How to Kill the Christmas Spirit

The message of Christmas is simple: God loved us, so He sent His son to us. We’re celebrating His birthday.

Ways to celebrate this gift to us are many, and bring peace and joy to us, knowing that God loves us. We can spend time with those we love. We can spend time with those that need love. We can give gifts to show our love.

And then there are horrible ways to honor this gift. Here’s a sample from today’s news:

Focus on the shopping. Shopping is war.

Shopping is war.

The battle is not just among the jostling crowds at the sale bins and cash registers in these pre-Christmas days; it is also between warring factions of our own brains, some economists and neuroscientists say.

Recent studies suggest that each buying decision plays out in the brain as a fight between a pleasure center seeking the bliss of acquisition and an aversion center seeking to avoid the pain of paying.

Waste money on consumerism. With so many needy people around the world, lining up a day before Christmas to overpay for a limited-edition set of sneakers is a complete waste of time and money. Before you spend $2000 trying to get something that moths and rust will destroy, try to imagine how many low-cost sneakers you could buy for the millions of people in this world that have no shoes.

Criticize Santa. Criticize parents for lying to their children instead of nurturing imagination in children.

Vandalize a nativity scene. It’s a sad commentary that churches have to outfit baby Jesus with a GPS to catch petty thieves trying to ruin Christmas for others.

It’s easy to kill the Christmas spirit, but in doing so, you miss the gift that was meant for you.

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I Believe Too

God bless Joellen Murphy for her ministry. Joellen Murphy is putting together a campaign to counter atheist messages at Christmastime.

Atheists in the nation’s capitol have been campaigning to get Americans to doubt God’s existence this Christmas, but one Christian woman is standing up against their efforts.

Joellen Murphy had been praying for a chance to evangelize when she received an email about atheist advertisements showing up on the sides of metro buses in Washington.

God loves you
God loves you

Visit her website at Ibelievetoo.org for complete details.

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Christian Carnival CCLIV

I could call this the “Day After Trying to Recover From What Might Have Been a Minor Flu Edition,” but I won’t. Christmas Season and Flu Season accompany each other every year, like Hansel and Gretel, or Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. I had just enough aches and pains to baby myself to prevent a flu… heck, enough of the excuses. Instead of posting the Christian Carnival last night, I took some Nyquil and went to bed at 8pm.

Feeling good today, and ready to roll. And whoa, there are a lot of submissions this week. Here’s the 254th Christian Carnival in reverse submittal order-

Vickie Sloderbeck presents How to Be a Sidetracked Mom posted at Sidetracked Moms. Apparently this takes instruction.
🙂

Jeremy Pierce presents Bob Jones and Race posted at Parableman. A reflection on some Christians’ resistance to Bob Jones University’s repentance on the race issue.

Jody Neufeld presents Wanted: an Available Tool in the Hand of God posted at Jody’s Devotionals. Have you considered the story of the widow who gave her all and what that might mean in your life?

Henry Neufeld presents Stories in a Chronological Context posted at Participatory Bible Study Blog. Sometimes we behave as though the Bible consists of nothing but God’s interventions. Perhaps we ought to consider the time that passes between our favorite stories as well.

A Sower presents Solomon- God’s Greatest Disappointment? posted at A Sower’s Heart. What can we learn from Solomon’s life?

Minister Mamie L. Pack presents Open Confessions posted at The Life I Now Live. A beautiful study of a transparent life.

Tiffany Partin presents Five Bucks and a Piece of Tin Foil posted at Fathom Deep: Sounding the Depths of God. A simple gift, 2 opposite reactions. This is the season to offer help to those who really need it.

A. Lee presents Edvard Munch : the Man behind the Scream ~ Biography posted at e Art Fair .com. What does Munch have to do with Christianity, you might ask. Everything, I’d like to answer. Munch comes from a strictly religious upbringing and this influence has permeated his art.

In a post entitled God’s arrival in Jerusalem, Weekend Fisher traces an Old Testament prophecy of God’s arrival in Jerusalem back to when God’s arrival was first announced: “Prepare the way of the LORD”. These are among the words which Mark uses to open his gospel. WF considers the possibility that Mark considered Jesus to be the LORD spoken of in the prophecy. Read the article at Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength.

Vickie Sloderbeck presents Some Thoughts on Why I Homeschool My Children posted at Sidetracked Moms. Good thoughts on the benefits of homeschooling. Yeah, I know it’s a second entry from this blog, but if I can post the carnival a day late, then Vickie can have 2 posts.
🙂

Drew Tatusko presents the great emergence from abundance posted at Notes From Off Center. God’s grace is a gift that extends beyond any contingencies in which the cause and effect of life finds all people. This includes death itself. Because God’s grace is not contingent on what happens in the world in which we live, God must deserve thanks at every point in time and history. A more fitting alternative is to say either that God simply must not exist, or at least the God who gives the gift of grace to all, for all, and forever must not be real.

Allen Scott presents Living in the Land of Denial posted at Journey Across the Sky. Many people live their lives in a state of denial. An altered state of reality you could say. A place where, in their opinion, everything is as it should be, but those around them hold to a different viewpoint.

Mike Weaver presents Will I Ever Finish? posted at COURAGE FOR TODAY. Lessons I have learned in my Christian walk with the Lord, this time about procrastination.

Mike Weaver presents Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue posted at COURAGE FOR TODAY. Lessons I have learned from my Christian walk with the Lord, this time about my grandmother’s Christmas tree.

Richard H. Anderson presents Date of the Crucifixion according to Luke posted at dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos.

Raffi Shahinian presents 7 Christian Clichés…Re-appropriated posted at parables of a prodigal world. Bite-sized morsels of Christianity.

Gil presents Matachines posted at gilocafe. Soldiers of the Virgin dance in her honor.

Jennifer in OR presents Christmas Music: Annie Moses Band! posted at Diary of 1. Contemporary and Classical mix of Christmas music.

ChristianPF presents What the Bible says about this economic downturn posted at Christian Personal Finance Blog. A look at what the Bible says about the economy and what we should be doing now.

ChrisB presents A Concordance as a Devotional posted at Homeward Bound. Even the “begats” can teach us something important with just a little work.

MBB presents Christmas Shopping Credit Tips posted at Money Blue Book Blog.

Stephen Miracle presents Christmas Charity: Giving This Holiday Season posted at Inspirational Articles @ AltNoise.net. It might be harder to give this Christmas season, but it gives us the perfect opportunity to help those in need. It will no longer be automated action, but something actually coming from your heart.

FMF presents Free Money Finance: The Fuel to Feed the Fire posted at Free Money Finance. You can turn your financial life around if God is with you.

Rodney Olsen presents The Bishop of Harare posted at RodneyOlsen.net. Christians in Zimbabwe are suffering persecution. What would the church be doing to stand beside our brothers and sisters?

Henry T (Hank) Imler presents Objections to Calvinism Part 8 of 5 posted at Think Wink.. Does the New Testament discuss Limited Atonement?

Henry M Imler presents Seeking One’s Own Glory posted at Theology for the Masses. God’s glory, which is God’s own being, is God’s love.

Tom Fuerst presents Culture, Theology and Gender posted at Theology for the Masses. The traditional role of women in the home and church versus secular feminism.

Johnny and Kate Brooks presents Hey! You’ve got my nose! posted at Pure Christianity. Way back, we all came from the same family.

The 253rd edition from last week, the Advent (Conspiracy) Edition CCLIII, can be found at “Parables of a Prodigal World.”
http://www.parablesofaprodigalworld.com/2008/12/christian-carnival-ccliii-advent.html
You know you’re itching to submit an article. You can do so with the Christian Carnival Submission form http://blogcarnival.com/bc/submit_1551.html

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We Are the Message

Candle of Loreto
Image by Loci Lenar via Flickr

I’ve discovered the secret to time travel, and have successfully traveled into the future. I’m still doing it – at the rate of 1 second per second. I can’t seem to go any faster or slower.

It amazes me that Thanksgiving has been over for more than a week, and Christmas will be here and gone in a blink. I’m sure time moved slower when I was a kid. The time between December 24 and December 25 was at least a week.

Our Christian life changes over time. The Christian faith we had last year and the year before that should sanctify over time and draw us closer to the Lord. How many remember the day that you gave your life to Christ?

Most of us will fall into one of two groups. For some of us, including me, we gave our life to Christ as an adult. Christ changed our lives abruptly and we became new creatures in Him. Others became Christians as a child or a teenager; lifestyles changed little. I should have been in that last group; I was exposed to Jesus at a very young age and never turned my back to Him. But repentance requires more than that – I also never turned my face toward Him. I did my own thing, not His.

So now my time travel is limited to retrospection. What decisions, good and bad, have I made, and how they steered my life. Only one decision steered my afterlife. A young pastor noticed something – I was coming to church every week, but there was no fruit of my faith. Attendance every week is not fruit, it’s fertilizer that helps us grow.

I can look back with thankfulness for that pastor that devoted a couple of hours a week to me, making sure my faith was laid on a biblical foundation. And I can look back over the last 10 years and thank the Lord for His work in my life. Today, we’re going to look at 1 Thessalonians 1, new believers in Christ, who became wonderful example of Christians.

Paul was on his second missionary journey at this time, during the time in Acts 16-21. Around the year 51, Paul and Silas left Antioch, picked up Timothy in the town of Lystra, through Philippi. Paul and Silas are thrown in prison for their prison but freed by an earthquake. They travel to Thessalonica where Paul teaches in the synagogue for three weeks. The Jews stirred up trouble and then at night, Paul and Silas slipped away to Berea and began teaching in the synagogue there. The Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul to Berea and stirred up trouble. Paul leaves from Corinth and meets Pricilla and Aquila. Over the next 2 years while in Corinth, Paul writes two letters to the Thessalonians to encourage those he had to leave because of persecution.

So that’s our situation; Paul is in Corinth, encouraging new believers in Thessalonica. From the two letters Paul sent, we know a lot about Paul’s feelings. For one thing, he’ saddened he’s unable to return to Thessalonica, and later, Paul would send Timothy back to them to minister to them. Timothy later returned and brought a letter back to Paul.

The letter Timothy brought back concerned Paul. The persecution in Thessalonica had not ended, and the early church there needed encouragement to stand firm. Also, the enemies of the truth were spreading lies about Paul, claiming that Paul was only traveling to make money and build up his reputation. The enemies also claimed that Paul had stirred up the trouble and then fled, leaving the early converts duped into facing the consequences alone. Paul’s letters defended his actions and his integrity, encouraged the new church, preached against paganism that was creeping back into Thessalonica. He also taught them on several topics, including their reputation outside of the church, to love each other, to work diligently, and discussed the end times when Jesus returns, and then teaches them about the fundamentals of Christian living.

There. We finished 1st and 2nd Thessalonians 2 months early. Any questions? Actually, for such a short chapter, there’s a lot of information here. Let’s go a little deeper. 1 Thessalonians 1:1-4 –

Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.

We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,

Paul expresses thanksgiving to the Thessalonians for the gospel in their lives and gives thanks to God. There are 10 verses in 1 Thessalonians 1, and Paul mentions God 7 times. Have you ever had anybody thank you for your faith? Do you give thanks to others for their faith? This is worthy of reflection when you consider the work of Jesus in your life.

Paul addresses this letter to the church of Thessalonica; the Greek word used is “ekklesia” and means a gathering of people called for a purpose. So Paul is letting the Thessalonians they have a purpose and that God has called them. Every church is called for a purpose, and every church has both a physical address and a spiritual address. Physically, the church was located in Thessalonica. Spiritually, the church was located in God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Those last four words, “our Lord Jesus Christ,” are beautiful together. “Our” reminds us that we have a uniquely personal relationship with God. “Lord” shows He is the ruler of our lives and our submission to His authority. “Jesus” reflects that God became one of us and reflects His humanity. “Christ” is our savior, the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies that He came to save us for all eternity. “Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul encourages the church by letting them know he prays for them daily, giving thanks to God. Because of their faith, their work was evident. Because of their love, their labor was evident. And because of their hope, the early Thessalonian church was able to endure the persecution. This is why Paul gives thanks – these are new believers, yet their faith and their love, their hope and endurance was evident. Paul will tell us in a moment why all these are important.

Verse 4 tells the Christian brothers that they are loved and chosen by God. The credit for the existence of the Thessalonica church, and our church, too, belongs entirely to God, not to us. I think as believers in Christ we often take our salvation for granted, as though because we chose to become baptized that we have done a great thing in ensuring our eternal life. But our salvation is not something we earn by our choice, is it? Our salvation is a gift, and God chooses us first. While we make a decision to follow Christ, it is God who first calls us while we are still sinners. We do nothing to deserve salvation. That’s why Paul opens his letter with “grace and peace to you.” Grace is a uniquely Christian concept that God has shown us favor, even though we have done nothing to deserve it. On the contrary, we deserve judgment. But because of God’s grace, we have peace. God has called us and our salvation is secure in Him.

The Thessalonians were new believers, and Paul gave thanks for them. Not only that, it appears Paul had a daily prayer list that included praying for these new believers. This calling of new believers by God is the purpose He has set for us. Paul gave thanks because he could see the “work of faith”, the “labor of love,” the “endurance inspired by hope” in their lives. If somebody examined our lives, will they see the same? What evidence of our faith and love will others find if they examine our lives?
Many people hear the good news yet still refuse to accept Christ. The Holy Spirit does the work of convicting and converting, and Paul encourages the Thessalonians to respond to the Holy Spirit in their lives in 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6 –

because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

The gospel Paul preached follows a specific order. First, the gospel comes to us with words. Faith is useless without knowing why we have faith. Then comes power, the ability to do something. When people hear and accept the good news, lives change. Then Paul mentions the Holy Spirit, God’s gift of Himself to every believer. When the Word of God and the Spirit of God meet in the life of a believer, there is joy and assurance that he or she has freedom from the bondage of sin and is now a child of God.

Notice how Paul encourages the Thessalonians to be imitators of the Lord, but also of himself. We are to be like Christ in our growth as Christians. Paul often asks people of faith to imitate him. In first Corinthians 11:1, he says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Ask yourself if you are a good imitator of Christ. Do you have the confidence of Paul? Can you imitate his transparency? If you don’t, why not? Can we be confident that our lives are so Christ-like that we would ask somebody to imitate us? What keeps us from this sort of confidence?

This is an important question because if we are not good imitators of Christ, then we are poor witnesses on His behalf. A good imitator of Christ is a good witness for Christ. We know Paul was a good witness, both by words and by action. The Thessalonians, in turn, became good witnesses despite persecution. They understood that their faith in Jesus Christ might mean temporary suffering but eternal joy. Instead of being embarrassed or hiding their faith, the Thessalonians instead welcomed the message with the joy from the Holy Spirit.

It’s just as important today to be joyful for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as it was for the Thessalonians. Just like the Thessalonians, we can worship every week with our church, read the scriptures, thank the Lord for the gifts in our lives, and pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so we make good decisions. As a result of their faith, the Thessalonians became influential in spreading Christianity. Look at verses 7-10 –

And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Do you see the cycle of evangelism? First, Paul shared his faith by both word and action to the Thessalonians. The Thessalonians imitated Paul, and then shared their faith by both words and actions. The Thessalonians became an example of joyful Christian living to the Macedonians in northern Greece. The Macedonians, in turn, influenced new believers at least 200 miles away in Achaia in the southern part of Greece. Paul says their reputation has become known everywhere.

Paul called the Thessalonians to be like Christ, and offered his own life as an example to them. The Thessalonians, in turn, were an example to the Macedonians. And so on through the centuries, until you, too, heard the word of God and saw it modeled in someone else. The word Paul used for “example” literally translated meant the mark left by a hammer when making a coin. *Stamp*. You have an original that made an imprint, and now you have another just like it. In John 20:25, Thomas says he that unless he sees the imprint of the nails in the hands of Jesus, he would not believe. The word John uses for “imprint” is the same word Paul uses for example. *Stamp* We are to be just like Jesus. Jesus tells us (Matthew 5:48) that we are to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Like a coin made from a hammer, we are to bear the imprint of Christ.

The lifestyle of the Thessalonians provide an example to us today. Verse 9 and 10 summarize the lifestyle of a truly effective Christian in 5 points –

1. Repentence. They turned to God from idols. A saved life, a life in Christ, always begins with a deliberate decision to answer God’s call. A Christian turns from the negative and to the positive. This is repentance. Repentance is a deliberate change to turn from sinful ways and to face the living God. The Thessalonians turned from their lives of idol worship and to a life of faith.

2. Serving. They have a new master. Before, they were slaves to their sin. Slaves to power, to money, to self, to pleasure. Now they are willing slaves to Christ. The Thessalonians serve the living and true God.

3. Goal. They have a new hope. The Thessalonians wait for His Son to come from Heaven. When will this day be? We don’t know. Jesus says it will come like a thief in the night, and we won’t know until it is here. But we are to live every day, every hour, as though Jesus was coming today. If Jesus returned today, are you ready? Paul ends every chapter of 1st Thessalonians with a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus.

4. Foundation. They have a firm foundation. The Thessalonians were secure in their faith that Jesus was raised from the dead, that He was resurrected in accordance with thousands of years of prophecy. Jesus conquered sin, He conquered death for us. The gospel is the good news that we have eternal life with Him, and He really does have that power.

5. And finally, the fear of God. The Thessalonians were well aware of their sin, and that perfect judgment on sinful humanity before an all-powerful God means that by all rights the wrath of God should be poured out on us. God hates sin. The only reason God does not turn his righteous anger against us is because of his love for us. Only Jesus can rescue us. For that we are thankful and saved from His wrath.

Paul tells the Thessalonians that their lives are showing the cycle of evangelism that Christ calls us to live. First, everything begins with Christ, our perfect example. Second, Paul and missionaries such as Silas and Timothy imitated the behavior of Christ and spread the gospel. Third, the Thessalonians modeled their lives after Paul. Fourth, the new Christians throughout Macedonia followed the example of the Thessalonians.

Where are you in this cycle? What about your reputation? You’ve accepted Christ, and you live in a circle of influence. By your words and by your actions, you influence your spouse, your kids or your parents, your brothers and sisters, your friends and coworkers. If your reputation got back to you, what would it say about you?

Here’s a questionnaire on the last 3 verses of 1 Thessalonians 1. I want you to think about these questions. Wherever you are in your walk with Christ, you should be able to answer these questions to yourself. If you have an answer to these questions you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it. After all, everybody in this class is an example to me and if you tell me your answer, I can imitate you.

1. The evidence this week that I “serve the living and true God” is:

2. I demonstrate to myself that I “wait for His Son from heaven” by:

3. People can tell I believe God “raised Jesus from the dead” because:

4. Someone I know that needs to be rescued “from the coming wrath” is:

We are God’s message. God’s Word tells us who He is, but it is by our words and actions that others come to know Him. Everybody in here has a story of somebody that shared their love of God. We have all been evangelized. But we cannot keep this Good News to ourselves. The cycle is only complete when the evangelized becomes the evangelist. We do this through thanksgiving, through prayer, through encouragement. Like the Thessalonians, we demonstrate our works of faith, our labor of love, and our steadfastness of hope. We look back with thankfulness that the Holy Spirit and the gospel’s power changed our lives.

Are you waiting confidently for Christ’s return? Are you living a life that is a testimony to God’s grace and miraculous transformation of your life? Is your life “the message”?

Let’s offer thanks and praise that it is.

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Happy Halloween

Halloween icon
Image via Wikipedia

When I was a child, I celebrated Halloween. I didn’t care for the gory and gruesome stuff. I didn’t even care for the scary stuff. I thought the costumes were fun, and I loved the candy.

As an adult, I see more evil in the world thatn I’d like to admit. Today in the news, a woman beats her own 4 year old daughter, calls her a slut, and throws her into traffic. I’m horrified, daily.

Way too many movies glorifying death, destruction, dismembered limbs for my taste. Saw V? Eeps, the poster enough gives me the heebie-jeebies. Scary is good – I liked the old Hitchcock movies, and M. Night Shyamalan‘s movies have great apprehension in them without the gore and killings. And I like movies where things explode as much as the next guy.

But I’ve had enough of the dismembered bodies, the celebration of evil over good. And the last several years, I’ve seen Halloween become such a celebration. I’m not going to participate anymore.

So the lights at my home will be off tonight. Come back at Christmas when we can share joy and love instead.

Have a *happy* Halloween for a change.

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Almost Persuaded

JUDAEA, Herodians. Herod Antipas. 4 BCE-39 CE....Image via Wikipedia I almost made coffee last week.

I’m a cheerful riser. Happy to talk and visit, happy to greet the new day. I’m almost always in a good mood first thing in the morning. But my brain isn’t exactly working at full speed. I need a routine to follow in the morning or I do goofy things.

And a week ago, when Diane and I came back from a little festival near Brenham, we came in the back patio and something spelled wonderful. Like fresh ground, vanilla roasted coffee beans. See, early that Saturday morning, Diane was still asleep, and I tried to do two things simultaneously first thing in the morning. I tried to walk our dog, Bella, and I tried to make coffee.

The coffee maker has a grinder on top, so I got the bag of beans out of the freezer, and put them in the top of the grinder. Yum, vanilla roasted beans, my favorite. Then I put the bag back, and put in just enough water to make a half a pot of coffee. Then I pushed the start button.

Now it’s time to get Bella. I get the leash out just as the coffee grinder starts grinding, clip the leash to her collar, and step outside… and I can still hear the grinder. It’s grinding a whole lot longer than I expected. Suddenly I realize I forgot to turn this little knob on the front of the machine, and it’s grinding enough beans for a whole pot of coffee. And this will be combined with a half pot of water and be some very strong coffee indeed. I come rushing back inside, tell Bella to stay by the front door, and find the off button on the coffee maker. Whew.

Ok, I can still save this pot of coffee. I don’t know how much beans have been grounded, but I can restart the brewing cycle without further grinding. Push this button, turn off the grinder… ok, I think I got it. Push the button to start brewing. Go back, get Bella who is very confused about this walk so far, and walk out the front door.

But something doesn’t seem right to me. I can hear the gurgling from the brew cycle starting, but something’s not right. And it dawns on me I forgot to put a filter in the coffee machine. And the next most reasonable thing for me to do in my cheerful and completely inept morning state is… to pull the filter basket out to look to see what’s inside.

Which dribbles hot coffee sludge, a mix of hot water and soggy coffee grounds down the front of the kitchen cabinet. I… put my hand under the basket to keep from dripping on the floor… hot! Hot! Hot! I push the basket back in.

Ok brain, try to get it together. Ok, first, unplug the coffee pot. I’m still creating hot coffee sludge. Open the back door. Pull the basket out *and* the coffee pot simultaneously, carry them both outside. Find some lucky plant that wants some vanilla fertilizer, dump the whole mess out.

Where was I? Oh yeah. I was walking the dog. Later that day, after the sun had been out and we came back from our festival, our patio had that lovely, vanilla-roasted coffee fertilizer smell. Diane asked me what it was, and I said… “Look! A dragonfly!”

I almost made coffee that morning. But you know, “almost coffee” isn’t good enough to drink. Lot’s of things aren’t good enough if they’re “almost” right. Skydiving, for example. Skydiving “almost” done right sounds horrible.

And this week, we’re going to look at another example of “almost” good enough. We’re studying Acts 24-26 this week, and let’s setup the situation. First, Paul is in jail. Again. Seems the last few weeks, Paul’s always in jail. Why is he in jail this time? Well, we have to go all the way back to Acts 21 and Paul is in Jerusalem. Paul is speaking at the temple, and some Jews stirred up the crowd, the crowd mobs Paul and begins to beat him with the intent to kill him. This mob attracted the Roman troops in the city who came down to see what the fuss was all about. When the Roman troops showed up, the crowd, of course, stopped beating Paul, and the Roman commander has Paul arrested. He asks Paul what all the rioting is about, and Paul says, “well, let me show you; may I speak?” Then in Acts 22, he stands in front of the temple and gives his testimony to the crowd, and the crowd erupts again.

And then, oddly, the Roman commander orders that Paul be arrested and flogged to find out why the people were yelling at him. Just before they flog him, Paul asks them if it’s legal to flog a Roman citizen. Alarmed, the commander withdraws and decides that perhaps beating a Roman citizen isn’t such a good idea.

By Acts 23, the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees decide that if the Romans aren’t going to kill him, they will. They ask the Roman commander to setup a meeting with Paul on the pretext of gathering information, but secretly they’re arranging an ambush. Paul’s nephew gets wind of the plot and tells the Roman commander who has had enough of all this rioting and plotting. He decides to transfer Paul to Caesarea with 200 Roman soldiers to protect him.

The commander also writes a letter to the Governor of Cesarea, Governor Felix. It basically says, “Governor, I can’t find anything this man did wrong. But because there is a plot against him, I’m sending him to you and ordering his accusers to present their case to you.”

Everybody up to speed? We’re in Acts 24, in front of Governor Felix, along with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and a whole bunch of lawyers. The lawyers present their case first; Acts 24:5-8, they say,

“We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”

It’s like the Olsteen trial all over again. Anyway, Paul gives his defense, saying that even his accusers know he’s done nothing wrong. At the end of Acts 24, we find that Felix is a piece of work. He knows Paul is innocent, and he’s even interested in Christianity, but what he’s really interested in is money. He wants Paul to give him a bribe. Paul spends two years in prison teaching about righteousness, self-control, and judgment, and at the end of two years, Felix leaves him there.

He’s succeeded by Festus in Acts 25, and in Acts 25:13, Festus gets a visitor, King Herod Agrippa II and his sister Bernice. King Herod Agrippa II is the grandson of the Herod that killed all the newborn males in Bethlehem when Christ was born. Agrippa was the nephew of the Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist. Agrippa was the son of Herod Agrippa the 1st who executed the Apostle James and would have executed the Apostle Peter had not the angel of the Lord rescued him. For Agrippa, this was a chance to meet a celebrity, so Festus sets up a meeting. Acts 25:23 says,

The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.

In Acts 26, Paul begins, yet again, his message of redemption, repentance, and judgment. From Acts 26:1 through Acts 26:23, Paul gives his testimony. How he lived as a Pharisee, the promise given to the twelve tribes of Israel. Paul’s persecution of Jesus in verses 9-11, and then Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus from Acts 26:12-15, and the instructions Christ gave Paul to reach the Jews and Gentiles in Acts 26:16-18. Then Acts 26:19-23 –

“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

At this point, Festus yells at Paul that Paul’s lost his marbles, his education has made him insane. And Paul keeps focusing on King Agrippa in Acts 26:25-29 –

“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Agrippa’s response is a hypothetical question. The New King James translates it as, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.”

And that is probably one of the saddest responses in the entire bible. “You almost persuaded me.”

What went wrong?

It wasn’t the messenger. Paul was a very powerful messenger, and apostle of Christ who had seen the risen Lord face to face. How much power did Paul have? In verse 22, Paul says, “But God has helped me to this very day.” And the messenger was passionate, so passionate that in verse 24, Festus leaps up and tells Paul that he’s lost his mind. And Paul was persuasive – in verse 29, Paul tells Agrippa that he wishes Agrippa were just like him, but without the chains. The irony is incredible here – Paul is free in Christ, even though he is in chains. It’s Agrippa that is in bondage to sin.

So the messenger was powerful, passionate, and persuasive. So it’s not the messenger. Perhaps it was the message?

I don’t think so. The message was the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. And not hearsay; Paul’s personal testimony was how Jesus had interceded directly on Paul’s behalf and proven to Paul firsthand. And the message was true. King Agrippa knew the words of the prophets and he knew the fulfilled testimony of Christ. Agrippa has no rebuttal to this; in verse 27, when Paul asks, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do,” Agrippa’s only response is that… “you almost persuaded me.”

Almost persuaded.

As we share God’s word with others, Paul has shown us that the message isn’t always received the way we would like it to be. Some people want to wait; we just keep talking. Some will ridicule us, but we’re called to show respect in our responses. Some receive the message with silence; we learn to ask open-ended questions to get them to talk. And some absolutely refuse, and all we can do is express concern. But there’s nothing sadder than somebody who hears a persuasive message from a persuasive messenger and is almost persuaded.

For those that have not accepted Christ, there are forces in opposition to the Word. Satan does whatever he can to keep people from giving themselves to Christ, and we can see almost all of these in Agrippa.

The forces include –

• Pride. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.” It’s pride that tells us we can be good enough to get to heaven, that we can stand unashamed, on our own, before an almighty and holy creator. And Psalms 10:4 says, “In his pride, the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Pride blinds us to our need for a savior.
• Position. Agrippa was king of the Jews. Like pride, our position in society keeps us from being humble. We are too important to make ourselves low. But Jesus called a little child to him and told his disciples in Matthew 18:3, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
• Possessions. Agrippa was a very rich man. Matthew 19:23, Jesus says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” People, like Agrippa, get attached to the things of this world and can’t give them up to save their own souls.
• Peer pressure. Felix and other Jewish leaders were looking at Agrippa to see what he would do. Galatians 1:10 says, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
• Procrastination. Agrippa was “almost persuaded” but put off his decision. He could always revisit this question tomorrow. But sometimes, tomorrow doesn’t come. Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” And 2 Corinthians 6:2 says, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

But Paul looks directly at King Agrippa through this exchange. Paul was persistent and told his personal testimony about how Jesus changed his life. While Herod Agrippa II and his family may have been persecuting Christ, Paul also confesses he once persecuted Christ. Agrippa’s sins are no different than Paul’s sins, except Paul’s sins are forgiven.

It’s true that in the bible (Mark 6:11), Jesus told the disciples that if they were not welcome in a town, they should shake the dust from their feet as they left. But that’s a matter of being a good steward of the time we have available. Jesus never counseled us to give up on somebody. Jesus didn’t give up on me, and I am so thankful He didn’t. If you have a family member or a friend you’re praying for, don’t give up. You don’t want them to be almost saved.

Michael Rodriguez is a man thankful somebody didn’t give up on him. He’s one of the “Texas Seven” that broke out of prison in 2000 and on Christmas Eve, killed a policeman. He was sentenced to death; unlike most people on death row, for the last 2 years he has been waiving every appeal opportunity, saying he deserved the death penalty. The sentence was carried out a week ago Thursday.

At 6:10pm, he began his last words. “I know this no way makes up for all the pain and suffering I gave you. I am so, so sorry. My punishment is nothing compared to the pain and sorrow I have caused. I hope that someday you can find peace. I am not strong enough to ask for forgiveness because I don’t know if I am worthy. I realize what I’ve done to you and the pain I’ve given. Please Lord forgive me. I have done some horrible things. I ask the Lord to please forgive me. I have gained nothing, but just brought sorrow and pain to these wonderful people. I am sorry. So so sorry. To the Sanchez family who showed me love. To the Hawkins family, I am sorry. I know I have affected them for so long. Please forgive me. Irene, I want to thank you for being with me on death row and walking with me and helping me find Christ’s love. These last few steps I must walk alone. Thank you and thank your husband Jack. I’ll be waiting for you. I am so sorry. To these families I ask forgiveness. Father God I ask you too for forgiveness. I ask you for forgiveness Lord. I am ready to go Lord. Thank you. I am ready to go. My Jesus my Savior there is none like you. All of my days I want to praise, let every breath. Shout to the Lord let us sing.

“My Jesus, my Savior, there is none like you,” he sang softly. “All of my days I want to praise, let every breath. Shout to the Lord, let us sing ….”

Among his last words were, “I’m ready to go Lord.” At 6:20pm, he was pronounced dead.

Michael Rodriguez is thankful that Irene and Jack, whoever they are, didn’t give up on Michael Rodriguez. And while the angels in heaven rejoice that another sinner has turned to God, non-Christians don’t understand why a murderer gets to go to heaven. They don’t understand that they can never do enough good to get to heaven, nor can they do enough evil that Christ cannot save him. It’s never too late.

Who’s been watching the Olympics the last week? Anybody here actually in the Olympics?

When it comes to the Olympics, most people are spectators. They don’t actually participate in the games; they watch some of the events on television. A few actually get to participate. The best of the best win medals – some win bronze, some silver, and the very best wind the coveted gold medal. Or like Fred said last week, perhaps a tin medal.

But the gold medal for all humanity is arriving in heaven in the pure and holy presence of God. The vast majority of people are spectators in this race. They see the lives of Christians, but they make no effort to join. They’re… almost persuaded.

The bronze medal for Christianity is being aware of Jesus. If you ask them what religion they belong to, they may even answer that they’re a Christian. But if you press them further, they don’t know why they’re a Christian. They know Jesus is a really good person, and they also want to be a really good person. And that means not being judgmental. They believe all roads leads to heaven, there are many paths. They don’t believe a loving God would send people to Hell, not realizing that God doesn’t send people to Hell, people go to Hell because they reject God. They are really only dimly aware of what Jesus said, and they make no effort to share their faith or go to church or grown in the spirit. They get a bronze medal for being aware of Jesus. King Agrippa gets a bronze medal. He had plenty of knowledge about Jesus.

Then there’s the silver medal, awarded to those who believe in Christ. They know He’s the Son of God. They’ve heard the Sermon on the Mount; they’re happy the meek will inherit the earth, because then they can beat up the meek and take it from them. Their actions don’t reflect the love of Christ; they do not model forgiveness, controlling their tongue, serving others, or loving their neighbors. But they believe in Jesus, so they win a silver medal. But they don’t grasp the concept that even the demons believe in Jesus. As Fred mentioned last week, faith and repentance are linked. It’s not enough to say you have faith without your life demonstrating your repentance.

But spectators and bronze medalists and silver medalist are almost persuaded to be disciples of Christ. Perhaps they have an idea that heaven will be like standing on the scales of justice – as long as you do more good than evil, you get into heaven. But Jesus says that isn’t enough. Jesus says to follow Him and He will make you fishers of men (Mark 1:16-17). Jesus says that if anyone would come after Jesus, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). And we may have heard Jesus say in John 8:32, “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” but what’s the line immediately before that? “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.'”

And what about the disciples that settle for “well, this is good enough?” Jesus tells the church in Laodicea what he thinks about “good enough.” Revelations 3:15-16 –

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Literally, it means “vomit you out of His mouth.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, except when I get to heaven, I don’t want Jesus to be looking at me like that.

The gold medal is a heart that yearns to follow God. Matthew 7:13-14 –

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

The gold medal is the narrow gate to heaven. Everything else is just “almost.” Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:7-8 just before his death –

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Thank the good Lord that He loves us. Thank the good Lord that He is our gold medal. Can you imagine if the scripture says that God so loved the world that He almost gave His only begotten son? That Jesus almost died on the cross for us?

Let’s yearn for that gold medal of righteousness, and not settle for merely being “almost” persuaded.

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The Tradition of Regifting

The Houston Chronicle has a story about the “tradition” of regifting Christmas presents

Scrambling to find the perfect, last-minute Christmas gift?

Then put down that bottle of wine. And please — back away from the blender. Chances are the person you give them to will slap new bows on the boxes and pass them along to someone else.

Bottles of red and white, along with bath products and small kitchen appliances top the list of the most regifted items this holiday season, according to Money Management International, a Houston-based credit counseling agency, which suggests regifting as a way to save money.

It would appear the gift-recycling movement is growing in popularity and respectability. In fact, Thursday was National Regifting Day, according to regiftable.com. A recent survey conducted by the credit counseling agency concluded that regifting has increased in acceptability since 2005. The national survey of 1,049 respondents also found that more people consider regifting a fiscally shrewd move.

Most of us have no idea how blessed we are. After a trip to Kenya a few years ago, I left knowing that Americans are so much more materialistic than we ever realized. Our “stuff” is important to us, we keep up with the Joneses, we can’t wait to get our paws on the latest iPhone. In Kenya, they’d be ecstatic with a clean bottle of water.

When it comes to Christmas gifts, we are essentially giving a gift that says “I thought of you” or “I didn’t forget you.” The actual item isn’t as important anymore – I think we instinctively know we have enough. The things we want aren’t things we need. And so when we receive something, we have no qualms about wrapping it back up and giving it to somebody else.

Are you regifting items? Are you repacking stuff you don’t need because you and your family and friends already have enough? Then consider giving instead to those that would be happy with a clean bottle of water. Here in Houston, contributing or volunteering to Star of Hope or the Salvation Army is a good way to get started.

That stuff you’re regifting that will eventually be regifted instead would be happily received by a family or individual that has little. Consider giving to those that need. Instead of giving somebody a gift they don’t need and maybe don’t even want, consider donating to a charity in their name instead.

God has blessed up far more than we realized. Let’s give thanks by giving to those that need.