The True Issue at the Bottom of Kingdom Investment

“You evil, lazy slave!”

These are the words the master had for the third servant in Jesus’ story recorded in Matthew 25. Each had been given a substantial sum of money; each had made choices about what to do with it. The first two servants, with varying success, had taken what had been entrusted to them and put it to work. When the master came back, these two were lauded for their good investment and faithful stewardship.

But not the third.

The third took his talent, dug a hole, and put it in the ground. And the master had that harsh rebuke for him.

He was wicked. And he was lazy. And here is the end result:

“So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has 10 talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:28-30).

Jesus told this story, along with a few others, during His last days in Jerusalem. All of the stories in Matthew 25 are centered around the theme of readiness. Jesus wanted His followers to live with the end in mind; convinced that He would return at a moment’s notice, and to be ready at a moment’s notice for that inevitable coming.

We look at this story and take many applications from it. We see the need to make the most of what we’ve been given. We see that there is an active stance we must take while waiting for Jesus to return. We see that we must make wise choices for the sake of the kingdom.

But there is an issue at the bottom of this kind of kingdom investment. The issues, as is always the case, is what we believe about God.

Look back at the way the third servant responded when the master returned and asked what had been done with the gifts He had given:

“Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25).

See it? I know you.

But he did not.

Nowhere in this story do we have the slightest indication that the master was a hard man. Nowhere do we see him being unfair. Nowhere do we find him being stingy or overbearing. Instead, we see him being generous, and overly so at that. Even though the master distributed the talents unevenly, the smallest portion was a gigantic sum.

I know you says the third servant.

But he did not.

This is the root of the issue. This is the bottom of it all. The real question, then, is not what you are going to do with what God has given you. The real question is, “Do you really know Him?”

Do you really know His generosity? Do you really know His kindness? Do you really know His love? Do you really know Him?

What you do is a reflection of what you believe.

Today, then, as we either hold tightly to what we’ve been given, bent on our own self-preservation, refusing to relinquish our grip out of fear or anxiety or greed, then we would do well to ask ourselves that question:

Do we really know Him?

 

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The Promise of Bearing Fruit

There’s a big difference between a promise and a command.

Every kid knows that’s true. Think about the difference between “I promise that we are going to get ice cream” and “Clean your room.” See? Different. But why are those things different? And why does it matter to us when it comes to God’s work in us? It’s because a promise is focused on the character and power of the one doing the promising.

When I make a promise to my children, it is up to me to keep that promise. If I fail to do so, it might be for a number of reasons. Maybe I overshot my own power and I said I was capable of delivering something I could not. Or perhaps I had the best of intentions when I made the promise originally, but then some new information came about or the circumstances changed, and that change kept me from keeping my word. Or maybe I am just a liar and enjoy disappointing people. In any of these cases, my failure to keep my promise is a reflection on me. It’s a confirmation of my imperfect knowledge, incomplete power, and inadequate character.

Not. So. With. God.

He makes promises that He not only intends to keep, but that He actually will. If it were not so, then the failure is a reflection on Him. Failure on the part of God to keep His promises is an indictment on His perfect character and absolute power.

That’s what makes John 15:5 so glorious:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.”

This isn’t a command; it’s a promise. Now that’s not to say Jesus doesn’t also command submission and obedience in His children; He certainly does. But in this passage? He promises that if we remain, or abide, in Him, we will bear much fruit.

Have you ever considered that the bearing of fruit – these godly attributes that develop in increasing measure in the life of the Christian – is a promise? That a life of fruit is a reflection on the perfect character and absolute power of God? That the failure for this to happen is an indictment on His perfection? Thank God it’s true.

For all of us who look inside ourselves and see, even after all this time, the lack of love, lack of patience, lack of goodness, lack of purity… For all of us frustrated at our double-mindedness and failure to be rightly and purely motivated… For all of us who think, in our best moments, that we should surely be far further along in our relationship with Jesus by now…

For all of us, God is bound by His own perfection to bring His promise to fulfillment in us.

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MLK: “Morality cannot be legislated; behavior can be regulated.”

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.

Well, there’s half-truth involved here.

Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.

But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.

—Martin Luther King Jr.’s address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963.

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The Blessing of Doing Stuff You’re Bad At

Every Tuesday and Thursday for a few years I’ve played basketball with a few other guys.

There have been glimmers of athletic ability; the occasional fast break lay up; the rare three point shot; and couple of rebounds. But most of the time I just fall down.

In fact, I count it as a win every day that I fall down less than three times. Most of the time it’s more. I’m not very good at basketball.

Nobody, including me, really likes to do the stuff that they’re bad at. It might not be good for your pride, but it’s good for your soul because doing something you’re bad at is a great check point to see how deeply you really believe the gospel.

When you only do the things you know, understand, and are reasonably good at doing, then you’re not really working the “gospel muscle.” But when you find yourself falling down because of your lack of coordination in front of 9 other grown men… well, you know pretty quick whether you believe Jesus really loves you and is proud of you.

The gospel reminders are everywhere. And maybe one of the tests this week for me as to how deeply I know, understand, and have believed the gospel is how I respond to something like a basketball game.

Though my knees are going to hurt, maybe my soul will be lifted up.

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Love the Church More Than Its Health

Great post here from Jonathan Leeman:

This one goes out to the doctrine guys. The guys with ecclesiological opinions. The pastors and elders who think the Bible addresses the practices and structures of the church.

Wait a second, I’m talking about myself, and maybe you. I thank God for you, and I rejoice to consider myself a co-participant with you in working for Christ’s kingdom.

Yet there’s a temptation I have noticed that you and I are susceptible to: we can love our vision of what a church should be more than we love the people who compose it. We can be like the unmarried man who loves the idea of a wife, but who marries a real woman and finds it harder to love her than the idea of her. Or like the mother who loves her dream of the perfect daughter more than the daughter herself.

This is an implicit danger for all of us who have learned much from God-given books and conferences and ministries about “healthy churches.” We start loving the idea of a healthy church more than the church God has placed us in.

Read the rest here.

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What To Do When No One Talks in Your Group

I’ve led quite a few community groups, Sunday school classes, and other kinds of small group environments. And I’ve found that most people can find something to say – except when they need to find something to say. Even though sitting in a small group environment isn’t quite as paralyzing as delivering a speech before an audience, it can still be intimidating. Part of a healthy Bible study small group is conversation. There should be give and take between the leader and those in the group so that people don’t just listen to the truth of the Word — they interact with it.

This gives them the opportunity to process God’s Word in a personal way, sharing what the implications are in their own lives. A small group leader might have a vision in his or her mind of a group sharing hearts and bearing burdens freely with each other, but they will likely, at some point, face that dreaded awkward silence.

You ask a question and everyone looks down. You seek feedback and only hear crickets. You know that people in the group are intelligent, thoughtful, and almost certainly struggling with something, yet you feel like you couldn’t pry a word out with a crowbar.

So what can a small group leader do about a group where no one talks?

1. Set the expectation early.

Whether we know it or not, we are constantly creating a culture of expectations. We do it in our homes, workplaces, and small groups. If a leader spends the entire first group meeting talking, dispensing information about how the group will work, they shouldn’t be surprised when they come to week two and no one has anything to say. In their attempt to get all the information out on the table, they’ve unknowingly set the expectation that this group is about sitting and listening. But if from the beginning, questions require answers and a level of personal disclosure is expected, then that sharing will naturally grow over time.

2. Let people tell a story.

Everybody has at least one good story — the experiences that brought him or her to your small group. And in that story, there’s likely a combination of joy, pain, and excitement. Just about everyone has at least one great experience they want to tell someone about. Maybe it’s a bad date, a great vacation, a favorite birthday, a terrible apartment, or a funny story from the office. Why not give people a chance to tell their stories in your Bible study group?

You might do this by setting aside a few minutes at the beginning of each group and asking a volunteer to share a little about his or her life. Or a leader could weave the stories into the discussion. If you sense that your group is having trouble responding to questions, change the form of the question to reflect a more story-oriented approach. For example, if you’re talking about Jesus’ teachings on money, you could throw in a question that leads to a piece of someone’s story — maybe something like: “At what time in your life were you the most financially burdened?” Then gently probe the person to share more about that time in his or her life. That brief amount of sharing will likely open up more doors in the future for greater, deeper discussion.

3. Don’t be afraid of the silence.

It’s not as awkward as a leader typically thinks it is. Don’t rush to answer the question; sometimes it’s OK for a question to hang in the air for a little bit. When we rush too quickly past that silence, we may prevent a great conversation from taking place. When we are willing to live with the silence, at least for a little while, we give people the space to think and process. Eventually, something will almost certainly come out.

4. Choose group material that encourages discussion.

A church leader can do a lot to help their leaders in this respect. If a church wants there to be a level of self-disclosure in its groups, a church leader must equip their small group leaders with Bible study material that sets them up to make that happen.

For example, smallgroup.com provides studies that have been writer with the assumption that there will be give and take, question and answer, sharing and listening in a Bible study group. By signing up for a two-week free trial, you can view examples of these discussion-oriented studies that can be customized to align to a sermon series or a specific focus for your small group.

As group leaders and church leaders who lead group leaders, you can help people create environments where a combination of sharing and listening is the rule, not the exception. Let’s do all we can to make sure our leaders have all they need to help them facilitate these kinds of genuine, relational, life-changing groups.

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The God Who Laughs… And Those Who Hide

He is the God who Provides. He’s also the God who Saves. He is yet still the God who Delivers. But He’s also the God who Laughs.

This laughter of God is either immensely comforting, or incredibly frustrating, and which one depends on your standing in relation to Him. Psalm 2 gives us the picture of the laughing God, and also the picture of these two responses. The psalm begins like this:

Why do the nations rebel and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the LORD and His Anointed One: “Let us tear off their chains and free ourselves from their restraints.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them (Psalm 2:1-4).

The issue at hand in this psalm is one of authority. The kings of the earth, those of great power and prestige, look at the sovereign rule of God and determine that they are better charters of their destinies than God Himself. From their perspective, His rule and law is oppressive; it’s something to be shaken off if true freedom is to be pursued and gained. So they rebel. They conspire. They fight…

And the Lord laughs.

He chuckles at the feeble attempts in relation to His great power. He smirks at those who think they have any true authority or power. He grins at the arrogance and naivite of these potentates. And he laughs at their misshapen perspective, for what they think are chains of bondage are really the constraints of love. And what they think are the shackles of oppression are really the vanguards of grace. Like a Father who smiles knowingly at the 5-year-old who packs a bag of pennies and stuffed animals to run away from home, so does the Lord look on those who would pursue their idea of freedom.

This sets up the exclusive nature of this psalm, for there are two distinct people represented here. The first group are these rulers and those who follow Him. It’s those who are rebels both by their nature and their choices; those that are at war with Him either knowingly or unknowingly. And all of us have been at that camp at one point or another in our lives. We all have been beating on the chest of the One so big He doesn’t feel the fists.

But the thing that’s penetrating to me about this psalm today is not this group; it’s the other one.

See, sometimes we think the opposite of this group – the opposite of the rebels – are the allies. If these people are the ones standing against God and His kingdom, then the other group of people must be those aligned with Him… right?

Yes and no, I think. The reason why it’s yes and no is because this psalm doesn’t present those who are aligned with God and His Son to be allies. It’s not a picture of two opposing armies, one commanded by the mighty general of God. Instead, those who are aligned with Jesus are those who are taking refuge in Him:

So now, kings, be wise; receive instruction, you judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with reverential awe and rejoice with trembling. Pay homage to the Son or He will be angry and you will perish in your rebellion, for His anger may ignite at any moment. All those who take refuge in Him are happy (Psalm 2:10-12).

It’s that last part that’s getting to me: All those who take refuge in Him are happy. That doesn’t sound like someone who is aligned with God; it sounds like someone who is hiding behind God. This is the true “other side.”

Sometimes we might think that God is fortunate to have us – our talents, our gifts, our smarts, our stuff – on His side. In fact, He’s pretty lucky that we’re not on the other side in this battle. How fortunate for Him! But if that’s the case, then the same arrogance that marks the rulers of the earth is present in us as well; it’s only a little bit more camouflaged.

In this psalm at least, if you’re not standing against God, then you are hiding behind Him. You are taking refuge in Him.

The Lord of Hosts, the One who laughs, doesn’t need me this morning. And if I stand against Him, I am swimming more upstream than I can possibly imagine. But if I am with Him, then I am hiding behind Him.

Blessed are us who do that. Blessed are those who are hiding in Him.

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Solemn Assembly, and the Ongoing Issue of Race in the United States

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that the issue of race relations has been at the forefront of the minds of most Americans during the last few months.

Among others, Pastor Eric Mason has been engaging other pastors to lead their congregations through a solemn assembly – a week of prayer and fasting surrounding these issues, asking God for mercy and a renewed passion toward unity among His people that crosses the boundaries of race, culture, and creed for the sake of the gospel.

To support this effort, our team at LifeWay has written a couple of Bible studies that can be downloaded absolutely for free at smallgroup.com. Just click the link at the top of the page that says, “Download the Bible studies for #NationwideSolemnAssembly” and they will be downloaded to your desktop.

Our hope and prayer is that God will use these studies to reinforce the truth that God has broken down the dividing wall of hostility both between He and man and between all cultures with the power of the gospel.

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Did Tolkein Waste His Life?

He did more than write engaging stories; he created worlds. And in that creation, he created maps, legends, folklore, and even languages.

One might look at the life of JRR Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings among other things and think that he wasted his life. After all, who composes an entire elvish language? Who goes to the painstaking work of drawing extensive maps of a world he has imagined? There are bigger and better uses of one’s intellect and time surely.

In regard to this issue, Jon Bloom writes:

Since I am not God, I do not know how much of his life Tolkien may have wasted in his work. God knows I’ve wasted more than enough of my own already. But in terms of Middle-earth being a means of escape, Tolkien had this to say:

“Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and what is more, they are confusing . . . the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” (“On Fairy-stories”)

Tolkien never intended his tales of Middle-earth to be a desertion from reality, but a means of seeing beyond the confined walls of our perceptions to a much larger reality beyond. And he suffered no delusions that Middle-earth was that reality. But through the lenses of Middle-earth, Tolkien, an unashamed Christian, wanted to show us “a far-off gleam . . . ofevangelium in the real world” (emphasis his, “On Fairy-stories”). His kind of fantasy was intended to help prisoners in the real world escape and go home.

There is a deep, profound reason why God created us to be story-makers and storytellers, and why, when the Word became flesh (John 1:14) he frequently spoke in stories. The best make-believe stories help us better understand the real world. And in our day, such stories are needed more than ever.

True indeed.

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The Imagination is a Muscle

In the last two weeks, during Christmas vacation, our family has had conversations about good and evil, conformity and individuality, space and time travel, physics, and mind control.

That’s because we are about three quarters of the way through reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. It’s a book I read when I was in the 4th or 5th grade and it covers all the above, among other things. It’s a little funny, a little heady, and a little scary all wrapped into one, even for the adults since neither of us could remember exactly what happened since we read it so long ago.

In addition to learning some of the finer points of the space / time continuum, I think my biggest takeaway for both the kids and for me is that the imagination is a muscle, given to us by God. And like any muscle, without regular exercise, it will atrophy. But when you work it out, it grows stronger and stronger. I’ve seen it happen in the last two weeks.

When we first started the book, the kids were having trouble keeping up with some of the content. The younger two (7 and 4) were glazing over by the end of chapter 1. So we had to stop and explain the plot, but then something else started happening.

In addition to talking about it, the kids started imagining. They started mimicking the different voices of the characters depending on the scene in which they were engaged. They acted out some of their motions. They talked about what they would do in a certain situation. And as they did it more and more, I saw it happen:

Their imagination began to grow.

And mine did, too.

This growth, I think, is something that we start to lose as we grow older. We lose our sense of wonder; we lose our ability to imagine. Though there a lot of causes for that loss I’m sure, I think it’s mainly due to our refusal to take advantage of the opportunities for wonder God has put before us in every day life. And those opportunities are there. As Elizabeth Browning said, “Eath’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

Chesterton had a similar take: “Contemporary society has become dry, not for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.”

One hope I have this year, both for me and our family, is to take advantage of what’s around us. To not be so busy that we cease to imagine. And that through exercise, we will see the world of dragons and dwarves, of strange and distant lands and adventure, to grow in our minds and hearts. And as it does, that we will be reminded that all of these things which we imagine point us to the greater adventure that’s before us in the kingdom of God.

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