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Tuesday
Feb072017

Connecting to the Source of Life

John 15:1-8.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on February 5, 2017.

Our mission statement, here at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, is: Connecting people to the Abundant Life found in Jesus.  This is a brief and succinct way of saying what our Lord has told us to do.  Connections are a big part of what God is trying to do in this world.  Yet, these connections must be more than just a natural thing.  This all starts with making a spiritual connection to the ultimate, spiritual source of life that is found in Jesus.

In our passage today, Jesus uses a picture of a vine and its branches to help us understand the reality of both an outward connection and a inward connection.  It is not enough to just look like you are connected.  A branch can be physically connected to the tree and yet not be drawing life from it.  So it is imperative that we hear the Spirit of God calling us to a living connection.  Calling us with the words, “Come!   Let him who thirsts come.  Whoever desires let him take the water of life freely.”

Jesus is the true vine

Let’s look at verses 1-3 first.  Jesus describes the metaphor and identifies what each part signifies.  Jesus is the true vine.  His disciples are the branches that are connected to him.  The Father is the gardener who is tending to the branches of the vine in order that it might bear more fruit.  Jesus doesn’t explain how they became branches connected to him.  So let’s flesh that out a bit.

How does one get to be a branch connected to Jesus?  John 3:16 becomes a good starting point.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son that whoever believes on Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”  Thus the connection begins with belief in Jesus (Faith, Trust).  Do you trust that the work of Jesus on the cross covers your sin?  And, do you trust that following him as your master will lead to eternal life?  If you do then the Spirit of God connects you to Christ by taking up residence within you.  John 1:12-13 also says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”  Thus when the reality of who Jesus is comes to us, we must receive Him as He is, God’s Son.  Still, our spiritual birth is a spiritual thing, not a natural thing.  No one becomes connected to Jesus because they were born in a particular family or of a particular race.  We must individually believe in Him.  Lastly Romans 11 tells us that God grafts us into the olive tree, which is Jesus, so that we can partake in the life of the tree and its roots.  So we have a part in receiving the Truth that God gives us about Jesus and believing Him enough to follow Him.  God does the spiritual part of connecting us spiritually to Jesus.

Notice that Jesus calls himself the “true” vine.  He doesn’t say anything more about that in the rest of the passage, and so we might miss its significance.  If there is a true vine then it implies that there has been a false vine or many false vines.  The presence of a false vine had been promising life, but had actually delivered spiritual death to the religious leaders of Israel.  They had been tempted to connect to something other than the One, True God.  Of course, on the surface it looked like they were.  But that was only a superficial connection.  Their true spiritual connection was to the ways of the world, to the devil himself.  This is our human predicament.  We tend to connect to all manner of things that we hope will bring us life, but they never satisfy.  Jesus is the true vine that will actually deliver on the life that it promises.  He is not a pretender.

In verse 2 we are told that the Father prunes the branches because He wants them to be fruitful.  So what is this fruit that God desires?  Just as Jesus is a life giving vine, so God wants us to be life giving branches.  The fruit represents that which gives life.  Galatians 5 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit of God in our life is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.  But it also says that the fruit of my own flesh and connection with this world is: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  Then Paul says, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  So there is a certain amount of cutting that happens in the life of a follower of Jesus who is spiritually connected to Him.  They will be pruned so that they can be more fruitful.  Pruning always starts with cutting off the dead stuff.  It stresses the tree and robs it of strength to grow more fruit.  Pruning also cuts off perfectly good twigs.  This is done because sunlight and oxygen have trouble hitting all parts of the tree.  We can complain with things that God removes from our life, but He does so for our own good; that we might be a fruitful branch.

A Connection to Him gives Life

Verses 4-8 give us a better picture of what it means to draw life from Jesus and it begins with a command.  It is not enough to connect to Jesus for a moment or temporarily.  We must abide in Him.  That word is also translated as “remain,” or “dwell.”  Jesus needs to become the source that we are hoping to draw life from.  And, in those times when we are tempted to find another source, we must resist the urge to move.  It doesn’t work to “try” Jesus for a week, a month, a year, or decade.  We must remain in Him and keep drawing into ourselves the life that He is supplying.  So the temptation comes from our flesh and the world around us to disconnect from Jesus and to connect to the so-called life of this world.  But in the end it only leads to death.  This is what Adam and Eve faced.  They were living in connection to God.  It wasn’t just superficial.  He was their very life.  But one day the devil comes as the serpent and tempts them to connect to something else.  You can’t have both.  To connect with the wisdom of the devil is to automatically disconnect from the wisdom of God.  And thus, death entered the world.

In verse 5 Jesus makes it clear that producing any real fruit is impossible without Him.  Some people’s lives look very fruitful because they are making money and living the high life.  But, that is not good fruit that gives life.  You can accomplish all manner of things without Jesus, but none of them will satisfy your soul and give you a life that is so powerful that it is eternal.  Fruitfulness that is recognized by God is only accomplished by following Jesus and nothing else.

In verses 6 and 7 we are reminded again that the connection must be a living connection.  There must be life flowing from Jesus to us.  Now this part of the passage can be seen as each branch being an individual person.  From time to time God cuts off those who have remained in His Church but are only pretending a connection to Him.  They refuse to draw life from Him by trusting the way of Jesus.  However, it is also true that God goes through our life from time to time and asks us to surrender particular areas of growth that may not be bad in and of themselves.  But, they must be removed if we are to be fruitful.  So Jesus points to His Word remaining in us as a further description of Him living in us.  When we hear the Word of God it is speaking to us about what should be cut off and what should be encouraged to grow.  The Holy Spirit also convicts us in our hearts to surrender in trust to the words of Jesus.  In these moments we either draw life from Christ or we harden our heart towards his life.  The enemy of our souls seeks to make us question God’s Word and quit trusting, believing it.  This is what he did with Adam and Eve.  “Did God really say…”  Always, he seeks to break that living connection that we have with the Spirit of God.

Lastly in verses 7-8 Jesus speaks to the area of prayer.  He points out that our prayers are affected by this connection.  The disciples were often amazed at the power of Jesus’ prayers.  For our prayers to be answered we must have a living connection with God.  That living connection is maintained by hearing and putting our trust in it.  Yes, it is important to obey God’s word, but we must do more than that.  We must obey out of a trust in God himself and all that He says.  Now some people try to take this passage to mean that you can have anything you want if you are connected to Jesus.  But, don’t forget that a living connection to Jesus will change what your heart desires.  At least it will cause the things of God to rise to the top.  When you are trusting in Jesus you aren’t praying from the desires of your flesh.  Instead you are praying from a heart and life that has learned the wisdom of God’s pruning.  Even in our prayer life, God is trying to teach us how to prune our own prayers.  Do you want your prayers to be fruitful?  Then learn to pray in accordance with the Spirit of God, rather than the lusts of your flesh.  Our lives can bring glory to God when we trust Him and prayerfully ask His help in this life.

I pray that you have made that connection to Jesus.  But if you haven’t don’t let another day go by without letting go of the false vine of this world and the false life that it promises.  Take hold of eternal life today by putting your faith in Jesus.  Then start drawing life from Him immediately by entering into a trusting relationship with Him.

Connecting audio

Thursday
Jan122017

The Heart of a Righteous Person

Psalm 4:1-8.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on January 08, 2017.

I want to look at this Psalm today in order to hear the heart of those righteous individuals who have gone before us.  It is easy to look at our modern technology and think that those believers before us have nothing to teach us.  However, this is a foolish idea.  If you take time to read about the righteous men and women of the Bible, you will find yourself being filled with encouragement, sometimes.  On the other hand, you may also find yourself being discouraged because you feel that you don’t measure up to them.  We can feel disqualified because we are not as good as they were.  Let me just take a moment to remind you that throughout the Bible we are shown the physical, emotional, and spiritual weaknesses of those who were called righteous.  They were not perfect individuals.  In fact, they sometimes failed God and disobeyed Him, only to have God’s discipline teach them wisdom.  They were just like you and I in their hearts.  But they learned that God could be trusted despite how difficult their situations became.  As we read this Psalm, I pray our hearts will be encouraged by what we hear.

They are moved to talk with God

Modern though likes to say that prayer was a part of our evolution.  When we were knuckle-dragging, cave-people, we were ignorant and afraid of the elements surrounding us.  Thus natural selection elevated those who developed a belief in a higher power.  This made them bolder and fearless.  To those who are so persuaded, a belief and praying to God is no longer necessary.  Our technology is quickly conquering the world around us.  We are now the higher power for which we have always longed.  Of course the Bible directly contradicts such modern conjectures.  We were not created in ignorance and insecurity.  Mankind began in a special relationship with the Creator Himself.  God taught the first pair to tend a garden that He had prepared for them.  Thus man was not at the mercy of the elements originally.  It was a result of their sin and the fractured relationship with the Creator that led man to a scary, fearful place.  Though this relationship has been adversely affected, we are still able to connect with the Creator through prayer because we were designed for communication with Him from the beginning.  Thus this psalm began as a prayer of David to the One who created us.

In verse 1 David asks the Lord to hear his cry.  He is clearly in a desperate situation, and desperate situations have a way of forcing us to get real with God.  A righteous person will not be content to go through a mere ritual of religion.  When push comes to push, they will cry out to God with a passion that is not generally present when things are going easy.  In Isaiah 64:7, the prophet complains that there is “no one who calls on Your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of You.”  Notice Isaiah’s desperation.  He feels alone.  He is calling on God’s name and stirring himself up to take hold of God.  This is a picture of holding on to God and not letting go until He answers you.  I pray that you are not content with just going through the motions.  I pray that you have learned the importance of stirring yourself up and passionately interacting with God like David is doing here.  Don’t settle for a dead faith and dead religion.  God reveals Himself to those who take hold of Him and don’t let go.

We also see in verse 1 that David prays to “the God of my righteousness.”  He recognizes that God is the source of his righteousness.  Of course, everyone thinks they are righteous.  Sometimes people use religion to justify their wicked deeds (name a religion, people have used them all).  Other times people use intellectual justifications that rely upon faulty logic.  David had been taught the Word of God, and had done his best to live by it.  It is to this One who has revealed the Way that the Israelites should live that David is appealing.  Of course our relationship with God has received far more revelation since then.  God has revealed The Way that all peoples on the earth should live.  The righteous are not those who appear to do all the right things.  The righteous are those who know that God is the source of their righteousness.  Without Him we would be trapped in ignorance.  Without Him we would still be trapped by our sins.  It is God who enables us to do and be anything that can be called good.

David has a present need, but he says, “You have relieved me in my distress.”  During present perils, it is easy to lose hope.  However, the righteous will remember past mercies to themselves and to others.  That memory becomes proof of future help.  God helps those who trust Him.  The Bible is filled with testimonies of God’s mercy to those who trusted Him.  If we discount God’s mercy in their lives and in our own then we are not being fair to God.  God has done too much for us to doubt Him.  Yes, your flesh does want Him to do more or something greater, but that is like a kid demanding ice cream and claiming their parents haven’t given them enough.  It is an immature and childish accusation.  In fact, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate act of mercy that should shake any doubt to its core.  Our future is sure, even though our present shouts that it is not.  This is the blessing of the righteous.

They are moved to talk with men

Now let’s look at verses 2 and 3.  It is easy to disconnect and go silent towards those who reject God and His Ways.  However, the righteous are moved to talk with the wicked as well.  Sure there may come a time when there is nothing more to be said.  But that does not discount that something must be said.  The unbelieving need a proper witness to the truth by those who do believe.  Part of that witness is to question the actions of the unrighteous.  David asks, “How long…”  It is partly a plea to repent and turn back to God.  However, it is also a warning.  How long will God allow you to get away with your rejection of Him and doing your own thing without His judgment?  Just as today is the day of salvation, so today is the day to proclaim the salvation of the Lord.  It is too easy to say nothing to people and pretend that we are okay.  But, the righteous through the ages have not been silent to those around them, at least at first.   David proclaims that the ungodly turn “my glory into shame.”  They were doing so by slandering any good thing that David had done.  We see the same thing done to Jesus and the early Christians.  But David may have also meant that they were shaming God by what they were doing to David.  In Psalm 3:3 David calls God, “my Glory.”  Either way, it is true that we shame God when we unjustly attack one another.  David recognizes that the ungodly seek after idols.  They have quit seeking God and given up on any help from Him.  Instead they turn to false answers, false truths.  If they are not caused to reconsider how can they then be saved?  They simply can’t.

David then turns to remind the ungodly of the faithfulness of the Lord.  He puts the point to them.  What side do you want to be on?  God is going to answer me, and in so doing you will be dealt with (of course, unless you repent).  Christians must be a prophetic voice to the world around us that God has set the godly apart for himself.  He will answer them when they call.  Why would you not want to be a part of such a group?  Yet, those who resist God and even take their stand against Him and His people are fighting a losing battle.  There are many today who reject the Bible and the Creator.  They work to diminish their affect upon this nation and world.  No matter how successful the ungodly appear, God is on the side of the godly and will answer their cries.  He is going to come in judgment against the wicked and for the righteous.

They hold fast to the lessons learned

In verses 4 and 5 David rehearses within himself, and now shares with others who are struggling with keeping the faith, those things that had been handed down by the righteous of ages past.  It is important to keep walking the right path even when we are waiting upon God to hear our prayer and answer us.  Thus David says, “Be angry and sin not.”  When you are mistreated it is natural to become angry.  Anger is a powerful motivator to do something.  Much like a reservoir of water behind a dam, the passion of our anger can break forth like an uncontrollable wave of water from a collapsing dam, or it can be released in controlled form through the proper channel of a spill gate.   Notice that it is not a sin to be angry.  It is what we do with anger that often is sin.  Thus anger is dangerous.  If it is not properly controlled and funneled into proper channels of action, it becomes destructive sin.  These words are repeated in Ephesians 4:26, and Paul adds the admonishment, “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.”  The word translated “wrath” is talking about the ways in which anger turns into sin.  It starts internally with irritation, bitterness, exasperation, and vengefulness.  It then leads to the external action of sin.  Yes, there is much to be angry about in this world because there is much sin.  However, the believer must restrain themselves from the affect that anger can have on their fleshly heart, and funnel it into passionate prayer before God and a passionate witness before the ungodly.  That witness is both vocal and non-vocal, through the life of righteousness to which we faithfully cling.  We must walk the walk in the face of all threats against us, whether they come from others, or within ourselves.

David next reminds himself to Meditate.  The righteous build a habit of meditating on their life before God in private.  This is not the eastern form of meditation where one is trying to clear their mind of everything.  That kind of meditation only opens you up to spiritual deception.  Biblical meditation is to bring the issues of our life before God, think about what the Scriptures say, and to think about what God would have us do.  It lays all that before Him and asks for His Spirit’s leading.  All of this happens within our heart when we are alone.  Of course, this can be alone in the sense that it happens in your mind when no one is intruding.  However, David refers to his bed.  We need to seek out times alone, so that we can meditate before the Lord and grow in understanding.  Jesus often sought out times alone to pray before the Lord.

David then remembers, “Offer the sacrifices of righteousness.”  The righteous always continue in the religious service that God has asked of them and yet do not allow it to become only a form.  They refuse just to go through the motions without a real life of trust and faith backing it up.  Thus many times to do the right thing is itself a sacrifice.  Our flesh doesn’t want to do it, but we die to the desires of our flesh and live out the righteousness of God.  This is the sacrifice that is pleasing to God.

Lastly, David says, “Put your trust in the Lord.”  Ultimately the godly throughout history teach us that the only wise thing we can do is to put our trust in the Lord, even when it seems like He is silent.  It must be done even when it seems like He is letting the ungodly win.  We need each of these lessons in our life today.  It may not seem like much, and the devil will tell you it is not enough.  But, he knows that a person who does these things will become impervious to his assaults, and will ruin his work in the lives of others.

They are blessed by God

The psalm ends with recognition that the ungodly are often cynical about such a witness from the righteous.  “Who will show us anything good,” is actually a challenge.  The ungodly have been tempted into following the logic and the thing that brings them something they desire.  They have become enslaved by their fleshly desires.  This is a sad way to be.  Only God’s grace can break through such cynicism.  So, David recognizes that the righteous will continue to look to God.  The phrase, “the light of your countenance,” is an allusion to the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24-26.  There it says, “The LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”  This is a picture that God not only is aware, but He is looking upon us and His face is shining with good-will towards us, rather than a dark and stormy face of judgment.

This leads to the recognition that God gives gladness and joy to the righteous.  His truth tempers our immaturity and folly.  It fills us with the joy of knowing that God is more powerful and wise than anything that stands against us.  Thus, we cannot lose.  He is going to answer at the proper time.  So what makes you glad?  Is it bumper crops, which is basically economic increase?  If your joy is based on such temporary things, then you will be increasingly saddened and driven to leave God’s ways behind and forge your own path of success.  But, if you make relationship with God your joy, then you will never lack its presence in your heart, even when you are in the valley of the shadow of death.

Thus David talks about how the righteous are given peace and sleep in God’s safety.  God is our protector.  Why should we fear?  David says that he can sleep at night because God is what gives him peace and safety.  Though the world around us rages, we can be at peace as long as God is pleased.  Similarly, if the whole world is singing our praises, we dare not be at peace if God is unpleased with our life. 

The word translated “alone” in the last verse makes it sound like God is the only thing that makes David safe.  That is true of course.  But the word might better be translated in this way.  “In solitude, You, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  This reference to solitude is a reference to God’s place of safety, or refuge.  We always have such a place internally within our mind and heart.  We can enter into this refuge and commune with the Lord even in the presence of our enemies.  However, such a place of refuge is also literal at times.  David fled into the wilderness from Saul and there God gave him a refuge, and a place of solitude in which he was safe from Saul’s threats.  During that time God spoke to David and encouraged him, while David waited for God’s promises to come true.  God periodically gives us breaks from the onslaught of the battle in order to comfort and encourage us.  This is the blessing that the righteous have from the Lord.  May we live faithfully for Him to the end of our lives!

Heart of a righteous person audio

Sunday
Jan082017

A People Who Pray

Hebrews 4:14-16; James 5:14-16.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on January 01, 2017.

As we approach 2017, we have much to be thankful for, and yet we have much to be in prayer about.  The people of America are more and more turning away from Jesus and towards the answers of the world.  Some who say they are following Jesus are trying to walk the fence of following the world and Jesus at the same time.  When we look to the global scene, we see that the nations of the world seem primed for a great delusion.

It is important for Christians not to let these things wear down our desire to live for Christ.  In fact, it is for such a time as this that we are here.  One aspect of our duty to God is to be a people of prayer.  Now when I say this I do not mean that we should treat prayer like a cosmic, Amazon, wish list.  Though we can ask God for things, prayer is not about me getting everything that I want.  Another danger is to treat prayer as some kind of impersonal power or force that we can learn to wield.  We need to pray, but we also need to do so with proper understanding.

Prayer at its most elemental level is a child conversing with its father.  We must recognize who we are to God and who He is to us.  Though the world may look at Christians as weak, it really is a result of the commands we have from our Lord.  We are not to fight as the world fights and neither do we fight against the same things that the world fights against.  When Christians understand prayer as an amazing aspect of putting on the Armor of God, learning to wield the Sword of the Spirit, and walking in the Spirit, then we will find it to be one of our most powerful weapons against the devil and his plans.  Let’s choose to be a people of prayer today!

Come before the Throne of Grace

In the book of Hebrews the apostle is demonstrating the greatness of Jesus and what that means for us as His followers.  In Hebrews 4:14-16 we are given instruction on how the greatness of Christ opens the door for us to approach God’s throne.  It is interesting that he refers to God’s throne as a place of grace.  Earlier rabbis had recognized that God sometimes dispenses punishing judgments against people and nations, and at other times dispenses gifts of grace.  In their minds they theorized that there were two different thrones.  Your outcome depended upon which throne God was sitting on.  Early Christianity received revelation that made it clear this was not true.  In Jesus the Justice and Grace of God are satisfied in one place, one throne.  Ultimately it is a throne of grace because that is God’s intent; He wants to give grace to those who come before Him.  However, one must not be worthy of judgment to approach.  In Jesus, Christians have their judgment covered by the work of Jesus Christ.  We can walk into the fearful place of Justice and it is a safe place for us.  Christians must resist the temptation to split the justice and grace of God.  In fact it is common to focus on one to the detriment of the other.  Some highlight the grace of God to the effect that He would never judge anybody.  Others highlight the justice and righteousness of God to the effect that grace becomes non-existent.  Ours is an even more amazing message.  We can walk into the place that no man can walk, and the fearful judge will lovingly embrace us as His children.

This is why the apostle says that we should come “boldly,” or “with confidence.”  The Greek word that is translated here has the idea of “freedom of speech.”  When we enter into God’s presence through prayer, we do not have to measure our words, so as to avoid incurring the wrath of the Sovereign.  Instead, we are free to speak our hearts and minds before a loving Father.  Of course kids sometimes say dumb and even wrong things.  However, we are in a loving, safe relationship with a Father who is committed to helping us grow and mature spiritually.  Over time our prayer life will go from an infantile wish list to a far deeper intimate communication.  The devil does not want Christians praying.  Think of it as a kind of spiritual, First Amendment (AKA freedom of speech).  The devil cannot overturn this right that we have as followers of Christ.  So, how does he combat this?  He needs only to convince us to shut up, to self-censure ourselves.  He uses doubts and fears about God’s intent towards us, or even His existence, to get us to quit praying.  He sometimes uses brute force to intimidate people from believing God (I quit because it only gets me hurt).  He sometimes uses a seductive attack to get us so hungry for the things of this world that we never come to know God at all, and perhaps could walk away from Him.  Christians every day say things like this as they continue in prayerlessness:  “It does no good,” “I don’t have time,” “Something bad might happen,” or “That stuff isn’t real.”  Satan has a vested interest in discouraging prayer in your life.  But, Jesus gives us the confidence to talk with God.

Jesus is our high priest who properly mediates between us and God.  More than this, Jesus has been a man and was tempted in every way.  He knows how we feel and the difficulties we face.  The Father is not looking for ways to disqualify you and push you away.  He has gone to the cross in order to qualify you.  So, don’t let the enemy put the idea in your mind that God can’t understand how difficult it is to trust God in this world.  It was not easier for Jesus because he was God, it was actually harder.  Why would I say that?  I say that because all the things that discourage us in this world against faith would be harder for a “perfect” person.  When someone does me wrong, I get angry and may blame God.  But I am not a perfect person.  Perhaps God has allowed it because it is a discipline for me that I deserve.    It would be even harder for a perfect person to accept.  Jesus accepted the plan of the cross, and it was not easy for Him.  He knows how you feel.  For your own sake, go to Him in prayer.  No one cares for you like the Father in Heaven. 

The apostle mentions two reasons to come to the Throne of Grace:  to obtain mercy and to find grace to help in time of need.  Let’s look at mercy first.  Mercy is the remission and removal of what we deserve.  Some of the things that we suffer in life are at least partly our own fault.  It could seem spiritual to simply accept it and honor God by suffering.  However, this is not our instruction from God.  We are told to ask for mercy.  It doesn’t matter what you have done or how bad you have messed things up.  You can ask God for mercy.  In fact, salvation is a matter of asking God for mercy.  I do not deserve heaven.  My sins deserve separation from God and His goodness forever.  Yet, the prayer of repentance says, “God, I am sorry for following my sins.  I renounce them and ask for your mercy.”  Notice that it would be mercy for God to simply let us be his slaves.  But He goes above and beyond this and makes us His children.  Thus we can ask for mercy in our lives.  If God still asks us to suffer a situation, then we can yield to his decision and honor Him by what we suffer.

Grace on the other hand is the receiving of that which we don’t deserve.  We don’t merit it in any way, but God gives it anyways.  Yes, it may seem spiritual to be content with what you have and not ask for anything.  But that is not our instructions from God.  We can ask for those things that we think we need and would be beneficial.  Of course that will be a very different list as we mature from an infant spiritually to a mature believer.  If God tells me, “No,” regarding something I ask for then I can yield to His decision and trust that I don’t need it as badly as I think.  God in His sovereignty gives us things for which we did not ask.  However, He also leaves room for things that we must ask for if we are to have them.  Why?  He does so because He wants us to mature and become like our Lord, Jesus.

A righteous person prays

So now let’s go to James 5:14-16.  The main point I want to draw out of this is that a righteous person prays.  If I am lacking in prayer then I might look at this area of righteousness.  Being “righteous” in this passage cannot be talking about having our sins covered by Jesus.  All Christians, spiritually infants or mature, stand before God covered with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  We are all technically, absolutely righteous.  However, in this passage is the hypothetical case of a Christian who is sick because of sin in their life and need the prayer of a righteous man to deliver them.  It is my belief that the word “righteous” here refers to the fact that this believer has no issues of sin that are between them and God.  The righteous believer is not perfect and without sin.  However, they are properly dealing with any areas of sin by first resisting temptation, and second quickly confessing sin if they fail.  1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sin, that the Lord is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  This verse has been called the Christian’s bar of soap.  Many believers who are living a life of prayerlessness do so because they have areas of sin in their life that they are trying to hide.  God in His mercy is working to bring us to maturity.  When we are like Adam and Eve, hiding in the Garden full of shame, He comes out after us.  So all Christian communities need mature, righteous individuals who are in a position to pray for and help other believers.  In fact, even they need other mature believers around them.  None of us can stand on our own.   We need others who will pray with us, and at times for us.

James brings up the issue of sickness.  He actually starts with a person who is simply sick.  Most likely they have prayed for healing and nothing has happened.  At some point they should ask the elders to pray for them.  Let me just say that one thing is clear in this passage.  A righteous person prays for healing when people are sick.  There are some who believe that God does not heal any more.  There are various reasons for believing this.  But all of them are woefully lacking in the face of Scripture.  It is patently not true.  In their minds it is a mark of spiritual maturity to not ask for healing and suffer for Jesus.  I do not want to deride this idea because sometimes God does ask us to suffer something for His glory.  Yet, their default position is that there is no healing.  We are instructed in this passage that if we are sick, we should call for the elders (presumably righteous believers) to pray for us.  Of course God is not required to heal anybody.  But it is not our job to determine whether God will heal someone.  It is our “job” to simply be a child and come before the Father with a request.  Then we trust His answer.  Take note that if there is no immediate healing, it may not be a, “No.”  It could just be a, “Not yet.”  Still we operate in faith.  We ask because we believe He can heal, and may do so.  We wait in faith because we know that, as Sovereign, He gets to pick the time and way it is done.  We accept His final answer because we know that our reward and inheritance are far much more than this world.

James adds another dimension to the hypothetical situation.  He says that it is possible the sick person has sin in their life that is the reason for their sickness.  Sin is not just an issue for the lost.  It continues to be a daily issue for the believer.  Unconfessed sin will always be a barrier between us and God.  I am not saying that a Christian can lose their salvation.  What I am saying is that sin affects our communication and relationship with the Father.  It can even affect how He responds to our prayers.  In 1 Peter 3:7, husbands are told to dwell with their wives in understanding and honor them.  Peter then adds, “so that your prayers will not be hindered.”  So even the sins of how we treat one another can become barriers to our prayers.  Yes, God hears our prayers, but in a sense He is saying, “I want you to deal with this sin first, before I consider these other requests.”  The requests are unable to be dealt with.  Now confession is ultimately between man and God.  But when our sin is against other people then God tells us to make it right with them first (if that is still possible).  Even then, there are times when private sins become such a stronghold in our life and such a barrier between us and God that we need to confess to spiritually mature people.  Confession has a way of breaking those chains and giving us an accountability partner.  Notice that confession is not to a particular office in the church.  Confession can be to any Christian, but it is most effect when to a spiritually mature believer, regardless of whether they have an official title or not.  Thus a righteous person prays for forgiveness when people have sinned.  In fact, they are more able to do so because they have been praying for their own forgiveness and keeping short accounts with God.

We will close with the last part of verse 16.  “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”  This phrase is a bit tricky to translate.  There is one word that often is translated as “effectual, fervent.”  This one word has the sense of that which is working, thus the word “effectual.”  When we think of prayer working, we typically think of getting what we ask.  However, the meaning is not so simple here.  The emphasis is on the fact that prayer is something that is real and is accomplishing a real work when a righteous person prays.  This interaction with God has more to do with God accepting the prayer than it does with Him giving us exactly what we ask for.  The prayer of a righteous person is not hindered, but is getting through to God.  God is not refusing to hear the prayer, until they deal with sin.  He is hearing the prayer and giving it consideration.  Such prayer is powerful because the One receiving it is able to do above and beyond anything we ask.  A righteous person sometimes gets an answer from God that is essentially, “Not yet.”  They may even get the answer, “No.  My grace is enough for you.” This verse is reminding us how powerful the prayer of a righteous person can be.  It is as powerful as the God to whom we pray, which is omnipotent.  Much of a righteous person’s spiritual walk is in this relationship of prayer, and discovery of the heart of God.  An immature child stomps their feet demanding exactly what they ask for.  A mature person draws closer to the Father to discover what it is He is concerned about.  May we be a people of prayer.  But even more, may we pray those prayers as a righteous person who is maturing in their relationship with the Lord.

A People Who Pray audio

Tuesday
Mar012016

Prayer and Temptation

Luke 22:39-46.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on February 28, 2016.

If the cross is the visible, public trial of Jesus then here we see the private trial in which he wrestles with God over the things before him.  Ultimately Jesus gives us a key to facing trials and temptations, and that key is prayer.  Without prayer we are unprepared for them, no matter how strongly our spirit wants to please the Lord.  Peter is very determined to stand with the Lord, but will fail in the time of trial.  Jesus is not just praying for himself.  He is also teaching his disciples a lesson in temptation and overcoming the flesh.  It is also a glimpse of the agony involved in saving mankind.  Rebellious humanity can be saved, but only at great cost to God Himself.

Pray About Temptations

In verses 39 through 41 the scene transitions from the upper room inside Jerusalem to a garden outside of Jerusalem.  Judas is off to betray Jesus, so we only have Jesus and the eleven going across the shallow valley east of Jerusalem.  There they enter the Garden of Gethsemane, which is near the bottom of the Mount of Olives.  He knows he is about to be arrested and is very clearly picking the ground upon which it will happen.  It is important to recognize that Jesus gives them the command to pray.

Jesus is not running away or trying to hide.  We see this in the words “as he was accustomed.”  Jesus could have snuck out of the city and kept going.  However, he stops and spends time praying while his betrayer marshals troops to come after him.  Jesus goes where Judas would know to find him.  They had spent time there and it had become a part of their routine, especially in this last week.

Jesus also tells them why they should pray.  Somehow it will enable them to avoid temptation.  The terminology is actually the idea of entering into temptation.  Temptation itself is merely a trial or a test in which we are tempted to choose something other than God’s will.  There is nothing wrong with praying to avoid such tests.  However, some tests cannot be avoided.  Thus we need to pray also that we will not give in to those temptations or fail the test.  The Bible refers to this as falling.  It is as if you are walking the way of the Lord and something trips you up and causes you to fall down.  We also have some further description in the other Gospels.  Jesus tells them that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  So when we take time to pray about the temptations and trials that we see ahead of us, it can enable us to overcome the weakness of our flesh.  Peter’s strong declaration of faithfulness to Jesus becomes the perfect illustration of this.  There is no reason to think Peter is lying.  He really does want to be the kind of disciple that would stick with Jesus even when everyone else leaves.  Yet, in the crush of the trial his flesh is unable to stand up.  Jesus is showing us that our lack of prayer and wrestling with God over the temptations of life keeps us spiritually weak.

Another aspect of prayer is that Jesus clearly wanted some people to pray with him.  Sometimes you need people close in prayer and sometimes you need to get alone.  This passage gives us a bit of both.  Luke’s account here is somewhat short.  But the other Gospels tell us that Jesus left 8 of the disciples in one area and then went a distance away with Peter, James, and John.  He even then separated a little further from them.  Thus they are close enough to hear him praying but not right next to him.  When you are facing difficult trials the sense of being alone can become overwhelming.  Having people who will not only pray for us, but also with us is imperative.  Make sure that you have friends who will pray for you and with you.  Yet, some things are so deep and so personal that we need to get alone with God.  In fact, Jesus often went off by himself to spend time in prayer.  This seems to be a mixture of both.  He wants to get alone in prayer and yet he needs them to pray with him.  May God help us to learn how to come alongside of a brother or sister in prayer when they are going through difficult circumstances and hard trials.  You don’t have to force yourself upon them.  Simply let them know that you are there for them in whatever they need.

The Lord Leads The Way

At verse 42 we get a glimpse into the prayer of Jesus.  He is our pattern and template for faithfully serving God.  So this prayer and others are important to understand.  First we see Jesus asking to avoid the cross.  The magnitude of what lies ahead weighs heavy upon the humanity (i.e. the flesh) of Jesus.  As the eternal Son of God he has already agreed to this and is just as committed as the Father.  Yet, here he is in the flesh about to go through with it and his flesh is pulling back away from it.  Now he must reaffirm the commitment in his humanity.  His time has come.  He knows that God will allow him to be taken and killed.  There are moments in life in which we face a particular decision.  Regardless of how we choose, we will then be caught up in a series of events that we can’t control.  The die is cast.  This is that moment for Jesus.  If he runs he can avoid it.  But if he stays here they will catch him.  Of course this is no gamble, but control of how this will end up is being surrendered.  Once he is arrested the human side of Jesus will have no escape short of God’s intervention.  Such heavy laden decisions must be approached with spiritual fear and trembling.  Lord help us to learn to pray in such a way that we are able to discover his will and surrender our flesh to it.

Though the flesh of Jesus is pulling away, it is not greater than his desire to do God’s will.  Specifically he is here to save mankind.  In Hebrews 12:2, speaking of Jesus, says, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  He knew the end game and how important it was.  He knew what would be lost if he didn’t and what would be won if he did.  Jesus was not obligated by anything but his own love for us.  May this image remind you in your own times of doubt that the Lord loves you with an everlasting love that is willing to suffer the depths of sorrow in order to reclaim you.

At this point God strengthens Jesus by an angel.  This also happened at the beginning of his ministry when he was fasting for 40 days and the devil tested him.  Here as well as there, Jesus is in need of physical strengthening.  I do not believe the angel is strengthening the resolve or faith of Jesus.  But rather, the angel is enabling his physical body and physical psyche to endure the stress of the situation.  We do not realize how much our lack of knowledge about things in our life is a blessing.  It is a blessing because it enables us to live with peace.  If we understood completely what lay ahead of us we would most likely not eat or sleep.  Yet, in those moments when harsh realities set upon us and we become fully aware, God has many means of providing strength for us.  In fact, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in such times.  We see Jesus agonizing over the coming contest with severe mental and physical struggle.  This only causes him to pray more earnestly.  Our flesh tends to give up on prayer when we become overstressed.  Yet, it is important to pray more earnestly in these times.  We don’t have to be desperate, although we sometimes are.  Jesus can identify with the agony that we endure in such times.  He can empathize with what hangs over you.  In fact, because He has already overcome the world, we can rejoice.  We have hope that just as God brought Him through, so He will bring us through too.

Jesus is not the only one who is stressed here.  The disciples are exhausted from stress, lack of sleep, and sorrow.  Jesus had to wake them several times calling them back to pray.  I do not believe this is just because they didn’t want to pray.  Stress and sorrow can overwhelm a person so much that they physically shut down.  I am not excusing them, so much as pointing out the issues involved.  Some can even get to a point where they are barely able to function.  We must learn to recognize the spiritual danger around us before we get so low.  Does the Lord understand our lack of strength?  Yes, and he even empathizes with us.  Yet, before his arrest, he makes sure that these words would be stuck in his disciples’ hearts.  “Pray lest you enter into temptations.”  Prayer is far more important than we realize.  Sure we must put feet and hands to our prayers.  But don’t thing that your faith will survive the trials of this life without it, whether from yourself or others in your life who love you.

Prayer and Temptation Audio