It’s sad how many Christians neglect the care of their bodies, and then give spiritual reasons for it. So sad! I can come up with a half-dozen biblical reasons for hitting the floor right now and doing some push-up. How about this one? You should take care of your body because it’s the only one you’ve got. Sure it’s temporary and sure you’ll get a new one in eternity, but presumably you’ve got a lot of living yet to do in this particular earth-suit of yours. So if it starts to go belly-up because you’re belly’s way out, then you’re going have to deal with the consequences for a long, long time.

Ecclesiastes 12 tells us, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” The passage goes on to speak of ‘the sun and light being darkened’ (dwindling eyesight), the ‘keepers of the house trembling’ (balky knees), the ‘grinders ceasing’ (decaying teeth), ‘all the daughters of song are brought low’ (bad hearing), and ‘desire fails’ – well, you can figure out what that is.

Remember, this life is the test-run for eternity. Sure, new bodies are promised us on the other side. But if you want to live as well as you can on this side of things, and you hope to hang around for 70 or 80 years, then do what you can to take care of that body of yours. Hit the floor buddy. Give me ten!

Our theme this week is the care of our bodies, and I’ve been trying to sell you on the importance of doing this. Here’s another reason to consider: Your usefulness to God is impacted by how you use your body.

Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:20 – “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.” Trophimus was one of Paul’s missionary sidekicks who occasionally accompanied him in his travels. At some point in their travels, Trophimus fell ill and Paul had to leave him in someone’s care. So what?

Well, Trophimus’ usefulness to Paul ended with his sickness. Paul wrote in Romans 12:1 “I urge you in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices to God.” You’re not going to do your family much good if you die of a heart-attack in your 40s because you didn’t take care of yourself. Pastors don’t do their churches any favors if they have to cut short visiting people in their hospital beds because they’re always in one. The young pastor Timothy had frequent stomach ailments. Paul didn’t tell him to pray more or have more faith or rebuke intestinal demons. He told him, ‘Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine.” Wine was recognized for its medicinal qualities, so Paul urged Timothy to take better care of himself.

Now I want to be so tender here as we make this point. We’re not saying if you’re sick, it’s your fault. The puke falls from the just and unjust. Sickness is part of this fallen order. We’re not saying if you’re sick or old or weak that you cannot be of use to God. Not in the least. Paul had some ‘thorn in his flesh’, some physical thing that was dogging him, and Paul asked God to take it away from him. But the Spirit reminded Paul that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.

Of course God can use us at any stage in life or at any point of health. As long as there is breath inside of me, I want to be useful to God.

But it is a point of stewardship to recognize that my ability to serve, to volunteer, to teach, to give will be limited if I can’t answer the bell because my body is down for the count.

A source of spiritual growth too many Christians ignore is to supplement their regular Bible study with the reading of classic Christian authors from across the ages. If we believe the Holy Spirit has been active since the dawn of the church age, then it goes without saying that we would benefit from listening to our brothers and sisters from other generations.

One author that imprinted on me in seminary was a 16th-century Puritan preacher and writer named Richard Sibbes, who left us with a substantial collection of his sermons. Sometimes I find great encouragement pulling up Mr. Sibbes on my Kindle and letting him speak into my life. So the other day, I was perusing through a devotional he wrote on Hosea 14:1, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.”

How do we return to God? Sibbes outlined 3 stages a wandering soul must go through:

  1. “There must be examination and consideration whither our ways tend. There must be stopping considerations.” I love how he puts that! There must be stopping considerations. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. We’ll never change our habits or the course of our lives until a sense of inner poverty arises within us. We say to ourselves, “Doing this makes me a poorer person. I’ve gotta stop this or this isn’t going to turn out well.” The road back to God begins with reflection.
  2. “There must be humiliation, with displeasure against ourselves…taking shame to ourselves for our ways and courses; and withal, there must concur some hope of mercy.” The thought of changing is just the first step. Unless there is some sort of emotional buy-in, we’ll not return to God. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said next. Shame is not a bad thing if it sounds an alarm inside of us to our need for God.
  3. “There must be a resolution to overcome impediments. For when a man thinks or resolves to turn to God, Satan will stir up all his instruments, and labor to kill Christ in his infancy, and to quench good while it is in the purpose only.” Reflection that leads to remorse is pointless until it prompts teachable resolution. “Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus then added. The thought I should return to God which deepens into I must return to God is completed by saying I will return to God. And with the resolve comes action.

Some of you reading this right now need to return to God. You’ve wandered far too long, and you’re not better off because of it. Listen to the words of this follower of Christ from five centuries ago.

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The Prodigal Son story in Luke 15 teaches us the right view of God, and ourselves, but also of lost people.

Jesus had the reputation of being ‘the friend of sinners’. Not because he loved sin. Not once in his life did Jesus commit sin. He hated sin and evil. But he loved people. And it broke his heart to see the way sin ruined people. He wanted to do anything and everything in his power to see them set free from their sin.

But that meant he had to establish relationships with them, and that meant he had to socialize with them. The Pharisees thought this scandalous. Because they couldn’t separate the sin from the sinner. But Jesus saw something salvageable and redeemable in lost people. He had the faith to see them set free from their sin if only someone would love them and point the way.

The older son in the parable couldn’t separate the sin from the sinner. He wouldn’t even call him his brother. “When this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” But the father reminds him to see instead a brother restored and saved from death.

Somehow we must learn to look at lost people as potential, future members of our church family. Just the mere fact that we call them “lost” suggests that they need to be “found”. Do you have the faith to see that foul-mouthed co-worker at the shop as someone whom one day might be singing to God with you? Do you have the faith to see that rebellious daughter of yours who’s shacking up with her third boy in as many years one day loving Jesus, forgiven, pure, happily married?

If they are ever to come home, it won’t be with you spitting and sneering at them. Try love and grace instead.

The book of Daniel is a great book to read when you’re struggling with how to live a holy and vibrant Christian life in a world that’s constantly trying to squeeze the faith out of you. Many Christians – in fact entire churches – are doing poorly in this arena. As the culture has pressed hard on biblical thinking, particularly in the area of our sexual theology, many ‘Christians’ can’t fall over themselves fast enough to reinvent their faith in a more culture-pleasing way.

The pagan King Nebuchadnezzar devised a 3-year assimilation process meant to turn Daniel and his friends into card-carrying Babylonians. Daniel though wasn’t about to give in. After being taught the language of the Babylonians, he was then taught the literature of the Babylonians.

Literature has to do with art.  Here we’re talking about things like books, movies, music, paintings.  Nothing is so powerful as art in shaping and changing the way people think and act.  One of the most potent ways in which the world will try and squeeze the life out of your faith is through art.

Rap artists and movie-makers will load up their “art” with profanity and violence, then when the protests come, say they are only “reflecting the culture.” But art is a profound shaper of culture and behavior. Deviancy on the screen will lead to deviancy on the street, guaranteed. How many F-bombs do you have to hear before they start slipping from your own lips?

What’s a Christian to do? Not run from art, for goodness sake! In creating art we reflect the image of God, the true Artist, who filled the world with beauty for the eyes and ears. Truly, faith without art is dead!

The simple answer is two-fold: we filter and we fill.  Filter out from your home and heart the art that debases. Monitor what your kids take in, but don’t just call the shots for them. As they get older, train them to be discerning.

But then fill your home and heart with art that strengthens faith and ennobles our lives. It doesn’t have to be Christian art either to be good. I don’t think the flowers on your dining room table are Christian flowers. But they do give glory to God.

Through many dangers, toils and snares; I have already come

‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home

John Newton’s classic hymn is timeless for many reasons – its heavenly melody, the author’s lifestory, and of course, the life-giving theology of the song.

This verse reminds me of an essential truth I ought to know to live life well: the truth that this life is not heaven. That for all its splendor and goodness, life on this earth is difficult beyond comprehension.  It is filled with dangers, toils and snares.  But – and here’s the good news – God will meet me in these trials if I look for his grace and help.

Christians who lack a biblical ‘theology of suffering’ will fall for the belief that if they do their best to honor God by living the right way, that he then is obligated in some way to make their lives easier.  Why do I know that many think this way? Because what happens when a danger, toil or snare comes along? They say to God, “Wait a minute?  Here I’ve done all this for you, I’ve made all these sacrifices, I’ve tried my best to keep pure, and this is how you treat me! This is what I get in return! ” But this is life. The rain falls on the just and unjust.  Rather than blaming God, seek him for daily strength to honor him through the trial.

Another variation on this theme is to think when life gets hard that Satan is attacking you. But we need to be careful with what we give Satan credit for.  If you’re going through financial struggles right now, that’s not Satan attacking you.  That’s life.  Satan doesn’t control the world oil markets.  He’s not the head of Exxon Mobil (though you may think he is.)

And here’s another thought: What if your financial struggles are because you’re not managing money in a biblical way? You can yell at God and rebuke Satan all you want, but until you learn to work, save, and budget the way Scripture teaches, you will tread water.

If life is stressed because you’ve got two or three kids at home, that’s not Satan attacking you. Don’t you go shaving their heads looking for a 666 on their scalps – learn to discipline them. You’re in a season of life that is proven to be filled with challenges.

Life is tough. For the things you cannot change, take Jesus’ hand, receive his grace, and let him help you hang in there. For the things you can change: let him teach you biblical ways of managing your life.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”

So begins the famous statement of faith called the Apostles’ Creed. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo” which means “I believe”. It’s related to a number of words familiar to us. To attribute “credence” to something is to make it believable. Something “incredulous” is something unbelievable. The words “credit card” means “belief in money which isn’t there.” (Actually, I made that last one up.)

There is something very powerful being said when a Christian uses these two words I believe, as opposed to other words, such as I know or I feel. If I were to say, “I know that God the Father…” we would be in the arena of science and fact. But God is simply not a subject for scientific inquiry.

This is not to say there is no evidence for God’s existence. Creation itself is a powerful pointer to a Designer, and according to Scripture, leaves us without excuse before him. Jesus’ death and resurrection is a provable historical assertion. When a Christian says “I believe” they are not saying that their faith is irrational. Or blind.

Every day we do things “by faith”. Did you send your last hamburger out to be tested before you ate it? Why not? People have gotten sick, even died, by eating tainted meat. Yet you went ahead anyway and stuffed your face. How many bridges did you drive over this past week? Did you stop before each one and inspect it before moving forward? Why not? The nation’s infrastructure is in poor shape these days. Bridges have collapsed while people were driving over them.

But you proceeded with faith. Yet it wasn’t blind faith. It was faith supported by reason, evidence and the testimony of others. When the Christians says I believe, it’s just this sort of faith that is being utilized. Maybe not every Christian can defend the soundness of their belief this way (shame on them.) But everyone owes it to themselves to at least investigate why Jesus said he was the “way, the truth, the life”. (And if you won’t investigate it, then shame on you.)

Heaven forbid you find yourself standing before the real God on Judgment Day, and realize then that all you ever bothered to learn of Christianity were a few jokes you heard on the golf course.

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“I believe in God the Father Almighty…”

The Apostle’s Creed next calls God “Almighty”. So is God some sort of cosmic Superman, or a heavenly Dwayne Johnson? Not quite. Three words that come to mind when I consider how God is “Almighty” are:

Omniscience. Anything that is capable of being known is already in the mind of God. He knew all about calculus in the days when our ancestors were still counting with their hands and feet. He knows the future as well, for he is the great “I am”. The future is contained within his very being. “Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O Lord,” says the writer of Psalm 139. And God knows all about us. There is nothing we can hide from him, so we shouldn’t even try.

Omnipresence. God is present everywhere. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” asks the same writer in the same psalm. I never realized this so acutely as when I took my first plane flight years ago. There I was at 32,000 feet, eating a gristled piece of leather advertised as ‘choice filet of beef’, and feeling quite lonely as I peered out the window. 32,000 feet is a long way down. But in that moment, as I prayed, I sensed God whispering, “Shhh. I’m here. I’m with you. The clouds are the dust of my feet.” And I was comforted (though the meaty thing didn’t taste any better.) God’s omnipresence should matter to us.

Omnipotence. God is all-powerful. It’s helpful to remember this truth, especially in a world such as ours where there is so much that can rock our world. Southern California recently experienced an “earthquake swarm” south of here, and suddenly everyone was talking about ‘earthquake kits’ around here. That’s a new one to this Iowa boy. I traded in tornado sirens for earthquake kits. Oh well. I worship the one who tells me he is my “refuge and strength” therefore I shouldn’t fear “though the earth give way” (Psalm 46). I’ll shore up my kit – then place my trust in him.

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God is maker of heaven and earth, we confess in the Apostle’s Creed. Christians, of all people on the planet, should be the most motivated to care for the planet.

Let’s say you have an old, smudged painting sitting in your attic. You’ve lugged it around with you for years, taking it everywhere you’ve moved, and more than once, you’ve been tempted to get rid of it. Now pretend that one day, you discover that lo and behold, that old painting is an original Rembrandt. In the twinkling of an eye, that painting will be cleaned, restored, reframed, and put front and center in the house.

Once you learned that the painting was not thrown together randomly by some two-bit artist in a back-alley gallery, but was the creation of the master himself, it changed how you treated that painting.  Similarly, once we grasp that the universe is not the result of random, haphazard, accidental processes, but is in fact the result of divine artisanship, a product of the Master himself, we should never be able to view the earth the same way again.

Sadly though, Christians don’t always have the best track record when it comes to supporting environmental stewardship. Some argue that because all this is ‘temporary’ and since ‘Jesus is coming back soon’, it’s foolish to expend time and resources caring for the earth. Such idiocy. It’s precisely because Jesus is returning one day, that we want to be able to hand back to him evidence of our good and wise stewardship – one of the lessons of the parable of the talents.

We don’t have to drink the Kool Aid with every wacky environmental trend out there. But Scripture is clear on three things at least: Because God created the earth…

  • …we ought to listen to nature, for it speaks to us of the existence of God. (Psalm 24:1)
  • …we ought to appreciate nature, for it proclaims the handiwork and wisdom of God. (Psalm 19:1)
  • …we should preserve nature because it is a gift of God to humans for our enjoyment and sustenance. (Psalm 104:14-15)

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“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord”

Christ. It’s one of the most prolific swear words used in our culture today, which is a travesty once you discover the richness of this word. “Be not afraid,” said the angels to the shepherds, “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

When the shepherds heard this announcement, they were so overwhelmed with joy that they threw aside their job security by abandoning their post and high-tailing it to Bethlehem. Why? The Christ was breathing upon the earth.

For the Jew, the word was magical. Christ is the Greek derivative of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. It meant ‘anointed one’ and ‘deliverer’. Initially, it was a word of respect for high priests and kings. It was only as Israel tasted the bitterness of oppression and exile, that the word began to grow in their minds and hearts. The prophets began to promise that the day would come when God would send a different kind of Christ, like David, but much, much greater.

The Christ would free the people from all tyranny and establish the rule of God over the earth. Of the increase of his government and of peace, there would be no end. Swords would be beaten into plowshares. The earth would be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters covered the sea.  The wolf would lay with the lamb. The very creation would be transformed.

Of course, the shepherds – like most Israel – expected the Christ to be a great military warrior who would cleanse the land with the sword of all the nasty Romans. But that sort of Christ would never be able to bring about the conditions predicted by the prophets.

To bring about those conditions, this Christ would have to make war on something greater than Romans. He would have to make war on the very evil that leads to tyranny and oppression in the first place – the evil of sin imbedded in the human heart.

If you surrender your life to Jesus the Christ, God won’t chase the Romans out of your life either. Your problem neighbor will still be there in the morning. You’re prodigal child will still be wandering. If you have arthritis, your joints will still ache. Life might seem grim.

But give Christ the freedom to go to work on your heart, to cleanse you of sin and teach you a new way to live, and your world will start to change for the better in breath-taking ways. And who knows, but he might teach you new attitudes and behaviors to take care of that neighbor and child as well.

A Savior has been born for you, who is Christ the Lord.

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“…conceived by the Holy Spirit…”

The Holy Spirit is the Rodney Dangerfield of the holy Trinity – he doesn’t get any respect. Just look here in the Apostles Creed. He gets all of one phrase.

But spirituality without the Holy Spirit is like Grape Nuts without grapes (or nuts). The Bible commands us to be “filled with the Spirit” and to “keep in step with the Spirit”, to employ “gifts of the Spirit”, to seek to bear “fruit of the Spirit”, and to avoid the sins of “quenching” and “blaspheming” the Spirit. Clearly the Holy Spirit is to be given serious attention by any follower of Christ.

Spirituality is a buzzword of our age. Everyone is spiritual. You don’t need to go to church anymore either. Aroma therapy candles and a hot tub are suitable sacraments for being spiritual. You don’t need God either. It used to be that some deity needed to be evoked – Zeus, Thor, Yahweh, anyone. Today a ten-minute meditation exercise while ocean waves roll in your earbuds qualifies as soul-enrichment.

Far be it from me to question the benefits of a good sauna or power nap. I frequently indulge in both. But let’s not get carried away and pat ourselves on the back for experiencing transcendence, when all we’ve done is boosted our endorphin levels. True spirituality is not relaxation any more than visiting Disneyland is riding the monorail.

True spirituality is an actual, tangible relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit – where there is real communication, time together, and a sharing of hearts.

What sets Christianity apart from every other form of “spirituality” is that it promises its followers a real, personal connection with its Founder. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” Jesus promised his disciples (John 14:18), referring to the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus promises to be a warrior inside our hearts to help us fight the battles we are in.

Go ahead and light the candles. Have a soak in the tub. Quiet your thoughts. It’ll feel good. But it won’t tame your sin nature or bring your lust to heel. For that you have work to do. A daily appointment to keep. With a friend who longs to pour his heart out to you.

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“…was crucified…”

A great debate that has raged since Jesus died is the question: Who killed Jesus?

Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ trial has the Jews shouting out for his death, saying, “His blood be on us and on our children!”, a verse that tragically has been used over the centuries to justify a startling amount of violence against Jews.

Yet crucifixion was a Roman innovation, and only Romans were allowed to order it, so no matter how much hand-wringing and hand-washing the Roman governor Pilate did over Jesus’ case, at the end of the day, Jesus’ fate rested in his hands alone.

But the logistics of how Jesus ended up dead on that first Good Friday are actually missing the truth of the matter.

God the Son chose to go to the cross.  God the Father willed for it to happen.

The prophet Isaiah foretold 700 years before it happened: “Yet is was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.”

The apostle Peter in his very first sermon declared, “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”  (Acts 2:23)

The Jews and the Romans were merely instruments in the hands of God, carrying out something which God had determined would happen before the world was even created.

In his first letter to us, Peter wrote: “You were redeemed…with the precious blood of  Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was chosen before the creation of the world.”  (1 Peter 1:18-19). 

So when Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago, he knew what was going to happen to him by the end of the week.  And the only reason that it would happen is that he would allow it to happen.  “I lay down my life…” Jesus said.  “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18).

The Romans didn’t kill him.  The Jews were not Christ-killers.  We all had our hands on that hammer as it swung down and drove the nails into his hands and feet.  But in the final analysis, that wasn’t why it happened.

The only reason it happened was because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10).

Nails were not what held him to the cross.  Love was what kept him there. Love for you and me.

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“…On the third day, he rose again from the dead…”

The fact that counting out three days from his death Jesus returned to life in a resurrected body is absolutely essential to the rescue mission he undertook. Why is the resurrection so critical? Here are three reasons:

First, because it proves that everything Jesus claimed about himself is true. The evidence for Jesus being who he said he was is considerable without the resurrection. He fulfilled dozens of specific Messianic prophecies written down centuries before he was born.

His very life is evidence. No one in history compares to him. His profound teaching, his perfect life, his unquenchable love, his astounding power speak volumes.

But for Christians throughout time, the resurrection clinches the deal. Technically speaking, the resurrection is not what saves us (Jesus death accomplished that.) But the resurrection proves that his death worked. It’s heaven’s confirmation number that God accepts the transaction. Without it, we would have reason to wonder.

Second, the resurrection proves that our destiny is to become sinless, holy and good once more. That which we forfeited in the Eden – eternal life, perfect purity and face-to-face communion with our Maker – will be returned to us again.

The Bible repeatedly promises us that in eternity we will be forever rid of our sin.

  • The journey begins in this life. “We…are being transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
  • But it comes to completion after death or upon Christ’s return. “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye…we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:52)
  • This transformation is certain for all blood-bought disciples. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:29)
  • The end result of this miraculous metamorphosis is that we will resemble Jesus in our moral character and love. “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2)

How do we know these verses aren’t just wishful thinking? Simple: look at Jesus’ resurrection. His resurrected body is Exhibit A of what will happen to us. Paul called Christ the ‘first fruits’ of what will also happen to those who follow him (1 Corinthians 15:20). If there’s a ‘first fruit’ then a much larger harvest is to follow.

What’s more, we don’t wait till then to enjoy the freedom Christ won for us. Here’s what really astounding. The third reason the resurrection is critical: it proves that Jesus is alive to help us in the fight for holiness. We don’t have to do this alone. Jesus promised he would be with us always to the end of the age, and he meant it (Matthew 28:20).

We love “principles” today. Every blog article promises “5 Steps To Better Health”, or “4 Practices To Be Wealthy”. But man does not live by principles alone.  In the end when it’s all said and done, purity will not be achieved by principles, but by a Person. In Christianity, it’s not the rules that matter so much in the end, as the relationship. Purity will not be achieved by the steps which you take, but by a hand which you take.  The hand of a Savior and Friend who is very much alive.

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“From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.”

The subject of the return of Christ to earth has stirred the hearts and imaginations of people since Jesus first spoke of it. It’s just one of those topics that captures peoples interest. Like sharks. Discovery Channel doesn’t put on a Pufferfish Week each year. It’s Shark Week that jacks up the ratings. Talking about “Christ’s return” or “the end of the world” has the same effect.

Whenever Jesus taught his disciples about the “last days” or spoke to them about “his return”, they became curious as preschoolers and peppered him with questions. “Lord, when will this be?” “Lord, are you at this time going to establish your kingdom?”

When the first generation of Christians heard Christ’s return taught, it excited them and agitated them at the same time. At Thessalonica, people started quitting their jobs and acting goofy. Paul had to write them and tell them to calm down. Down to our own time, the subject still grabs our attention. Remember the buzz about Y2K when the year 2000 rolled around?

Jesus spoke frequently about four things in particular: his death, his resurrection, his departure, and his return. He didn’t hide any of these facts from his followers, but discussed them openly. Since he told the truth about his death, and about his resurrection, and about his departure, it’s fairly safe to say that he was speaking the truth to us about his return.

We find ourselves in the season of Advent, a word which means “arrival” or “coming”. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ first advent, when the Son of God was born as a babe in Bethlehem. But we do not do justice to our Christmas preparations if we do not also bear in mind his second advent.

The Bible tells us plainly, “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages [first Christmas] to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself…So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of man, will appear a second time [second Christmas] not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:26-28).

What should that eagerness look like? Not like lunacy. You don’t quit your job, drop out of school, or get careless with life. Till the very last day of earth or the very last day of your life, you give Jesus your very best.

Neither should this eagerness be dependent on your life’s circumstances. If you’re getting married next spring, you’re no doubt hoping that Jesus will hold off just a bit. But if you’ve just become a widow or widower, your hurting heart is longing to see your Lord. (My mom tells me that once after having broken up with a girlfriend, I moped around the house saying, “I wish Jesus would come back.” I don’t remember that. Must of put that girlfriend out of my brain in a hurry.)

For me, eagerness for Christ’s return means my heart is filled with a rock-solid confidence that Christianity is true, and that Jesus is everything that he said he was.

Christianity doesn’t look at the unfolding of history the way Eastern religions do – the unending repetition of an infinite cycle (birth/death/rebirth) – over and over again, until somewhere, somehow you are able to escape the loop. Neither do we look at the human story the way naturalistic evolutionists do – the universe has been here billions of years before us, and will be here billions of years more after us, and our time on the stage is so brief that to say our existence has any true meaning is laughable; we are just a blip on the cosmic radar screen.

On the contrary, Christians see life as astonishingly meaningful, because each of us has been created by a very real and personal God. Because of this, history unfolds not as a never-ending cycle, or as some meaningless, random evolutionary chain, but as the outworking of a specific plan of God.

History is his story. And the human chapter we are in has a specific beginning and most definitely a certain ending. One day the author of this story will walk onstage, and like the old proverb says – When the author walks on the stage, the play is over.

Which for those who know and love the Author means the real adventure of life and love is only just beginning.

How’s that for a great, big Merry Christmas?

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“…the communion of saints…

I like how the Apostles Creed doubles down on the importance of the Church by mentioning it twice. Right after declaring our belief in the “holy, Christian Church”, we then add, “the communion of saints.” While the first phrase is a big-picture look through the telescope at the “Church”, this second phrase is a look through the microscope at the “communion” individual members (the “saints”) enjoy with each other.

The New Testament uses a special Greek word to describe this communion – koinonia. We typically translate it “fellowship”. Sadly, the word “fellowship” is so over-used today that it’s lost most of its impact. Two guys bowling can claim to be having fellowship. But koinonia, like many a Greek word, has deepening layers and texture to it.  Scripture mentions at least three types of communion the saints have with each other.

First, there is surface-level koinonia. Acts 2:42 says the first Christians devoted themselves to koinonia, then tells us in verse 46 that daily they attended the temple together and broke bread in each other’s homes. This is where fellowship begins – koinonia cannot occur unless people get together.  (So yes, fellowship can occur on Lane 7 with your bowling buddy.) This is where you begin to know people, which then allows you to move deeper into fellowship.

The second level of fellowship might be called sharing koinonia. Acts 2:45 tells us that the first Christians practiced extraordinary generosity with one another. “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” From the first century to the 21st, followers of Christ are demonstrably the most generous people on earth.

The Left-leaning hostility toward Christianity we have seen unleashed in recent years is utter foolishness. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! If the Church were ever crimped and marginalized the way many advocate, the irreparable harm that would do to our cities and neighborhoods would be incalculable. You thought Bedford Falls was bad-off without George Bailey! American society without a fully free and functioning church would become ten times the nightmare you might think it is now.

A third level of fellowship Scripture speaks of is suffering koinonia. In Philippians 3:10, Paul writes that he wants to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the “fellowship of his sufferings” (where he uses the word koinonia once again.) We’re as far from the bowling alley as we can get now. The Bible calls us in the church to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal.6:2), and to “weep with those who weep” (Rom.12:15).

Our willingness to suffer for the sake of Jesus then branches out into the world, as we take the gospel into an unbelieving and hostile culture. The world will hate us, Jesus promised (John 15:18, a verse that seldom appears on any Bible Promise Calendar I’ve seen). But it’s a hatred we will be willing to endure for the sake of inviting others to share in the communion of the saints.

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“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (Numbers 33:11).

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that Christianity is not religion but a relationship.  What does that mean exactly?

Well ask yourself: What is religion?   Religion is really just man-made efforts to reach out to God.  Christianity on the other hand is where God reaches out to us. He initiates the dance. He draws closer to us, and invites us into a heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind, spirit-to-spirit sharing that is very real and very transforming.

The entire testimony of Scripture shows us that God is not nearly as interested in playing at religion with us as he is with having a relationship with us.

Take prayer for example.  To play religion with God might mean saying aloud the words of a ritualistic prayer and then considering your praying finished.  You say aloud the words of the Lord’s Prayer, or if you’re Catholic you say the Rosary, or if you’re Muslim you repeat the Shahadah, and when you’re done, you’ve prayed.  It’s something you can check off your list.  That’s religion.

But is that really what God means prayer to be?  When Jesus came on the scene, he said, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt.6:7).  Babbling – that’s how pagans prayed.  Saying the same words over and over and over again.  The King James translation calls this “vain repetition”.

This isn’t prayer, Jesus is saying.  “When you pray,” Jesus said, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”  Jesus describes prayer as a simple, personal, private conversation with a God so close, and so real we can call him “our Father”.  It’s using everyday language, where we talk to God about our everyday lives, and where God Himself is allowed to join in on the dialogue, and it’s very real, it’s very life-giving, and it’s very life-changing.

Prayer in this sense is not something you can ever really check off a list, anymore than you can kiss your spouse goodbye in the morning and check that off a list.  “There.  Talked to the wife.  Check.”  Because prayer is a real conversation with the real God about your real life, you can learn to talk to God throughout the day.  “Pray without ceasing,” the Bible teaches.

“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (Exodus 33:11)

We learn from this story of Moses in Exodus 33 that to have the friendship with God, we must set our hearts to seeking him. But there’s more to learn in the story.

Verse 9 says, “As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.  Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent.”  The second lesson we learn here for being best friends with God is Moses let God speak into his life. 

 Most people think prayer is you speaking with God, but we mustn’t forget that prayer is also God speaking with you.  There is a listening component to prayer which cannot be overlooked.  If in prayer we do all the talking, then we have not prayed.  If we do not allow God to speak into our lives, then we have not prayed.

God says to us in Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.”  The prophet Isaiah told us where we’d find our strength.  “In quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15).  Jesus told us in John 10:27 – “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

Most people who play religion never allow God to get a word in edgewise.  And a lot of that is intentional. Because once you start letting God speak to you about your life, he’s going to start putting his finger on things that he wants to help you change. Things in your self-centeredness and shortsightedness that you’d rather not deal with.  So you put a muzzle on God or you stop up your ears, so you don’t have to listen.  Religion is so much safer.

But for those who want to be best friends with God, they will choose to listen.  They will say, like Samuel said, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”  And God will speak.

How can I learn to hear God’s voice?  It begins by letting God speak to you through His Word. He will speak to you in the act of having your daily quiet time (which is why you ought to develop the habit of a daily devotion). He’ll speak about your marriage, your friends, your hurts, your job, your use of time, your habits – when your ears and heart are open to God, words will start to leap off the page for you.

Images of things, and quiet whispers, will enter your mind.  Over time, you’ll learn to recognize that some of those images, and some of those whispers are from God.  That image of you marching into the courthouse to file divorce papers – it’s unlikely that one’s from God. But there will be other images and whispers which you will learn to recognize – things that you probably wouldn’t have imagined all on your own – that have the aroma of Jesus about them.

Another important way God speaks into our lives is through other people, particularly our Christian brothers and sisters. Through something as sublime as a sermon, or as simple as a cup of coffee with a friend, God can speak to you concerning things that occupy your ‘blind spot’ – things you wouldn’t see or think about unless someone else called attention to it.

Moses let God speak into his life.  And this is another reason why he enjoyed the friendship of God.

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Because he was God’s friend, Moses’ instinct was to please God. 

In Exodus 33:14-17, Moses prays for God to go with Israel as she enters into the Promised Land.  “Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.  How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us…And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.’” 

You cannot claim to be God’s friend if you have no concern for pleasing God with your life. Ephesians 5:10 tells us “Find out what pleases the Lord.”  Sounds simple enough, but not every Christian has this mindset.

I was talking to someone once who was struggling with a moral dilemma. They more or less came to me looking for a pastoral blessing on a bad choice they were about to make.  And the thing was, they knew what was right and wrong in this situation! In fact, this person said at very beginning of the conversation, “Look, I know as a Christian that the hard way is usually the God way.”

And then they proceeded to beg me to help them take the easy way out.  Well, physician, heal thyself! Clearly, this person’s instinct was not to please the Lord, but to satisfy their own self-centered desires.

I thought what this person said was pretty fascinating.  “The hard way is usually the God way.”

Jesus himself said, “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.” (Matt.7:13-14).  It’s easier to want the divorce than work on the marriage.  It’s easier to cave in to the temptation than to fight it.  It’s easier to go along with the crowd than to be the one who stands out by making the right choice.

No one said that following Christ was going to be easy.  Jesus himself asked the Father if another way was possible than the way of the cross. But there was no other way for him, and there is no other way for us. The hard way is usually the God way, and also – don’t forget this – it’s the best way. 

But here’s the good news. Though it’s the hard way, in fact way too hard to do it on our own, we don’t have to do it on our own. The Gospel teaches us that God knows we’re powerless to live a life that pleases him on our own. So he came to earth in Jesus Christ to die for our forgiveness and our freedom. For those who own up to their weakness and sin, Jesus himself with come alongside us to do the journey of life with us.

Cry out to him today. Seek him. Listen to him. Yield to him. His arms are open wide. And his friendship is for you.

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In the story of Joseph being tempted by Potiphar’s wife, we see Joseph do a third thing which a person of good character practices. He used his head and thought it through.

After saying, ‘No!’, Joseph began to give reasons why he was not going to cave in to this sin.  “Why my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care…My master has withheld nothing from me…How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God.”

Joseph gives 3 reasons why he can’t do this: 1) He’ll break his master’s trust.  2) He’ll lose everything he has earned and forfeit the privileges and power he now enjoys.  3) The biggest reason of all – if he did this, he’d be sinning against God. Joseph didn’t want to break God’s heart, lose his favor and incur his judgment.

When God tells us to do something or not to do something, usually there are very good reasons why God has said this.  God’s not a kill-joy.  He’s not out to make you miserable.  He really does want your life to be blessed.  So when he gives you a commandment to follow, he’s really saying, ‘I love you.  I don’t want to lose you.  And I don’t want evil to happen to you.”

You owe it to yourself, and more importantly, you owe it to God, to start thinking these things through.  A person of good character recognizes that life is like a chess game.  In chess, you have to measure every move you make. Good chess players are always thinking several moves ahead.  If I do this, then this might happen, and goodness, he’ll have me checkmated three moves from now.

We need to develop the habit of approaching our moral choices this way. “If I give in to this temptation now, if I commit this sin now, then this is sure to happen later, and if that happens, goodness, what a mess I’ll be in.  No way is the pleasure now worth the pain and shame that’s right around the corner. 

 The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it, ‘Hold on a moment. Let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.”

Paul wrote about the necessity of “taking captive our thoughts” (2 Cor.10:5). That’s what Epictetus is saying. We need to install an armed guard over our soul, and allow it to say, “Halt! Who goes there?” to the impulses that approach the gateway of our minds.

Blogger Eric Barker, who led me to this quote says, “Catch yourself when you’re about to act and just postpone. You don’t have to grit your teeth and be a willpower superhero yet. Just pause and think.”

Joseph’s not out of the woods yet. But in thinking it through, he temporarily mutes the lure of the temptation, and in that breathing space, God can enter.

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In John 13 is a famous story about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Ever wonder why you’re on this earth? Well this story gets to the heart of it.

Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, the King of kings, gets up while he is eating his last supper with his disciples, and removes his outer cloak – this beautiful, seamless tunic, symbolizing his rabbinic and royal authority, that was such a valued garment that when he was crucified, the soldiers threw dice for it rather than rip it apart. Jesus removes this garment and wraps himself in a towel.  He takes off his king’s clothing and dresses up as a mere house slave.

If that weren’t bad enough, then he does something unthinkable – he begins to wash the disciples’ feet.  You and I modern readers might find the footwashing part of the story odd, because it’s just weird to let somebody else touch your feet.  The disciples didn’t find that weird.  They were used to footwashings – it was part of everyday hospitality back them.

What was weird for the disciples was not the footwashing, but who was doing it.  Only slaves washed feet.  Yet, here was Jesus doing it.  It’d be like the garbage truck coming up to your house on pickup day and having Ryan Gosling jump off the truck to empty out your bins.  It’d be like having President Trump over for Easter dinner and finding him washing dishes after the meal.  It’d be like Celine Dione jumping off stage after one of her Las Vegas shows and stacking up the chairs.

And when it’s all said and done, Jesus looks his disciples in the eyes and says these words: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you…Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

According to Jesus, we don’t find our lives till we lose them – in service to others.  We don’t live until we die – to ourselves.  We don’t become free until we become slaves to one another.  It’s all so upside down, or is it right-side up?  Maybe it’s the world that has it all backwards. Even many Christians hear the word service and spell it S-E-R-V-E-U-S.

Give it a try today. Intentionally try to put other people’s needs ahead of your own. Come up with a list of three to five people that you might serve in some fashion.  Give your spouse a heart attack and do something unexpected and unsolicited to make their day go a little easier. Jump down from that throne you’ve put yourself on. Take off your king’s cloak. And live like Jesus.

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Have you ever struggled with trying to figure out where you ought to serve God with your life?  Ever asked yourself, “I wonder what God wants me to do?” There’s one simple way to find out.

David writes in Psalm 139: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

There are multiple transformative truths imbedded in these words. If these words are true, then my life has inexpressible value.  I must really matter because, like the little child in Sunday School said: God don’t make junk.

If these words are true, then God is at the heart of who I am. I don’t have to live in fear or worry.  My life is in his control.  Like Corrie ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor, used to say, “There is no pit so deep where God is not deeper still.”

And if these words are true, then there must be something which God wants me to do, because he’s the one who put me together with all my unique traits, abilities and passions. How do you know what a saw or hammer is meant to do? Look at its design. In a way, it’s the same with us.

When I was a kid going to church, I picked up the idea from countless sermons that whatever it was that I liked to do, or whatever it was that I was good at, then God was going to do just the opposite to show that the power and glory are all his.

So if I dreaded the thought of becoming a missionary to Africa and eating bugs, guess what God was going to make me do with my life? You got it! And so when I was a kid, I didn’t go around saying what I didn’t like doing, because I thought God might overhear me and then jump in and go, “Aha! You say you’re not good with cars.  I’m going to make you a mechanic.  You hate squash?  You’re going to give me glory by eating truckfuls of it, and Brussel sprouts too!  You hate winters and cold weather?  To Iceland with you!”

But that’s not how God is at all. Instead, God invites me to serve him and bring him glory, and show forth his power by acting in ways that are consistent with how he made me.

The premise that what I’m to do with my life is determined by how God created me is not how most people think. Os Guinness writes, “When we first meet someone, we are usually quick to ask what they do for a living.  This helps us – we think – find out who they are.  Once we begin to understand God’s call on our lives, and how he has uniquely shaped us, this thinking is reversed…Instead of, ‘You are what you do,’ God says, ‘Do what you are.’”

Rick Warren developed a wonderful tool he named SHAPE to help people figure out ways in which they might serve God. In this inventory, you examine your Spiritual Gifts (listed in Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11), your Heart (what you love to do), your Abilities (what you are able to do), your Personality (how God wired you), and your Experiences (what God has allowed you to go through).

As you think deeply about these five areas, certain things will clearly bubble to the surface. You’ll discover you have a very unique “SHAPE”. If you’re struggling to know how to serve God, begin with those areas that match how God has designed you.

Don’t doubt it. You are fearfully and wonderfully made!

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When Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” he was not telling his followers never to exercise moral judgment. He was not telling us to unplug our brains and wink at bad behavior.

What does he mean then? Jesus is cutting at the root of a sinful attitude we all struggle with called judgmentalism. To exercise judgment is one thing. To exercise judgmentalism is another matter entirely. What’s the difference? It’s illustrated in a story we read in Luke 7.

Jesus has been invited to the house of a Pharisee name Simon. As Jesus’s popularity spread like wildfire, it made sense that the Pharisees would try to figure out where this new and provocative leader was coming from. So this dinner was a way for the Pharisees to “get acquainted” with Jesus.

Midway through the dinner, an intrusion occurs. A woman, whom Luke describes as having “lived a sinful life”, barges into the man’s house. Without saying a word, the woman begins to cry at Jesus’s feet and actually begins to use her hair as a towel of sorts to wipe them. She then opens up a jar of perfume, which was as expensive back then as it is today (and has caused men from every age to weep and gnash their teeth) and she pours it over Jesus feet.

First of all, get rid of any 20th-century Hollywood eroticism from your thinking as you consider the story. There is absolutely nothing sexual about what this woman is doing. This is solely an act of submission, common in the ancient, Middle-East culture. It was a deep and moving demonstration of reverence, nothing else. What offends Simon the Pharisee is not the fact that someone has fallen at Jesus’s feet. It’s who this woman is that disturbs him. And so Simon mutters under his breath, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.”

Luke does not tell us, but chances are that the sin this woman was known for was probably visible and public – prostitution or adultery or some such thing. And so Simon thinks to himself that if Jesus were really a prophet, he would have seen who this woman was and then pushed her away. That’s what a Pharisee would do.

This is when Jesus turns the table on Simon and exposes his judgmentalism (which now has two layers to it, for Simon is now not only judging the woman, but Jesus as well. Brave man!)

There’s a certain humor in this moment, because remember, Simon has kept his feelings to himself. Jesus is a prophet and can see inside people’s hearts. Hearts like Simon’s. “Simon, I have something to tell you,” Jesus says. And he proceeds to share with him a short story about two men who owe money to a lender. One owes a couple year’s worth of wages. The other a couple months. The lender forgives both debts.

“Which loves the lender more?” Jesus asks Simon. Naturally it was the one forgiven the greater debt. Like this woman here. Jesus could see inside her heart. And what he saw was someone who was repentant, and sorry for her life of sin. Someone who was weary with her life and who desperately wanted to start over. Someone who wanted God’s forgiveness and God’s power and God’s acceptance. In Jesus, she found everything her heart longed for.

“Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says in the end.

In the next few devotions I’m going to identify what I see as some of the very specific behaviors Simon shows that betray his judgmentalism. But what do you see in the story? Think deeply about this story and come up with your own list. We’ll compare notes in the next devotion.

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“It’s not good for people to be alone,” God declared in the Garden of Eden. We were created to be in life-giving relationships. The fulfillment of my life will in the end come down to how I interact with other people, more than the size of my house or bank account or biceps. “Better a little where there is love, than great wealth with turmoil,” says Proverbs 15:16-17.

There’s so much relationship pain around us.  I see it written on dozens of bumper stickers. I saw this one the other day:  “The gene pool could use a little chlorine.”  (You think that person was having a bad relationship day?) And this one made me laugh: “My husband and I divorced over religious differences: He thought he was God and I didn’t”.

On this week of Valentines, let’s identify some biblical principles for how to make love last in our friendships and marriages. We’ll use as our relationship guide a couple from the Old Testament who had one of the most enduring marriages in all the Bible – Abraham and Sarah.

They lived roughly 4,000 years ago, back in the days when the Iceman – a mummified body found in the Alps – was a living, breathing human being. Scientists resolved that the Iceman died up there in a fight. Took a blow to the scalp. (See – relationship problems.)

One healthy trait we see in their relationship is that they cultivated a shared vision for their marriage.  When we first meet them at the end of Genesis 11, we find that they are living in a place called Ur of the Chaldeans. It was a hub of civilization 4,000 years ago.  The best that life had to offer back then was found in Ur. (Archaeologists recently found a Walmart there. Fake news! Fake news!) But it was also the epicenter for paganism and false religion.

At the beginning of Genesis 12, God speaks to Abraham, who is now 75 years old, and tells him that he and Sarah are to leave their homeland and move to a part of the world that God would set apart for their descendants.  “I will make you into a great nation,” God says to Abraham, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Which is an interesting promise to Abraham, because at that time, he and his wife were childless.)

So Abraham and Sarah pack up their tent and go. Though Abraham heard the voice, Sarah shared the vision with him, riding on her husband’s faith that this would be so.

In strong marriages, the husband and wife share a vision for their marriage and for each other. They have a sense of each other’s dreams and passions. I’ve heard the story too many times of the wife who works so her husband can get the degree, and once his career path is established, he suddenly “outgrows” the marriage. Hell can’t burn hot enough for the men over the years who in their greed and lust have hung their wives out to dry.

Having a shared vision doesn’t mean you have it all mapped out on the front end. (When all is said and done, marriage is largely an act of faith, which is why Jesus needs to be at the heart of your marriage.) But you should have a sense of purpose for your marriage that goes beyond ‘buy a house, have lots of sex, make babies, and be happy’.

For my wife Janis and I, we knew 32 years ago that we both loved Jesus, and we loved each other. In between those two poles, we shared a loved for missions, and a love for music. I knew Jan had a passion for horses, and she knew I had a passion to write.

As I look back on our journey, I thank God for the grace he gave us to nurture each other along in our marriage. We spent a year in London. I went to seminary. She finished a master’s program. We raised a beautiful daughter. I became a pastor. She started a therapeutic horseriding business. The adventure still continues as we take this crazy “Will God catch us?” thrill-ride in moving to California to write, and be near our daughter, and see what new doors the Lord will open for us.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What things have you done in your marriage that you would not have been able to do alone?
  2. Which of your spouse’s dreams have you helped cultivate?
  3. If your marriage had a mission statement for the next ten years, what would it be?

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If you want to keep love alive, Abraham and Sarah show another trait worth imitating: laugh with each other. (I didn’t say “at”, incidentally.)

The story in Genesis 18 of Sarah listening in on the conversation her husband is having with three angelic visitors who announce that Sarah will give birth the following year is precious. Can you picture her there hiding behind the tent flaps starting to giggle?

Her laughter is a laughter of disbelief. She doesn’t believe this is going to happen. It’s so utterly preposterous. “After I am worn out…will I now have this pleasure?” she says.  But God doesn’t condemn her for this unbelief.  In fact, he actually plays with her.  “Why did you laugh?”  “I didn’t laugh,” she says.  “You did too.  I’m onto you.  We’ll see you next spring.” And sure enough, it happens.

She gets pregnant, gives birth to a son, and names him Isaac which means, “he laughs.”  And in chapter 21:6, you can hear Sarah’s delight as she says, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” Sarah, for all that she has been through with this man of hers, and this peculiar God who shows up at the strangest times, never loses her sense of humor, and her appreciation for life’s ironies. I like that in her.  And you see this quality in most every strong marriage.

I think it’s rip roaring hilarious how the sexes differ. A wife once said to her husband: “I look fat. Can you give me a compliment?” He replied, “You have perfect eyesight.”

OK, maybe you don’t want to go quite there, but you get the point.

“The joy of the Lord is our strength,” Scripture tells us. How miserable Abraham and Sarah would have been if they could not laugh.  Their lives were truly hard, lonely and perplexing.  But nearing a hundred years old, and they still had their sense of humor.

There are too many marriages where the flame of hilarity has long gone out. God intends marriage to be a seedbed of laughter.  He wants children to grow up laughing. He wants them to know joy and innocence. Where in our crazy, frightening world will our kids find it if not in a home where Jesus Christ is welcomed?

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There’s a lot of hatred spewing out in our world these days. It’s like a soda can that’s been shaken up, and then the top is ripped off. Hatred in the Middle East. Hatred in the Muslim world. Hatred spewing from the White House, hatred filling town hall meetings across America, spilling out on the streets and college campuses.

It’s all around us. The garden-variety of so-called “rages” that exist.  Road-rage.  Air-rage. Race-rage. Rage in the workplace. Rage in school hallways.  What’s going on?  Jesus said in the last days of earth, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold”. Could this be us? Is there any way to get this genie of hatred back into the bottle? Is there anyone out there who can show the world that another way is possible?

As a matter of fact, there is a group of people walking the earth today who have been given a command from their leader to show the world that another way is indeed possible.  We call them Christians; they follow the one called Jesus Christ; and Jesus gave his followers this command: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also…Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

In earlier devotions we handled some objections raised against this teaching. We’ve talked about what it doesn’t mean. So what is Jesus telling us specifically to do here? Here’s one idea.

Loving my enemy means:

I will watch the way I speak of and think of my enemy.  My enemy is someone worth understanding. 

 Jesus tells us, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

The action of blessing and cursing has to do with our lips. How often is it that our first response against people who have harmed us is to curse them with our lips? We do it in warfare. We do it with other races. We do it when we’re gossiping at the coffee pot with our co-workers. “Did you hear what that moron boss of ours did the other day?” We do it in our cars as we drive to work. We engage in bumper to bumper combat with others on the road. And we call down curses on the idiots and buffoons that cross us.

The first step of hatred is to dehumanize my enemy, and we begin this process with language.  And if I can strip my enemy of his or her humanity, it makes it easier to then fight them.

But Jesus says to us, Don’t lose sight of the humanity of the one who is your enemy. Here are people who feel like you do. They feel pleasure and pain just like you. They have mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, just like you do. Somehow in your struggle against those who are evil, don’t lose sight of that. 

More often than not, there is always a story behind people’s behavior. Not that it excuses their behavior. (Underline that sentence!) It doesn’t. And not that it means we shouldn’t corral their behavior. Especially when their behavior is evil. Conservatives are swift to brand, judge and punish the behavior. Liberals are swift to “be nice”, and “understand” and “show leniency”. But Jesus is insistent that with wisdom, we ought to be able to do both.

In teaching non-violence, Jesus is not forbidding a Christian to defend himself if, for example, a thief breaks into his house. Keep in mind that the context of Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies has to do with being persecuted for our faith, not crossing paths with a criminal.

If a wild animal breaks into my house, I’ll do everything and anything to protect my family from that animal. A criminal who acts lawlessly is no better than a wild animal. A few years ago, a pastor was killed in the town where I lived in Connecticut when a mentally ill man assaulted him. Put in a similar situation, I would not turn the other cheek, I assure you. If I came across someone assaulting another person, I would not walk away. I haven’t watched football for nothing all these years.

Nonetheless, we can’t lose sight of the humanity of our enemy. It’s easy for us to look at a teen-age boy who enlists to become a suicide bomber and simply brand him as “Evil”, and leave it at that. But what’s the story behind this? What’s fueling the anger, the despair, the hopelessness?

It’s easy for us to pat ourselves on the back for being a morally superior people, but how would you behave if you had to grow up in a shanty town in Palestine, or in Pakistan, where you were thrust into a school at the age of 3, and hate-mongering clerics began teaching you to chant verses from the Koran along with anti-Western slogans.

How would you turn out? When faced with someone who is an enemy, our heads swell.  We elevate ourselves over them.  We tell ourselves we’re better than they are. But what if we’re not better? What if we’re just fortunate?

Loving my enemies means I will watch the way I speak of and think of them.  My enemy is someone worth understanding.

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Why as Christians should we invest time in caring for our bodies? Beside the fact that these bodies of ours are the only ones we’ve got, there’s a deeper principle that should lie beneath being good stewards of our flesh and bones: our bodies matter to God.

Not all religions teach the same truth about this. Christianity has a very unique perspective on ‘matter’. Those nasty Gnostics – the ones who inspired “The DaVinci Code” – didn’t believe that the body is that important at all. In fact, when they arose in the second century and started to spread the poison of their heresy, it was their idea that salvation was for us to get rid of these bodies so that we could enter into the spiritual fullness of whatever Deity awaits us out there and join him. And notice how similar that sounds to what you hear from a number of Eastern religions. The sooner we get rid of these bodies, and escape this earth and enter into Nirvana the better off we’ll be.

That is not Christianity. We have always regarded the earth as holy and good. And our bodies, as part of creation, are very holy and good. The Bible says in Genesis 1 that God created the heavens and the earth. And Moses the author goes on to describe that when God stood back and surveyed all which he had created, he saw that it was ‘very good’.

The greatest proof that our bodies matter is something we Christians call the Incarnation. It’s a technical, theological word, but it refers to some special event that happened 2,000 years ago which the simplest child can grasp – when God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and came and walked among us. That proves right there that matter matters. That material creation is good. That our bodies are good and worth taking care of.

The child who said to her mother, “God made us, and he don’t make junk!” understood this. Do you?

Enough urging us to care for our bodies. How do we do it?

Everybody get ready to groan. Here’s a primary way: Exercise and nutrition. And yes, the Bible speaks of this. 1 Timothy 4:8 says, “For physical training is of some value. Godliness has value for all things.” At first glance, it doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of exercise and proper dieting. But let’s put this verse for a moment into the context of the first century.

What do we know about people 2,000 years ago? Do you think they needed to go to health clubs? They walked everywhere. What about their diet? Do you think they had cupboards stashed with Hostess cupcakes and Mountain Dew? They were not living sedentary lifestyles. So chances are, at the end of a busy day in the fields, I doubt that very few of them came home and said to their spouses, “Hey honey, I’m running down to Jerusalem Fitness to hit the free weights.”

I think of my father, and the size of his arms. My Dad has not lifted a weight or done a pushup since college, fifty years ago. I lift weights a couple times a week. I’ll never have arms the size of my Dad. But you know, he grew up on a farm, and almost since the day he could walk he was doing hard work, slinging hay bails, and hauling cattle around. I don’t dare say to my father, “Dad, let’s arm wrestle.” He’s in his 70s and  I still won’t do it. (I’ll wait till he’s 80.)

So all this to say, if Paul lived in our time, and saw the way most of us live today, I think his recommendation for exercise would be stepped up a notch. The statistics are numbing. In 1962, the rate of obesity in American culture was 13%. In 2000, 31%. And climbing higher today. Please – we’re not trying to pick on any one. But let’s be in agreement here. That exercise and nutrition should be on the radar screen for a child of God. And let’s encourage one another in making this a part of our stewardship.

In church yesterday we heard a teaching on Jesus’ Prodigal Son story from Luke 15. The religious leaders have questioned Jesus about why he hangs out with sinful people. In response, he tells them this and two other stories: about a lost coin, a lost sheep, and a lost son (do you detect a theme?)

The Prodigal Son story is particularly disarming because it challenges us to think closely about how we look at things. So for example, the ‘father’ in the story is meant to shape how we view God.

God’s essential nature is love, but he expresses this love through holiness and mercy. The father allows the son to break fellowship with him and leave. He doesn’t beg him to reconsider or change his rules to suit the son. (God is holy.) But then when the son comes to his senses and returns, the father is first in line to welcome him home (God is merciful.)

People get this wrong all the time today. I know lots of church-folks who are way over-the-top with the holiness side of God, who see God as a sort of trigger happy Deity who loves to say to us – in a Godfather voice – “See these 10 commandments here? If I see ya mess around with these, it’s curtains for you pal. I’ll rub you right out. Capiche?”

But then I’ll turn around and read the most ridiculous sounding things in articles about how God is love, and because he is love, he’s all-in on you being hetero-, homo-, bi-, tri-, trans-….no questions asked.

Sorry. But a holy God without mercy, or a merciful God who was not holy would not be a God of love. (Any good parent would understand this.) Reflect today on how you view God. Ask yourself if you have neglected one side of God’s love over another.

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The Prodigal Son story is remarkable for the many lessons it teaches us about our spiritual lives. Yet another lesson it teaches is the right view of sin and holiness.

 Sometimes I wonder if Jesus’ parable should be titled “The Eldest Son”, because most Christians are more like him than the prodigal. Did you see how he stuck up his nose when his wandering brother returned? And how he stewed and ranted when the father welcomed him with open arms? His words betray an ugly layer of sin inside his heart.

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders!” he screams at his father. “Yet you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”

 That’s frankly how a lot of Christians look at serving God and keeping his commandments – as slaving for him. As though being a follower of Christ is such a slog. “No more fun for me. No more fooling around. No more getting drunk. No more porn.”

 If that is where your heart is at, then your heart is at a very dark place. For following Christ and learning to walk in his ways is the very epitome of life, and joy, and peace. “In the presence of God is the fullness of joy,” the psalmwriter declared.

The elder brother griped that his father never threw a party for him. But whose fault was that. The father says in reply, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

 Christian, do you know you are home right now? You are always with the Father. You are forgiven. You are an heir of eternal life. Why each and every day should be a celebration of some kind or another for you. You’re not missing out on any true Joy by following Jesus. Don’t envy the sinful ones. Pity them. Pray for them. Go to them and invite them home as well.

The pressures Daniel faced – and conquered – to stay pure in an impure land – were numerous. The story goes on to say that “The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank” (Daniel 1:5).

All of us get hungry and thirsty, that goes without saying. But just as our bodies get hungry and thirsty, our spirits also get famished. Every person looks for something that will satisfy his or her innermost hunger – a longing for meaning, fulfillment, happiness. Someone once described it as a ‘God-sized hole’ that only God can fill. The problem occurs when we try to fill that empty space with anything but God. And that’s what Nebuchadnezzar’s food and wine represents for us – anything that replaces God as the most important thing in our lives.

The troubling thing is – it can be a good thing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “food and wine” but for Daniel it meant Nebuchadnezzar was trying to squeeze him, fatten him up, make him think about God just a little bit less.

And so anything that makes us think less about God, rely less upon God, love and trust God a little less is something we must be very careful of. The Bible has a word those things – idols. Back in Daniel’s day, an idol was an actual statue of gold or silver that you bowed down before. But we’re intelligent Americans. We smarter than that. We don’t bow down before statues. But we do bow down. We do have idols.

Gold and silver have our hearts as much today as back then. Paper has our hearts, especially if it has numbers and president’s heads on it. Wood, leather, chrome, rubber, graphite, skin, alcohol, chocolate can all be idols. It can be anything.

You have to ask yourself, Is this thing replacing God? Is this thing snuffing out my faith?  Is this thing turning me into a Babylonian? If you discover the answer is ‘yes’, then it is time to look more seriously at your heart.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made know to you.” ~ John 15:13-15

If you are a follower of Christ, then let this truth sink in: You have Jesus’ friendship. How do you know this? First, because he died for you.  ‘Nuff said? But if you need more said, consider the second line of proof.

Because Jesus reveals the Father’s heart to us proves that we are his friends. You might say, “Well, he did that for the disciples, but he certainly won’t do that for me.  I’m just not that special to him.”  And you couldn’t be more wrong.

One of the beautiful out-workings of having Jesus live inside of you through the Holy Spirit is that he will talk to you about your life. As you read his Word, listen to him in prayer, and hang out with his people, he will reveal the Father’s heart for you. Your part is to humbly listen and respond to what he says. Don’t expect everything you hear to be sunshine and roses. The Holy Spirit is out to make you holy. Too many Christians stop listening when God’s gets too close to the hurt. Or off they go again to another church. “You are my friends if you do what I command.”

What does that matter in the end to know this? Beth Moore writes about a time in her life when she felt like an abject failure before God. “For much of my life I’ve had a fairly high regard for God, but I nourished a very low regard for myself.  Much of my sin resulted from my unbelief that I was valuable and precious to God, coupled with my own unwillingness to treat my own vessel as holy.” 

If you think that God sees you as something cheap and expendable – well, you’ll probably give yourself to things which are cheap and expendable.  But if you see yourself as a friend of God, then that will have an impact on how you treat yourself, and the things you do.

Start believing that you are a friend of God.  Start believing that God is on your side.  “If God is for us, who can be against us,” the Bible says, and God is for you.

“I believe in God,” begins the The Apostles’ Creed, a famous statement of faith from early in church history still used today.  And it should begin with God.

Just as the Bible does. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  God is the thesis and the conclusion, the noun and the verb, the reason the book exists. Just as our own lives should begin with God. If God is not placed at the most prominent place of our lives, then what will our lives have been for when all is finished?

God wants you to know first and foremost that He is. Let’s not rush into philosophical meanderings of what God is like, or “Can God create an object too heavy for him to lift?” The moment we start talking about God, we distance ourselves from him.  When Moses asked God at the burning bush, “Who shall I say sent me?”, God’s answer came in two words: “I Am.”

Sometimes God would ask of us nothing more than to simply contemplate his existence, his presence, his reality. “Be still and know that I am God,” he calls to our hearts. Sometimes in the course of our day, if we would but stop ourselves and think: God. He is. He’s here – what a difference that might make. To the couple locked in a heated quarrel that neither knows why they’re in, and neither knows how to end. To the parent who’d swear the Rolling Stones were giving a live concert in their teen’s bedroom. To the one who closes on a house the week before they find that their department is being phased out.

I believe in God. Stop, say the words, say them again, think them through. Now carry on with your day.

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“I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker…”

The idea that God is the “Maker” is ordinarily the first thing that most people think about God. People would expect to find on God’s resume something to the effect of him being the Creator. And even if the Bible told us nothing else about God, we could get a lot of mileage out of this one thought.

“In the beginning, God created…” is the first sentence in the Bible. Creation is God’s calling card. God expects people to recognize his existence solely on the evidence of what they see around them. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them,” says Romans 1:19. The verse goes on to say that we are without excuse before God, because his power and divinity is so clearly evident in creation.

If you find a calculator lying on the floor, no sane person would conclude that that calculator was the product of millions of years of undirected, blind, random evolution. 4.5 billion years ago there was a great explosion, and out of that explosion came a tiny, almost undetectable microchip, that sailed across empty space picking up energy and amino acids. Millions of years later, suddenly out of the blue, the microchip said, “3+3=6”, then a few million years later, the microchip said “3X3=9”. Until the day came when suddenly there existed a fully functioning calculator, that eventually came to rest – randomly – on a Walmart shelf.

If you would say, “But that’s absurd,” of course it is. How much more is it to look on the form, function, order and symmetry of a human being powered by the magnificent computer of the brain and say, “This just randomly evolved into being, without direction or design or intelligence.”

Can you begin to see why the Bible says, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God”. Clearly we have a Maker.

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A believe in Jesus…”

If we Christians could somehow eliminate our infatuation with Jesus, we could be friends with so many more people. There are people out there who really love some of the things we stand for. Our morals (not all, mind you, but some of them), our care for the poor, our insistence on love, our integrity, our pursuit of justice.

But then it never fails. You get into a conversation with one of these Christians, and invariably they have to go and blow it by mentioning Jesus Christ, and how he’s the “only way”, and bla-bla-bla.

What people fail to realize is that it is Jesus who gives all the substance, meaning and power to our morals, love and integrity. You take away Jesus, you deflate everything we stand for.

Christians do not go to Jesus in the same way a sick person goes to the doctor. My wife Janis needed pain pills for a back injury suffered shortly after we arrived in California. We went to an urgent care clinic to see a doctor, and could have cared less if it was Dr. Zhivago or Dr. Strange.  As long as somebody scribbled their initials on a piece of paper, we would be happy.

But Jesus isn’t like that. For a Christian, Jesus is both physician and medicine. We go to Jesus in the hope that he will prescribe a way of living for us that is good for us. And the teaching of our Lord is certainly that. But that’s not enough. There’s a sickness in our souls that keeps us from carrying out the prescription. There’s a strange madness within us that causes us to do shameful, harmful things.

We need a medicine that will free us from our sin and shame. For Christians, Jesus is that medicine without whom we would never be made whole. And this is why Christians are forever carrying on a love-affair with him, saying things like “I believe in Jesus” and really hoping that you will too.

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“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord”

It’s not all that unusual today to hear people make use of this phrase “Son of God”. In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll discover oddly enough that it is unbelievers who make the greatest use of this phrase. You hear them say almost as a cliché, “Well, we’re all God’s children.” People who are not close to God can sometimes act very chummy with God. “Yeah, we I get to heaven, God and I are gonna light up a couple stogies and talk about a thing or two.”

But the phrase Son of God used in reference to Christ points out as no other phrase can how different Jesus is from the rest of us, and how very far away from God each of us really is. And that if I am to become his child it will require a radical intervention on God’s part.

In the culture of Judaism 2,000 years ago, when Jesus called himself God’s Son, the people heard him claiming something radical. Jesus wasn’t just saying that he was someone God had blessed, whom God had given special abilities or holiness. The gospel of John says that when Jesus called God his “Father” and himself God’s “Son”, the religious leaders reached for stones with which to kill him. For he was making himself equal with God. (John 5:18).

So in saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son…” the Apostles Creed fills out the picture of Jesus that it has been painting. He is Jesus, fully human. He is Christ, the heaven-sent Messiah to save us from our greatest enemy sin. And he is God’s Son – by nature part of the family of God, that is…God in human flesh.

Why would God become human? The reason God entered into our story was because we needed him to. Left on our own, we humans would never be a part of God’s family. Because of our rebellion against him, we forfeited our created standing as God’s children. “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God” the Bible says (Romans 9:8).

How then do we become sons and daughters of God? We have to be adopted back into God’s family (Eph.1:5). And that occurs when we come with repentance and faith to God through the true Son of God, Jesus. He signed the paperwork for our adoption with his own blood when he laid down his life for us.

So be careful with your chumminess. Be careful with your verbiage. Be careful with your flippancy. The Son of God has done great and incomparable things for you. He is worthy of your worship today.

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“…born of the Virgin Mary…”

Luke 1:28 tells us, “The angel went to Mary and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.’”  The word “favored” here is related to the word “grace”.  It could be translated, “Greetings you who are highly graced.”

In the Catholic Rosary, the suggestion is that Mary is “full of grace” which she will then pour upon believers who pray to her. Clearly though the intent of this angelic greeting is to assure Mary not that she is full of grace, but that God is full of grace, and that God is now pouring his grace and favor on her.

Why does Mary need grace? Because what God is going to ask of her is something more amazing than anything she could possibly imagine, and something more difficult than anything she could possibly imagine. To become pregnant, first of all. Then to become pregnant while still unmarried.  Talk about your shame and scandal. Think of the social media mobs! In accepting this assignment, Mary was signing up for ridicule and misunderstanding. And it began with Joseph, her fiancé.

But this wasn’t the worse of it.  The hardest part of what God was asking Mary to do did not surround the circumstances of this child’s birth, but would surround the circumstances of his death.  When Jesus was born and was brought to the temple for his dedication, an older prophet named Simeon, walking the halls of the temple, picked up the infant Jesus and prophesied over him that Jesus was God’s salvation for the whole world.  “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” Simeon declared concerning Jesus, and then he looked square into Mary’s eyes and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.”

That sword cut through her when she watched Roman soldiers crucify her son on a cross years later.

Let this be a lesson for Mary to teach us today.  When God asks us to do something difficult, or to go through something difficult, he is going to give us the grace, the favor, the strength to see us through.   No matter what hard times await us, no matter who wins the election, no matter what you may be going through right now, know that God in Christ – not Mary – will see us through.  God in Christ – not Mary – will get us safely home.   Mary is just pointing the way for us with her faithful example, and for that she is worthy of high honor.

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“…dead and buried…”

You’ve all seen the bumper sticker (perhaps you have it on your car) that reads: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

 Have you ever thought that one through? It suggests that the only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is the matter of forgiveness. It’s could be seen as a conciliatory way of saying, “Hey, we’re just one of the boys, not all that different from you.” But is that the only reason Jesus died on the cross – to provide forgiveness?

The Bible tells us that forgiveness was available in the Old Testament. “There is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.” (Ps.130:4). The problem in the Old Testament, and in fact, the problem with human beings to this very day, is that we continue to do things that leave us with the need to be forgiven. We’re drunk in our sin. We are unable to walk a straight and moral line.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God!” David cried out. The ancient Jew came to see that they needed a new covenant, because time and again they kept breaking the old one. Amazingly, the prophet Jeremiah foretold that God would one day institute a new covenant with us, where not only would forgiveness be granted, but God’s laws would be written on our hearts (Jer.30:31-33).

When Jesus passed the cup at the Last Supper, he said to his disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). In other words, The death that I will soon die will inaugurate the coming of the New Covenant.

 Christians in a very real sense identify with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead…we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).

That identification means that I view Jesus’ death as…

  • An act of sacrifice – where Jesus died for me.
  • An act of substitution – where he stood in my place.
  • An act of satisfaction – where he paid the price of judgment which my sins deserved.

And the result of this? Forgiveness, yes. But so much more. Forgiveness so that I can be…

  • Adopted back into God’s family as his son and daughter.
  • Born again. My defective heart is cleansed.
  • Spirit-filled. The very Spirit of God can now indwell me.

And this is how Jesus – crucified, died and buried – makes possible newness of life. He saves me from my sins, but also from my sinning. As I walk in this new relationship I have with him, and learn how to rely on and respond to the leading of his Spirit – over time (this will not happen overnight) I will start to look like, act like, and sound like Jesus.

So if you have that bumper sticker on your car, I think you now know what to do with it.

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“…he ascended into heaven…”

Why after his resurrection didn’t Jesus march straight to the Temple, present himself to his enemies and rub their noses in it with a big, fat, “I told you so!” Why instead did he hide away with his disciples for the next 40 days, and then, to their dismay, ascend into heaven? Why did he leave us?!

When Jesus first mentioned that he would soon return to the Father, Peter at once resisted the thought. “Lord, where are you going?” he asked (John 13:36). Here the disciples had left everything to follow him, and now he was going to leave them? Are you kidding me? Not to mention the fact that by this time they enjoyed him, loved him, needed him – the thought of all that ending disturbed them to no end.

John 14 through 16 is where Jesus attempts to comfort them, by explaining why his leaving was necessary. First, his ascension to the Father was preparation for something far greater. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he says as chapter 14 begins. “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (vss.2-3). So the disciples could be comforted with his promise that this goodbye was only temporary. And that the good they enjoyed in his presence was just a foretaste of something far greater that was coming.

Second, his ascension to the Father would only be a partial separation. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” he tells them (John 14:18), referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would be the same as Jesus living within them. “He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you…My peace I give to you,” (vss.26-27).

Thirdly, because of his ascension, power would be given to them that they would not experience otherwise. It would be a heaven-sent power to “do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father,” (14:12). In fact, if he didn’t leave, this (for reasons he does not explain) could not occur. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (16:7-8).

For me, this is the key to understanding the ascension. The first time my Dad took me driving I remember him saying, “OK, you’re turn,” and telling me to get into the driver’s seat. It seemed too much and too hard. I thought to myself, “No, Dad, I can’t. Why don’t you just drive me around everywhere for the rest of my life. That would be better.” I’m sure it was similar to what the disciples felt. “Jesus, you’re turning the keys of your kingdom over to us?! You want us to drive? Are you nuts?”

But that was the point of the Ascension. And this is why Jesus does not come out of the tomb on Easter Sunday, and at once march to the Temple to confront the world. Oh he could have done that – he could have strong-armed the world into believing in him. But that’s never been God’s way.

The kingdom of God would take root and spread in another way. In a way that dignifies our humanity and respects our freedom. In a way that gives to Christ’s followers the incredible privilege of participating in the process. God’s way to spread his kingdom is not to bully us or terrorize us, or scream “Allah Akbar” as he holds a knife up to our throats. But to invite us, to woo us, draw us through messengers, whom he has commissioned with the task of loving this dying world back to life. And you my friend are one of those messengers.

And therein is the wonder – and the power – of these words, “He ascended into heaven.”

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“I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

 Who – or What – is the Holy Spirit?

Well, for starters, the Holy Spirit is not a what (as the Jehovah Witness cult teaches, claiming that the Holy Spirit is nothing but “God’s active force” in the world.)

The Holy Spirit is a Who. So when someone comes up and asks you, “So when the Holy Spirit comes and lives inside of you, who is living inside of you?” you say in reply, “That’s right.” Then when they ask, “Who fills you?” you say, “From head to toe.” To which they’ll probably then ask, “So what’s the guy’s name living inside of you?” to which you’ll answer, “No, What’s the guy’s name teaching Sunday School.” To which he’ll then say, “I’m not asking you who’s teaching Sunday School.” To which you reply, “No, Who lives inside of you.” He’ll then say, “I don’t know”. And you can answer, “Oh, he types the bulletins. You’re all confused.”

Considering all the data that Scripture provides, the Holy Spirit is none other than God himself. Unlike an “active force”, the Holy Spirit can give commands (Acts 13:2), and feels love (Romans 15:30), and expresses volition (1 Cor.12:11), and can be lied to (Acts 5:3) and can be grieved (Eph.4:30). Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as a divine person that the Father would send in his name (John 14:16-17).

Christians came up with the idea of the “Trinity” not because the word is used in the Bible, but because the concept is plastered around everywhere (not to mention the numerous “Trinitarian” references that can be found: Matthew 28:19, 2 Cor.13:14, Heb.9:14).

What the reality of the Holy Spirit means is that God is closer to us that we could possibly imagine. Jesus in coming to earth that first Christmas was Immanuel – God with us. And what a comforting thought, to think that God himself has walked this earth. But Christianity offers a God even closer than this. Not only a God with us, but a God in us.

 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” Jesus promised. “If anyone loves me…my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:18,23). Followers of Christ are literally “temples of the Holy Spirit”.

The challenge – and privilege – before many believers is to learn how to recognize this, to learn how to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph.5:18), and to “walk in the Spirit” (Gal.5:25). Don’t take the Holy Spirit for granted. And certainly don’t think of him as just a “doctrine” or a “what”.

I pray you will learn to know Who is with you, and then grow in that amazing relationship.

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“…the resurrection of the body…”

 Resurrection is a word that the Bible gave to the world. Life without eternity, or earth without a heaven is ultimately meaningless. But the promise of resurrection which we confess in the Apostles Creed changes everything.

John Wesley said of the early Methodists that “they die well”. It’s a peculiar endorsement for Christianity at first glance, until you really reflect on it. Only a person anchored by the hope of heaven can face death with dignity and courage.

When I think of the impact the resurrection of the body makes, I think of three words. First, justice. The Bible makes it clear that the future resurrection will concern everyone who has lived, both righteous and unrighteous (Acts 24:15, Dan.12:2, Matt.25). What we do in life echoes in eternity, to quote Maximus from Gladiator.

 This is a source of great comfort for believers.  Psalm 37:1 tells us, “Fret not because of evildoers.” That’s a tall order 1) because there is so much evil in the world, and 2) because it seems that the ones who do it so often get away with it. But the psalm goes on to assure us that God will right every wrong, and provide a certain future for the upright. The evildoer may give the police the slip, bribe the judge, and cover his tracks perfectly, but God sees it all. All sin that is not brought to the Cross of Christ for forgiveness will be brought before the Throne of God for judgment.

Second, redemption. While a believer’s entrance into eternity is granted by faith in Christ alone, there are nonetheless rewards for righteous living. All the sacrifices we make in this life for the kingdom of God; all our obedience given through blood, sweat and tears; all the days of seemingly thankless labor we invest for God’s glory will receive full redemption.  God sees and hears it all. Nothing gets by him, not even the simplest act of generosity we do in his name.

Third, restoration. Scripture tells us that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor.15:50). Our bodies are too contaminated by sin. Death and resurrection is what will enable us to stand in our Lord’s direct presence because then “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). I can’t fly over to England with a crate of fresh-picked grapes and expect them to let me into the country. But if I were to crush the grapes and allow them to age into fine-wine and then bottle it, then suddenly it’s “Come on in! No problem! Glad you could visit!” Something similar must happen to us, to fit us for eternity.

But not only are our bodies restored. But the very creation itself – all the goodness and beauty and joy we find in this life which have been only temporary shadows here – will be restored to full and lasting reality in the age to come.

And in case you couldn’t connect the dots, this is why Jesus came that first Christmas, Charlie Brown.

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To have friendship with God means I must offer God a relationship, and not religion.

You’d think that most people would prefer the real thing (a relationship) when it comes to God, but sadly, that’s not the case at all.  Many, if not most, prefer religion over the real thing.  I used to struggle with understanding this until I thought through the appeal that religion possesses.

Religion is convenient.  I can fit it in wherever and whenever I feel like it.  Christianity is inconvenient.  With a relationship, I grant God permission to interrupt my life wherever and whenever he feels like it.

Religion is easy.  I can get my praying done in a few minutes and I know exactly what to say, where to cross myself, when to kneel – it’s all mapped out for me.  Christianity is hard.  I have to think about what I’m saying.  I have to take time to listen.  Not an especially easy thing to do when relating to a Being that you can’t see or hear with your physical senses.

Religion is neat.  It’s so tidy, and compact, I can plug and play religion.  Christianity it messy.  Before long, God will start asking me to repent of sins, and patch things up with that person I’m fighting with, and changing my behavior.

Religion is rubber.  I can bend it anyway I see fit.  I can mold it around anything I’m doing.  With religion I can suddenly decide to change the rules if I want.  I can say that God now smiles at my sexual misbehavior.  He’s changed his mind and thinks it’s okay now.  I can sin my head off and still be religious.

Where religion is rubber, Christianity is steel and stone.  God is solid and unyielding and relentless and changeless. His Word is sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates to the dividing of my soul and spirit, my very joints and marrow, it judges the very thoughts and intentions of my heart.

The cross of Jesus is a stone on which men and women’s lives are shattered.  The prophet Daniel saw it as a rock cut out of mountain, that broke all the kingdoms of men, the iron, the bronze, the silver, the gold to pieces.  To make matters worse, this unyielding, relentless, changeless God wants to change me, the nerve of the guy!

In religion I am in control.  I can keep God at arms’ length, out of my hair, in the closet, on the shelf, bound and gagged, on a leash.  In Christianity God is unleashed, given the very throne of my heart, and allowed access to the deepest, darkest places of my soul.  He is in control.

Do you understand why so many people prefer religion over the real deal?   God on the other hand wants the real deal with us.  The reason I know authentic Christianity is the one true faith is that it alone depicts God as the way he must be. A being not manipulated by magic.  Not fooled by our deceit.  Not impressed by our mantras.  Not our grandfather who art in heaven, senile and toothless, but our father, who strides the earth in power, who speaks, who disciplines, who yearns for his children to come to him.

And God will do everything in his power to burn the religion out of us, and call us into friendship with himself.

“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (Exodus 33:11)

To enjoy God’s friendship, Moses sought God, he then allowed God to speak into his life, and then thirdly, Moses also yielded his will to God. This idea is imbedded in the words “face to face”.

These words do not literally mean Moses saw God’s actual face for just a few verses later in the passage, God tells Moses, in verse 20 – “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”  The words have to do rather with Moses’ submission to God.  How so?

“Face to face” are intimacy words.  To be “face to face” with someone means you are fully attentive to them, fully devoted to them, fully available to them. You’re waiting on their every move.
I’m still trying to break myself of this bad habit I’ve gotten into with Janis of talking to her on the run.  We’ll be in the kitchen, we start talking, then I remember something in the living room I need to get, and I’ll buzz out of the room. “Keep talking,” I’ll say, looking back to her, though I’m walking the other way.

What a mixed message!  “I’m listening! I value you! You’re important to me!” even though my back is turned, and I’m walking out on her.

Israel did this with God.  In Jeremiah 2:27 God rebukes his people for their compromising and backsliding. He says to them, “They have turned their backs to me and not their faces.” 

Here’s Israel keeping one eye on God, while she’s walking the other way. This is what religious people do. They’ve got one foot in the kingdom, and one foot out. But God is not fooled by such half-heartedness.

If you want God’s friendship, then you must go face to face with God. Hebrews 12:2 summons us to fix our eyes on Jesus. You must be fully attentive, fully devoted, fully available. No resistance, no pulling back or going in a separate direction. Your gaze is riveted on God and what he wants is what you want.

Read these words aloud right now from Psalm 123:1-2. “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.  As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God till he shows us his mercy.”

Make this the prayer of your heart today.

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There was a rich casino owner once who tried to grease the palms of a state senator by giving him a brand new Cadillac. “I can’t take this car from you,” the senator protested. “Why that would be a bribe.” “Oh did I say ‘give’ you the car?” asked the rich man. “I meant sell it to you – for $20.” “That’s better,” said the senator. “In that case, I’ll take two.”

Our world desperately needs men and women of moral character today. Thankfully for those who wish to develop honorable character, the Bible provides some wonderful templates. One is found in the man Joseph whose story is told in Genesis 39-50 (the same Joseph who was given an amazing Technicolor dreamcoat.)

One lesson Joseph would teach about developing good character is this: we must store up goodness in our hearts. Joseph’s character training began when he was a child. When he was a boy, God gave to Joseph dreams of some the things that God would do in his life later on. But as Joseph shared those dreams with his older brothers, they didn’t fully appreciate his candor. Thinking he was just a brat, when they had the opportunity to get rid of him, they sold him into slavery. (And if you grew up with siblings, who didn’t wish they could have done that at some point?) Joseph ends up in the service of one of the most powerful men in Egypt, named Potiphar.

But then Joseph finds himself in a pickle.  The story tells us that Joseph was well-built and handsome. Potiphar’s wife takes notice of him and attempts to seduce him. Joseph though is able to resist her advances.

If you haven’t notice, temptation will often hit you without warning. You’re changing in the locker room, and your buddy says, ‘Hey look at this!’ and he whips out a picture he’s downloaded from the Internet. You sit down at lunch with the other office girls and all of a sudden, one of them starts badmouthing a co-worker, and there it is – you’re tempted to join in.

The time for developing good character is not at the moment you’re in temptation’s crosshairs. You need to begin developing moral excellence and firmness long before then. Like Joseph, whose childhood training now rose to the challenge. The moment he needed to draw on inner reserves of moral strength to help him, those reserves were in place.

Jesus said in Luke 6:45 – “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” In other words, character is built over time through hundreds of small choices, and hundreds of small interactions, which seem inconsequential on their own. But each one adds a tiny fibrous strand of muscle to the moral core of your heart.

Good character is the result of the people you hang around with, it’s a result of the movies you watch, the music you listen to, the heroes you choose; whatever goes into your eyes and ears, whatever you spend a lot of time thinking about – those are the things that get stored up in your heart and shape the person you become.

If your inner reserves are depleted, you may want to start making some deposits, before it gets too late.

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As the story unfolds, did Potiphar’s wife leave Joseph alone? No. Some mosquitoes when you shoo them away go and look for weaker prey. But some mosquitoes just circle back for another go at you. Satan came at Jesus three times in the wilderness before he fled. And a few days later, this happened to Joseph.

Joseph comes into the house and finds that every other servant is gone, and it’s just he and Potiphar’s wife.  (Think to yourself, “Oh-oh”.)  Trouble always lurks when we’re alone. When no one’s watching, strange thoughts can besiege us. You’re alone in the hotel room on the business trip; it’s just you and the remote. You’re on vacation, a thousand miles from home. Just one more drink won’t hurt. Time to let your hair down a bit.

D.L. Moody said the “Integrity is what a man is in the dark.” He may has easily have added, Integrity is what a man is when he is alone.

Potiphar’s wife takes ahold of Joseph’s garment and said, “Come to bed with me!”  What was Joseph to do?  The only thing he could do. If Joseph had hung around a minute longer, it may have been too late for him to resist.  But in that moment, God gave Joseph an escape hatch – a literal open door.  And Joseph took it.  He ran.  And he escaped sin.  He preserved his character.  This is a fourth step to take in our own pursuit of character – look for God’s way of escape.

The Bible gives us this promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”  What a promise! And if I’m honest and look at my life, I can see that this promise is indeed true.  I can recall countless times when in the midst of contemplating sin, suddenly out of nowhere an escape hatch appeared. Out of nowhere, a worship song parachutes into my mind. Someone calls or comes to the door. Something odd but applicable gets said on the TV or radio. Once an actual power outage derailed the wicked bent of my mind, and set me on a better train of thought.

Does Paul say that God will force you to take the way of escape?  No – for remember, God is after sons and daughters, not robots.  God’s job is to provide the way out. Your job is to go through. And if you’re smart like Joseph, you’ll run for your life. 2 Timothy 2:22 – “Flee the evil desires of youth.”  And sometimes, that’s what you must do. Better to stay pure, no matter what happens. Better to run from sin, no matter how silly you look. What’d Joseph leave behind when he ran?  His cloak.  He either ran out buck naked or in his underwear! But looking silly is not what mattered most at that moment.

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Though I am saved by grace, not works, it is a defective view of grace that says to my heart that works don’t really matter. That at best, they’re for ‘extra credit’.

Scripture tells us in Psalm 37:3 – “Trust in the Lord, and do good.” (Forget John 3:16 – this is the true ‘gospel in a nutshell’.) God indeed saves me by simple faith and trust. But once God makes me his own by grace, he expects a return on his investment.

We love the first half of Ephesians 2:8-10 which says:  “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith…not by works, so that no one can boast.” But we seldom go on to read what Paul says next.  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Paul insists that we are not saved by service, but for service.  Once my sin is covered, once I am saved (which happens when I admit my sinfulness, believe Jesus suffered and died for me, and call on him to forgive me and lead my life), then Jesus turns me around to a hurting, broken world and says, “My child, I’ve saved you to bring my goodness into this world.”

So I do good works not to get saved, but because I am saved.  My good works are the fruit of the seed of salvation that has been securely planted in my heart.  “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit,” he says to each one of us (John 15:16).  When I show the character and virtue of Christ in the things that I do – his love, his joy, his peace, his patience, his kindness – we call those things the “fruit of the Spirit.”

Every good deed I do in the name of Jesus, every act of ministry and service, is a thank you card to Jesus for saving me from hell.  Titus 2:14 says, “Jesus gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness, and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” And so I’ve been saved to serve, I’ve been healed to help, I’ve been blessed to be a blessing.  Go and find a way to live that out today.

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It’s quite possible that the one verse in the Bible known by more people – believer and unbeliever alike – is Matthew 7:1 – where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

It’s also quite possible that no verse in the Bible is more misunderstood, and more misapplied, than this one. How many times have non-Christians hurled this verse back in the face of Christians who try to speak out in favor of biblical morality? “Who do you think you are?! You shouldn’t be talking against X, Y or Z. Judge not!

There is a revulsion felt by modern culture to call any given behavior right or wrong. But then look at what modern culture does. Anyone who tries to throw down a boundary is immediately judged, as being intolerant, racist, homophobic, prudish, you name it. The ones who scream out the loudest against judging, are themselves masters of it.

Clearly, Jesus is not teaching his followers to suspend all moral judgment and to go through life with an anything goes mentality. The very first public word out of Jesus’ mouth was “Repent”. To repent is to admit that something you are doing is harmful or wrong and needs to be repudiated. To repent is to make a judgment.

Right after telling us not to judge (in his teaching known as the “Sermon on the Mount”), Jesus immediately proceeds to give example after example where his followers should make judgments.

  • He tells his listeners not to give dogs what is holy or throw their pearls before swine (vs.6), describing a type of listener who is too stubborn or hard-hearted to receive your attempt to share the gospel.
  • He says we are to enter by the narrow gate, for the wide gate leads to destruction (vs.13).
  • He warns us to beware of false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing (vs.15).  And to distinguish between trees with good fruit and bad fruit (vs.18-20). And to not be hoodwinked by people’s words if their actions do not back up what they say (vs.21).
  • He tells us to know the difference between a house built on rock as opposed to sand (vss.24-27).

The question becomes: How do you pick out a dog, or pig, a wide gate, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a tree with bad fruit, or a house on sand if you do not exercise judgment?

Obviously, you can’t. It sounds to me like Jesus wants his followers to be doing a whole lot of judging, to navigate safely through life. So when Jesus commands, “Don’t judge” he has something very particular in mind, which his followers would be wise to understand.

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In a story from Luke 7, a sinful woman barges in on Jesus while he has dinner in the home of a Pharisee named Simon. Simon’s attitude toward the woman reveals a number of traits exhibited by a heart filled with judgmentalism – the sin which Jesus condemns when he commands us not to judge.

Judgmentalism looks on the outside only and fails to consider what’s in the heart. The woman was a sinner. She proved it by her outward actions. Jesus saw that too, but he also saw the pain inside her. And he saw her willingness to repent and change. But judgmentalists look on the outside alone.

My novel Sparrow tells the story of Emma, a woman who is sexually molested by an uncle in her teens. When she inevitably acted out because of the pain and shame she was experiencing, the adults in the church she attended kicked her out, sending her into a decades-long spiral of despair – until she finds healing through the events described in the story.

Before learning of the abuse, Pastor Luke Rawlings asks Emma what happened to her that caused her to suddenly act out. Erupting in rage, Emma screams out, “Well nobody ever bothered to ask that question, now did they?” and runs from the room.

Judgmentalists could care less about the backstory. Like Javert in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is a lawbreaker, end of discussion. It doesn’t matter why Valjean stole the bread. He broke the law, and must pay for his crime. What more needs to be learned?

 Judgmentalism looks at what a person has been, and fails to see what a person can be. Once a sinner, always a sinner. That’s a judgmental person’s attitude. A judgmental person throws a label on a person. Puts them in a box. To Javert, Valjean  will forever be 2-4-6-0-1 (his prisoner number).

Jesus did not see people that way. He saw that people could change. He saw that God’s grace could work miracles in a person’s life. Which is why he hung out with “sinners”. He didn’t befriend them because he loved sin. He hated sin. It was his complete opposition to send that took him to the cross. But he didn’t hate sinners.

He could look at a rough and tumble fisherman named Peter and could see a man who with some spit and polish from God’s grace could become one of history’s most powerful preachers. Jesus could look at a thief dying on the cross and see a man ready for paradise.

What does Jesus see when he looks at you? What can you be, if only grace might be given you? Judgmentalists can only see what people have been and never see what they can be.

Judgmentalism prefers law over grace. They’re always ready to throw the book at people, like Jack Lord from the original Hawaii 5-0 saying,  “Book ‘em, Danno!”

“Crucify him! Stone him! Burn him! Kick him out!” has been the cry of judgmentalists throughout the ages. Not that sin doesn’t deserve justice. It does. The wages of sin is death, the Bible says. The problem with judgmentalists is that they are so swift to bring down the hammer on people, as though they can’t wait.

But if there’s one thing we learn about God in the Bible, it’s that he’s not that way at all. God can wait, and does wait to bring judgment. Psalm 103:8 says, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger.” 2 Peter 3:9 says, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

When you see judgment enforced in the Bible, be at the flood of Noah, or the annihilation of the Canaanites, or the exile of Judah, or the fall of Nineveh, or the last days judgment that is yet to fall on the earth, it’s understood that God gets no pleasure out of this, and he’d love nothing more than to call off the dogs, if we’d only repent.

And Jesus wants his followers to have this very same spirit. James 2:13 says, “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!”

Examine your heart today. See if any of these ugly tendencies are in you. Or if your heart trends in any of these directions. How can you burn these ugly attitudes out of you? Begin by calling to mind all the mercy that God has poured on you in your own life. Let the anti-venom of God’s grace work through your own veins. Let it break down the poison of legalism in you.

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Another quality that Abraham and Sarah had going for them was something we call “intimacy”.  Typically, when we hear the word “intimacy”, we immediately think of physical intimacy, or something sexual. But the word is much deeper than that.  Intimacy comes from a word which means “inner”.  Intimacy occurs whenever we let another person see inside our hearts.

What was the great inner pain which occupied Abraham and Sarah’s hearts? It was their childlessness. God promised Abraham that he would bring a great nation forth from him.  To give birth to a great nation required the birth of children, at least one. Yet for 25 years, they had been waiting and waiting, watching their bodies grow older and older.

Ten years into this abyss of waiting, their patience ran out, and Abraham and Sarah decided to do something to help God out. 4,000 years ago, if a wife was infertile, the culture said it was the responsibility of the wife to find a sexual surrogate for her husband. Genesis 16 tells the painful story of Sarah giving her slave-girl Hagar to her husband, so that they could at least have a child, and this is when Ishmael is born.

But God never asked for Abraham and Sarah’s help.  He never put his stamp of approval on the culture’s way of doing things.  Sarah felt as any woman would feel, sharing her man sexually with someone else. Yet because the culture endorsed this behavior, she has to stuff her pain inside.

But after a run-in with Hagar, Sarah lashes out at Abraham. “You’re responsible for the wrong I am suffering!” she yells, and lets it pour out of her, all these feelings, longings, dreams, and hurts.

In that moment, they experienced intimacy.

I think deep down inside, each one of us longs for true intimacy.  We long for a friend who will know us completely, a person before whom we can take off all those masks we wear, to whom we can show ourselves.  And when I show you my brokenness, I know that you won’t judge me or brand me or talk about me behind my back, but you’ll pray for me and help me, and know me.  That’s intimacy.  And relationships with intimacy last.

It’s the way God wants to know us. King David said in Psalm 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”  God is that close, that intimate, to his children.

How do you have intimacy?  It’s not hard to describe, it’s just hard to do. You have to start sharing yourself.  You have to begin opening up your inner world and your inner wounds to others.  God has opened himself up to us like that in causing the Bible to be written.  The Bible is God pouring out to us his hopes and dreams and emotions. To read the Bible is to read an intimate love letter written by God to you.

But what do I start sharing? you might ask.  I’m not good at this.  There are different types of intimacy.

  • Intellectual intimacy. All day long, our mind is busy churning things over.  So share what it is you have been thinking about.
  • Social intimacy. This is where we talk about the events of the day we have been caught up in.  You say, Well nothing special has happened today.  So what?  It doesn’t have to be special, it just has to be shared.
  • Emotional intimacy. We all have a whirlpool of feelings and emotions that spin through us each day. Share them. These are the building blocks of intimacy.  I know wives who would absolutely drop dead if their husbands came in and started talking about their thoughts, activities and feelings from the day, instead of the little grunts, groans, and one word answers.

The problem with so many marriages today is that either the couple doesn’t talk at all beyond grunts, groans and single words, or the other extreme, when they talk, all they seem to be able to do is fight.  Couples like this fail to grasp the beauty of a simple conversation.  But it’s in that simple, little conversation, where two hearts can intersect, that intimacy occurs.

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“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

What’s your first reaction to these words of the Lord Jesus? Isn’t there part of you that wants to say to him, “But Lord…”  “But Lord if we do that, they might get away with it.” “But Lord, if we do that, they might take further advantage of me.” 

Because let’s face it – our world tells us that when someone hits us, we’ve got to hit back and hit back hard. Our world loves a hero who is tough and won’t get pushed around. We love it when Harrison Ford snarls, “Get off my plane!” then sends the bad guy hurling 30,000 feet to meet his Maker.

Donald Trump wields his Twitter account like a club, battering away at enemies far and wide, to the delight of countless followers. My suspicion is that this “strength” of his also covers over a gaping weakness that will eventually undo his Presidency if he’s not careful, but that’s for another time to consider.

Before we talk about how this teaching might be lived out, let’s first address some objections. One objection is, “It’s impossible to love my enemies. It cuts against the grain of everything we are as human beings.”

But the simple fact of the matter is for the first three centuries of the church’s history, the early Christians did live this way. It’s one of the most remarkable testimonies to the truthfulness of Christianity, to watch how the early Christians behaved in an environment of almost relentless harassment and persecution.

The Jews had their so-called “zealots” who took the law into their own hands. Twice the Romans had to repulse Jewish rebellions. When Islam was born in the 6th century, it was largely spread by Mohammed’s armies. Conversions were made at swordpoint.  Islamic bloodshed in the name of Allah continues to this day.

But with Christianity, it was different.  The followers of Jesus carried no swords.  They formed no Al-quaeda-style terrorist networks to fight back. The pagan philosopher Celsus complained that if everyone became a Christian there would be no army.

 Tertullian, a Christian lawyer of the 3rd century, said that the love of enemies is the “principal precept” of Christian life.  So it’s not valid for us to protest saying, “It’s impossible.”

A second objection against “loving our enemies” and “blessing those who persecute us” is that it “doesn’t work”.  If we act this way, it won’t solve the problem of evil. If we let the bullies have their way, in no time they’ll be worse than ever.

Look at Hitler in the years before World War II.  Prime Minister Chamberlain of England and the other European powers capitulated to Hitler time and time again, allowing him to only grow stronger and more ruthless. Look at the locusts in “A Bug’s Life”. Until the ants put their feet down – all six of them – the locusts pushed them around like…well, bugs.  If you look the other way when evil comes, if you don’t do anything, it’ll just spread.

However, let’s not put words in Jesus’s mouth.  He’s not telling us to let people get away with evil. Nowhere are we being told to capitulate.  Or to do nothing.  Or to say nothing.  We are to respond to evil, but what Jesus is teaching us is to respond to it in a different way than our feelings and out culture is telling us to. And Jesus way’, while not easy, does work.

In Romans 12:21, Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Paul is saying that evil will be overcome by this approach.  It does work.

It worked in the early church.  As long as Christians practiced Jesus’ teaching of loving their enemies, the hope and freedom of the gospel of Christ spread like wildfire throughout the empire. “We’re everywhere!” Tertullian boasted to the pagan Romans. “We’re in your shops, we’re in your marketplaces, we fill your cities, and towns and countryside, the only thing we’ve left you is your temples, and you can have them. The more you mow us down, the more we grow for the blood of martyrs is seed”

And it’s worked within our recent memory. It worked for Mahatma Gandhi, who applied Christ’s principles in his struggle to rid India of British oppression, even though Gandhi was not himself a Christian. It worked in the struggle for civil rights in our own nation, as Martin Luther King, Jr. committed himself to loving his oppressors and praying for his enemies, remaining steadfast to the day of his death.

Still another objection to our Lord’s teaching is that this is nothing but wilting, wimpy, pathetic weakness. Remember the Chinese man who stood before the onrushing tank during the days of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989? Was that weakness? Or Jesus Christ hanging from the cross, looking below at the soldiers who had crucified him, and saying, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Will anyone accuse Christ of weakness at that moment?

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A second way to obey our Lord’s command to love our enemies is this:

I will develop the instinct to prefer mercy over justice.  My enemy is someone worth saving. 

 In Romans 12:17-18 Paul writes, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” 

In the timeless story Les Miserables, Jean Valjean has just been released from prison, where he has served time for stealing bread. He has no money, and he spends his first night out of prison in the home of a village priest who takes him in. In the night, Jean Valjean flees the priest’s home after having assaulted the priest and stealing most of his valuable silverware. But he is captured and the police bring him back to the priest so that he can be formally accused.

For Jean Valjean, this means his last hope is gone. He will now be imprisoned for the rest of his miserable life. The priest comes to him and looks him in the eyes, and says, “My brother, why did you leave so quickly last night? You took only the silver. But I gave you these as well.”  And he places in his hands several more golden candlesticks.

The priest had the right to ask for justice.  But he saw something worth saving in this thief, and gave mercy instead. That moment changed Jean Valjean’s life.

You and I are also recipients of divine mercy. God has a right to treat us with justice. In our sin and rebellion against him, we deserve hell and judgment. But in Christ, God gives us mercy instead. We should look for chances to treat others that way as well.

Back in the late 80s, my wife and I spent a year in inner city London serving a Baptist church there with a couple remarkable Christians. Paul and his wife Helen were preparing to become missionaries to Pakistan. And Paul had the most remarkable love for the people living in the church’s neighborhood.

One day, Paul and I were walking across a playground, standing in the shadows of the oppressive, prison-like government housing projects that surrounded us. We came across a group of 3 or 4 kids who were breaking empty beer bottles against a wall. A bit of anger and “tsk, tsk, tsk” welled up within me. If ever there were kids that needed to have some of the fear of God put in them, it was these.

Paul though stopped and looked at them, and a sympathetic smile came across his face.  And I’ll never forget his first words. Tenderly, he said, “You guys are kind of bored today, aren’t you?” He saw past the behavior, and saw something worth saving instead. And he was able to plant a few seeds of the gospel of Jesus into their hearts that day. His approach of mercy blew me away.

Can we look at that high school punk who arrogantly walks past us with orange and blue hair and a cigarette in his mouth, and rather than curling up our lips to despise him, can we see something else? Can we see the little boy whose father abandoned him, whose mother taught him nothing but profanity, whose mother’s boyfriend abused him? Can we see past the arrogance and cigarette smoke to see a bleeding, wounded spirit that’s never been loved? Never received mercy before?

James 2:13 says, “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  We have a right to demand an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. We have a right to appeal for justice. But our instinct should be for mercy instead.

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More than a few studies have concluded that Christians as a group are less fit than other groups. And this from a people who claim that their bodies are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ (and no – that doesn’t mean that the bigger your body, the more of the Spirit you have.)

So why should we do a better job caring for our bodies? Here’s another reason to chew on (er, a…to factor in…Let’s avoid chewing references): Knowing and enjoying God is impacted by how I use my body.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said: The senses are the gateway to the mind. The mind is the battlefield for the soul. All sin is conceived first in the mind. But how does the thought or temptation get into you? Through our bodily senses. We never sin without our body’s cooperation. The lustful thought is birthed through the sensuous image. The flame of anger is ignited by the spark of a confrontational word. To turn away from the image or the word requires spiritual and physical discipline.

Titus 2:-11-12 tells us that God’s grace ‘teaches us to say, ‘No!’ to ungodliness” (NIV). Years of fasting has shown me that learning how to say no to food I desire empowers me to say no to sinful desires. Learning to say yes to a workout I initially resist helps me say yes to reading my Bible or going to church when my initial response is to drag my feet.

Paul understood that how I use my body impacts my enjoyment and obedience of God. “Don’t let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Don’t offer the parts of your body to sin, but offer the parts of your body to God.” (NIV)

Offer your body to God today as a living sacrifice. Ask for his help in caring for that temple you’ve been given.

When it comes to the care of my body, I love Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:12 – “Everything is permissible for me. But I will not be mastered by anything.” Go ahead and say that last sentence aloud right now, because I want you to hear the words as well as see them. I will not be mastered by anything.

Think of it. When it comes to your body, God has given you and me so many things to enjoy. You go into a grocery store today and you quite literally have the world at your fingertips. You can have curry whenever you want. You can buy a pineapple whenever you want. (Did you know that when pineapple was first imported to this country, it was called “the food of the kings” because only kings could afford to eat it. Now you can go, peasants that we are, and buy a pineapple!)

We can enjoy so much. And the Bible says, Enjoy it all (1 Timothy 6:17). These are God’s gifts to you. ( And that includes alcohol. The Bible does not condemn alcohol. It condemns alcoholism, drinking to excess, getting drunk. Because now alcohol is mastering you.

There is one caveat to this thought – it’s the caveat of love. If you are doing something or enjoying something that doesn’t master you, but you’re around someone who is hurt by those things, you need to love them by exercising Christlike sensitivity.

Romans 14:13 says, “Decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a believer.” Don’t bring a bottle of wine over to your friend’s house if you know he has alcoholic tendencies. Don’t order the triple-layer chocolate mousse dessert when you’re at a restaurant with a friend who’s struggle with their diet. Never abuse the freedom that Christ has given you.

The parable of the Prodigal Son not only teaches us a right view of God, but also a right view of ourselves. Christians are especially liable to messing this up.

Sometimes we can think to ourselves, “I’m on God’s side.” (Which is true.) “Therefore, there must be something about me that’s better than other people.” (Insert loud game-show buzz here.)

I imagine if you were the older son you might be able to say, “Look, I resisted the urge to get happy feet. I’m not the one who acted like an idiot.” But we must forever resist the urge to pat ourselves on the back. For two reasons.

First, because spiritual pride will sooner or later cause you to despise lost people. You’ll be walking downtown and see a man rummaging through a trash barrel for soda cans, and instead of feeling compassion, feel condescension. “Why couldn’t he have made good choices like me?”

But more to the matter, it’s simply not true that you’re better. The doctrine of sin overrules you. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,”Scripture declares.

“By the grace of God I am what I am,” Paul said in 1 Cor.15:10. If you’re stronger than others, this is what you must learn to say, even if you exercise faithfully. If you’re smarter than others, this is what you say, even if you study hard. (And you should exercise faithfully and study hard!)

You didn’t have a choice of who your parents were. Or of what country you were born in. Or of what century you were born in. Or of what kind of health you’d be given. Or what kind of wealth you’d have access to. These are all aspects of God’s grace to you.

Carry these words with you today. Repeat them off and on. “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

In coming to Los Angeles to interact for a season with that entity called “Hollywood”, my quiet times of late have been in the book of Daniel. I think I understand why. Daniel is the story of a young Jew who is brought in captivity to Babylon after Jerusalem is destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and his army.

The king had a unique “assimilation strategy” where he would take young, healthy representatives from the captive countries, then teach them how to think and act like Babylonians. Presumably, these young leaders would then help to pacify their fellow exiles. This is what the king does with Daniel and three of his friends.

You can see then what the book of Daniel is about. It’s about how to stay spiritually strong when immersed in a culture that wants to bleed your faith out of you. This is our common struggle as followers of Christ.

So what was the king’s assimilation process? The story first tells us he wouldteach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. Consider just that first word: language.

The language we are immersed in has a way of squeezing us. When we first moved to New England years ago, I resisted calling my Mountain Dew ‘soda’ the way the natives did. It was ‘pop’, didn’t they know? But after awhile it sort of wears you down, and before long I was asking for ‘soda’ with my burger.

The unbelieving world around us has its own language, doesn’t it? (Interestingly, like us, they use the words “God” and “Jesus” a lot too. Isn’t it great!) It too starts to wear us down if we marinate in it overly long. The swearing, the complaining, the gossiping, the jealousies.

Daniel would say: Don’t let the world squeeze you, till you start talking like one of them.  The next time you hear a Christian use bad language, complain, gossip, or lie, turn to them and say, “Ah, stop acting like a Babylonian.”

I happened to be in a ‘mainline’ church awhile back, one that tends toward theological liberalism. We were singing “Amazing Grace” and I swear I saw John Newton roll in his grave. Because right out of the gate in verse 1, the hymnal we were using had changed the word ‘wretch’ to ‘soul’ – that saved a soul like me.

I felt so grieved in my spirit, that I could not sing another word.  You know how you would feel violated if someone broke into your house and stole something precious to you?  Well, I felt theologically violated, that here someone had broken into my evangelical house and stolen a precious truth which lies at the heart of my faith: that a human being by nature is broken, sinful, rebellious, godless.  I am a wretch.  And that God could save someone in my condition is one reason among many why his grace is amazing.

The mainline, liberal Christians of today deny this truth about human nature.  They want us to believe we’re all good, warm and fuzzy inside.  That the problem’s all out there.  Fix the environment – make sure everyone has a job and a pension and health insurance and we’ll all live happily ever after because everyone naturally is good and loving.  You evangelicals are such Debbie Downers, they say.  You have such a low view of human nature.

To which we must reply loudly and clearly: No! The biblical view of human nature is the highest one imaginable.  There’s a reason why we are wretched.  It’s because we are fallen.  To say we are fallen says that there is a place, a height, a status from which we have fallen.

True Christians teach that humans are fallen royalty.  (You won’t hear that taught in biology class, I promise you.)  God created us in his image, to be his sons and daughters, to rule over this creation with him.  But we forfeited that destiny when we sinned.

We still bear the marks of our greatness.  But the goodness inside of us is corrupted, and utterly insufficient to restore us to God and to eternity. We need, desperately need, his amazing grace. And until I confess, and sing, my wretchedness without Jesus, my life will fall far short of what it should be.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” ~ John 15:5

Spirituality is a buzzword of our age. Everyone is spiritual. You don’t need to go to church anymore either. Aroma therapy candles and a hot tub are suitable sacraments for being spiritual. You don’t need God either. It used to be that some deity needed to be evoked – Zeus, Thor, Yahweh, anyone. Today a ten-minute meditation exercise while ocean waves roll in your earbuds qualifies as soul-enrichment.

Far be it from me to question the benefits of a good sauna or power nap. I frequently indulge in both. But let’s not get carried away with ourselves and pat ourselves on the back for experiencing transcendence, when all we’ve done is boosted our endorphin levels. True spirituality is not relaxation any more than visiting Disneyland is riding the monorail. Spirituality is engaging in an activity that connects your actual spirit – the real you, the real core of your being – with God the maker and keeper of your soul.

What sets Christianity apart from every other form of “spirituality” is that it promises its followers a real, personal connection with its Founder. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” Jesus promised his disciples (John 14:18). This is music to a sinner’s ears. We don’t have to fight the battles of life alone. Jesus through his Spirit becomes the Warrior in our hearts to help us become “fruitful”.

Go ahead and light the candles. Have a soak in the tub. Quiet your thoughts. It’ll feel good. But it won’t tame your sin nature or bring your lust to heel. For that you have work to do. A daily appointment to keep. With a friend who longs to pour his heart out to you.

“I believe in God the Fathersays the Apostles’ Creed. What a rich, beautiful truth is found in this idea Christians gave the world – that God is our Heavenly Father. When I think of how many people carry scars from childhood, particularly because their relationship with their father was damaged (the entire show Lost was built on the concept of ‘father-wounds’) it’s astonishing to me that the Christian faith provides us with a good and loving Father that can heal those wounds. I can’t find this in any other religion.

To call God “Father” means many things of course. It speaks to his authority – that as our father he has the ability to lead our lives. It speaks to us of his strength – and our God has the strongest of arms that we can run into. It also speaks to us of God’s power to provide for our needs.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers not to worry. (Someone once said: Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. And where did it get you – all that worrying? Probably not very far.) Jesus then tells us why we shouldn’t worry. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 7:25-27).

But let’s be careful here. Don’t think to yourself that this means we just get to kick back and do nothing, and God will take care of us. He’ll do all the work. He’ll pay all our bills. He’ll fix all our problems and make life easy for us. That’s not what Jesus is teaching. Because that’s not what a loving father does for his children. Yes, for a season, God sent Israel manna from heaven. But once the manna dried up, how did God meet their need for food? They grew crops. And raised cattle. They learned to store up grain for the future. He showed them how to become hardworking and responsible. That’s what a loving father does for his children.

And so in the Bible we find God the Father meeting our needs in interesting ways. God as our Father meets our needs by giving us instruction. Proverbs 4:3 – “When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender…he taught me and said ‘Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live.” When you come to church, you are in your father’s house, and God wants to give you there teaching that will save your life. Will you listen to your Heavenly Father’s teaching?

A loving father also meets the needs of his children by giving us discipline. Hebrews 12:7 – “Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” A child needs discipline, boundaries and correction. This, not that. Life is hard, and the world unforgiving. If we do not learn self-discipline from our fathers and our mothers, and from our Heavenly Father, then the world out there will crush us. God doesn’t want that for you. God wants you to flourish out there. So he teaches you. And disciplines you. Just as a good father would.

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How many times have you seen it in a movie? One of the characters dies, and goes to heaven. Quick – how is heaven usually depicted by Hollywood? It’s white, cloudy, with a mess of angels running around, listening to organ music – bad organ music. Despite all the angels, heaven is a lonely place. The character shuffles around, not knowing anyone or anything.

I remember being really depressed by the story of The Littlest Angel. The little guy gets to heaven and nobody takes him underwing (pun intended). All the adult angels run around shaking their self-absorbed heads, muttering, “Tsk, tsk,” as the little fella gets into trouble. He’s pretty much on his own.

You may remember the end of the story where he gives to Jesus a wooden chest that he had while on earth. Inside the chest are beautiful butterflies, flowers and rocks – none of which is to be found in heaven!

Subconsciously, I was led to believe that earth was a much more beautiful place than heaven. There’s more to do here, you’re with your family and friends, and best of all you don’t have to go around wearing little blue pajamas with little footsies all day long.

When Christians confess that they believe in God the Father Almighty, the maker of Heaven…they are speaking one of the most uplifting, ennobling and awe-inspiring parts of our faith. Whatever heaven will be, it will take the best parts of life on earth and multiply it by a thousand. Heaven will fill you with such joy, that nothing on earth – not hot apple pie in October or the most dazzling full-flowered day in spring – will be able to compare with it.

And lonely? Tsk, tsk – you who think it. You’ll be with family and friends, loving and being loved, and no sin and selfishness to ruin the moment, and no goodbyes to ever be said again. Best of all, you’ll be face-to-face with a Savior who died that you might be able to enter this amazing place. All things will become new and from then on out, the dwelling place of God will be with us.

To which I say: bring it on!

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“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord”

What’s beautiful about this sentence within the Apostle’s Creed is that it describes for us in a simple, understandable way the fullness of who Jesus really is. Each word adds a layer. The word “Jesus” speaks to us of his humanity.

His name was a common, ordinary name back in those days. When Mary called Jesus to come in from the playground and get ready for supper, no doubt two or three other boys looked up also. ‘Jesus’ was merely a Greek rendering of the Hebrew word “Joshua”. Jesus ate, drank, slept, laughed, wept, breathed, and bled and died just like every other human.

Back in the first century, the Church had to work hard at convincing people of Jesus’ humanity because Greek mythology was all the rage, and no one had trouble with the idea of a god appearing as a human. But becoming human was another story.  Today it’s reversed. Nobody has difficulty thinking of Jesus as one of those rare humans who comes along every now and then – like Buddha or Gandhi – who shows us that we are capable of so much more if we try harder. “But just don’t tell us that Jesus is God or something!”

Yet Christians believe that Jesus was, and is, fully human and fully divine. There are at least two reasons why it is important that Jesus be fully human. First, because our salvation depends on it. Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect…to make propitiation for the sins of the people” says Hebrews 2:17. For me to be forgiven of my great sin, required someone to come along and stand in my place who would pay the price of judgment my sins deserved. Such a replacement would have to be like me. Human. The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were only pointers to the Perfect Sacrifice who would come and bear away our sins.

Second, because our holiness depends on it. Hebrews 2:18 then adds this thought. “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Because he is human, Jesus understands all the pressures and problems we face in life. We can’t look up in sorrow and say to God, “You can’t possibly understand my grief.” Sorry. He can. Because he felt to the bone everything a human feels.

Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows (Is.53.4). Because Jesus knows what it’s like to be human, I can run into his presence each and every day and share with him my fears and worries. And he will help me shoulder those burdens.

Reach out to him today and give him that heavy weight you’ve been carrying. Let him walk alongside of you. Let him hoist you up on his big, strong shoulders and carry you.

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“…our Lord…”

The word Lord is not one we use a whole lot in our democratic culture.

England still has its ‘lords’, but then they believe in royalty and we do not. (Or maybe we do and we’re just jealous of the Brits, ‘cuz look at how crazy we went with Meghan and Harry’s recent wedding.)

To use the language of royalty, class or privilege is to say that not all men are created equal, and that just won’t fly over here. In fact, we use the word as a slur, to cut somebody down to size. “Who does he think he is, lording it over everyone else?”

Nonetheless, to regard Jesus Christ, the Son of God as ‘our Lord’ is something every Christian subscribes to. For us, it means three things at least – he is to be worshipped as our God, honored as our King, and obeyed as our Master.

First, he is to be worshipped as our God. When doubting Thomas came face to face with his resurrected Savior, and beheld the wounds of the crucifixion still in his body, he cried out, “My Lord, and my God!” Jesus is much more than human royalty. His lordship proclaims his divinity. Thomas isn’t the only one who should fall in worship before him. As we consider the sufferings and death of our Lord, we should remember that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil.2:10-11). When’s the last time you physically knelt in prayer before God?

Jesus as Lord is also to be honored as our king. I don’t think we do a good job honoring Jesus today. And I’m not talking about the unbelieving world; I’m talking about the Church. I don’t find Christians going out of their way too often to inconvenience themselves on behalf of their Savior. He usually is made to accommodate our schedules. But it’s dishonoring to God to give him what’s left of our day, or flipping through the Bible like we do a magazine rather than digging in and studying it, or giving him what’s left of our money rather than bring the full tithe as he teaches.

Thirdly, to call Jesus “Lord” is to say that we will obey him as our Master. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21). It’s possible to go through the motions of worshipping and honoring God while all along it’s just for show. What proves that your heart is where it should be is the willingness to do what he says. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” our Lord said (John 14:15).

We are not saved by works, we are saved for works. The desire and striving to obey is the fruit that proves that the seed of salvation has been planted in our hearts. And is the proof that we have taken Jesus as our “Lord”.

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“…Suffered under Pontius Pilate…”

There is significance in the fact that the Creed pauses to say that Jesus suffered before he was crucified. It would seem that it goes without saying. But that it does say it is important because while not everyone can relate to crucifixion (though I once as a boy stepped on a Mr. Potato Head nose piece and drilled it into my foot), we all comprehend what it means to suffer. And to realize that my Savior also knows what it means to suffer is profoundly encouraging.

The encouragement comes in knowing that God the Son truly feels our pain because he felt our pain. For that reason, as the great prophecy of Isaiah 53 says, the Messiah “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”.  On the last day (or rather, on the first day – of life in eternity), our Savior “will wipe away every tear from our eyes” (Rev.21:4). Look close when that happens, for it will be a nail-scarred hand touching your face.

There is not a type of suffering he does not get. He knows what injustice feels like (for that was his treatment under Pontius Pilate).  He knows physical torment. He drank grief down to the dregs. The rejection of friends. Betrayal. Being called names. The death of dreams. The desire to slake the deadly thirst of temptation. Like the song says, “Jesus knows our every weakness, take it to the Lord in prayer.”

There have been many times I’ve walked with someone in deep pain, and all I could say was, “I don’t have an answer for why this is happening to you. But I do know this – that at the heart of my faith is a cross where Jesus died for us. He knows the pain you’re feeling and the evil that’s in the world. So run into his arms. Pour out your heart and tears to him.”

Some of you need to do that this very moment. My friend, Jesus suffered for you.

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“…he descended into hell…”

Have you ever been to a place or experienced something that was so awful you said to yourself, “If there is such a thing as hell, it couldn’t be much worse than this.” (And no, being a Viking’s fan doesn’t count.)

If you talk to a vet from Vietnam or Iraq, I’m sure they could bring to mind quite easily images, noises, and smells which would qualify as being ‘hell-like’. The survivor of severe trauma or abuse lives there in part, and even in sleep, there is seldom escape. In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” Prince Caspian and his crew encounter the Dark Island, a black hole in the sea where not even light can escape.

As they venture inside, they encounter a shipwreck survivor who warns them to flee the darkness. “Because here all your dreams come true!” he cries out. Once they realize that Dark Island is where all your dreams come true – not only your good dreams – they can’t escape fast enough.

The Apostle’s Creed reminds us that hell exists. Christ, in some fashion (Scripture is very vague in its description), stormed its gates and defeated its power when he died for us on the Cross. Jesus tells us that the fires of hell were prepared for the “devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), not for us. Yet the needless tragedy is that anyone whose name is not found in the book of life will be sent there (Rev.21:12).

Two quick warnings for the unbeliever and believer. First the believer.

The doctrine of hell should never be an easy one to digest. There are Christians who think nothing of casting the unrepentant millions into eternal judgment with a flick of their self-righteous wrists. I am deeply disturbed by any Christian who is not deeply disturbed by the thought of hell. If we really believe in the existence of this awful place, it should unsettle us as nothing else. And if we see someone on the wide road that leads to hell, we should not ponder their fate with the casualness we use when talking about what colors to paint the bathroom. It should move us to find a way to warn them.

For the unbeliever:

Jesus described hell with two metaphors: fire and darkness. Is Jesus speaking literally? If you say, “No”, be careful what you mean. Don’t think to yourself, “Well of course it’s not literal. Nothing would be that bad.” One of the tendencies of our fallen nature is that we’re always trying to minimize the effects of our sinfulness. We try to talk ourselves into believing that we can run our lives without God and still come out ahead.

But life doesn’t work that way. The fact of the matter is if hell is not literal fire and literal darkness, then it is much, much worse. Hell is literally eternal banishment from God. And to be banished from God is to be banished from Love, from Goodness, from Beauty, from Truth. The Bible is trying to tell us in the sternest way it can, like the shipwrecked survivor on Dark Island, “Move heaven and earth to stay clear of this place!”

Thankfully for all of us, because Jesus descended into hell, because Jesus took our judgment upon himself, because he suffered in our place, if we come to him in repentance and faith, all will be forgiven. “Whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life”. (John 3:16)

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“…And sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”

Christianity’s greatness is anchored in the past tense. It’s rooted in what God did for us in Christ. We say, “I believe” not because we feel warm fuzzies, or because it’s the way our family has always believed, but because it’s true, unveiled in actual historical events.

However what happened in the past must be lived out in the present, and so the Apostles Creed now switches tenses. Having told us what Christ has done, it now tells us what Christ is doing. Right now as we speak, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God.

But what is this description saying? For most modern readers, it flies right over our heads, because this is the language of kings and emperors, not democracies. For the Bible writers and first readers though, this language conveyed something powerful and comforting. Which is why it was used so frequently (e.g. Acts 2:33, 7:55; Eph.1:20; Col.3:1; Heb.8:1, 10:12, 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22).

When a commander or conquerer or great general took their seat at the right hand of the Sovereign King, the message that was symbolically being proclaimed was that the battle had been won. Victory was assured. All is well.

Perhaps there was still fighting to be done. But none of the king’s warriors needed to worry any longer of the outcome. The Captain of their Salvation had conquered.

Psalm 110 prophesied this of the Messiah. David wrote, “The Lord [God the Father] says to my Lord [God the Son], ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter: Rule in the midst of your enemies.”

These are now our marching orders as his followers. To rule in the midst of those who do not yet bow the knee to Christ. To serve our Lord aflame with the confidence that we do not fight alone – for he is with us by his Spirit and intercedes for us from the right hand of the Father (Heb.7:25, 8:1). And aflame with the confidence that we do not fight in vain. “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes,” (Ps.108:13). What’s the proof of this?

Jesus is seated at the right hand of God.

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“…the holy Christian Church…

The next phrase in the Apostles Creed at first glance might seem to be a bit out of place. Throughout the Creed, we have been talking about subjects that are clearly supernatural, which we have to accept on faith – that there is a God, that he is most fully revealed to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, and rose from the grave, and now lives within us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Now we are told to believe in the “holy Christian Church”. And perhaps you might be tempted to think, “Well, what is it that I have to believe about the church? What’s so supernatural about the church? I see them scattered on every street corner.”

Some people think of church as an unnecessary part of being a Christian. I hear the sentiment expressed often by people that they feel closest to God while walking through the woods, or gazing up at the stars. But as soon as you bring other people into the picture, all those religious feelings start to fade. It’s like when you’re trying to enjoy a romantic mood with your spouse or date, and suddenly the in-laws come to the front door, or your little brother barges into the room. People ruin the moment. And many feel that way about the Church. That it spoils an otherwise good thing.

Clearly though for all its flaws and wrinkles, we ought not see the church this way. When Christians confess, “I believe in the holy, Christian church,” they are saying that there is something supernatural about it. That there is something of eternal value in the community of people who are drawn together because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ.

When you take all that Scripture has to teach about the Church, you begin to realize that it exists, not as an afterthought to God’s mind – “Oh we don’t want them to get too close to heaven while they’re on earth so let’s give them the church to slow them down a bit” – but it exists as a gift from God to his people. The Church exists for our good, for our growth, for our encouragement, as we pilgrimage together toward eternal life.

Jesus assumed that his followers would live together, and worship together, and work together in community, so much so that one’s closeness to Jesus is actually dependent on how close we are to one another. Our Lord expects us to make “church” something more than a place we go on Christmas Eve.

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…the life everlasting.”

Christians are really odd kind of people when you get down to it. We believe in some astounding things. For starters, we believe in God. Which is astounding when you think of it.

Go down to the mall right now and ask people at random if they believe in God. Most will say – because they’re good politicians – “Oh sure!”, because it is still fashionable in our culture to confess belief in a higher power, provided he doesn’t mess around with their lives any.

If you proceed to then ask them if they believe in a God such as is described by the Apostles Creed – one who is the creative Designer of the universe, who revealed himself in human flesh, tasted death on our behalf, who will one day judge everyone who has ever lived, and usher his faithful ones into life everlasting in his kingdom – well, most of them will look down at their watches or phones and mumble, “Boy, I’d love to talk but I’ve got to go feed a quarter into the parking meter.”

It never occurs to such people that if there is a God, then he is much more likely to be closer to what Christians describe than the “God” of their imaginations. The Creator of the sun, the Programmer of the brain, the Filler of the oceans, is not going to be some absent-minded, easy-go-lucky, heavenly Captain Kangeroo who just blows smiles at us from his heavenly rocking chair. If he’s there, he’s every bit as magnificent, and powerful, and personal as Christians say he is.

Christians believe in astounding things, because they believe in an astounding God.  And “life everlasting” is astounding! The concept of eternity is mind-blowing. I wasted entire math classes when I was in school trying to fathom the largest number. And just when you thought you had nailed it down, your brain said, “Oops. Add one more number to it.”

And then I would spend entire science classes trying to grapple with negative infinity. Take a foot-long hot dog and divide it in half, and what do have? Two six-inch Dairy Queen dogs. Take one of those, divide it in half. Now you’re talking White Castle wieners. Cut one of those in half, and you have cocktail dogs – break out the barbecue sauce. Where does it stop? It doesn’t!

Poof! Blows your mind. Seen properly, eternal life should help put this life in perspective. It should cause you to be a little less wigged out when something goes wrong in this life. It should help you to set better priorities when it comes to the decisions you make here and now. It should motivate you to think more of your Maker and what you owe him in terms of gratitude and service.

“When we’ve been there, ten-thousands years, bright shining as the sun; We’ve no less days, to sing God’s praise, that when we’ve first begun.”

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“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (Exodus 33:11)

How do you become friends with God?  A story from Exodus 33 which describes Moses’ relationship with God is helpful to consider.

“Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the ‘tent of meeting’.  Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp.  And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent.”  (vss.7-8)

The first lesson we learn from Moses here about becoming a friend of God is very simple and straightforward.  Moses earnestly seeks God.

You can’t be friends with God without first setting your heart to seek him.  This is a foundation spiritual truth.  Jeremiah 29:13 – “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  Isaiah 55:6 – “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”  Hebrews 11:6 – “God rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Why do we have to do this?  Is God playing some kind of hide and seek game with us?  Why doesn’t God just show himself to us outright?

Because this is how we show God the seriousness of our heart. This is what separates the men from the boys in God’s eyes.  The contenders from the pretenders.  Those who want to play religion from those who want the real relationship.

Thousands of people followed Jesus at first, riding the waving of his popularity.  Jesus would withdraw – a few would stop following, but the others would come and find him.  He’d walk across a lake, a smaller group would jump in their boats and follow.

He’d say things to put them off his scent. A Canaanite woman sought him once, seeking healing for her sick daughter. Jesus said to her, “Woman, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  Why’d he do this?  It sounds cruel. But he was probing her heart, trying to draw out her faith.

So when the Canaanite woman cried out to him, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”, he knew that here was a woman that would take hold of God no matter what (Matthew 15:22-28).  And Jesus rewarded her seeking by healing her daughter and praising her for her faith.

Are you going to take hold of God with that kind of intensity and passion? That’s the kind of person who becomes a friend of God.  Moses set the tent of meeting “some distance away” from the camp.  It reminds me of Jesus who when he went to pray would withdraw to solitary, lonely places.  Why?  Seeking God is serious business. Though it is birthed in grace, real effort in required on our parts.

You can’t just stay inside the doorway of your tent and expect to have a deeper experience of God.

David cried out to God in prayer, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)

If you’re not sure where to begin, start by praying out these words from David. Then pray them again. Then do it aloud. Try memorizing them. It’s not a mantra. Don’t say them mindlessly. Think about the words you’re saying. Earnestly. Thirsts. Faints. You repeat them until the pulse of your heartbeat begins to align with David’s and you realize that this seeking is perhaps the greatest call to adventure you’ve ever heard.

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Another thing that stands out about Moses and the friendship he enjoyed with God in Exodus 33 is that he wasn’t content to remain where he was in his relationship with God.  And this is a fourth lesson for those who become God’s friends. They long to know God more. 

Two verses after telling us the Lord spoke to Moses as a man to his friend,  Moses says to God, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” (Exodus 33:13).

Moses is hungry for more of God.  There’s a beautiful thing that happens to those who go face to face with God. Something that people who play religion will never experience.  Psalm 25:14 tells us – “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him.”  And the Hebrew word that is used here has to do with being a part of an intimate circle where secrets are shared.

Another English translation says, “The Lord confides in those who fear him.” It calls to mind Jesus when he said in John 15:15 – “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made know to you.”

But sadly, we don’t all have the same relationship with God.  God is closer to some than others. God reveals more of himself to some than others. Even among Jesus’ 12 disciples, there was an inner circle of Peter, James, and John – and Jesus shared more of himself with them than the others.  And you say, It’s not fair.  God’s playing favorites.  It has nothing at all to do with God playing favorites.  It’s simply God’s response to a heart that’s hungry for more of him.

Some people think pastors are closer to God than others.  Not true.  The verse doesn’t say, “The friendship of the Lord is for those who go to seminary.”  Some people think people who have been Christians for a long time are closer to God than others.  Not true.  Age does not guarantee maturity.  The writer of Psalm 119 said, “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.”

This has nothing to do with your age, or your intellect. It all has to do with your heart.

So how do you grow in knowing God? It was announced the other day that an 18th-century Spanish galleon with as much as $17 billion in gold was recently discovered off the coast of Columbia. This wasn’t just lucky. It was the result of an all-out search. Guess what? The Bible says that growing in knowing God is just like that.

Proverbs 2:3-5 says, “If you call out for insight…if you look for it as for silver and search for I as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” 

Do you have the deep desire to know God more and more? This is the born-again birthright for any child of God. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:17 – “I keep asking God…that you may know him better.”

Those whom God brings into his inner circle of friendship have this hunger. Do you?

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Good character is commonly praised but uncommonly practiced. Which is why when we find examples of it in Scripture, we should take notice. Joseph is one of those men.

There’s a second step in the journey to good character which the story of Joseph teaches us. We must learn to say, “No!”  After Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife the Bible tells us next, “But he refused.”  He said, “No!”

Don’t assume that Joseph wasn’t tempted and didn’t want to do this.  We’re not told how she looked, but we know from the tombs of the Egyptians that the royal women knew how to doll themselves up.  (Granted, they’re not too pretty when we find them in their tomb.) They used makeup, jewelry, face paint, perfume and braided hair, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that Potiphar’s wife was a knockout, and that Joseph felt arousal knocking at his door. Yet he said ‘No!’

The Bible says in Titus 2:11-12 – “For the grace of God…teaches us to say, ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” 

Sometimes when we’re tempted, we want to cry out, “God, take these feelings away!  Change my thoughts!”  But this isn’t how God works.  You’re not a robot.  God wants sons and daughters who will worship him freely, not machines running around saying, “Beep. I stand in awe of you. Beep.”

Now God will help you in your fight for right behavior.  In fact, the moment you are tempted, God’s help is on the way.  But God needs you to make a choice, and to take a stand. Muscles cannot grow unless they face the resistance of bar and steel, then overcomes it. Character cannot grow unless it faces the bar and steel of desires, then overcomes them.

Sometimes we think that failure make a person into a strong leader. That depends.

I succumbed to the lure of pornography early in my marriage, and it took an 18-month journey of confession, counseling and consecration to draw me out of the wasteland. Did that experience make me into a better husband and pastor, compared with a person who grabbed hold tight of Jesus’ hand and stayed clear of that swamp?

The last time I looked, Adam and Eve were to trust God about what is right and wrong, and not be sinking their teeth into the fruit that comes from the knowledge of good and evil. Must I plunge into financial ruin to be able to preach more effectively about money? Do I have to drag my wife through a divorce court so that I can counsel others more fruitfully on how to have a good marriage?

No – it’s rising above failure by God’s grace (good) and it’s avoiding failure by God’s grace (better) that creates a strong leader. C.S. Lewis said, “Only those who resist temptation know how strong it is.” Christian media expert Phil Cooke says, “Past sin does not make you a better leader.”

The miracle of God’s grace is that he can take our failures (if we’ve done our homework, been properly accountable, accepted discipline, and learned) and turn them into redemptive lessons to help others. But let’s never celebrate the failure, but the God who rescues us from it, and then teaches us to say “No” to sin. For that priceless ability is at the heart of possessing good, moral character.

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The story of Joseph shows another truth about good character – there is a reward in pursuing it.

Now be careful here. The reward for doing the right thing will not always be evident right away. In fact, usually standing up for what is right brings pain at first. You might lose someone you thought was a friend. You might be mocked. You might be pressured or persecuted.

What was Joseph’s immediate reward for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife (i.e. sexual holiness?)  He was tossed in prison!!  Joseph might easily have thought to himself, “That’s great, God.  Here I stand up for what’s right, for what you want, I obey you as best I can, and this is what happens!”  

But Joseph’s story reminds us that in the end, if you keep storing up goodness in your heart, if you keep saying, ‘No!’, if you keep using your head and thinking it through, if you keep taking God’s way of escape, and if you obey no matter what the cost, God will see, and God will reward you.

As he rewarded Joseph.  In time, the same good qualities which Potiphar noticed in Joseph, were recognized by the prison warden, and eventually were recognized by Pharaoh himself. And if you know the story, the Lord lifted Joseph out of prison and promoted him to Pharaoh’s right hand, from which position God used Joseph to become a blessing to his family, and to save the entire nation.

 And dear friend, God has his eye on you as well. The smallest sacrifice done in his name, even the giving of a cup of water, is noticed by God and will be rewarded. Perhaps if you’re like me, just knowing that he knows is reward enough. I’ll be content with just a simple, “Atta boy!” But God’s grace is such that so much more will be given us who hold the line and don’t retreat from what is good.

The apostle Paul said at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight…Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

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Do you ever feel like a fifth wheel in God’s kingdom? A black sheep? The unexpected child that is tolerated, not loved?

Writer Os Guinness is convinced that one of things plaguing the modern church is that Christians have lost their sense of calling from God.  We may think to ourselves that if we’re not the pastor, or on the worship team, then we must be overlooked by God, and our contribution matters little to him. But every Christian has a calling on his or her life.  Multiple callings in fact.

First, God calls you to salvation.  Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him.” You may think – and sing – “I have decided to follow Jesus.” Well, not exactly. What you decided to do was say Yes to God’s call on your life to follow his Son. God called out to you first. You couldn’t know him otherwise.

Second, God calls you to a life of holiness. Romans 1:5 says that through Jesus, we have “received grace…to call people…to the obedience that comes from faith.” God loves us so much that he calls us to a new life in Jesus. We don’t have to remain stuck in the same old habits, ruts and sins that have made such a mess of our lives. Perhaps you need to hear God afresh calling you to repent of self-centered, self-destructive ways and embrace the new destiny that God has for you.

Third, God calls you to enjoy a relationship of love with his Son. Romans 1:6 says, “You…are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” We all have times in our lives when we feel like the kid at recess who never gets called by the captain to join the team. We wonder if God cares for us, let alone even notices us. But Jesus calls out to us, “You belong to me. I want you on my team.”

Fourth, God calls you to be a saint. Romans 1:7 says we are “loved by God and called to be saints.” Too many believers think of sainthood as a spiritual Hall of Fame, that only a select few get to join. But biblically speaking, you are called to sainthood the moment you enter God’s kingdom. The word ‘saint’ literally means to be set apart, or separated from others. But God doesn’t set us apart from other believers because of the amazing things we have done. God sets us apart from unbelievers, because by faith we’ve accepted the amazing things God has done for us. See the difference. Tradition says, “Do lots of good things, and maybe you’ll become a saint.” God says, “I’ve made you a saint; now go do lots of good things.”

And fifthly, God calls you to serve others in his name. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:1, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

Some are called to serve God as a pastor.  Some are called to serve God as a missionary.  But just as important are those called to serve God as plumbers, as teachers, as nurses, as journalists, as cashiers, as mothers, as fathers, as students. And we need to perish the thought that because I’m doing this “secular” work, I’m doing something less important in God’s eyes than those doing the “spiritual” work.  Get rid of that distinction in your thinking, and serve God in whatever field he has planted you. You have a divine calling on your life, my friend. Get out there and start living that way.

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“Don’t judge,” Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.7:1). But he’s not telling us to never exercise moral judgment, for that would be foolish, even dangerous. Consider several examples in Scripture where we are told to “judge” the behavior of others.

When someone sins against us. When someone hurts us, Jesus tells us to go to them and point out what they’re doing, but to do so privately (Matthew 18:15).  We can’t say, “Oh, I shouldn’t judge. Live and let live.” Sure there are occasions where we need to let things go. The Bible calls that forbearance. There’s so much sinning to go around, that if we make it our business to point out every time someone nicks us, life will get ugly in a hurry.

How do we know when we should point it out or not? Jesus tells us to go to them with the goal of “gaining our brother or sister back”. It’s a reconciliation strategy. So if the behavior is something severe enough to hurt the relationship and drive a wedge between you, then it’s time to exercise this sort of judgment. (If they don’t listen to you when you go to them one-on-one, Jesus provides additional steps to follow, but that’s for another devotion.)

When we see someone caught in a sin. Galatians 6:1 says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Again, there’s a qualifier here. We go to them not when we see them sinning. We’re not the moral police, commissioned to go around issuing sin citations for every infraction. God doesn’t even do that! “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” (Ps.130:3).

We go to them when we see them caught in a sin. Some sin gets on me like mud, and I’m responsible to go to Jesus and get washed off. But some sin wraps around me like a chain, and then the responsibility extends to those around me to help me break free (even though the foolishness for getting caught is all mine.) Strangely, the deeper into sin a person plunges, the more blind to its reality they often become, making it all the more important for those who love them in Christ to exercise moral judgment and go to them.

We are to judge the teaching and character of our leaders. There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, the Bible tells us “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls” (Heb.13:17). But a few verses earlier, the writer says, “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.”

I can point to countless examples of those who mounted pulpits, brandishing Bibles, who then led their congregations into great sin or heresy. I recently read of a pastor who was caught in adultery, who then announced to his church a week or two later that God had forgiven him so they should as well (translation: I shouldn’t be disciplined for this or be asked to step down.) Anyone in that church who goes along with that reasoning is not exercising moral judgment, but is instead ringing the dinner bell for Satan.

“Do not despise prophesying but test everything,” Paul wrote (1 Thess.5:20-21).  Blessed is that pastor or preacher who has a congregation of “Berean Christians” (Acts 17:11) who while receiving the word eagerly from their lips, nonetheless, will “examine the Scriptures daily” to see if what they are preaching is true.

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Two other traits always seem to bubble up in those who have judgmental hearts.

Judgmentalism uses arbitrary standards to judge by. In John 8:1-11 is the story of a woman caught in adultery, then dragged before Jesus by the Pharisees (playing the role of the legalists.) Now what’s wrong with this picture?

Where was the man?

But this is what judgmentalists do. They see only the part of the law that they want to see. And remain blind to all the rest. Their standards are arbitrary.

The Pharisees were notorious for this. They got angry at Jesus because he didn’t wash his hands the right way, and he healed people on the Sabbath – the nerve! – and he upset their applecart of traditions which had nothing to do with Scripture.

Legalists are still like this today. They judge people by the clothes they wear, or the version of the Bible they read. They rail against outward sins, but are oblivious to inward sins such as materialism, pride or prejudice. When Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Before you remove a speck from your brother’s eye, make sure you take out the plank from your own eye,” this is exactly what he was talking about. Make very sure if you’re going to start calling people to account for the way they live, that the way you live is exemplary.

It’s at this point that I call to mind something very sobering that Jesus said in his sermon. “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” If you’re a judgmentalist, that should cause you to tremble. At least it should cause you to reevaluate your standards for judging others.

Judgmentalism blinds us to our own sin. I don’t think that Jesus was saying to Simon the Pharisee (from the story we considered earlier in Luke 7) that he needed forgiveness any less than the sinful woman. I think in a very subtle, but powerful way, Jesus was suggesting to Simon that he needed to be at Jesus feet just like she was. But Simon was blind to his own need for God’s forgiveness.

Earlier, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” He wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were healthy. They just thought they were. He wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were righteous. They just thought they were.

Judgmentalism can fool us that way. It’s easy to sit in church on Sundays and start to think that we’re so much better than everyone out there. It’s easy to read the Sunday paper and shake our heads at all the terrible things that people are doing to each other out there. It’s easy to start to pat ourselves on the back and think, “Boy, isn’t God lucky to have people like me on his side.”

Once this thought sinks in, your spiritual eyes become blinded and you become useless to God.

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Another key to a lasting relationship shown to us by Abraham and Sarah (in addition to having a shared vision/click here, and intimacy/click here) is the key of commitment. Love puts up with a lot of flaws and blemishes.

This is one thing that first disillusions newlyweds about marriage. When you’re dating, the couple always tries to keep their best foot forward (and to make sure that foot looks and smells nice.) Blemishes are subdued in courtship. But people don’t look good and smell good 24 hours a day.

And so when you get married, the first thing you see that’s different than before is the blemishes in the other person. Bad breath and cow licks and dirty socks, not to mention bad habits you’ve never seen before.

Believe it or not, but this area of discontent that challenges couples early in their marriages becomes one of the things that strengthens and matures their love later on.  There comes a point in every successful marriage where the husband and wife stop holding each other up to impossible standards of success and beauty, and start loving each other for who they really are, warts and all.

Commitment is starting to win the day.  And that’s a very liberating place to be at in a relationship.  Commitment gives your relationship arms to rest in.  And that’s very important when the storms come, and every relationship gets them.

As I study Genesis, I believe the darkest hour in Abraham and Sarah’s relationship was when Abraham slept with Sarah’s servant Hagar, and she became pregnant with Ishmael. Sarah is in agony.  Her godly sense of self is shattered.  And yet through this excruciating episode, Sarah stays committed and their relationship survives.

Commitment is a concept that stands as a rebuke to the consumer culture we live in today. In a consumer culture, the number one priority in a person’s life is meeting his or her felt needs. The pursuit of private happiness is what matters most. This attitude is killing the church today. “Well, should we go to church this morning?” the consumer Christian asks on Sunday morning. “Should we go to our small group meeting? Should I read my Bible?”

Our country is filled with McChristians who have a pathetic kind of McFaith, in a God called McJesus who exists to meet their every need.  And the tell-tale sign of this – no commitment.

This same affliction is wreaking havoc on relationships today. In a secular study called, “Marriage in America”, the authors wrote: “Marriage has increasingly been reduced to a vehicle for the emotional fulfillment of adult partners.  ‘Till death do us part’ has been replaced by ‘as long as I am happy.’”

Meanwhile, the children suffer for their parent’s self-absorption and lack of commitment.  You know the statistics: in the past generation, juvenile crime is up, teen suicide has tripled, drug abuse, eating disorders, and depression among young have soared.  The report goes on to say that our nation must “reclaim the ideal of marital permanence and affirm marriage as the preeminent environment for childrearing.”  (Yet one more reason for us to tell our legislators and judges why the historical, traditional view of marriage must be upheld.)

So a secular study concludes what Abraham and Sarah modeled for us 4,000 years ago: commitment produces relationships that last.

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Christ’s teaching that his followers love their enemies is arguably one of the most difficult of his commands to process, let alone obey. An enemy means a bully, an abuser, a swindler, a terrorist, the spouse who abandoned us (and these days a member of the other political party.) Immediately, we protest, “Lord, you expect me to love them?” Immediately, we raise up a thousand objections: It’s impossible! It won’t work! It’s weakness!

Looking at the example of the early church however, we observe some qualifications of what it means to love one’s enemy. And when we see it play out in real-time, what we notice is it’s as far from weakness as can be. It is in fact the height of moral strength. Here are three things that loving our enemies doesn’t mean:

It doesn’t mean we don’t speak out against evil.

If there was no speaking out against evil, then this approach would indeed be the epitome of weakness. The Bible tells us to speak the truth in love.  We see the early Christians confronting the evil they face time and time again. Evil needs to be exposed as evil with all the conviction and passion we can muster.  Jesus spoke truth to power at his own trial.  Only at the end did he button up and refuse to play the game anymore with his accusers.

The apostle Paul spoke loudly and clearly in his own defense at his many interrogations and trials.  The early church fathers wrote blistering articles and books addressed to the Roman authorities, protesting the way Christians were being treated. Loving our enemies does not mean we keep our mouths shut.  We call a spade a spade.

Gandhi, a practitioner of nonviolence, wrote: “Nonviolence does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means putting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”

It doesn’t mean we don’t take full advantage of every legal recourse at our disposal in fighting evil. 

Paul was falsely accused and arrested by his Jewish opponents. Did he just turn the other cheek and accept their punishment? No – he appealed to Caesar. As a Roman citizen, Paul had certain rights which the law gave him, and more than once, Paul played this trump card to his advantage.

As we struggle against evil in our society, we are privileged with tremendous avenues of freedom and legal recourse in America. Particularly as religious liberty comes under siege in our culture today, we need to make full use of the power at our disposal. We must also use that power to come to the defense of our suffering brothers and sisters around the world.

Jesus said, To those who are given much, much is expected, and American Christians have been given much – so we need to use it. We ought to be involved politically and judicially in fighting for righteousness. This is far from weakness.

It doesn’t mean we hang onto violence as a last resort if everything else fails.

We find in the example of the early church that when their speaking and preaching failed, and when every legal recourse dried up, even when the law turned against them, Christian refused to do two things: 1) They refused to compromise their faith, and 2) they refused to resort to violence to find vindication, but accepted whatever mistreatment was given them.

They never held violence in reserve, ‘just in case’. The Jewish leaders told Peter and John, “We order you to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.” Peter and John shrugged their shoulders and said, “We must obey God rather than men.” Yet when they were beaten and imprisoned for breaking the law, they accepted the mistreatment. In fact, the Bible says they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus. And they refused to turn to violence as a solution. You call this weakness?

Paul wrote most of his letters from prison.  Anyone out there care to call Paul an impotent man?

It takes far more courage to act like this than it does to take the easy way out and turn to violence. September 11th was one of the greatest examples of moral cowardice we have ever seen.  And every suicide bomber is a moral coward.  But let’s not stop there: every person who has ever bombed an abortion clinic or planted a burning cross in someone’s lawn, or looted a neighborhood in “protest” at police brutality or threatened college students for inviting a speaker they might disagree with – these are nothing but moral cowards, a million miles away from the heart of the Savior who commands us to love our enemies.

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Easter, for most Christians, is a season to chat up our Lord a bit more than we might ordinarily do. Many of the great events of Jesus’ life make an appearance in magazine articles and blogs. There are always a few movies out this time of year – like “The Case For Christ”, which can serve as conversation starters. And if you heard your pastor say it once, you heard it a dozen times, “Invite people to church for Easter!”

The temptation may now be there to shut down all the witnessing engines, and to put away our evangelistic prayers and projects, the way we box up our decorations after Christmas. But sharing our hope in Jesus with others ought not be something seasonal we attend to only a select time of year, but a way of life that becomes part of who we are.

Consider afresh right now the Great Commission of Jesus from Matthew 28:18-20. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.”

Examine our Lord’s words with a journalist’s mindset. Who is the Great Commission for?  It’s for every believer.  What are we to do?  There are several verbs here: go, make disciples, baptize, teach Jesus’ commands.  When are we to do this?  Until Jesus returns.  Where are we to do this?  To the ends of the earth.  How are we to do this?  In the power, strength and authority which Jesus himself will provide.  Why are we to do this?  Consider the stakes.  What is worth more than a human soul?  Just look at the cross of Jesus, and you’ll see there a living, breathing picture of how much God loves us.

Sharing our faith with others can be daunting, even intimidating.  What if I say the wrong words?  What if they tell me to buzz off?  Especially as American believers who have had it drilled into their heads that as Americans we must not make any waves when it comes to religious belief but should respect diversity and be tolerant of everyone’s viewpoint.

Well, Jesus wasn’t an American, and he certainly wasn’t concerned in the way we are about what’s fashionable or “politically correct”. Which is why he said things like, “I am the way, the truth, the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”, and “You will die in your sins unless you believe in me” and to a Samaritan woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know…Salvation is from the Jews.”  (If you think Sean Spicer has a tough job being President Trump’s press secretary, imagine being Jesus’?)

There’s a great old hymn called, “I Love To Tell The Story”. But sadly, for many Christians, if they were to sing the song as they felt it, they’d sing, “I kinda, sorta love to tell the story.”

If that’s your reality, then this week’s Daily Spark devotions are for you.  We’re going to discuss some ideas that will hopefully help you begin to change the way you think about your mission of reaching the lost for Christ.  If you feel intimidated by this whole subject, then Jesus has some questions to ask you this week which should be of help and encouragement to you.

For today though, just rivet your heart and mind on the words of the Great Commission. Think them through. Pray about them. Maybe – ee-gads – memorize them!

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