The American Way by Ben Gatton

Proverbs 3:5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

One of my favorite things about teaching social studies in high school was helping students see that history was far more than a collection of dates and facts. When you study a people group’s history, you begin to understand their psychology, culture, and motivations at a much deeper level. That’s because, more than we often realize, the history of our people and the events they experienced, ends up heavily influencing what we think and what we value.

American history is full of the fight for independence. We see it in the first settlers and Pilgrims breaking away from oppression in Europe in search of freedom, the Founding Fathers bravely fighting for our country’s own autonomy, pioneers pushing farther and farther west to forge a new life for their family, prospectors seeking financial independence through the dream of gold and silver, or titans of industry inventing new ways to accomplish our goals. We value the cowboy spirit, self-reliance,  and picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  It’s the American Way.

While there is nothing wrong with those values, and they certainly have their place in our lives, God is calling us into something deeper and more fulfilling. He is calling us out of independence into dependence on Him.

This is a very difficult struggle for me, and it might be for you as well. It is embarrassing to admit how long I will struggle to figure something out on my own before I think about praying and seeking God’s guidance.
The desire to lean on our own understanding is written deeply into our DNA. But God has so much more for us if we are willing to trust Him and submit to Him.

Are you ready to admit today that the Creator of the universe has a better handle on things than you do? How can you place your trust in God Today? How can you submit YOUR plans to Him?

Forgiveness of Others

Colossians 3:13-14
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 

It’s Monday.  Chances are, this week you are going to be required to spend time, either personally or professionally, with someone who grates your nerves or someone who has hurt you in the past.  It can be easy for us to go into these relationships with cold shoulders and our guards up.
However, you are one of God’s chosen people. You are considered holy and dearly loved by the One who created the universe.  So pray that the Holy Spirit will clothe you with the virtues of Jesus.  It is not something we can will ourselves to do.  It takes place as the Holy Spirit transforms us to be more like Christ. (That’s called sanctification in theological terms).

So when you are confronted with that relationship this week, don’t stress or dwell on the past.  Pray that you will have the love of God strengthened in your spirit to “bear with each other and forgive one another.”  When we do this, others notice. It is a way that God’s Kingdom is built in our ordinary lives because people know that in our own strength, forgiveness and patience are often impossible.  But with God, all things are possible and living out His love points others to Christ!

Your Part in God’s Kingdom

Haggai 2:1-9  (NLT)

Then on October 17 of that same year, the Lord sent another message through the prophet Haggai: “Say this to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Jeshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of God’s people there in the land:  ‘Does anyone remember this house—this Temple—in its former splendor? How, in comparison, does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all! But now the Lord says: Be strong, Zerubbabel. Be strong, Jeshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people still left in the land. And now get to work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. My Spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be afraid.’

“For this is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: In just a little while I will again shake the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the dry land.  I will shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will be brought to this Temple. I will fill this place with glory, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. The future glory of this Temple will be greater than its past glory, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. And in this place I will bring peace. I, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, have spoken!”

Today’s scripture takes place one month after the text we discussed in the sermon yesterday.  It was one month after the Israelites repented, got their priorities straight, and started rebuilding the temple.

Unfortunately, only one month after this spiritual mountaintop experience everyone is depressed. Has that ever happened to you?

The Israelites were being obedient and building God’s temple, but it was pretty terrible looking. Some of the oldest members of the group could still remember the beautiful temple Solomon had built on the site before the Babylonians destroyed it. Solomon’s temple had been a true marvel of the ancient world, the envy of kingdoms everywhere. This temple….well, let’s just say it wasn’t anything to write home about.

So God very lovingly steps in and reminds them that He is with them. Then He shares with them the ultimate vision of how He is going to bring salvation and freedom to the entire world through things that happen in this city. He shares how, in the future, He is going to create a New Jerusalem in God’s Kingdom where people from every nationality will worship God together. Even though they can’t see it, God sees their obedience and the results of their labor as a beautiful part of the redemptive story He is creating.

That is how it is for us also on most days. We may feel what we have to offer is not much.  Or maybe our talents even seem pretty poor in comparison to others we may know.  But if we get stuck in this we are missing the point.

God has given you talents, gifts, time, and energy He wants you to use to build His Kingdom. No matter how small or large a part you might play, we are all working together to do God’s work in this world and in our community. Remember that God is with you, and that is all you need.

Now get to work!

Oil And Water

 

Matthew 6:24

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

My son Samuel is fascinated with science experiments right now.  He is also young enough that the things that are normal occurrences to us, cause his mouth to drop in wonder. The other day I poured some olive oil into a glass of water so he could see how no matter how hard you try, oil and water never mix. They always separate and remain completely incompatible.

The same is true of worry and trusting God. They are completely incompatible.  When I worry about money, that directly means that I am not trusting in God to take care of me.  When I worry about my kids, that means I am dwelling on worst case scenarios in my mind instead of giving my concerns to God in prayer.  With most things we are subtly making the choice to trust ourselves (which always leads to worry and anxiety) or to trust God (which requires us to let go).  Jesus says in Matthew 6 that no one can serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and money, neither can we serve both God and fear.

Take your worries to the feet of Jesus.  Keep taking them them there until you are able to leave them. That is how we begin the process of moving from worry into trust.

Priorities

Matthew 6:19-21

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 One thing that I remember about my sophomore year of college is that it was the first time in my life I truly felt overwhelmed and stressed out. I hadn’t yet learned to manage my time wisely so I agreed to take an active (and often leadership role) in every extracurricular and ministry opportunity that came my way. I also had a very busy course load, which was, of course, the reason I was there.

I will never forget getting my final grade for my class on the New Testament book of Acts that semester.  It was a C – .  I wasn’t used to getting grades like, especially in my Bible and Theology classes.  I quickly realized what had happened.  I let my priorities get out of focus.  Even though I was using my time for good things, I had lost site of the reason I was there in the first place – my degree.

As we discussed in yesterday’s sermon this can happen very easily in our spiritual lives as well.  God should be the very first priority in our lives.  He created us, He gives us our purposes, and what could be more valuable in this universe than experiencing HIs love?  Yet we all know how easy it is to let priorities slip, to lose sight of the reason you are even here in the first place.

It is a good practice to evaluate your heart and your motives often. Are you looking to the approval of others more than the approval of God?   Are you finding your treasure in earthly, rather than Kingdom things? Do you find yourself more prone to anxiety or prayer?

These simple questions help us notice when we are putting other priorities first. Don’t get bogged down by guilt, just make a course-correction. Sometimes that means saying “no” to some perfectly reasonable things and sometimes that means seeking God’s guidance on very serious matters in your life instead of trying to figure it out yourself. Either way, follow Jesus’ advice and put the Kingdom first so that everything else can work itself out.

New Self

 

Ephesians 4:22-24

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

There was a great moment in Larry Myer’s Sunday school class this week where our conversation drifted toward talking about how we had experienced God’s light and love in this church when we didn’t necessarily expect to. We are blessed to have such a wonderful church and church family, and I believe Sparta UMC is truly a light in the darkness of this world.

When we embrace a life of following Jesus, God is making us into a new self. It is what we were created to be all along! This year allow the Holy Spirit to recreate you and make you more like God in righteousness and holiness each day. This is how we shine our light in this world. All of us going through this process together, as a church community, is how others will experience God’s love and light when they walk through our doors.

So, take a look at your heart. What vestiges of your old life are still hanging on? Which parts of your “old self” still need to be cast off? Allow the Holy Spirit to begin that work in your heart anew today, so that your light can shine brightly!

A New Heart

 

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” Ezekiel 11:19

If you spend any time reading the Old Testament you will find that the Israelites mess up quite a bit. It seems like on every page they are finding some new way to ignore God’s commands, place their trust in worldly things, and succumb to the temptations of greed and pride. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  

One of the messages that God continually gives His people through the prophets is that their problem isn’t their ability to follow the laws, the problem is their hearts. The prophet Jeremiah pulled no punches in his description of human’s hearts when he says, ““The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? (17:9 NLT)”.  You are probably aware of your own heart’s capacity to desire terrible things.

Sometimes it can even feel like your heart is as heavy and as cold as stone.

Good News! One of the promises of new beginnings that we are looking at this week is a beautiful promise written in the book of Ezekiel.  God loves new beginnings, and He desires to see us with new and transformed hearts. Since we are so fortunate to live in the time after the New Testament we can read this promise in Ezekiel with the perspective of Jesus in Mind.

It is through Jesus God makes our hearts new and undivided, full of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is through the redemptive work of Christ that our stone-cold hearts can be recreated into the type of heart God desired for us all along.

 

So if your heart is feeling a little cold, and a little more stone-like than flesh-like at the start of this year- it is time to turn it over to Jesus. Let him begin the process of making your heart look more like his each and every day.

A New Song

“He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him” — Psalm 40:3

We decided that since it seemed like many of you have been reading the daily devotionals and enjoying them, that we would keep them going. We will continue with the goal to post them every day and pray that they will help you as you grow closer to God in this new year.

New Year’s Day is actually one of my favorite holidays of the year, I love fresh starts and new beginnings.  I look forward to that feeling of hope and anticipation that comes at the start of the new calendar year. The Bible has a lot to say about new beginnings as well, in fact it is the themes of new beginnings, new creation, and resurrection that bring us hope as followers of Jesus.

As you start your new year, before you create a resolution or make any plans, take some time to pray. Take some time to give this year to God and to devote yourself to listening to how God wants you to spend your time this year. Whether 2016 was difficult, wonderful, or somewhere in between for you, ask God to put a new song in your mouth. A song that brings Him glory and puts your focus on Him instead of yourself. I can’t think of a better way to start the journey of a year.

 

Happy New Year!

Peace on Earth by Ben Gatton

Today’s Scripture Reading

Luke 2:1-20
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Today’s Devotional Thought

The angels proclaim peace on earth to the shepherds in the field, Isaiah tells us that one of Jesus’ titles is “Prince of Peace” and that His government and its peace will never end.

It all sounds wonderful, but as I write this the cease fire has broken down in Aleppo and many who were about to escape are finding themselves trapped. There are reports of soldiers going door to door executing innocent civilians. Hard to imagine that is actually happening on the other side of the world as I sit comfortably at my desk. But it is.

This whole year has been full of riots, protests, division, and unnecessary death. It can be a difficult time to preach that God is actively working to restore this world and reconcile it to Him when it seems the narrative of current events proclaims the opposite.  One of my favorite Christmas songs is a hymn that comes from a poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in the middle of the American Civil War. It has a famous line that rings true of the human experience and the doubts we can sometimes feel:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.”

It is a moment of honest often missing from Christmas music. But the conclusion of the song is one of the most powerful:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

No matter what is going on in your life this Christmas, no matter what situation is taking place in the world that has troubled you to the core, remember this: God is not asleep. These things are not a surprise to Him and He has not forgotten you. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. We are called to place our hope in God, especially when the world is at its most dark, that His justice and His peace will prevail just as He promised. Most often, we are called to carry God’s light into the dark places of this world so that peace, hope, and love can abound.

I have found that when I am feeling the most down about the darkness in the world, that is usually a sign that it is time for me to get outside myself, stop the pity party, and go find some way to bring light into the darkness with the time God has given me here. I encourage you to do the same as well!
 

Light of the World by Pastor Bob Miller

Today’s Scripture Reading

Matthew 5: 14-16

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Today’s Devotional Reading
Absolutely incredible.  Just think about it for a moment if you will.  In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying that He is the light of the world and in Matthew’s Gospel He says that we, you and I , are the light of the world.  This is not two different teachings but one in the same for those who follow Jesus as his disciples. For he goes on to say in John that “whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

In the sermon on the mount Jesus is teaching His followers and there again He tells us that we are the light of the world. He goes on to say that  we are “to let our light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.“  One in the same: Christ is the light of the world and because He lives in us we are the light of the world.

Friends, there is darkness all around us.  There is darkness when someone is cold and hungry, naked and sick, in prison or down and out.  There is darkness when someone is sick and suffering and the darkness of pain and loneliness when death has taken a loved one from us.  You don’t have too look far to find darkness.

Last night I was outside with my dogs and I was so amazed by just how bright the night was.  I looked up and there was this big beautiful full moon.  It was light shining in the darkness.  If you have ever been to our home at night you know just how dark it is when the moon is not bight and the stars aren’t out.  Yet when the moon is bright and the stars are out it is an entirely different matter.  That is how the world is when it comes to Jesus and those who follow him.  Our light changes everything.  Let your light shine in the darkness.