Directions, Decisions, and Details

Connecting Points

Friday, June 25, 2010

Today’s Topic:  Directions, Decisions, and Details

Today’s Text:  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”  (Isaiah 6:8)

Details. We want details. We make decisions based on details. The more details we have, the better our chances of avoiding error, or so we think. We rarely accept any direction without details. Direction, decisions, and details – how are they supposed to line up?

Have you ever heard the phrase, the devil is in the details? Well, for all you detail-oriented people, here’s a little history lesson. The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996) says The Devil is in the details is a variant of another proverb that is much older. It refers to a catch or problem hidden in the details that was not previously seen or anticipated, and that may have changed the original decision if it had been known in advance. In other words, the devil is responsible for withholding information to make us fail. In response, we want more details so we can be sure to make the right decision.

But to be historically accurate, the original proverb from which the devil reference evolved is this – God is in the details. In fact, the original proverb is more than 140 years older than its derivation. It was first attributed to a German architect named Gustave Flaubert (1821-80). History tells us that those who lived by this motto believed that whatever one does should be done thoroughly with close attention to the details because that’s how God is honored.

But let me share one more idea I have on the subject of details – my variation on the theme. God is in control of the details. Our tendency is to demand details before we make decisions when God is the one giving the directions. I believe the devil is in that. Isaiah heard the directions, made the decision, and then got the details. We would be wise to follow such an example of faith.

Recently I visited with a friend who has been struggling in his job for several years. He has been very discouraged. His age was one factor that kept him going because there was a certain measure of fear of what he would be able to do to be a provider for his wife if he quit. But things were not going well at work. He and his wife had a discussion about it and agreed that God was giving them the direction to quit and that he would provide for them. So, in the middle of the week, they made a decision with no details. The following Monday he would resign, giving his two week notice.

God is in control of the details. Two days later, on Friday, he was called into the supervisor’s office and told that his position with company was being eliminated. He was escorted back to his desk to gather his lunchbox and then escorted out of the building. There would be no need to resign on Monday. He had been let go. But in doing so, this 23-year veteran of this company was granted a severance package. He would be paid in full for the next two weeks, even though he would not be permitted back into the building to work. He would then receive a nice severance package of pay for an extended period of time. At the conclusion of that severance package, he will be eligible for unemployment compensation. None of these things would have been his if he would have resigned. All of these things allow him the time to receive the details from God of what’s next.

God is in control of the details. When God gives directions, we must make decisions, trusting that He is in control of the details. Directions…Decisions…Details. If that order ever gets messed up, so do we.

Pastor John

Preparation for Service

Connecting Points

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Today’s Topic:  Preparation for Service

Today’s Text:  “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:5-7)

God is calling you. I’m not sure to what yet, and maybe you aren’t either. He hasn’t told you what it is. But the fact that He has brought you into His presence means that He is preparing you to respond to a call to serve Him. He has brought you into His presence to remove all obstacles in the path of acceptance. We may think there are several closed doors in front of us, but God wants to open them all so we can walk the path He has prepared.

The fact that we are in God’s presence opens the first door – the door of humility. Isaiah is overwhelmed with the perfection of God. He is cowering in fear of his own unworthiness to be there. If we are to hear the call of God clearly, pride must be destroyed. Self must be crucified. Our desires, goals, and dreams must melt under the spectacle of God’s sovereignty. We must be willing to set aside anything and everything that is important to our flesh for the sake of experiencing the fullness of the Spirit.

The second door that must be opened is the confession of sin. It starts with the recognition of its horror. Every sin – not just the big ones – but every little sin that stands opposed to the holy, non-contradictory nature of God must be seen for what it is: absolute corruption.

Once the horror of sin is recognized, we must confess that we are presently smothered by it and responsible for its presence in our lives. We stand in our very nature opposed to God. People can’t help us, for they are all in the same condition. Woe to us. We are ruined by our sin.

It is in this position – face down before the throne of God with nothing but His justified judgment of sin on our minds – that God meets us at our point of need. This is the third door that God opens for us. When we reach the point of realization that we are incapable of providing a way of escape from the deserved punishment of our sin that God reveals to us the way He has provided. He has atoned for our sin. He will remove our guilt. He will make us whole.

The word atonement is significant. It simply means satisfaction for a wrong. Our sin is wrong. It’s always wrong. It’s never even slightly right. There is nothing in us that qualifies us to satisfy the wrong of sin in the holiness of God. But God can, and He did. It is symbolized for us in the life of Isaiah with the burning coal from the altar of heaven. The fulfillment of the symbol is found in the death of Christ when He presented Himself on the altar of heaven during the darkness that followed His crucifixion. (Read Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 for a complete picture of this.) In Christ God atoned for the sin of man. The sacrifice Jesus made on the cross has been eternally recognized by God as the sufficient, once-for-all sacrifice for our sin.

Some of you readers may have never reached this point in your “religious” life. You have been trusting the wrong thing. You have been hoping that God will somehow choose to recognize your self-produced goodness. That cannot happen. I cannot emphasize that enough. It is not in your power to save yourself. Only God can provide the satisfaction for your wrong by offering His sinless Son as a substitute for your death. Put your faith in Him today.

Others of you have been to the cross, but your lives are a mess because you cannot hear the call of God to service because your heart is blocked up by sin and self. You too need to humbly come back into the throne room and let God restore you to a life of faith in Him.

The fourth door is opened when we stand and accept God’s spectacular gift of forgiveness and believe that because of Christ we are now worthy to serve the King, the LORD Almighty. It is at this point that we will hear His call to service, just as Isaiah did. But notice this very significant observation – God’s call was one to service with no details of what that service would be. God wants your willing heart before He gives you details of what you will be doing. If Isaiah had known up front the message that He would be speaking, he may have refused the call. But with His heart overwhelmed with the vision of God’s holiness and the grace of God’s forgiveness, he was ready to say yes to anything God asked.

And he did.

Will you?

You will if you go through all four doors.

Pastor John

Clean Lips

Connecting Points

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today’s Topic:  Clean Lips

Today’s Text:  I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted… (Isaiah 6:1)

I am easily captivated by the splendor of nature. I am tempted at times to just pull the car over to the side of the road, get out, and walk through the woods. It actually happened last night. My wife and I were blessed to have two of our grandchildren sleep over at our house. After supper we decided to take them out for ice cream.

Mmmmmmmmm…ice cream…

Okay, I’m back, after a few moments of remembering the pleasure of hand-scooped Olson’s ice cream in Chippewa Falls.

Anyway, on the way to the ice cream parlor, we decided to drive through Irvine Park and show it to my dad, whom we had invited along on the excursion. At one point I was so enthralled with the view of the waterfall and the woods that I wanted to just run into them and get lost in their beauty for the rest of the day. I have paused for extended periods of time at scenic outlooks overlooking what appears to most to be nothing but hills and valleys of farmland. I have stood in silent awe at the edge of Lake of the Clouds in Upper Michigan. I have taken far longer than anyone else in my family to soak up the spectacle of a simple lighthouse on the shores of Lake Superior. I become absorbed quickly in a moment of magnificence in the mountains. I am easily captivated by the splendor of nature.

That’s why it may take several days to get through this passage of Scripture in Isaiah, but we must linger for a time at this spot of incredible beauty. Isaiah has been given a vision of God on His throne in Heaven. How can we pass by it quickly? So forget all of your plans for a few moments and get away to a quiet place where you can absorb the splendor of the King. I am not going verse by verse, but impression by impression, and I am impressed with one thing today as I contemplate what I see.

I am impressed with the contrast between what Isaiah hears from the angelic beings and what he knows to be true about his own communication habits. In the presence of God Almighty there is constant praise and worship. They declare His holiness – which means, if you remember my definition from previous writings, to be without contradiction. To be holy means to be perfectly complete and perfectly pure. There is nothing in God that contradicts itself. Every aspect of His character and His nature are in perfect agreement. How long would it take us to absorb all the splendor of that? And when these angelic beings spoke the words of praise and worship, the doorposts and thresholds of heaven shook. The power of praise is demonstrated.

It is at this point that Isaiah cries out in despair, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”  

My first impression of this passage is this – Isaiah knew that his everyday communication with God and with people did not possess the power of praise. His speech had become tainted by a critical spirit rather than empowered by a vision of God’s holiness.

It is so very significant that the book of Isaiah does not begin with his vision of God on the throne, but rather with his perspective on society. Even though the words he spoke to the people of his day in those first five chapters were the words the Lord gave him to speak, he now recognizes that he had allowed his heart to become critical and judgmental of the people to whom he was presenting the word of the Lord. He saw himself as unclean. His lips needed to be touched with the holiness of God.

My friends, spend some time at this spectacular scenic overlook. Your words have power – power to hurt or power to help. Your words can destroy a person’s spirit or they can develop a person’s spiritual relationship. They have power to shake the doorposts of a person’s life bringing fear or faith. It all depends on whether or not you have been in the presence of the Holy One and have yourself determined to live your life without contradiction.

Pastor John

It’s a God Thing

Connecting Points

Monday, June 21, 2010

Today’s Topic:  It’s a God Thing

Today’s Text:  I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. (Isaiah 6:1)

It happened again. I don’t know why it surprises me so much when it does. By now it should be the expectation by which I live. The fact that it isn’t proves how much of my life is directed by my choices rather than by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Let me set the stage for what happened.

Last week I was with a friend. We spent several days together just relaxing, playing golf, and talking. We joked quite a bit about some of the pet phrases we have adopted into our spiritual vocabulary. The one that we laughed about the most is this – “That was a God thing.” At the very root of our laughter was the realization that because God is sovereign, everything is a God thing. Yet we tend to give credit to God only when the thing that happens has an immediate benefit for us.

Which one of you would shout out at the top of your lungs from the emergency room of the hospital where you lie writhing in agony from an accident, “This is a God thing?” But it is. We must understand this – God is in sovereign control of every circumstance of life, and is using even the consequences of our sin as an instrument of shaping our spiritual life into the image of His Son Jesus.

But that is not the deep water I want to dive into today. The fact that we say “That was a God thing” only at times of personal benefit proves that we are attempting to be in control of our own lives most of the time. And because of that, we miss out on so many opportunities to see God do incredible things in and through us. We miss hearing so many whispers of the Holy Spirit because our pride is shouting so loudly.

Back to the story of last week. My friend Paul and I were on our way to the golf course early in the morning. We decided to stop at McDonald’s on the way and pick up coffee and a breakfast sandwich. Between my house and the golf course there were two McDonald’s at which I could have stopped. As I pulled out of the garage my spirit clearly heard the Holy Spirit speak. It was one of those times when I am made aware of the incredible processing power of the human mind created by the very same God who was now taking control of it. In a flash I was directed to turn right and head for the McDonald’s by the mall, taking the back roads from my house. I quickly processed travel time, tee time, directions, and ease of access both to the drive-through and back onto the highway to the golf course. I compared it to the other option. All of this was taking place in a split second of time as the car approached the end of the driveway.

Then, in my mind, I heard it again. Go right. I obeyed.  

When we pulled up to the window of the drive-through to pick up our food, I looked inside the restaurant and saw an old friend. It was a man who used to attend our church. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. I waved to him to come to the door at the end of the drive-through so I could say hi. He did. We pulled up to the door and talked for a moment. I had heard several weeks ago that he had gotten a new motorcycle, and there it was in the parking lot. He told me how much he liked it, and then invited me to call him and bring my motorcycle over and go riding with him some day.

As we drove away from the McDonald’s, I looked at Paul, and almost simultaneously we said, “That was a God thing.” We laughed, and all the way to the golf course talked about how many times the Holy Spirit tries to direct our steps that way every day and we miss it because we are so focused on what we want to do. The shouts of our pride drown out the whispers of the Holy Spirit so that the recognition of God’s activity in our lives is so infrequent it surprises us when it happens.

My goal is to stop shouting and start listening, so I can see the Lord seated on the throne of my life, high and exalted, and the train of His robe filling the temple of my life with His presence and glory. When that happens, everything becomes a God thing.

Pastor John

Visions and Dreams

Connecting Points

Friday, June 18, 2010 

Today’s Topic:  I See The Lord

Today’s Text:  I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. (Isaiah 6:1)

In case you were wondering, yes, I’m still alive and well. Very well, except for this nasty cough that has returned. The only time I haven’t had this cough since January is when I was in Swaziland with our friends Dudley and Inge Donaldson who are missionaries there. But no, I am not seeing that as a sign that I am supposed to return. I would need a clear vision from God for that to happen.

What is your reaction to the word “vision”? Mine used to be one of apprehension and doubt. Not anymore. I now understand that my previous doubt and maybe even fear of some spiritual things was caused by a lack of faith and not by good doctrine. Here’s what I mean. Whenever by belief in anything spiritual is conditioned by my need for understanding I am walking by sight and not by faith. When I need to be able to explain in human terms and with human logic the ways of God, I am not walking by faith. When the things I believe to be from God must fit into a neatly organized box of human experience, then I am guilty of weak faith.

When I say that I would need to see a clear vision from God to make a move anywhere, I am stating the truth that I believe it is possible to see a clear vision from God. I could hear His voice speak to me. I could be led by the Holy Spirit through a dream. I might even hear the Holy Spirit speak to me directly through you.

I believe we have constrained and quenched the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives by our lack of faith and our humanistic need for sight. I believe this applies to both the ultra-conservative people who reject any miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit and the Pentecostal churches who seem to experience miracles but have made the miraculous signs the proof of their faith rather than simple trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The excessive extremism of some spiritual movements has caused a pendulum swing of constrained extremism that is equally wrong. Those who have focused far too much on the miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit have built huge walls of defense against the attacks of those who have quenched all but a thimble-full of the work of the Holy Spirit. The attacks are being launched in both directions. The spiritual warfare of our day is not being directed by the Holy Spirit against the enemy, but rather is being done by prideful people who use their doctrine of the Holy Spirit to fight what they call false doctrine. In essence, the church has decided to use the Holy Spirit as a weapon against Himself.

I can only speak to you from one side of the wall that has been constructed to divide the church. I have been to the top of the wall and looked down at the other side. I have been to the gate in the wall and opened the door to fellowship with those on the other side. I have cowered under my self-built shield of faith as the arrows of similarly prideful people have been launched at me from the other side of the wall. I have responded in kind. I am ashamed of my actions and attitudes, but most of all I am ashamed of the wall that has been built. It was not built with bricks baked in the ovens of heaven and delivered to us by the Holy Spirit. It is a wall of man’s pride, and it must come down.

Somewhere, right about where the wall stands now, is a place of agreement – a place of truth. Truth that will only be discovered as people on each side of the wall humble themselves before the throne of God. You see, the wall has been built right on the spot where Isaiah saw his vision of God on His throne. The wall now blocks us from seeing God in all of His glory. Because of the wall all we can see is the territory on our side of the wall, and we believe that everything on the other side must be wrong and kept out. The wall must come down.

What a grand and glorious day it will be for the church when brothers and sisters in Christ from both sides of the wall stand united before the throne of God and see Him high and exalted and filling the whole earth with His glory. That will happen perfectly in heaven someday, but is it not possible for it to happen today to the degree that sinful humans are capable of being humble before Him? I not only believe it is possible, but that we hinder the glory of God from filling the whole earth by not pursuing it.

Will it be hard? Yes! So-called conservative Christians will have to open their hearts and minds to the filling of the Holy Spirit and His miraculous ministry. Pentecostals and Charismatics will have to accept every member of the Body of Christ as equals whether they speak in tongues or not. Right where the wall stands there is a place of unity before the throne of God. On that spot we will see the Body of Christ from the Lord’s perspective and not ours. Right there we will fall on our faces and declare that all we have done from a human perspective to know and teach truth has been unclean and we are ruined. And while we are on our faces before the throne, we will be cleansed and commissioned to be the church of Jesus Christ.

Pastor John

Danger!

Connecting Points

Thursday, June 10, 2010 

Today’s Topic:  Danger! Danger!

Today’s Text:  Woe to you…Woe to you…Woe to you…Woe to you…Woe to you…Woe to you…

(Isaiah 5:8, 11, 18, 21, 21, 22)

With arms flailing in the air and lights flashing brilliantly from his head and chest, he would roll into view from off the screen with his volume at maximum shouting, “Danger! Danger!”  He was capable of shooting lightning bolts from his mechanical hands. He had a huge database of information. He was programmed to protect and serve the Robinson family, and had a special connection to one family member named Will.

For those of you over the age of 45, you probably recognize the character simply called “Robot” from the hit television series Lost in Space. From 1965 to 1968 I’m sure I watched every one of the 83 episodes produced. I wanted to see what kind of trouble Dr. Smith would get into when he ignored the warnings of the robot that there was danger ahead. Sometimes I wish I would have learned more about avoiding danger from the misdirected and devious Dr. Smith.

Yesterday in our study of Isaiah we saw that the Lord Almighty planted a vineyard – the nation of Israel – and gave it every opportunity to produce a good harvest for His glory. They failed to do so because they didn’t recognize or heed the warnings of danger ahead. As you read through the fifth chapter of Isaiah today you will notice six warnings of danger ahead that very aptly apply to our modern world. We would be wise to heed them before we too fall into a pit from which there may be no apparent escape.

1.    The Danger of Materialism – verse 8 – Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The pursuit of personal prosperity will eventually leave us desolate. Jesus said that money very quickly becomes our master, and when it does we cannot serve Him, for no one can serve two masters at the same time. Don’t live in denial about this…there is grave danger ahead for those who pursue wealth as their means of personal gratification.

2.    The Danger of Hedonism – verses 11 and 12 – Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, no respect for the work of his hands. The pursuit of pleasure will result in the loss of freedom, and according to verse 14, the appetite for pleasure is exceeded only by the appetite of the grave.

3.    The Danger of Deceit and Denial – verse 18 – Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit, and wickedness as with cart ropes. I’m amazed at how easy it is for us to say we have surrendered everything to Jesus and then fill up our backpacks and wagons with the supplies of sin just in case the trip doesn’t go as we expected.

4.    The Danger of Relativity and Rationalization – verse 20 – Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. I’m also amazed at how easily we justify those backpacks and wagons filled with sin.

5.    The Danger of Humanism – verse 21 – Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. Here’s the reason why we have backpacks and wagons filled with sin – because we really trust in ourselves more than we trust in God.

6.    The Danger of Injustice – verse 22 and 23 – Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. We have made heroes of the wrong people – people without righteous character. We have neglected to treat the guilty with justice and the innocent with compassion. We care more about acceptance than we do integrity.

As I look around at society I see the arms of the robot flailing in the air. But the real issue is not society – the real issue is me. I have become more like Dr. Smith than I ever believed I would. It’s time to start recognizing the danger – not the danger that’s ahead, but the danger that is already upon us.

Pastor John

Good Fruit or Bad?

Connecting Points

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Today’s Topic:  What Kind of Fruit Are You Producing

Today’s Text:  I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.  (Isaiah 5:1-2)

In an old book of stories I have on my desk I found this strange reference to an apple tree growing in an orchard here in the Midwest. I searched for some time on the internet to verify it, but could not find anything about its exact location. But that does not necessarily mean the story is not true. The world wide web is not the final authority on all things.

This old apple tree was planted many years ago, with its limbs in the ground and its roots in the air, and which still lives to bear an occasional apple and sprout branches where roots should be. It is a curiosity to those who see it. The farmer who planted it is said to have read an old German legend in which such an inverted tree played a prominent part. Although the tree lives, and occasionally bears an apple, it is only a curiosity and bears no fruit of any respectable amount.

That tree is a picture of what happens when Christians decide to put their roots in the world rather than in Christ. It’s the same picture the prophet Isaiah is portraying with his image of the vineyard in chapter five.

God planted a vineyard. He cleared the rocks and trees, worked the soil, and planted the vines (the nation of Israel). He built a watchtower for protection, and He built the winepress for the abundant harvest He expected. God did everything to make it possible for the vineyard to bear fruit that would honor Him. But the people spread their roots and their branches into the world, and the fruit was unusable to the Lord Almighty.

We are no different than the people of Israel in Isaiah’s day. We say we are a part of the vine of Christ, yet we try to live Christian lives without being planted in the Christian church. We choose to let our roots run out into the responsibilities of the world rather than into the responsibilities of church life. We are very much like that inverted tree. We bear an occasional apple, but there is nothing of any significant or consistent value to the Lord.

So what happens to trees and vineyards like this? Well, like the inverted apple tree, there is only one way to justify its existence – its curiosity level that entertains people. So many people in the Christian church today are nothing more than entertainment to the people of the world. They make jokes about us, they mock us, and they use us to justify their own sinful lifestyles. Our hypocrisy authorizes such responses.

In the case of the vineyard in Scripture, the vines will be destroyed. God does not waste time on vines and branches that do not produce. This is a hard teaching from Scripture, but it is a trustworthy teaching. Jesus confirms what Isaiah says in chapter 5 when He says these words about the vine in John 15 –

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

My friends, where are your roots? Are you attempting to take nourishment for your life from the world? Are you seeking to grow branches according to the world’s standards so its people will accept you and approve of you? Or are you rooted in Christ alone, and bearing fruit only for His glory?

Pastor John