press conference at City Hall, Armstrong repeatedly stressed that he has been praying about this decision for the past couple of years.

An emotional Armstrong publicly thanked his mother, who died last year, and his family for understanding that heading up police in Memphis is a "calling, not a job."

"I'm just grateful to God I have another calling now, a calling that's going to be just as purposeful as this has been," he said.

Armstrong said that he has prayed for God to show him his next step in life, and he prayed and prayed, and then, boom, this opportunity opened up and he felt God’s unmistakable tug in that direction.

*** Think about any ways you may need to improve your prayer life and make adjustments.

*** We can learn to be better at prayer. Practice makes perfect. If you aren’t sure about how effective your prayers are or how to talk to God, then practice!

*** Read the Bible, focus on how godly people prayed, follow their example.

*** Try a time of fasting as a way of growing closer to our Mighty God.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Cooper and Penny's Christmas morning

The King’s Expectations

My Life Group lesson for Jan. 3, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

How did everyone ring in the New Year?

Anyone make any New Year’s resolutions?

A new year is seen as a turning point. Choosing to follow Jesus is also a turning point.

Let’s check out the verses today to see how our lives should change when we follow Jesus.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 5:1-16

*** Matthew 5-7 is the Sermon on the Mount.

--- This is regarded as when Jesus' ministry really takes off.

--- The teachings probably took place near Capernaum, Jesus’ unofficial headquarters on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee.

*** In the opening verses that we'll study today, Jesus promised blessings for believers who exhibit His character.

*** Jesus also used salt and light to illustrate how Christians should act in the world.

THE NEW MOSES (Matt. 5:1-2)

1 When He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 Then He began to teach them, saying:

*** The Savior who went up a mountain.

--- Even as multitudes were attracted to Jesus, He went up a mountain, pulled up a rock to sit down and gave the disciples the best lesson in history.

--- It’s possible the crowds tried to listen as well, but Jesus was focusing on His closest followers here. Jesus spent His entire ministry training the disciples. They got more intense instruction than the crowds.

--- Just as Moses went up a mountain to meet with God and receive the Ten Commandments, Jesus went up this mountain to teach and offer a revelation from God.

*** Question – What are some characteristics of a speaker that make you want to listen? … What did Jesus do that caused others to stop and listen to Him?

THE NEW BLESSINGS (Matt. 5:3-12)

3 “The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. 4 Those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted. 5 The gentle are blessed, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled. 7 The merciful are blessed, for they will be shown mercy. 8 The pure in heart are blessed, for they will see God. 9 The peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called sons of God. 10 Those who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. 11 You are blessed when they insult and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. 12 Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

*** The Beatitudes.

--- The Beatitudes describe the character of a true believer of Christ.

--- The first four (verses 3-6) describe a Christian’s attitude toward God. The second four (verses 7-12) portray a Christian’s attitude toward other people.

--- The Beatitudes are not characteristics from which believers pick and choose what suits them. All should be incorporated into the Christian life.

--- One thing that I notice when reading these verses is that all of these blessings are for people who exhibit grace, kindness and peace. Nothing about people who are aggressive or violent.

--- The word “blessed” means “happy” but it's so more, because happiness is just a reaction. To be blessed is to feel joy. There was little room for joy in the religion of the Jews at this time. Jesus taught that those who follow Christ can experience spiritual well-being, having the approval of God, and thus a happier destiny:

Psalm 1:1-3 -
1 Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

*** “The poor in spirit are blessed.”

--- What does this mean? Does this mean if you stink at having the spirit you are blessed? Or if you are dirt poor then you are blessed more?

--- No, Jesus is saying that believers who recognize that they cannot rely on themselves and depend on God alone.

--- You will never discover the true riches of the Christian life until you admit you are spiritually bankrupt without God.

*** “Those who mourn.”

--- This isn't deep sadness over the dead, but being broken over personal sin and its harmful effects. Sin separates people from God and destroys relationships.

--- It's a mourning over the failure of mankind to give proper glory to God. This world is dominated by injustice, conflict and disappointment because of sin.

--- What happens when we go to God over the coldness in our hearts? We will be comforted. And that's why we can feel blessed and grieve at the same time.

*** “The gentle.”

--- This verse is more popularly interpreted as "The meek shall inherit the earth."

--- We may think that this means weakness. In reality it is the opposite of pride, of being teachable and humble. It is submission to God's direction. It is strength that is under control.

--- Jesus said He was "gentle and humble" or also translated as “meek and lowly” (see Matthew 11:29), but He definitely wasn’t weak.

--- We don't have to be defensive or pick fights to advance Christianity.

--- The earth Jesus said the meek would inherit refers to the new heaven and new earth promised to believers (Rev. 21:1).

*** “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

--- God made us so that we can't exist for long without food and water. No one can ignore the appetites of hunger and thirst. (And I don't mean a hankering every Thursday night for Taco Bell.)

--- Sure, you may quench your thirst with a gallon of Gatorade, but you'll be thirsty again.

What is a starving man interested in? The latest football scores? The flower arrangement at the pink lemonade society? The number of stars in the universe? No! He’s only interested in one thing – food!

A man can exist about forty days without food, about three days without water, and only eight minutes without air. In the spiritual realm of eternity, man cannot exist one second without Jesus Christ. (Adrian Rogers)

--- You may find yourself with all the coolest material possessions, but unless you’re seeking God’s righteousness you’ll never feel full.

*** “The merciful.”

--- Mercy is a primary trait of God. He forgives us when we do wrong and shows kindness to those who are down on their luck. We are expected to do the same.

--- It’s more than just feeling sorry for someone. We need to take action to help those desperate for help.

--- Think of the parable Jesus told of the man who had his large debt forgiven, but then he beat up a guy who owed him much less. He did not reciprocate mercy.

--- People don’t care if we’re Christians who use “Jesus speak” unless they know how much we care first.

*** “The pure in heart.”

--- We should have a single-minded devotion to God.

--- This means more than just avoiding porn or vile thoughts. Doing that is a result of being pure at heart.

--- Psalm 119:9: “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.”

--- Achieve this and you will see God with your spiritual eyes. God is accessible to believers. He welcomes fellowship.

*** “The peacemakers.”

--- We think of this like the 1997 George Clooney movie in which he prevents war, but this is much more.

Peacemaker here means a state of well-being based with God that overflows into good relationships with other people. The children of God make peace, even with their enemies.

--- Do you know how to bring peace to earth and goodwill to all men? Introduce men, women, boys, and girls to Jesus Christ. That is the only way. (Adrian Rogers)

--- God actively seeks a ceasefire with sinners. We do God’s work when we promote peace on any level.

*** Those “persecuted for righteousness.”

--- Christlike people attract insult and criticism, and downright hostility. If Jesus and His disciples were persecuted, why shouldn’t we be?

--- In verse 12 Jesus says we should “be glad and rejoice” when we’re persecuted. The reward in heaven is great.

That’s a tough one to think about. Not only should the Oregon couple who had to pay $135K for refusing to bake a gay-wedding cake be joyful because of it, the Christians in the Middle East who are being rounded up and slaughtered should be joyful at their persecution.

--- If you are living a life that is poor in spirit, that mourns over your sin, that lives meekly through His strength, that hungers and thirsts after righteousness, that is merciful, pure in heart, and making peace…then you will be exceedingly glad for the persecution that comes your way.

--- The world is going in the opposite direction and trying to push us into their ways.

*** Question - Which of the Beatitudes do you find are the most challenging character traits to practice as a Christian? … Which Beatitude do you believe to be the most needed in our world today?

THE NEW EXPECTATIONS (Matt. 5:13-16)

13 You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. 14 You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

*** Jesus uses salt and light to show how Christians are supposed to influence the world.

--- The world should be a better place because of Christian influence, using characteristics described in the Beatitudes.

*** Pass the salt, please.

--- Who here douses their food in salt?

--- Salt nowadays is used for flavor. If you don't use enough salt you don't get any taste and it’s all bland. Salt enhances food’s flavor just as Christians enhance the lives of those they influence.

--- People of the first century also used salt to preserve. Salt slows food’s spoilage just as Christians direct people to Jesus, the preserver of life.

--- Pure salt never loses its flavor, but Jesus knew that manufacturing salt sometimes allowed it to combine with impurities, which diluted its effect. A Christian who doesn’t have any influence on the world is not effective.

*** You are the light of the world, you are the city on a hill. (We gotta, we gotta let our light shine!)

--- Light is about revealing what’s around you in contrast to the darkness. You put it in a place where you get maximum effect.

--- Christians are to live differently so that God’s truth stands out for the world to see.

Isaiah 60:1-3 - “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** Think about the eight characteristics Jesus used in the Beatitudes. Which areas are you demonstrating Christ's character? Where do you need improvement?

*** Ask God to break the strongholds in your life, break your strong will, and replace it with His strength under discipline.

*** Think of ways you can be salt and light in your homes and workplaces.

--- If we represent Christ to this world, not only will we be blessed, but also the world will see Christ in us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Will Joseph obey?

My Life Group lesson for Dec. 13, 2015, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

What are your favorite Christmas songs?

How many of them reference the virgin birth?

Examples:
“Offspring of a Virgin's womb” (Hark the Herald Angels Sing)
“Round yon Virgin Mother and Child” (Silent Night)
“This day is born a Savior, Of a pure Virgin bright” (God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen)
“The virgin sings her lullaby.” (What Child is This)
“Jesus and His virgin birth” (Angels We Have Heard on High)

How important is it to you that the virgin birth is true?

It’s actually something that many don’t believe. A couple of polls several years ago showed:

--- 56 percent of the students in protestant seminaries studying for the ministry rejected the idea of the virgin birth.
--- 69 percent of American Baptists believed in the virgin birth.
--- 66 percent of the Lutherans believed in the virgin birth.
--- 57 percent of the United Presbyterians.
--- 39 percent of the Episcopalians.
--- 34 percent of the Methodists.
--- 21 percent of the Congregationalists believed in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

The Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin. If you don’t believe God is capable of something supernatural like that, then it’s easier for you to doubt God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ divine nature, not to mention think the Bible is capable of lying.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 1:1-25

*** This lesson begins our study of the Gospel of Matthew.

--- Appropriately we begin in December with the coming of Jesus.

*** Chapter 1, verses 2 through 16 give the genealogical record of Jesus. It was important for readers of the time to understand that Jesus was from the line of Abraham and David.

--- God promised to bless all nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). To David God promised to establish his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:16). God fulfilled both of those promises through Jesus.

*** In Matthew 1:18-25, we will see how the miraculous birth of this baby, unlike any other babies, fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies.

--- God’s greatest promise was that a Messiah would come to save His people. Throughout much of the history of the Old Testament, God’s people anticipated that Messiah’s arrival.

God never forgot His people or His promise. He simply waited for just the right moment in history.

SUPERNATURAL CONCEPTION (Matt. 1:18)

18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

*** “Unto us, a child is born. Unto us, a son is given.”

--- Joseph: You are not the father.

--- It may seem like the Maury Povich Show, but Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus. (But like on Maury, he could take it two ways: Celebrate, or throw chairs.)

--- Verse 16 is carefully worded to not say that Joseph is the father, instead pointing out he's the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus.

*** “Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.”

--- Prior to the finalization of the marriage of Mary and Joseph, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. She conceived without a sexual relationship with a man; she was a virgin. Divine activity existed as the only possible way for that to happen.

--- Every birth is a miracle, but Mary's virgin pregnancy occurred in a way that had never happened before or since.

--- In the ancient Greek myths, so-called gods were often getting women pregnant by taking on human form and having sex with them. The people of Jesus’ time would be familiar with many such stories.

But Mary’s conception differed in the sense that God made her pregnant miraculously. No physical encounter took place. God creates life in the way He chooses.

*** Question – Why was it important that Jesus be born of the Holy Spirit and not man?

(Jesus' conception was supernatural, in order that He could be both fully human and fully divine. If he was just another “son of Adam” he couldn’t do this.)

PROMISED MESSIAH (Matt. 1:19-23)

19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly. 20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.”

*** “Mary, did you know?”

--- Yes, she knew. Stop asking. But how about Joseph?

--- Joseph was called a righteous dude, so we know that God had a good opinion of him.

--- Mary and Jesus were engaged, which was a year-long process in which they lived separately, but they were considered husband and wife. To end the relationship during that period required divorce.

--- Joseph took some prodding to convince him that Mary was actually pregnant by God and not man. If Mary had cheated on him, then divorce was a given, and stoning wasn’t out of the picture, either.

--- Her pregnancy couldn’t be hidden. It was going to be the talk of the town. This would be embarrassing for Joseph and his family as well.

--- Joseph, however, as a righteous man of mercy and kindness, didn’t want to disgrace Mary publicly, so he was going to divorce her quietly and not make a scene.

--- As in Deut. 24:1, Joseph could divorce her secretly, write a certificate of divorce and send her on her way. The law was on his side. But the Lord had other plans.

--- It's hard to put ourselves in Joseph and Mary's shoes. They are probably just teenagers in an unforgiving world.

*** "Fall on your knees. Oh hear the angel voices."

--- An angel changes Joseph's mind.

--- God often communicated through angels and through dreams, so this was nothing new.

--- The angel reassured Joseph that since this was all God's great plan and Mary had not been unfaithful, Joseph was encouraged not to fear the consequences of marrying an already-pregnant woman.

*** “Pleased, as man, with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!”

--- The angel directed Joseph to name the child born to Mary. As the legal father, the task of naming belonged to Joseph. Typically the naming process took place on the eighth day after birth, the day of circumcision for a Jewish male child. Although Joseph declared the name of the child, the actual name originated from God.

--- The name Jesus, Joshua in Hebrew, was common in that day. It means “Yahweh is salvation.”

*** "Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."

--- Jesus came to save His people from their sins. The Jews were looking for the savior promised by God, but they anticipated a human, political-military leader to save them from Roman domination. They are still looking.

--- Verse 23 quotes Isaiah 7:14, which says that a virgin will give birth to a son and name Him Immanuel. This name means “God is with us.” The child Jesus became “God is with us” to deliver people from sin.

--- Throughout Matthew there are 12 mentions where Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies. The long-promised Messiah finally showed up, and He was everything God intended Him to be.

*** Question - Can you recall a time when you faced a situation in which none of your options seemed good, but God provided a better solution? What is required of you if, like Joseph, you are to receive direction from God in times of trouble or uncertainty?

OBEDIENCE REQUIRED (Matt. 1:24-25)

24 When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her 25 but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him Jesus.

*** "Ave Maria! Undefiled!"

--- Joseph obeys.

--- Just as we saw in Genesis just how fast Abraham responded to God's instructions, Joseph woke up and didn't dilly-dally, doing as the angel commanded.

--- Once he knew God's will, he followed it. He passed the test. Even though his community might stigmatize his family, he stuck with her, took the child as his own, and he married her.

--- He obeyed God even though the law gave Joseph an easier option. He found that real righteousness equals doing things God’s way.

--- Obedience often requires the sacrifice of personal preferences in favor of the desires of God. But ultimately God rewards submission to His direction.

*** “Go tell it on the mountain, Over the hills and everywhere, Go tell it on the mountain, Our Jesus Christ is born.”

--- Mary and Joseph abstained from sex prior to Jesus’ birth. This left no doubt that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born.

--- They went on to have several children together.

--- Joseph set a great example for fathers who step up to take care of a child not of their own seed.

*** Question - How would you describe the example set by Joseph?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

I know it's hard to imagine, but think about if you walked into your kids' rooms and toys were everywhere. You ask - or demand - for them to clean up. What kind of responses do you usually get? (For example: obediently responds, argues back, continues to play but later obeys, throws a tantrum, and so on.)

Now think about how the child’s different responses reflect our responses when God calls us to obey His call to action. Is partial obedience really obedience? How can we imitate Joseph’s obedience in our lives today?

*** God works through ordinary people (vv. 18-21).

--- He knows our plans: how they are different from His (Isa. 55:8-9).

--- He directs our path: He has promised to give us direction (Prov. 3:5-6).

*** Share the good news of Christmas, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine and did the saving work of God.

*** God works through our obedience.

--- Joseph faced a difficult challenge common to every believer. Once you know God’s will, are you prepared to follow it?

Monday, November 30, 2015

God provides

My Life Group lesson for Nov. 29, 2015, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

Who here wouldn't be able to find a location if not for your smartphone's maps or your GPS?

Are you the one who follows their GPS no matter what, and ends up in a lake or 900 miles out of your way before you realize what happened?

Back before we had smartphones or GPS, when you were lost you either drove around or asked for help. Sometimes the help was great. Sometimes you had to figure out when to turn at the old farm, past the lake that may or may not have dried up, and the tree that wasn't there anymore.

Your confidence in the directions depended on your confidence in the person giving those directions.

God gave Abraham directions about his future and the future of his family. But there were still details left to work through—such as finding a wife for Isaac. Abraham and the servant he entrusted to find Isaac’s wife turned to God for directions. They had followed God’s directions in the past, and now they sought His guidance for the future. We can trust God to lead us down the right paths.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Genesis 24:1–25:19

*** This is our final lesson in Genesis this fall and our last look at Abraham, whom we've been learning about for several weeks.

*** We've followed Abraham as God established a covenant with him, promising that he would birth countless descendants. Abraham remarried after Sarah’s death. His second wife was named Keturah, and she gave birth to six sons. However, these children were not granted a portion of Abraham’s inheritance. Like his first son, Ishmael, they were sent away before Abraham’s death. Isaac would remain the sole heir (25:1-6).

*** In chapter 24, Isaac is now about 40 years old and in need of a wife who can birth him some kids to fulfill God's promise.

THE ASSIGNMENT (Gen. 24:1-9)

1 Abraham was now old, getting on in years, and the Lord had blessed him in everything. 2 Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his household who managed all he owned, “Place your hand under my thigh, 3 and I will have you swear by the Lord, God of heaven and God of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live, 4 but will go to my land and my family to take a wife for my son Isaac.” 5 The servant said to him, “Suppose the woman is unwilling to follow me to this land? Should I have your son go back to the land you came from?” 6 Abraham answered him, “Make sure that you don’t take my son back there. 7 The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from my native land, who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘I will give this land to your offspring’—He will send His angel before you, and you can take a wife for my son from there. 8 If the woman is unwilling to follow you, then you are free from this oath to me, but don’t let my son go back there.” 9 So the servant placed his hand under his master Abraham’s thigh and swore an oath to him concerning this matter.

*** Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

--- Abraham's incredibly blessed and taken care of, so now he’s starting to wonder about Isaac, who hasn't married and hasn't had an heir. If God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled, Isaac needs to get with the program.

--- But Abraham's dead set on making sure Isaac doesn't marry a local girl in Canaan, who were all a bunch of pagan hussies. And he didn’t want Isaac traveling willy-nilly to find a bride, either. If Isaac goes to Haran and stays there, then he defies God’s will to establish a nation in Canaan.

Paul also commanded believers not to marry unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14 - Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness?).

--- Abraham commissioned a trusted servant, possibly Eliezer (Gen. 15:2), who was heir before Ishmael and Isaac, to go back to Haran and obtain a wife from Abraham’s extended family.

--- Abraham told him that God would direct him to the right person, because he already had been told that God would “send His angel before” the servant. Once again, God’s got this. Success is God’s responsibility. He’s not going watching and hoping from a distance that His plan pulls through.

--- Abraham knew the servant would be successful, but to make him feel better he tells him that if a suitable mate wouldn’t come, then the servant can return home empty handed.

After all, the servant would be going to a foreign land to talk to people who didn’t know him. He would be asking her to leave her family and move to a distant land to marry a man she hadn’t seen. She and her family would allow this to happen solely on the servant’s word. (And a trust in God, which they may or may not have strong faith.)

*** The right reasons.

--- Abraham was not doing this for himself. He did this in God’s name, “The Lord, God of heaven and God of earth” who spoke to Abraham.

He was full on obedient to God’s wishes. Abraham once wavered in his faith, but now he’s unwilling to budge from God’s plan.

--- If the servant really was Eliezer, his devotion and humility is even more impressive. Isaac’s birth meant that he became Abraham’s heir, so Eliezer was no longer the steward who stood to gain a lot of wealth. A vengeful person might have used this assignment as payback.

*** Question - Abraham had to trust this person completely. Is there anyone you would trust to find your son (or daughter) a suitable mate?

THE PRAYER (Gen. 24:10-14)

10 The servant took 10 of his master’s camels and departed with all kinds of his master’s goods in hand. Then he set out for Nahor’s town Aram-naharaim. 11 He made the camels kneel beside a well of water outside the town at evening. This was the time when the women went out to draw water. 12 “Lord, God of my master Abraham,” he prayed, “give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 I am standing here at the spring where the daughters of the men of the town are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the girl to whom I say, ‘Please lower your water jug so that I may drink,’ and who responds, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels also’—let her be the one You have appointed for Your servant Isaac. By this I will know that You have shown kindness to my master.”

*** A faithful journey.

--- The servant loaded up 10 camels with provisions and material possessions to give the family of the bride.

--- They traveled to Mesopotamia, where Abraham’s brother Nahor and his relatives lived.

--- The journey would have taken several weeks.

*** Praying for success.

--- The servant prays very specifically for a sign. He says, God, if you have this happen, then this and this, then we’ll all know I have found Isaac’s future bride.

Have you done that? “God, if this man is the one I’m supposed to date, have him walk up to me wearing a red shirt, with his right hand in his pocket, with a flag pin on his lapel and have him stop and pick up a penny from the ground.”

--- When we did that we were praying for God to do our will. God defines success as doing His will. This is what the servant was praying for.

--- Where did this servant learn to pray like this? From Abraham! Abraham passed along to his servants and to his son the importance of prayer.

*** A great wingman.

--- The servant has some smarts. He knows that if he goes to the well in the evening that he’ll find all the women of the area coming to get water for their homes. He goes where the ladies are!

*** Question – What was the point of the servant praying so specifically for the right woman?

(The exact words specified a mighty God working to achieve His purposes.)

THE ANSWER (Gen. 24:15-17)

15 Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah—daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor—coming with a jug on her shoulder. 16 Now the girl was very beautiful, a young woman who had not known a man intimately. She went down to the spring, filled her jug, and came up. 17 Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me have a little water from your jug.”

*** Servant: “Dear God …” God: "You got it."

--- Have you ever prayed so hard for someone or something that it feels like you are transmitting a signal straight through heaven?

--- Some of God's answers to our prayers may take a long time, but others are instantaneous.

--- Even before the servant had finished he saw Rebekah. She meets all the criteria: She descended from Abraham’s family, she’s a virgin, and for bonus points, she’s a total babe.

*** The servant closes the deal.

--- In the rest of the chapter, the servant goes to Rebekah’s home, details his prayerful mission, lavishes her with jewelry, and her family says if she wants to go, she can go. She indeed wants to leave immediately and she and Isaac were married.

*** Question – Have you ever met someone in an unusual circumstance who had a big influence in your life?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

The servant had the best pickup line ever: "God sent me, and you're the one."

What does it say about Rebekah that she was willing to go with the servant, whom she had never met, to a land she didn’t know, to marry a guy she knew little about?

*** In any situation, God will provide guidance at our point of need. He has a plan for us as well. Proverbs 16:9 says, “A man's heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.”

*** If anyone needs wisdom, it is readily available for the faithful. James 1:5-6 - Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind.

*** Apply faith in every decision you make by taking the decision directly to God.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cooper's first basketball practice

We signed up Cooper for basketball this winter. It's his first time playing organized sports, so we're looking forward to a learning experience!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Faith Test

My Life Group lesson for Nov. 22, 2015, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

There are many ways that something could test our faith. Consider these scenarios and how we would react:

--- You receive the job offer you’ve been praying about, but you have to take a hefty pay cut.

--- You have never been able to conceive, but after adopting two children you/your spouse gets pregnant—with twins.

--- You accept a missionary assignment to a Third World country where your children are exposed to a disease that is killing thousands.

When you hear the word “test,” what emotions rush through your mind? When is a test welcomed? unwelcomed?

Today we’re going to talk about the ultimate test of faith in the Bible, of Abraham being told to sacrifice his only begotten son by His Lord.

Would he pass the test?

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Genesis 22:1–23:20

*** Last week in chapter 21 we talked about Isaac's birth and how God fulfilled His promise to Abraham and Sarah for a son.

*** Sarah then sent away Hagar and Ishmael so that Isaac would be Abraham's only heir.

*** In chapter 22 God tests Abraham's faith. Would Abraham choose his son, whom he waited for 25 years, or obedience to the Lord Almighty?

THE TEST PRESENTED (Gen. 22:1-2)

1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered. 2 “Take your son,” He said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

*** God tested Abraham.

--- God speaks to Abraham, whose ears perk up. His immediate and obedient response is “Here I am.”

--- Abraham probably thought that he had it made; God's his good friend and has promised and given him wealth, land, servants and a long-awaited heir.

--- But Abraham's peaceful life is about to go through one more ordeal, from God Himself.

--- God tests His saints to prove the quality of their faith and obedience, often through adversity or hardship:

Ex. 20:20 - Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

Deut. 8:2 - Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

*** A fair test.

--- "Tested" here does not suggest that God enticed Abraham to do wrong.

--- It certainly seems shocking and defies common sense for the Lord to ask Abraham to burn his son to death as an offering.

*** Abraham had faith that God would see this through.

--- Abraham knew that God had promised in 21:12 that "through Isaac shall your offspring be named." God was obligated to keep His promise.

--- Abraham seems to have had so much faith in God is that he didn’t actually think God would leave Isaac – his promised son - dead.

Hebrews 11 - Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

*** Question - God has already promised Abraham that his line will spawn nations, so why is God testing Abraham's faith?

THE TEST PREPARATION (Gen. 22:3-8)

3 So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac. He split wood for a burnt offering and set out to go to the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. In his hand he took the fire and the sacrificial knife, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Then Isaac spoke to his father Abraham and said, “My father.” And he replied, “Here I am, my son.” Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 Abraham answered, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Then the two of them walked on together.

*** No time to wait.

--- Just as Abraham immediately picked up his family and belongings and moved to Canaan, when God tells Abraham to do something, he does it quickly.

We don't even get a hint that Abraham expressed doubt, protested or did what most of us would do, absolutely freak out.

--- Abraham went with Isaac and two servants on a three-day walk to Mt. Moriah.

--- How old was Isaac? We get an idea that Isaac was not a very young boy during this because Abraham has him carry the wood for the offering up the mountain.

Isaac could be anywhere from a preteen to 37 years old, which is how old he would have been in chapter 23 when his mom Sarah died.

*** "We'll come back to you."

--- In verse 5, Abraham certainly feels that Isaac will be returning.

--- In Hebrews chapter 11, the author writes that "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death." (v. 19)

*** God doesn't send us out alone.

--- Verse 3 says that Abraham set off for "the place God had told him about."

--- Just as God told Abraham to head towards Canaan but did not reveal the ultimate destination, God indicates that He will be taking his journey with Abraham.

--- When Isaac inquired about the absence of the lamb, Abraham told him the Lord would provide.

*** Question - When we are tested by God, how hard is it to belive that God will provide, especially in the absence of evidence?

(When Abraham and Isaac went up the mountain without knowing how God would provide, the ram started up the other side, unseen by them but known by the Lord.)

THE TEST PASSED (Gen. 22:9-12)

9 When they arrived at the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” He replied, “Here I am.” 12 Then He said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me.”

*** Isaac on the altar.

--- By now when it was apparent that he was the sacrifice, Isaac could have run away or overpowered his 100-plus year-old dad.

--- Isaac believed his father, submitted to God's will and allowed Abraham to tie him up and get him on the wood on the altar.

*** Question – What does this say about Isaac’s trust in his father? As strong as Abraham’s faith in God?

*** Phew! What a relief!

--- What do you think Abraham’s demeanor was as he went about preparing the altar? Was he resigned? Heartbroken? Confident? Joyful? There’s a lot of drama here!

--- The "Angel of the Lord," a manifestation of God Himself, tells Abraham to stop (collaborate and listen).

--- God’s interruption here shows that He never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac. But Abraham’s actions demonstrated complete trust and submission.

*** Question – Does what God demanded of Abraham challenge your understanding of God? How does this become a controversial and difficult story to tell to non-believers and believers?

THE TEST PROVISION (Gen. 22:13-14)

13 Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide, so today it is said: “It will be provided on the Lord’s mountain.”

*** A substitute for sacrifice.

--- 2,000 years before Christ was born, God told Abraham to take his promised son to Mt. Moriah, the same mountain ridge where the Temple would be built and where Jesus would be crucified.

--- For Abraham and Isaac, a ram caught in a thicket provided the substitute.

*** Jesus Christ is our substitute.

--- John the Baptist announced that Jesus was “the Lamb of God” because Jesus “takes away the sin of the world” (see John 1:29). This makes eternal life possible for us!

--- Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced at the thought of Him, in John chapter 8, verse 56: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

*** Question - How does this passage in Genesis relate to what Christ did for us on the cross? Why is it important for believers to understand the nature of His sacrifice in our place?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Who here was good at taking tests in school?

Who stunk at it?

What is the value of taking a test? (We show how much we have learned. How much progress we have made.)

In today’s session we learned about a test of Abraham’s faith that was so radical it demanded a complete and utter dependence on the Lord.

*** As believers, we should expect that God will test our faith, and we should pray that we will respond correctly.

*** A test of faith can lead us to spiritual growth, even if we come to understand that we failed the test.

*** Praise that as God’s sacrifice for our sins, Jesus make eternal life possible for us.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Keeping His Promise

My Life Group lesson for Nov. 15, 2015, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

What kind of promises do we make to people? What are the differences in who you are promising – family, friends, work, kids?

Have you ever made a promise you couldn't keep?

(A big promise, not just pinky-swearing that you wouldn't tell everyone who your friend has a crush on in 8th grade.)

Is it ever appropriate to break a promise or not keep your word?

(Note that a child perceives even casually uttered words as promises.)

What happens when we fail to come through with our promises?

There are over 6,000 promises in the Bible, and God has come through on all of them. Today we'll talk about how God's promise to Abraham and Sarah came through.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT
Genesis 20:1–21:34

*** After Sodom and Gomorrah got the fire-and-brimstone treatment, Abraham moved a little into what became Philistine territory.

--- Chapter 20 describes how Abraham told some white lies just as he did in Egypt about Sarah, telling the king she was his sister. Just as God told Pharaoh to leave her alone in his harem, God told king Abimelech to keep his hands to himself.

--- Remember, God had just promised in chapter 19 that Isaac would be born in one year, so if Sarah conceived while she was in Abimelech's harem the child wouldn't be Abraham's heir. And if she was pregnant before, the child would be raised as Abimelech's kid.

*** Abraham stumbled in his faith at times. It had been 25 years since God had made His promise to Abraham. But His promise wasn't contingent on Abraham being perfect.

*** Chapter 21 tells us of Isaac's birth, fulfilling God's promise to Abraham and Sarah.

GOD’S PROMISE REALIZED (Gen. 21:1-2)

1 The LORD came to Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what He had promised. 2 Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time God had told him.

*** A promise kept.

--- For 25 years and from chapter 12 of Genesis until now, God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son:

--- 12:2 - “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you."

--- 17:19 - But God said, “... Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring."

--- Through the ups and downs, God kept reminding Abraham of His promise to give him a child, while urging him to walk faithfully with Him and believe (17:1-2).

--- Now He delivers. Literally!

--- Think about the physical and emotional differences that take place in our lives over 25 years. For example, compare and contrast the life of a 25-year-old with that of a 50-year-old.

*** God is punctual.

--- 18:10 - The LORD said, “I will certainly come back to you in about a year’s time, and your wife Sarah will have a son!”

--- Abraham tried to create his own timeline with Hagar and Ishmael 15 years earlier, but God made good when it was the right time in the right way.

--- Within the year specified, Sarah became the mother of Abraham’s son.

*** Question - Do you have an example of how God's timing turned out to be better than yours?

(For example, perhaps God did not provide the new job asdesired but another, better position came along.)

*** Likewise, the birth of the Messiah would occur at the time established by God:

--- Galatians 4:4-5 - But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman,born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

GOD’S PROMISE REMEMBERED (Gen. 21:3-7)

3 Abraham named his son who was born to him—the one Sarah bore to him—Isaac. 4 When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Sarah said, “God has made me laugh, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 She also said, “Who would have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne a son for him in his old age.”

*** Abraham's obedience.

[Abraham’s journey began when he obeyed God by departing Haran for an undetermined destination (12:1). Abraham was circumcised in obedience to God just a year before Isaac’s birth (17:24).]

-- Note the two ways that Abraham obeyed God: by naming his son Isaac (Genesis 17:19 - Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac) and by circumcising him on the eighth day (Genesis 21:4 - When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him.).

*** God is capable.

--- Abraham was 100 years old. Sarah was 90. It is not biologically possible. God can do anything He chooses.

*** Laughter is the best medicine.

--- Genesis 17:17 - Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”

--- Genesis 18:12 - So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

--- Sarah's laughter here in verse 6 is probably a joyful chuckle at an act of grace, whereas when God told her in chapter 18 it was more of a skeptical snicker.

--- Genesis 17:19 "Isaac" means "he laughs." Isaac’s circumcision and name would be a constant reminder of God’s covenant and faithfulness.

--- Her lack of children fostered a lifelong stigma (see 16:2). Deep inside, she harbored a sense of great personal failure. Not only did motherhood satisfy her inner aspiration for children, it gratified her desire to please her husband.  

*** God is bountiful. (Gen. 21:6-7)

--- God lavished blessing after blessing on an elderly couple: land, wealth, and now a son in their old age!

--- Put yourself in Abraham and Sarah’s shoes. Imagine you are holding Isaac, a child you thought you would never have. (We certainly have experience with that in our class.)

What emotions would accompany that experience? What kind of impact do you think the birth of Isaac had on Sarah’s faith in God?

(Every time they reflect on Isaac, they would know that nothing is impossible with God.)

GOD’S PROMISE REJOICED (Gen. 21:8)

8 The child grew and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned.

*** Party time! Excellence!

--- Nowadays we celebrate potty training as a rite of passage, but back then they celebrated when toddlers were no longer nursing.

--- This could be anywhere from age two to five years old, as cultures of the day varied.

--- Infant mortality was high in ancient days, so this was a big milestone to make it thus far, plus Sarah didn't die in childbirth, which was also a big possibility in those days.

--- One thing it marked was the beginning of Isaac's independence. He no longer depended on his mother's milk.

--- I don't know about you guys, but at 40 years old and two kids under 7, I'm exhausted. Abraham was 100! Sarah was 90!

*** Salvation is not a funeral, but a feast!

--- The Bible is a continual feast from Genesis right through to Revelation. Covenant meals and meals of fellowship are frequent occurrences in Scripture.

--- Thankfully, Christianity is not a religion for eating at a table alone. Think about the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers," where it says "We have Christ's own promise, and that cannot fail."

We're here to stick together and win the battle together!

*** Question - How does our church celebrate God's faithfulness?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Who has done trust falls? Either at work, at church camp, anywhere?

What is the importance of having a good track record when it comes to trust?

God’s past track record serves as a source of confidence for us and Abraham learned that the hard way.

If we believe that God doesn’t keep His promises, then we believe God is a liar just like us.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:20 - For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.

Christ fulfills all the promises of God to us, and all our confidence in God’s promises must come from our trust in Jesus Christ as a person whom we know and can rely on.

*** God asks us to trust Him with our lives. He is strong enough to take care of us. His Word is dependable and trustworthy. Be patient and confident.

*** We have an obligation to go with God's promises. We are to be obedient, and we are to trust in Him. Our faith should be easy to see.

*** We should delight in God’s character. We discussed today four things about the character of God: He is reliable, punctual, capable, and bountiful. (What a mighty God we serve!)