Wrestling with God and Ourselves

Scripture Reading: Genesis 32:22-30

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

I have always had a difficult time with this passage about Jacob wrestling with God. However, since I have been doing this “wrestling with God” myself for the last few days, I am beginning to understand how powerful this passage is for believers in our daily lives.

Most often when we face challenges or difficulties, we assume that these hard times are because of fate or the world that we live in. We blame other people or many times we blame the evil one for these complicated moments in our lives. If we are honest with ourselves we usually just want to give up when faced with difficult times. That would seem to be the better option for most of us because then we are not forced to deal with decisions that are demanding and complex.

In times like these it is important to remember and recognize that God is present and at work in our lives in the midst of our problems. It could be that God is giving us these challenges so that we will learn to rely less on ourselves and more upon God. As humans, we seem to have the need to be constantly reminded that we can’t do it on our own, we need God’s strength and guidance.

Often when we are faced with trials we look to the world that we live in for answers or for direction. In doing so, we turn our attention and focus away from God. It is through these challenging moments in our lives that we must draw closer to our creator and lean on Him.

Consider for a moment that God is placing these strenuous moments in you life in order to make you stronger. In James, chapter 1: 2-4 we read: Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

My message today is, don’t give up, continue to persevere and cling to God for direction and answers. When we develop perseverance, we learn to seek God first, when faced with life’s difficult challenges or decisions.

Baptism

Scripture Reading: Matthew 3:13-15:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

I don’t remember much about my baptism. I know that I was the second person that was baptized in the new baptismal pool at Harmony Baptist Church in Banks County, Georgia. And I remember that I was 12 years old at the time. What I remember most is what led up to my baptism. I never told my mother that I was considering joining the church but I had lots of questions for my Sunday school teacher, Ms. Faye Dalton.

Ms. Faye had taught me a lot about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. She taught all of us children that Jesus loved us and because of that we must love other people as well. This was not just a one time lesson but rather a point that she tried to instill in us every week. So when the time came to consider joining the church she was the one that I asked the tough questions.

Three days from now, I will perform my first baptism. I have been ordained for over three years now and in that time I have performed my first wedding, and two funeral services. I was honored to be able to officiate the wedding of my niece Brandi and her then finance Forrest. It was special because she was family and it is something that I will never forget.

The first funeral service was for a close friend of mine that I had worked with and known for almost 20 years. It was more difficult and more emotional than I had imagined it would be. The second funeral service was for a wonderful, Christian man, my father-in-law Rawdon Akins. This was a man that I had a tremendous amount of respect for because he truly lived a life that honored God. This service was one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do in my life. Rawdon always supported me and my decision to go into ministry and that is something that I will always remember and cherish.

This coming Sunday, I will perform my first baptism and it will be for my third daughter, Mallory, who is also 12. She and I are excited about this and what it means to be a follower of Christ. I am a little apprehensive because I know that this will also be an emotional experience for me, her father, as I baptize her.

Mallory and our entire family have been blessed by our brothers and sisters in Christ at our church for the last ten years, Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, in Athens, Georgia. Mallory has had many teachers in our church that have taught her what it means to be a follower of Christ. Like my teacher, Ms. Faye, they have also lived out their faith and devotion to Christ as an example for Mallory to observe and to follow.

When Mallory was a baby she was very fussy in the nursery and she cried a lot. Many of the nursery workers and ushers would take turns walking her through the church and even outside, which usually did the trick. Many people in our church cared for her and as she grew up they taught her the stories of our faith. And so many more encouraged her and took time to listen to her and to talk with her. These disciples of Jesus helped her get to the point in her life where she is today.

Jesus gave us the example to follow when he was baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. As followers of Christ, baptism is something that we take very seriously. It causes the entire faith community to offer up praise to God and what He is constantly doing in all of our lives. When someone in our family of faith is baptized we all rejoice because many in that family of faith have played a crucial role in that person’s life.

Mallory has given a lot of thought about what it means to be a follower of Christ and this is something that she has not entered into lightly. She is ready to follow Jesus and to be a disciple. As us older Christians know so well, this following Jesus is not always easy. If we choose the correct path we know that it will be a narrow road that is much less traveled. It will also be the only path that leads to eternal life with our Father in heaven. All praise, honor and glory belong to God.

Strength through Weakness

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

In this scripture reading, Paul is describing a vision that had taken him to the third heaven. Imagine for a moment that you had been taken up to heaven and given a VIP tour. And to complicate matters, you can’t speak a word of what you actually saw. Now put yourself in Paul’s place and imagine that you were given this vision and this tour of heaven. What would be your first reaction after this vision? Well in today’s society, we would probably get a quick post up on our facebook page or get the word out via Twitter. But if you will go back and read 2 Corinthians chapter 12 in its entirety, you will find that Paul is not going to handle his vision in this manner. You won’t find Paul boasting about what he saw in heaven.

Paul writes that he will not boast about himself rather he would boast only about his weaknesses. Our society today does not favor the weak or the helpless. If you are viewed as weak you probably won’t have a chance at a political office, or be selected to compete on a reality TV show, or be noticed by the powers that be in our world today. However, Paul is telling us that this is not the way of the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to dwell among us and to turn this world upside down. It is the weak, those that are dependent upon God, that are truly headed in the right direction.

The Apostle Paul then tells us in 2 Corinthians chapter 12 and verses 7 through 9 that “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul further tells us that he will “boast” about his weaknesses because he knows that it is through that weakness that the power of Christ is available for him and also for us today.

God chose Moses, a man that was slow in speech and who lacked confidence in his own abilities. God chose Gideon, who asked how he could be chosen to save Israel, because his clan was the weakest and he was the least in his own family. God chose Jeremiah who admitted his own weaknesses and incompetence, especially his public speaking skills. God chose Paul, who formerly persecuted followers of Christ. Who would have believed that God would use a man like Paul to spread His message to the world? The society at large would not have chosen these people for much of anything, but God chose them so that we would recognize that it is through God’s power, that these weak people were able to be effective messengers for the kingdom.

Paul tells us that God gave him a “thorn” of some sort to keep him from becoming conceited. And when Paul asks the Lord to take away this “thorn”, the Lord tells him that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God allows us to become weak so that we can call upon His name and lean upon Him for our strength.

God’s strength is available for you and me this very moment. Maybe you are feeling discouraged or maybe it seems that every decision you make is the wrong one. You could be wondering if anything is ever going to go your way and most of the time you just feel like giving up. I would say to you – that’s the good news! God is already at work in your life, He is just waiting on you to admit that you are weak and to turn to Him for strength. God’s power is made perfect in my weaknesses and in your weaknesses. Allow God to take over your life and you will be a witness to a kind of power that is not found here on this earth.

Prayer

God, I am weak, and as much as I try to do things on my own, I realize that I am never truly successful unless I rely upon and acknowledge you. I acknowledge you as my rock and my strength. I ask you to help me to see and understand my weaknesses so that you can take those weaknesses and turn them into strengths for your kingdom. Amen.

Citizens of Heaven

Scripture Reading: Philippians 3:17-21

“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live accordingly to the pattern we gave you.  For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.  Their mind is set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

My grandfather, Cleve Simmons, was a deacon in his church, he was a farmer, and he was a good Christian man.  I spent a lot of time with him as I was growing up – and he always had many stories about his life to share with me.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, these stories taught me many valuable life lessons that help to guide me even today.  My grandfather was wise in the way that you should live your life in order to please God.

He had so much wisdom that he would pass on to me throughout my teen years.  He believed and had a deep faith in God, and he did not doubt for a second, that God was with him each and every day of his life. He believed in treating other people fairly, helping out those in need, and loving his neighbors as well as his family.  That was the kind of life that he tried to live out in his small farming community in Banks County.

My grandfather lived all of his 89 years in his beloved Banks County.  In fact, he rarely traveled outside of the state of Georgia.  Whenever I would ask him to take a day trip with us to Atlanta or to go on a short vacation with us he would always answer me the same way, he would say, “Son – I haven’t lost anything there – so there’s no need for me to go.”  He was a citizen of Banks County and the United States and he was proud of that.  But more importantly, he knew that he was a citizen of another place, a place that he couldn’t see but he knew that it existed.  He was also a citizen of heaven and that was one journey that he looked forward to.

He and I talked a lot about heaven.  He would tell me what he imagined heaven to be like and how he would be glad to see his parents and his brothers again as well as his son who had passed away from cancer at the young age of 39.  He was dedicated to living a good Christian life while here on earth and showing kindness and offering help to those less fortunate.

The book of Hebrews tells us, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” And it is that promise of our future home that should help us become better people here on this earth.

I was with my grandfather on the night that he passed away and left this earth. He would be conscious one minute and then he would drift out on us the next.

When I walked into his hospital room that night, he opened his eyes and said “Hey son, it’s good to see you.”  He would continue to be in this world for a few minutes and then he would have visions of heaven which he would describe out loud to those of us present.  I knew that he was about to experience that beautiful heaven that he and I had so often talked about and wondered about.

He saw his brothers and he called them by name.  And then he drifted out on us again.   I have often wondered about his arrival in heaven and who was there to greet him among his family that had gone on before him.  I often wonder who was in his welcoming committee in heaven.

His last words to me were, “Son, it’s good to see you”, and I imagine that when he arrived in heaven he was also told, “Son, it’s good to see you, welcome home to the place that I have prepared for you, for eternity.

Prayer

God, help us to live like citizens of heaven while here on this earth. Help us to see what needs to be done around us and to live lives that are worthy of your kingdom.  Help us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.

Just One Step

Scripture Reading: Matthew 26:34-40

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in , I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

In November of 2006, I had the opportunity to visit the country of Liberia, in West Africa. My home church, Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, had given some assistance to a church there outside the capital city of Monrovia. Commission Baptist Church is the name of that church in West Africa and it is led by a truly wonderful and loving pastor. At the time I visited the church, Liberia was just beginning to recover from a brutal fourteen year civil war in which many lives were lost. Most families in the church had to cope with the loss of one or more family members.

Our church had given financial assistance to Commission Baptist Church to rebuild the roof on their church. The roof was removed and the church was almost destroyed during the civil war. The church was very important to the congregation and they wanted to get their place of worship back in the best condition possible.

One of the first things that I noticed when we arrived at the church was a hand made sign that read, “Just one step and God will do the rest.” It was several days later however, that I really began to recognize the significance of those words to the people of Commission Baptist Church.

We were in a meeting with the deacons from Commission Baptist Church and some deacons from other area congregations. I started telling the deacons about how our church feels a calling to do mission work. I told them about the bread burners – a retired group of men in our church who decided to go out into the community feeding the hungry and sharing the love of Christ. I shared with them how several Sunday school classes volunteer to prepare and serve lunch at Our Daily Bread, for the homeless in our community. I told them about Touching Taliaferro with Love, the summer camp to help disadvantaged children in the poorest county in Georgia.

I told them about the group of church members that went to Louisiana to help people recover from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. I shared with them the story of people in our church that volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

Pastor Weah, the pastor of Commission Baptist Church, later told me, “That’s what I am trying to get my congregation to be aware of. We are called to move beyond the walls of this church and go out into the community and share the love of Christ with people that do not know Christ.” “We have to move beyond our comfort zone and be out among people who are different.”

This pastor was speaking to his congregation that had lost practically all of their possessions and who were struggling daily to feed their families. And their pastor was asking them to go out and help others – and share the love of Christ with their neighbors and with complete strangers. I’m sure that they had to wonder how they were going to be able to do that when putting food on their table each day was a major concern. Pastor Weah would later tell his congregation that it is not about what we as humans are able to accomplish, it is God’s will that will be carried out if we listen, obey and are faithful. We can’t be afraid of the unknown, or fearful of others who are different from us. We can’t let our own individual limitations stop us. Just one step and God will do the rest.

As followers of Christ we are called to help others and to show compassion to others. We learn to think less about ourselves and our own needs and more about the needs and concerns of others. And when you do this you have the promise of Jesus to “take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

Prayer:
God, help me to be more aware of how I can help my fellow human beings. Help me to not be judgmental and to be more loving, like the example that Jesus gave us to follow. Take away my selfishness and give me a desire to help others that truly need some love and compassion in their lives. Amen.

Peace of Christ in Today’s World

Today’s Scripture
John 14:27
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Today’s Message
These words from the Gospel of John speak of the inner peace that you can find when you come to know Christ. This peace that Jesus offers is real and present and available to all who call upon His name.

We are reminded daily that our world is filled with hate, violence, and destruction. As Christians, we are called to be a voice of peace and a giver of peace to those that we encounter each day. We can do this by being kind and compassionate to others even when they are not doing the same to us.

I meet people almost everyday who are angry and who are content being unhappy.I make it a point to at least smile and speak to those kinds of people because I know that they need compassion and understanding in their life. I may not get any type of reaction back from them, but I believe that eventually, they will remember that someone was kind and took the time to speak to them.

By doing this, we are sharing the peace of Christ with other that we encounter daily. Christ had compassion on all people and He expects us to do the same. So don’t be afraid, show some peace and love and compassion to those that you encounter on your daily walk with God.

Several years ago, I had a supervisor at work that would visit me a couple of times a month. He could be very intimidating and his language was usually very vulgar. I started repeating these words of Jesus about peace whenever this man would visit. I would recite this verse over and over to myself. As time passed I noticed that he was not as rude and hateful as he was at first. And his language improved to the point that he would apologize when he did slip up.

Reminding ourselves of the peace that our Lord and Savior offers us can help us through some difficult days and some difficult times in our lives. And sometimes, it can bring about a change in other people as well.

Prayer:
Jesus, help me to remember the peace that you offer to all that believe in you. And help me as a believer to share that peace with everyone that I encounter. Fill me with your love so that I can share that love with others that so desperately need it. Amen.