Monday, October 27, 2014

Church devotion: Relevant Elephant - 2 Kings 16:14

2 Kings 16:14            The bronze altar that stood before the LORD, Ahaz had brought from the front of the temple--from between the new altar and the temple of the LORD--and put it on the north side of the new altar.

            King Ahaz was a wicked ruler of ancient Judah. The Bible states that he didn't do what was right in the eyes of God. He set up pagan shrines and sacrificed his first born son into the fires of the idol Molech. He sought political help from the Assyrians instead of God, and he changed the furnishings inside Solomon’s Temple by replacing them with Assyrian d├ęcor. He was a man of his time who was greatly influenced by his peers. He didn't keep to the traditional ways and ended up becoming a vassal king in the Assyrian Empire. He changed the religious and political culture of his nation through policies of appeasement and syncretism. By the end of his reign, Judah was greatly diminished and the people of God were deeply confused, as well as divided.

            What King Ahaz thought would bring about success, power, and esteem to his sovereignty only weakened him further. He thought that he would be lauded by the powerful Assyrians for adopting their ways; instead he was reduced to being a servant of their empire and paid taxes and tribute for protection. What seemed like a good idea at the beginning of his reign ended up ruining him. By paying more attention to what the nations around him possessed, instead of focusing on the blessings God could give him, Ahaz lost everything that a king desires – pride, prestige, and power. In Biblical terms, he was a foolish ruler who gave everything away and ended up with nothing.

            I see mainstream Christianity heading down the same path. People want the Church to be more like the world and emphasize the need to be relevant religiously, culturally, and politically. Even though we have followed this cultural shift towards relevance for almost 25 years, church numbers in the Western hemisphere are declining. The elephant in the room about the church’s yearning for relevance in order to grow, instead of pursuing reverence of God, is that it gets us nowhere. The Ahaz-ism of our churches has turned out to be a detrimental road to indifference, ineffectiveness, and irrelevance. If we don’t make some sort of a U-turn in order to get back to God, then the decline will reach unfixable depths which will require an influx of a new generation of missionaries from South America, Africa, and even Asia to re-ignite the Faith in the West.

Questions for personal reflection

Why are church people less connected to God now, than they were 25-40 years ago? How can those connections be remade?

Prayer:           Lord Jesus, the simple truth is that we have wandered from the pathway that leads us to God. We've allowed ourselves to be deceived by the world and distracted by our own pursuits. Help us all to turn our lives around so that we may re-connect our spirits to You, in both a strong and devoted way. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to make a comment or ask questions about today’s message, please send him an email to

Today’s image is one of John’s wildlife drawings called ‘African Sunset’. If you would like to view a larger version, please click on the following link: Elephant.

Sunday Sermon: Two Commandments - Matthew 22:34-46

            For as long as I can remember, I've always loved God. I can’t say when or where this actually began, but I do know that as a young child, God was always in my heart. I guess it first started with the bedtime prayers that my parents taught me when I was very young. It grew as the years went by and was confirmed to me by great Sunday school teachers in my childhood. They exemplified a real, loving Christianity to me and, because of their witness, I still love God today. I may not be the best Christian that I could be; I may often be subject to sins like everyone else, but that love of God, which was shaped and molded in my heart as a child, is still with me today. I hope and pray that when it becomes my turn to leave the surly bonds of Earth, my love of God will sustain me during that mysterious and unknown journey that is yet to come.

            I’m not alone in this. I am certain that many of you here today have loved God since childhood and continue to do so even in the midst of trying times and serious circumstances. To me, loving God is what makes us distinct in the animal kingdom. We have a greater awareness of the universe around us; we have a better understanding of how life evolves and works; we have a greater knowledge of history and geography, astronomy, and science than any other living creatures on Earth. Ultimately, I believe that this knowledge leads us towards God and because we experience life on a greater scale than any other life form, we are drawn closer to Him, to worship Him, to revere Him, and, of course, to love Him.

            In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is challenged once again about His beliefs. This time, a religious lawyer asks Him to state what He considers to be the greatest commandment in the Jewish Scriptures. Everybody knew that there were Ten Supreme Commandments, so Jesus was being asked to pick one. As usual, He was being tested. Whichever commandment He chose, His theological opponents would choose one of the remaining nine, in order to argue with Him. It was just like being on Facebook – you know the experience. You state something on Facebook like “Chocolate mint ice cream is the best ice cream in the world” and within a short time you get people you get people stating: “Vanilla peppermint is better than that” or “You haven’t tasted Mayfield’s Neapolitan” or “Ben and Jerry’s Triple chocolate is way better” or the inevitable “You do know that ice cream isn't good for you? Too much sugar and fat. You should be eating frozen broccoli spears!”

            People never change, do they? No matter which commandment Jesus chose, the Pharisees were ready to pounce on Him and ridicule His choice. As usual, however, Jesus took the higher ground. He wasn't about to get involved with foolish and stupid arguments, because He knew that they only led to quarrels. Instead, He spoke the truth from His heart, not to silence His critics, but to enlighten them – to open up their hearts, souls, and minds to a greater understanding and a better way of following God’s commands.

            So Jesus told them, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Jesus was actually re-framing all of the commandments in a simpler fashion. To love God with all of your heart meant to love God in the exact way that we were created. God created human beings in His likeness for this very purpose: to love Him and enjoy His creation forever. He didn't make us love Him; He didn't force us to love Him; He simply created us to love Him, freely and sincerely, of our own volition and free will. Loving God is not compulsory; it is meant to be experienced directly from the heart. Just as in the mysterious way that we love or fall in love with someone else, we are meant to love God. I think this is why we cannot say when or where we first started to love God – the love is either there or it isn't.

Jesus also stated that we are meant to love God with all our soul; this means that our spiritual nature is meant to be connected to God. Again, it’s a free-spirited connection – it either exists within us or not – and only we and God know this. However, through the work of the church, our spirits can be nurtured and nourished so that our spiritual side is drawn closer to God through the teachings of Christ. If our pulpit preachers and Sunday school teachers, our guiding elders and team leaders are doing the work of Christ sincerely, then everything we do in church has a deep spiritual connection to God.

In a world which has mistakenly broken its soul-connection to God in order to have a religious connection to its navel, the spiritual work of the Church is very important. This is why I keep trying to emphasize and reinforce in your hearts, souls, and minds that regular worship, prayer, and Bible study are immensely important in all of our lives, as well as the souls of our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. In my experience, there is nothing so empty as a soulless person; there is nothing so sorrowful as a spiritually stunted child.

            Jesus then emphasizes the need to love God with all of our minds. He was saying this specifically to the Pharisee lawyers because they had used their minds to focus upon the laws of God. They had memorized each and every one of them. They had even broken down the original Ten Commandments into 317 amendments, which meant that they had 317 by-laws to keep. Their minds were fully focused on not breaking any commandment or amendment. They upheld God’s Word as an everlasting Constitution which should never be re-interpreted, reformed, or revised unless it was considered to be a holy amendment.

            The trouble with these amendments was that they became idolatrous and broke their connection to God. The amendments were a means to keep God at a distance and became a wall of separation between themselves and God, as well as God’s people. In fact, the word ‘Pharisees’ means ‘The Separated Ones.’ Initially, it was meant to be a religious process where people separated themselves from the ways of the world to grow closer and become more spiritual – much like the cloistered monks and nuns in the European Middle Ages. Instead, it became a way of becoming religiously elite – separated from both God and man, in order to pursue a religious idealism which piously glorified the devoted individual Pharisee in the eyes of God and man.

            There’s a saying that we all know: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. This is exactly what Jesus was expressing to the Pharisees with His answer to their question. He was telling them that their minds were created to love God, not rules and regulations, or by-laws and precepts. Their minds were meant to contemplate the works of God, not man’s way. Their minds were supposed to meditate on God’s mercy and grace, justice and love, not sentences and phrases, interpretations and amendments. They were wasting their minds by focusing on trivial religious pursuits; they were wasting their lives on fruitless thoughts and mindless meanderings.

            So Jesus told them to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds, for to Him, this was the greatest commandment of all. But then, Jesus being Jesus, added something new, something unexpected, and something to challenge them. He said to them, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Now Jesus knew that the Pharisees absolutely loved themselves – most conceited people are – you only have to look at the Kardashians on television or magazines to understand that. The Pharisees had a deep pride in themselves and sought each day to add to their esteem. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican – The Pharisee tells God how good he is at keeping all of the laws and then brazenly thanks God that he is not like the publican. That’s what conceit does – it makes us love ourselves more than other people – it makes us thankful that we don’t live in a Third World country, or have grown up in a ghetto, or that we don’t have an addiction, or that we don’t watch seedy programs or read dirty books. It’s called ‘self-righteousness’ and we all suffer from it. Thank God, we’re all saying right now, that we’re not anything like those conceited Pharisees – if we had been there, we would have shown them how to follow Jesus, right?

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”       Wow. It’s a simple statement which, if fully acted upon, would end all wars, violence, poverty, and disease all over this paltry planet. If we could all love one another as neighbors in the same way that we love and take care of ourselves, we wouldn't need welfare, or Food stamps, or homeless shelters because we would all be taking care of one another.

You see Jesus was not only challenging the Pharisees, He was challenging the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, just as He is presently challenging us today! If we, as Erin Presbyterian Church loved the community where are located in, as much as we love ourselves, we could make an immense impact on this part of Knoxville, but only if we are willing to do so. Next Sunday, we get that opportunity by donating blood to Medic before and after the church service. We get a further opportunity to join our Outreach team on Saturday 22nd November to distribute food to those in need over at the Fish Pantry on Weisgarber. If we love only ourselves, we’ll probably avoid participating; if we honestly love our neighbors, then we’ll give blood to save other lives; and we’ll give out food to feed families.

So, to sum things up, Jesus said it best:

37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Preaching Devotion: Street Corners - Matthew 22:9

Matthew 22:9 Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' 

            When I first became a Christian, I wanted to tell everybody about Jesus. He filled my heart and my life with an amazing and wonderful joy. It was a liberating experience for me because from the moment that I gave my heart to Jesus, my life changed.

            On some Saturday nights, instead of going to the city pubs, I joined a group of young folks who stood on street corners in the city center, preaching the Gospel to any passers-by. Sometimes we were jeered and mocked; on other occasions, people stopped to listen, although most of them were drunk. I don’t know if we changed any lives, but it did change us. It made us more connected to Christ and more willing to serve Him wherever He sent us.

            When I look back on those times I often envy those young free-spirited Christians. These days, I preach from the safety of behind a pulpit or a laptop. The message is still the same, but it doesn’t have that raw and wild component to it. There’s a lack of spontaneity, and sometimes a lack of spirit.

            I think this is why Presbyterians are losing ground across the world. We don’t like chaos or improvisation; we feel compelled to present the message decently and with order. We want to lecture people about the faith instead of living it. We want to safely control the Spirit and keep things cozily contained, instead of being moved by the Spirit and sent out into the shopping malls and city streets.

            Perhaps the real point of today’s parable (Matthew 22:1-14) is that Christians are meant to invite people to participate in God’s Kingdom. We get too focused on church attendance and denominational concerns that we forget that Christ’s real work is out there on the city streets and in the busy malls.

Questions for personal reflection

Have I shared my faith with someone else recently? Have I displayed the reality of God’s Kingdom where I live, where I work, and where I shop?

Prayer:           Lord Jesus, You want to invite everyone to come to Your Kingdom and celebrate with God. Forgive us for being focused on too many other things, as well as for forgetting that Your ministry takes place mainly in the world, outside of the church. Grant us the courage and wisdom to share our Christian beliefs humbly and joyfully. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to make a comment or ask a question about today’s message, please send him an email to

Today’s image is one of John’s popular Fall drawings. It features a wee chipmunk eating an acorn and is called “Fall Break.” If you would like to view a larger version of the drawing, click on the following link: Chipmunk.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bible devotion: A Good King - 2 Kings 15:6

2 Kings 15:6    As for the other events of Azariah's reign, and all he did, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?

            Azariah began to reign over Judah when he was sixteen years old. According to the Bible, he was king for fifty two years. He was a good king, but we really don’t know anything about his reign. Today’s Bible verse hints at a book that has never been rediscovered – The Annals of the Kings of Judah. We don’t know what it contains because it was lost thousands of years ago, probably during the time of exile. There may have been many events, circumstances, and miracles during Azariah’s reign that would interest us, but we will never know of them unless archaeologists actually find those lost scrolls.

            The fact that he reigned over the nation for fifty two years must have meant that the land and his people had continuity, peace, and prosperity. Most of the countries around Judah were in turmoil at this time, so he must have been a strong leader, astute diplomat, as well as a wise king. Perhaps, one day in glory, we’ll get to hear about Azariah’s reign from his own lips because he appears to have been a very faithful king, too.

            In Shakespeare’s play ‘Julius Caesar’, Mark Anthony says this about the lives of leaders:
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;’

This, sadly, may be the case concerning Azariah’s life. Evil kings around him had their deeds recorded in the scriptures, but the life, work, and faithful ways of good King Azariah are unknown. Whatever he accomplished has been forgotten; how he faithfully served God is not remembered. However, this may be the case on Earth, but I don’t think that his goodness has gone unnoticed in the Heavenly realms.

            Sometimes faithful people despair at trying to be good. Taking and keeping the high road in personal circumstances, as well as against the tide of public opinion, can be grueling, exhausting, and often unrewarding. However, for those who endure despite the opposition, as well as the injustices smeared against them, the eternal reward is far greater than anything we can ever know, experience, or receive on Earth. As St. Paul wrote: “Blessings beyond our seeing, hearing, and knowing are prepared by God for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Questions for personal reflection

Where and when do I display the goodness of God in my life? What will other people remember about me?

Prayer:            Lord Jesus, we try to be good people and faithful servants. We know that we don’t always succeed, but we pray that You will continue to grant us opportunities and circumstances that will allow us to positively witness to Your love, compassion, and kingdom. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to ask questions or write a comment about today’s message, please send John an email to He enjoys reading and receiving your feedback.

Today’s image is one of John’s fun drawings for Halloween called “Text Hex.” If you would like to see a larger version of it, please click on the following link: Text Hex.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Devotion on Grace: The Gift of Grace - Matthew 20:15

Matthew 20:15        Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?

            Today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 20:1-16) has nothing to do with workers’ rights, shrewd employers, or salary compensation; it’s all about the grace of God and how He freely and independently chooses to bestow it upon anyone that He selects. Grace belongs to God, so when He blesses someone that we think doesn't deserve it, then we need to ask ourselves this question: who does deserve God’s grace?

            Of course, the honest answer to that question is no one deserves God’s grace, otherwise it would simply be a meritorious award or an honorary gift. We all for short of the standards that God expects of us; we all sin on a daily basis, so if God simply gave His grace to those who deserved it, no one would experience or know of God’s grace ever again.

            It’s because God is gracious that we can begin again each day with a clean slate. It’s because of God’s grace that we can turn away from our sin and turn toward His love. It’s because of God’s grace that we can live our lives not under the fear of judgment and wrath, but with the joy and gladness that only grace can bring. As the old hymn emphatically states, grace is absolutely amazing!

            Perhaps you still feel guilty about something you did in the past, or some wrong that you committed which hurt someone else. Maybe you regret something that you said or did which disappointed God and still makes you feel ashamed. Perhaps you believe that you cannot be forgiven, so all you deserve is God’s wrath and eternal punishment for a horrible sin in your life. To tell you the truth, every Christian feels that way; every church person knows that reality; every follower of Jesus has experienced those kind of faults and failures.

            However, because God is gracious and because He wants to give grace, we can all be forgiven and restored, pardoned and accepted of anything and everything that we have ever said or done. There are no limits to God’s grace when we come to Him humbly and sincerely seeking His pardon. When we acknowledge our sinfulness before Him in prayer, He gives to us His grace through Jesus Christ, His Son and our Savior.

Questions for personal reflection

What is the biggest regret in my life? Am I willing to confess it to God, in order to receive His grace?

Prayer:           Lord Jesus, You are the instrument of God’s grace and the channel of His mercy. We know that we do not deserve such a wonderful and amazing gift. We thank You for sacrificing Yourself so that we may be given God’s amazing and absolute grace in our sinful lives. In Your Holy Name, we thankfully pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to make a comment or ask questions about today’s message, please send him an email to

Today’s image is one of John’s latest Nativity drawing for kids. It’s called “Babushka Nativity.” If you would like to view a larger version, please click on this link: Nativity.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Advent Devotions for Churches

As many of you know, I write a lot of devotionals throughout the year. This year, I have written a full set of devotions for Advent for the congregation that I serve. For each day of Advent, beginning on Sunday 30th November, I have written a short devotion to correspond to the daily lectionary reading from the prophets. A Bible verse is highlighted, a question for reflection is posed, and a prayer is written at the end of the devotional.

If any churches would like Word file copies of the templates, then I would be willing to send them by email. The price is only $10 for the full set of four. Payment can be made via Paypal or check. An invoice for church records will also be sent via email.

Anyone who is interested may contact me by email at

Monday, October 06, 2014

Christian devotions: Some Serious Doubts - 2 Kings 10:7

2 Kings 10:7             When the letter arrived, these men took the princes and slaughtered all seventy of them. They put their heads in baskets and sent them to Jehu in Jezreel.

            It’s one of the bloodiest moments in the Bible and it’s done in the name of God. Seventy young princes are beheaded by their guardians simply because their father’s enemy Jehu believes that he is fulfilling God’s prophetic word of condemnation upon Ahab and his descendants. It seems that men way back then, just like now in the Middle East, justified their most gruesome and inhumane acts through the trappings and convenience of religion.

            When I read of those macabre events, as well as the cruel beheadings of innocents that are taking place today, it causes me to both despair of religious humanity, as well as to ask serious questions about God. If the slaughtering of people is the means by which God’s promises are fulfilled, does that mean that we are following a capricious deity who could wipe out the entire planet on a whim? I feel uneasy about asking that question because it may appear to others that I am casting doubt in the true existence of God. Be assured that I am not - what I’m really exploring is the sinful human ability to use God as the means of justifying wicked acts.

            This reminds me of what happened to Jesus. Religious people conspired against Him and used their scriptures to justify the decision to destroy Him. Jesus was conveniently killed by a political capital punishment process, but make no mistake about this, it was God-fearing servants and clergy who put Him on the Cross. The irony of it all was this: the people who believed that they were following and fulfilling God’s will were actually killing His Son. The wickedness and defiance of religious people against embracing God’s Son revealed the absolute depths of brutality, vehemence, and sin that people of faith will often justify, even today.

            So what’s the lesson in all of this? What can we glean and apply in our own lives? I think that the answer is one of self-awareness. Our zeal for God can destroy our love for one another. Our religious stances can obliterate our Gospel witness. Our strong faith can overpower and oppress those who are weak, vulnerable, and alienated – the very people that Jesus meant for us to tolerate, support, and love.

Questions for personal reflection

Have I ever used my faith to put down or humiliate someone else? If so, have I sought Christ’s forgiveness, or do I still justify my sinful action?

Prayer:          Lord Jesus, protect us from our self-righteousness and religious bigotry. Open our hearts and minds to Your loving teachings that continually challenge our passions and principles. Keep us on Your faithful path and protect us from our unjust ways. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment or ask questions about today’s passage, please send him an email to

Today’s image is one of my latest Halloween drawings, made with crayons and paper sculpting. It’s called “Halloween Hoot.” If you would like to view a larger version, please click on the following link: Owl.