All of us can, in one way or another, identify with the prodigal son. We go off on our own, we mess up, we return, and our father welcomes us back.
But what if you are the father? What do you do if the son wanders off a second, third, or fourth time? What if it becomes a habit? Do you still welcome him home each time he returns? At what point might your warm welcome encourage him to go out again? Shouldn’t you at least drop the welcoming ceremony or tone it down a bit?
The message of [the Gospel] is NO, never.
There is no limit to God’s love and no limit to God’s welcome home to us. We can’t outsin his forgiveness.
In a letter to a guilt-ridden co-worker in the Reformation who was beside himself with grief over a great mistake he had made, Martin Luther writes:
“You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though he could be our helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins … “
“He must rather be a Savior and a redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities–yea from the greatest and most shaking sins … ”
Luther concludes ” … my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us who are the real, great, and hard-boiled sinners ….”
“You will have to get used to the belief that Christ is a real Savior and you a real sinner.”
These two refreshing stories help us whenever we may be tempted to parade our level of spiritual pride around or to make it appear by our actions that we are no longer in need of forgiveness.
Pride in our level of spirituality can have a very negative affect on our Christian witness.
The less-than-authentic self we present to others may pass on the message that we’ve arrived.
Far from imparting hope and forgiveness our appearance may discourage those who feel there’s no way they can live up to the image we’re presenting.
When we’re authentic, however, the message gets through.
A story by noted Bible teacher Steve Brown illustrates this point well. He talks of a time when he was speaking at a church in Pennsylvania.
After his talk, someone from the audience walked up to him and said, “You know, a lot of preachers get up and say ‘I’m a sinner just like you’ I want to let you know that you’re the first one I ever believed. ‘”
There are two messages in this chapter.
First: we can’t “outsin” God’s forgiveness.
Second: It’s far better to present ourselves authentically than to show an image to the world that appears “above it all.”
When our presentation is authentic, our message will be authentic.
In those days I would get apart and I would have these intense prayer times and Bible reading and come out filled with fire and so on and God would bless and Rosemarie would be standing there wondering what in the world is going on.
But anyway, I had one of those times. Somebody had come by with a real financial need. I gave him all the money I had.
I gave him in that giving part of Rosemarie’s food money.
Now that is getting personal and Rosemarie said Jack, “do you know you gave away half the week’s food money?”
I guess I kind of overlooked that a bit and she said, “do you know that next week we are having five people coming over and eating with us every day plus we have all those others eating with us?”
I said, “well, would you be willing to conduct an experiment?”
We needed extra money anyway to feed the five plus all of us that we didn’t have in the first place.
So I prayed and asked God, “we are weak, we are poor and we don’t have enough money, enough food, so would you really open up the windows of heaven.”
I said, “just give God a couple of days.”
Now our backporch is pretty large and on Thursday somebody brought over a lot of fresh vegetables, a big supply.
There was enough there to solve the problem.
But on Saturday, somebody brought over not only a supply of fresh vegetables, three or four times as many as we already had, but they brought all these canned goods.
There was so much in the way of food on the porch that we had a crisis to know what to do with it.
I was rushing around giving it away, the. freshest stuff to neighbors.
We had so much in the way of canned goods that we still had some of it two years later.
The weight is on God.
The success is God’s kingdom. It is God’s work so I keep giving back to him the work that I have to do.
I must do it in the sense I don’t have the power to do it, I don’t have the strength, I don’t have the resources, but I have a God who has unlimited resources and I will believe him.
Jack Miller, A Son Meets With His Father
In talking to the public prosecutor’s wife in the hotel, she said, “I go to All Saints Church. What church do you go to?”
I said, “Well, I go to “All Sinners”.
And she said, “You must have a large parish!” I said, “Well, that’s true.”
When you’re out there, they’re my people, and they’re getting converted, and God is working with them, and they’re developing the gifts of the Spirit.
So, when you approach them, and say, “Now look, in one sense you’re under the wrath of God, and in another sense, His love is over you, beckoning you to the cross.
And, that love is speaking to you. God loved the world, and His message to you is ‘come and embrace the Son of God.”
And then I would say, “But if you don’t enter into that love, those same hands which reach out to you, they’ll turn you in to hell.
And, if you can hold your finger in a candle for 15 seconds, you’d be a brave man. Try it. Do it for a minute, do it for 5.
And, some of you here, do not know that body and soul will be plunged into a burning lake of fire, forever, and I weep for you, I weep for you.
Come to Jesus now, flee from the wrath to come, and embrace the love that’s over you.
Christ has taken that lake of fire, it’s been poured on Him on Calvary. will you not come.”
And, they come. They come.
Somebody said “You scare them to death.”
Yeah! That’s one of my aims. I’m out there to scare them to death before they scare me to death. Scare them to life, scare the death out of them. We scare the hell out the them.
Really, that’s true! There was hell in them, and it needed to be scared, a holy scaring was in order.
And, I think some of our people need a holy scaring, too.
And yet, within that framework of love so immeasurable that we cannot describe it, that our tongues must just sometimes cease as we think of the wonder of that divine love which was reaching out to us in the very counsels of eternity.
Jack Miller, 1980 Ministers Conference with Henry Crobindom, Part 3
When I used to teach preaching at Westminster Seminary, it was a very humbling experience to teach preaching to young men.
Probably there are humbling experiences that are greater than that, but I can’t remember any offhand.
My wife could tell how bad or how good the sermons were by the way my face looked when I came home in the evening.
If they had been good, I was really happy and relaxed, and if I came in just dragging, she’d say, “It was pretty bad, huh?”
But, one thing I would try to do with the fellows after I’d worked with them a while, I’d would go over the tape with them.
I couldn’t get this through to them before they preached, no way. They knew how to do it, there was nothing I could say.
But after they preached, with some of them I’d insist we listen to the tape.
Sometimes, I’d make them listen to it two or three times, and it was an ordeal for both of us.
But, one thing I would do, they would almost always pray at the end, and I would run the tape through about five minutes, and then I would run it through fast to where they prayed, and have them listen to the difference in tone.
It was almost as though there were two different people. The man
who prayed was not the man who preached. The real man only came
out when they prayed.
I said, “Brother, you have something wrong here. What’s the difference? In the one you’re standing before God, in the other you’re standing before people.”
That’s a pretty good technique. You might tape your own message and listen to that to see if you’re standing before people too much.
You see, the effect of standing before God is to break you.
You know where you are.
Jack Miller, 1980 Ministers Conference with Henry Crobindom
I remember, when I was teaching seminary, a student came to me one
day, and he said to me, “Would you help me with my sermon outline?”
He looked really depressed; seminary students ordinarily do look
depressed, but he looked especially depressed.
He was going forth with one of his works of righteousness and he was fearful it wasn’t going to work, and he wanted to talk about the outline.
Well, there wasn’t much problem with the outline, we worked on it a bit.
But, I said, “Now, what’s really bothering you?”
He says, “What really bothers me is when I get up and preach, I freeze up. I really am not myself, I’m not free. I’d like to be more natural and really love people, but I’m very conscious of myself. What do you suggest?”
I said, “Well, tell me, how do you pray before you preach?”
And he said, “I sit up there on the chair before the pastor introduces me, and I kind of look down and I pray to myself. Actually, it freezes me up more.”
I said, “Well, praying to your navel probably will do that, the Buddhists have been doing it for a long time, and I’ve not seen a lot of spiritual life there.
Why don’t you do this?
Look at the congregation, and then, claim John 3:16 as a promise.
Look at them instead of looking down, look at the people, and ask God to take you into that promise of His love through His people.
Say to yourself, “For God so loved the world”, these are sinners redeemed from the world, or being redeemed, some of them may not be redeemed.
Great love, deep, wide, unsearchable, that’s God’s attitude. Then, ask God to give you that attitude towards them. And then, you just go ahead by faith and love them.”
So, I saw him Monday morning, and he carne back and his feet were about that far off the ground. He just didn’t touch the ground anywhere as he carne walking in.
I said, “Well, how did it go?”
And he said, “My wife said, I couldn’t recognize you. You were a different person.”
And, that’s what you’re really doing in praying, really. You’re taking into your heart the promises of God, the gospel, and then, asking God to give you different eyes.
Sometimes, as far as the world is concerned, what you are doing would always be viewed as small, but as far as God is concerned it isn’t small.
I remember one time, I was calling, and I was sitting in California
doing door to door visitation, and I met this lady.
She was, I think, 86, and when I greeted her at the door, she was a little shy in welcoming me, but I had the feeling she was a Christian.
She didn’t invite me in, and so finally, I asked if I could come in, and she said no. It turned out later that she didn’t want a man in the house with her because she just didn’t think it was right.
I appreciated that shyness, but never thought about somebody 86 years old having a problem! She wanted to protect her reputation. So, I sent one of the ladies over from the church.
Finally, I got in and started ministering to her. I thought she really needed help. I found she was doing something that was typical, often, of people when they get really old. They kind of give up, even noble, sweet Christians.
In this case, she had. She wasn’t feeding herself properly. The woman from our church that came over to visit her discovered this.
So, we began to take some meals to her and get her re-oriented and get the neighbors to help with her a bit.
I asked the neighbors about her. They were very much impressed by the quality of her life.
I was talking to her one day, after I got to know her, and I said, “Why are you not eating properly? Is there some reason?”
Well she says, “Yes, I’d just like to go home to be with the Lord. I don’t feel much enthusiasm for being in this world anymore. I really don’t have any place.”
And I told her, “I think that is very grave sin.”
Something like that, I may have been a little more tactful than that, it was a long time ago. It didn’t take me long to get down to the point with her.
She was shocked that I would think this.
And I said, “Yes, because God has put you in this neighborhood for a purpose, and the neighbors all know why.”
I said, “I asked them, ‘what does she contribute to you?’ and they said, ‘well, there’s no one in our neighborhood who has her joy. ‘”
I said, “Do you want to put out that light in this neighborhood that Christ has turned on here?”
She was really shocked. It brought her right back into the real world.
I did it deliberately, to wake her up. I thought we were going to lose her.
Then, she was able to return to her normal joy after repentance.
That might seem like a small thing, but all those neighbors had this awareness of what she could give.
She couldn’t cook meals anymore. She couldn’t help the poor. She couldn’t do anything that she might like to do.
She couldn’t care for her family, her children, grandchildren, etc., but she had joy. That was a powerful thing, and they all had noticed it.
I would say the same thing for you and me.
If God is calling you into a ministry, just a humble joy is one the basic things He may give you, and that may be the only thing you have, but if you did have that, that would have in it converting power, it would magnetize people to Christ.
Excerpt from Leadership Training Series TEAM TRACK “Promises” by Dr. Jack Miller
This Christmas, our Christmas Eve Service (actually scheduled for Sunday evening, Dec. 22) was unexpectedly cancelled due to an auto accident knocking out the transformer that services our church facilities. During the last 13 years, I have made it a Christmas tradition at Hickory Grove to think about the gifts of Christmas from a Trinitarian perspective. Though we are not gathering for worship this evening, I desire to ask you once again, “What is the greatest gift God has given at Christmas?” Your pastor and friend, Mike Graham
Originally posted on grahamline:
Remember the Magic of Christmas?
I certainly do. One Christmas my fishing pole I received for Christmas disappeared. On another Christmas my train broke. And yet on another, I drove my cousins go-cart into a tree.
For years I searched for that fishing pole, hoping it would turn up, but could never find it. I had asked for a fishing pole for Christmas. Fishing poles are important in Bayou La Batre when you spend all your time after school and during the summer on or around the water.
Add to it that I could sell all the fish I caught, you can see why I wanted a fishing pole.
Entering the living room, I was really excited to discover my first ever fishing pole. It was sort of strange though. My new fishing pole from Santa looked exactly like my brothers old fishing pole from years before.
I wondered how…
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Christian (Passive or Alien) Righteousness from Philippians 3:1-9 preached on December 15, 2013
Behold! The Suffering Servant from Isaiah 42:1-4 preached on December 8, 2013
My Straying Heart
“Your anger is the problem! It is hard to work on other issues in the family until we deal with it”, said the expensive Christian counselor.
Below, I have posted an extended citation from How People Change by Paul Tripp and Tim Lane on my blog because it reminded me of a family counseling experience we had years ago.
As a family we needed help to work through behavioral problems. At the time, my wife had been homeschooling the kids. There was daily conflict that was increasingly difficult to manage. Regularly, I returned home, tired, wanting peace and rest, only to find myself in painful remediation, often conflict which I escalated by my handling of it.
It was effecting our entire family and marriage, and seemed to centered most on one of our children in particular, what psychologists sometimes call the “identified child or patient.”
Often the identified child or patient is not so much the problem as they are the most sensitive person in an already broken family system. It is common to identify this highly sensitive child/patient as the problem when in fact there is a deeper more hidden problem causing the one more sensitive to pressure in the system to act out.
In Family Systems Counseling (which I don’t know too much about), the identified child is more like a barometer sensitively measuring the pressure and strain in a family system.
After taking a battery of tests and providing some written history, my wife, my son and I, for the sake our family, attended our first counseling session.
Since the counselor was associated with our presbytery, I received a discount as a preacher. Instead of $150/hour we only had to pay $100/hour. Though he was supposedly one of the best, it was still expensive.
I was ambivalent going into our first counseling session.
As I recall, I was somewhat afraid my presbytery colleagues would discover what a mess our family was, that I was not all that good a parent or husband, now added to the personal struggles I’d already been open about, and these brothers, regretting having ordained me, would come to their senses, and I’d be out of a job.
On the other hand, I was glad to get help. Frankly, going in, I was fairly certain my wife and son were really the ones needing the help. I was sort of sacrificing myself for the family and our marriage for being willing to spend the money, to get “them” help, and to voluntarily attend to provide moral support. What a saint!
I wasn’t even at home when these conflicts normally originated, so it never occurred to me that I’d be central to the problem or solution.
But within 30 minutes of our first counseling session, the counselor, my wife and son had directly identified me as the culprit. It was like a police line up reversed where the innocent victim is identified by the guilty party with no one-way-glass for protection.
I was completely stunned, even more stunned that this supposedly Christian counselor gave this absurd strategy of redirection credence.
If I was angry, I had a reason to be angry. I had worked so hard at trying to control my anger. How could this be about me?
Being the good stoic I am, I could hardly get angry in that situation. It would just prove their point.
But inside I was seething and incredulous. “What! Has it suddenly become opposite day? Whether it is premeditated or not, how can this expensive Christian counselor not see what is going on. Is he an idiot? Can’t he see he is being played.”
Of course, having counseled others, and being the reasonable and humble person I am, I was ready-made with informed and nuanced biblical responses. Maintaining my composure, I played along with this now absurd and expensive counseling session while skillfully deflecting the misdirected shots at my heart.
But in my mind, I had already decided. I was especially angry at my wife who knew better and less so my child. “They know they were the problem! How could they turn on me, betray me even, when I’m trying to help them and our family?”
The expensive so-called counselor, he was finished! He obviously was overpaid and should know better than fall for such elementary avoidance and denial tactics.
Anger and martyrdom/self-pity often come in pairs. “Why do I need to pay someone if I am the problem. Fine, I will start dealing with my anger!”, I angrily announced, as if sanctification is really easy. “I’m the only one around here who says he’s sorry and really tries to change anyway!”
Reading this section in How People Change by Paul Tripp and Tim Lane triggered me to rethink about this event. I often blame others rather than looking into my own heart. Worse, blaming others also enables me to actively avoid looking inside. I was accusing my family of shifting blame to protect themselves while I was doing the same thing for self-protection.
Periodically, and recently, when we are going through some episodic marriage or family difficulties, someone will likely bring up the idea of getting counseling to help us sort through things since we are too close to it.
However, when counseling is suggested, there remains a cloud of skepticism; a qualified agreement with the caveat: “Is Dad/Mike going to dislike the counselor and quit like he did before?”
How do I react to the news that “I’m the problem”? Am I shocked, disappointed, offended, angry? Is it the last thing I want to hear? Do I partition blame between my children and wife sharing in little of it myself while justifying my sin? Is the last thing I want to admit that it is my fault?
Usually, I do not react well at all to the news that “I’m the problem.” What about you?
The Structure Of The Ten Commandments
“When we rightly identify the source of our problem, we are on our way to a solution that celebrates the grace of Christ. But we must first acknowledge that the problem is us! It is inside us, deep in the recesses of our hearts.
How do you react to this news? Are you shocked? Disappointed? Offended? Angry?
It’s certainly not what we want to hear. When I am impatient with my children, the last thing I want to admit is that it is my fault. I want to blame my child and justify my sin!
But if we don’t face our own sins, we will never get to the real solution. We will minimize the redeeming love of Father, Son, and Spirit or bypass it completely. This is deadly. There is nothing more serious!
The Bible says that my real problem is not psychological (low self-esteem or unmet needs), social (bad relationships and influences), historical (my past), or physiological (my body).
They are significant influences, but my real problem is spiritual (my straying heart and my need for Christ).
I have replaced Christ with something else, and as a consequence, my heart is hopeless and powerless. Its responses reflect its bondage to whatever it is serving instead of Christ. Ultimately, my real problem is a worship disorder.
The Law and the Heart
The Ten Commandments may not be where you would expect to find an emphasis on the centrality of the heart, but it is there if you look carefully. . . .
The first three commands focus on what or whom you worship. They command us to make the one true God our God, and condemn making a god of anything else.
The order of the commands is important, because the commands begin by focusing on our heart tendency toward idolatry.
That is why, in Deuteronomy 6:4—5, the centrality of worship is emphasized. These two verses capture the essence of the first three commands:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
The reason we fail to keep commands 4 through 10 is because we have failed to keep the first three. If you break commands 1 through 3, you will break commands 4 through 10.
Your Thorny, sinful responses to life grow out of a heart that has defected to worship something else.
. . .
Look at commands 4—10. Why did the Israelites so often fail to keep them? Why do you and I fail to keep them?
Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath. At the heart of the fourth commandment is the call to honor and obey God in your worship, work, and rest. But when commands 1—3 are broken, I worship and serve
myself and use my time for my own self-interest. I make work my god and define myself through my career. I elevate personal peace and comfort above God.
Commandment 5: Honor your father and your mother. At the heart of the fifth commandment is the call to honor and obey God by respecting those in authority. But when commands 1—3 are broken, my will and honor become primary.
Commandment 6: Do not murder. At the heart of the sixth commandment is the call to honor and obey God by loving, serving, and forgiving others. But when commands 1—3 are broken, I demand to be loved and served by others. When I am wronged, I demand revenge.
Commandment 7: Do not commit adultery. At the heart of the seventh commandment is a call to honor and obey God by remaining sexually pure and by keeping my promises to others. But when commands 1—3 are broken, my pleasures rule.
Commandment 8: Do not steal. At the heart of the eighth commandment is the call to honor and obey God by freely and joyfully sharing my resources with others. But when commands 1—3 are broken, I want things for myself.
Commandment 9: Do not bear false witness. At the heart of the ninth commandment is a call to honor and obey God by speaking truthfully, in ways that build others up. But when commands 1—3 are broken, my words are used to make me look good and you look bad.
Commandment 10: Do not covet. At the heart of the tenth commandment is the call to honor and obey God by rejoicing in the blessings of others. But when commands 1—3 are broken, I want what you have, and I don’t want you to have it.
The structure of the Ten Commandments teaches us that we fail to keep commands 4—10 because something has gone wrong inside us. We wrap our hearts around something other than the living God and we believe the lie that without it, life is meaningless.”
Lane, Timothy S.; Paul David Tripp (2008-05-01). How People Change (Kindle Locations 2631-2699). New Growth Press. Kindle Edition.
Phil 2:5-11 — The Wounds Of God
preached at Hickory Grove Church, PCA on November 24, 2013