I used to read the warnings of Jesus with some puzzlement. “Beware of false prophets which come unto you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Mathew 7:15-16). In my more naïve days I often thought, as many others did also, “How could someone pretend to be a sincere religious leader while all the while he is as phony as a three dollar bill?” Or, “Maybe this used to happen in ancient times but certainly it doesn’t happen anymore!” Fortunately, my naivete, on that subject at least, has long since disappeared. The history of every past age and the experiences of the present continue to warrant that caution by Jesus.
Some of you will remember the “Heaven’s Gate” mass suicide of about 20 years ago. Those people seemed so completely convinced of their after-death rendezvous with UFO’s filled with super-humans that they were happy to cast off their “human shells” and even spoke contemptuously of those who didn’t share their hope. How could people be so deluded? I think the answer to that question comes in the final caution of Jesus: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Actually, all fruit looks equally acceptable if you have nothing to compare it to. Even rotten fruit is not discernible from good fruit unless you have first tasted good fruit. And that, to me, is the whole lesson being taught.
It is important that Christians who claim to believe the Bible be aware of what it actually says. Not only so, but we must continue to put into practice what we know. That is why Jesus, a few verses later in that passage, warns that a house not built upon adequate foundations will fall “with a great crash.” And what is it He says constitutes an adequate foundation? Here it is: “Everyone who hears these sayings of mine and puts them into practice…” (Matthew 7:24). Are you both hearing and practicing? That is a major reason why we exist: to prepare people through Bible teaching and study to become knowledgeable disciples and not just wishful thinkers. A major part of any Christian ministry is to establish an adequate system of discipling and training so that every believer is able to recognize good fruit when he or she sees it. I hope you are anxious to be one of those.
Several years ago there was a famous PEANUTS cartoon in which Schroder, that piano-loving intellectual, was interrupted as he often was by his infatuated admirer, Lucy. Lucy asked him, “Schroeder, do you know what love is?” Schroeder abruptly stopped his playing , stood to his feet and said precisely, “Love: a noun, to be fond of, a strong affection for or an attachment or devotion to a person or persons.” Then he sat back down and resumed playing his piano. Lucy sat there stunned and then murmured sarcastically, “On paper, he’s great!”
I’m afraid that is where many of us specialize in gratitude—on paper. To possess a spirit of gratitude is priceless for it is built upon a giant dose of true humility. To always consider yourself as living on the positive side of life is a wonderful thing. Every good act that people do and every kind word is genuinely appreciated. Every possession you have is looked upon as a gift from God. You know how and why to praise God. The door of heaven is open to you because “God inhabits the praises of His people.” Your spirit is freed from the chains of “want” because you are conscious of what you already have been given and who has given it. The only thing more delightful than witnessing the spirit of gratitude in another person is to experience its presence within yourself. If you possess it, praise God for your blessed condition and do everything you can to enlarge its borders. If you lack it, all is not lost. Develop your awareness of and dependence upon God and it will grow. Just remember the words of David: “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
During my undergraduate seminary days I had a professor who announced to his class: “Gentlemen, your job is to work yourself out of a job.” I thought at the time that was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I have since come to understand and embrace the principle he was trying to express. That statement is, in effect, a philosophy of ministry. There are those who are career “Ministers” in the sense that they see themselves as lifelong generals placing privates in strategic places to get the job done. My professor would have said that our purpose was to train more generals to work with those privates. This was what Paul was encouraging young Timothy to do as he pastored the large church at Ephesus: “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2)
As one writer put it, “It could be argued that what the church needs is not better pastors, but more theologically sophisticated lay persons.” It was never the case that a pastor could do everything well. Many wonderful preachers, for example, are terrible at administration and others who have never come to grips with ministry to youth. But within each church family are those people with gifts to cover all of the bases. And in this age of specialized ministry in which pastors are increasingly called upon to address such problems as drug addiction, marital strife, homosexuality and the rest, many of the people in the pews possess the aptitude to be far more sensitive to those needs and capable of addressing them than the pastor. All they need is the training to go with it.
What I am trying to say here is that we can no longer look at a church as sheep with one shepherd. All those sheep are potential shepherds. This is what caused the first church to expand so quickly with so much excitement. Each new Christian was taught that he had a stake in this new enterprise, and that ministry was also his responsibility and opportunity. We must return that philosophy to the church. When we do, we will see more Christians capturing the vision, sharing the excitement and building the Kingdom. And when this happens, together we will experience the Lord’s pleasure and at the end of the road hear, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
There isn’t much that will be memorable about the Diamondbacks’ season this year, since it ended so quickly after a great start. But let me give you something really positive to remember about a baseball player named Tim Burke. Tim was a pitcher for the Montreal Expos and the New York Yankees. With potentially several more good years ahead of him, he retired from baseball at the age of thirty three. Everyone wanted know why a veteran player with a fantastic salary and only a few years left to draw it would throw it away for something else.
Here is that “something else.” Tim and his wife Christine could not have children. Over time they adopted four Korean children, all with special needs. As Tim realized the demands this put on his wife to be “mother, father, doctor, mover, plumber, etc.” he decided he would give up the game he loved in order to be a major league dad and husband. Christine was deeply moved by her husband’s decision for a number of reasons: she knew how much he loved baseball but realized through this decision how much he loved God, her, and their children. She was especially touched by Tim’s dedication to their children because her own father had deserted his family before she was born. She had never known a father’s unconditional love. Her husband’s decision was a clear indication that his family was now his greatest priority in life.
Mr. Burke is a true hero. Any man who chooses to forfeit a very lucrative career so that he can be with his family has earned a place in the spotlight. But I am afraid it will take many more actions like this to awaken the conscience of the American male who, in pursuit of personal pleasure or self-fulfillment, has left his family to shift for themselves. God has given the husband and father a great opportunity to experience the unity of “two becoming one” and then multiplying into a family. No other relationship offers such potential as the community of love we call “the family.” It is the tragedy of today’s husbands and fathers that few of them seem interested in achieving it. Mr. Burke obviously understood what so may of us find out the hard way—that babies grow up quickly and that family unity can easily degenerate into brokenness and fragmentation. And for that process there is no instant replay.
Senior Pastor of Cactus Christian Fellowship