Not Your Warm and Fuzzy Devotional

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There is a lot of hero-worship in the church. There are “rock-star” pastors with thousands of followers and Bible teachers who sell out auditoriums around the country. Jesus had quite a crowd that followed Him and hung on His every word. Take the fellow in Luke 9: “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you where you go.’” (v. 57). He wanted to be part of Jesus’ entourage. But Jesus didn’t encourage this would-be fan. His response: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (v. 58). I believe Jesus was saying, “This is not going to be the high-life you’re expecting. I don’t have a multi-million dollar mansion to put you up in. I walk hot, dusty roads and sleep where I can.”

What did you expect from Jesus when you chose to follow Him? A solution to all your problems? A good reputation in the community? A full life with heaven thrown in after it’s all over?

Just a few verses before this scene, He told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (v. 23) Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem and the cross. He might have also told the man, “Don’t hook your wagon to me unless you’re prepared to die.” There is a war going on between good and evil, between light and darkness. Evil and darkness have the upper hand at the moment. God’s people are the enemy of the present ruling authorities who are bent on destruction. If you choose Jesus, you need to know that you are also choosing self-denial, persecution, rejection, and suffering. That is what Jesus endured. Why should we expect any less?

But then, I look at the modern church, so comfortable in our air-conditioned sanctuaries. Where is the suffering? Where is the persecution? Where are self-denial and the cross? Maybe the enemy’s strategy against the church today is not a full-on battle, but just to make us relaxed and contented. Just before he hits us with an all-out assault.

Here’s a thought: If Christianity is comfortable, maybe we’re in more danger than we know.

Kingdom first

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Painting by Eric Enstrom

“I’ve got my priorities in order: God first, my family second, church third, work fourth, and everything else after that. That’s what the Good Book says!” “That’s great,” the teacher replied, “I am sure God will honor you for honoring Him.”

We had been discussing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:33 – “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The teacher, following the printed material, presented this verse as the man interpreted it: prioritize God above everything else in your life. I felt like this was falling short. As so often happens when we lift one verse out of a passage, we lose the context and when we lose the context we lose the meaning and the application.

This verse is not about priorities – when you put it back in its place, this verse is about the futility and faithlessness of worry. It would be helpful right now if you grabbed your Bible and read verses 25-34, then zero in on verses 31-32. Jesus said that “Pagans run after all these things” meaning food and clothing and the basic necessities of life. Is He saying “these things” are worldly and don’t matter to God? No. Notice the end of verse 32: “Your heavenly Father knows that you need [all these things].” They are legitimate needs. And God acknowledges that. What Jesus said that worry is out of place in the life of God’s children. He said that people who don’t have a heavenly Father have to seek the things they need. God’s children are to seek their Father, who sets a bountiful table.

Here’s something else that stuck out at me as I meditated on this passage. Jesus said “seek first His Kingdom” but He never says what to seek second or third. The truth is, there’s no other priority.  When you seek the kingdom first, you will find everything you need.

A Place Called Home

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“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Two summers ago when everything in our lives fell apart, we had to find a place to live back in our hometown. We drove around for days looking at apartments, houses, mobile homes – any place we could land. But when we found this house, I knew I was “home.” When I drive around town and see houses for sale or rent, I don’t give them a second thought because I am happily settled where I am.

In John 15:1-11, Jesus told His disciples that He is the Vine, and they (and we) are the branches. Branches must stay connected to the vine to live and to produce good fruit – the word he used is meno meaning to “remain” or “abide. He used it three times in this passage: “remain in me, [let] my words remain in you,” and “remain in my love” v. 9). The word gives the idea of being settled – like we are here in this house.

I think Jesus wants us to “settle down” with Him. I think He wants us to dismiss all other options and opinions because we are happily abiding in Him, curled up on the couch drinking in His Words, wrapped in the warm quilt of His love. Maybe even a cat purring at our feet. Storms may rage outside the walls, but we are not anxious. We are at home.

Beloved, do you long for this kind of peace and contentment? Are you weary of the storm and the confusion of the world? The Master of this house will never turn you away. Come home to God through Jesus Christ. The door is open for you

Is the Christian Church Dying?

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The pollsters tell us that in the last ten years, Christianity in America has declined by more than 10%. Of those who claim to be Christians, less than half report regular church attendance. Those who claim no affiliation with religion – the “nones” have increased – from only 6% in the early 1970’s to 22% in 2019. [1] Add to those reports the rise of hatred against Christianity and the trend for modern churches to turn away from biblical truth and you begin to wonder if the true church has a future at all. Is Christianity dying? Is the Christian church going to survive?

Christianity is by no means dying and the church will survive because her Head is Jesus Christ, the ultimate and eternal Victor. But the church and her children will take some difficult blows. Jesus warned His followers that the world would hate those who love Him, He said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). When we become Christians and live like Christians, we will become offensive – not acceptable – to the world.

Perhaps the unpopularity of the Christian faith will be her saving grace. When being a Christian becomes a stigma instead of a tradition, only the most devoted to Christ will remain. Throughout the history of the church, God has often used persecution and oppression to purge and purify His people.

Jesus also said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11). When they were imprisoned and beaten for their testimony of Jesus, the Apostles were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41). Persecution is on the horizon for the church in the U.S. – it’s already a reality in other parts of the world. Beloved holding fast to your faith in Jesus may be the hardest thing you ever do. But it will also be the sweetest. Be faithful to God, walk in His Truth, refuse to compromise the faith and the message, and trust Him to either stand in our defense or stand to receive us into heaven.

[1] https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

Waiting for Jesus

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The old man shuffling through the temple courts was a common sight. You could tell exactly what time of day it was when Simeon came around. Same gait, same expression, the same sense of yearning. But today there was something different about him. He was excited, his eyes darted around and his feet moved as if every step was determined by a force outside of himself. Suddenly his weathered face lit up like a thousand candles as his arms extended towards a young couple. With Jesus cradled in his arms the old man began to speak in the sing-song voice of worship: “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You now dismiss Your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Your people Israel” (Luke2:29-32).

Just then an old woman came up to the little group, her eyes bright with wonder and fixed on the infant in Simeon’s arms. “This is Him! This is the One! Oh, praise the name of the Lord – He has sent the Redemption of Israel!” Simeon smiled at Anna and nodded his head in agreement with her proclamation. They had both held tightly to the assurance that God would one day comfort and redeem His people and he was glad to share this glorious moment with his friend.

For the two elderly people, the baby was the fulfillment of a promise they had long held to and yearned to see. Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, had been assured by God that he would see the Hope of mankind before he died. Anna, widowed early in her life, had dedicated her years to worship, fasting and praying for the Messiah to come. It had been such a long time – not just their lifetime, but hundreds of years for the oppressed nation of Israel. In the temple courts that day, their faith was rewarded and they received the child with great joy.

How do you hold on when the promise of God is a long time in coming? Just like Simeon and Anna did – with faith. They never wavered in their expectations. They never stopped believing that every promise God made was as sure as His name – El Emunah, The Faithful God. Beloved, His name still stands today. You can wait in faith because God is still always and forever faithful. Christmas is the blessed proof that He will never fail to do what He says He will do.

Image: “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianna

Why Christmas Belongs to Shepherds not Kings

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I remember an old evangelist who told the story of being in the Miami, Florida area to do a revival. He and the local pastor were driving around inviting people to the revival and witnessing to anyone who would listen. They found themselves in a very affluent neighborhood with massive houses and expensive cars. They spied a man out in his front yard and stopped to visit. After speaking to him of his need for salvation, the man spread his arms in a grand gesture of all that he owned and said, “Saved from what?” Then he dismissed them with a laugh. That man was Jackie Gleason – famed radio, television and movie star.

Perhaps that is why the angels came to lowly shepherds rather than the kings and religious leaders of the day. People who think they have everything also think they have no need of a Savior. They have so much wealth or power or acclaim that they have no room for faith – which is this week’s Advent focus. Shepherds, especially at the time of Jesus’ birth, were the lowest of the low. Scholars tell us that these shepherds were likely watching over sheep that would be used in the sacrifices at the Temple, especially the Passover sacrifice. Their job was nasty, smelly, grueling and demeaning. But they were humble because of their lowly position. These shepherds were just the kind of people God was looking for – people who would receive the Good News with faith.

The Bible tells us that when the shepherds heard the angel’s announcement, they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15). They believed the message and set out to find the baby – not because they wanted proof of what the angels said, but because they had faith that it was true. And when their eyes saw what their hearts believed, they couldn’t help but “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (v. 17)

Do you have faith Beloved? Do you believe that what God said about the Baby in the manger is true? Then you can also have faith that this Child is your Savior, your Redeemer, your Hope and Peace, and Joy. Have faith in what God has done and you will see what your heart believes.

Christmas Presents – or Christmas Presence

O Immanuel . . . God is with us.  Isaiah 8:8, 10

My best friend and I are separated by almost a hundred miles.  We chat often on social media and text and talk with one another on the phone, but when I have the chance to see her face-to-face my heart rejoices.  There is something about presence—about being together physically that touches the heart more than a phone conversation ever could.

In the beginning, in the Garden, God and His first children, Adam and Eve enjoyed one another’s presence regularly.  The Bible tells us that they delighted in spending time together “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).  But sin forever altered that.  The fellowship was broken by disobedience and man was physically separated from God. A few select people encountered God for specific purposes, like Noah, but God no longer walked with His creation like before. After Noah, the Bible shows no interaction between God and man throughout many generations, until Abraham. God promised His presence with Abraham and his descendants and He was faithful through their escape from bondage and their desert wandering and settling in The Promised Land. He was with them, but still not in the same way as He had been with Adam and Eve. The Israelites built a temple where He could dwell among them, though still separated from them by walls and heavy curtains.  When Israel’s apostasy reached a certain point, the Lord withdrew His presence from the Temple—and the people.  But He promised His presence would one day return to them, in the person of the Messiah.  And as He always does, The Lord kept His promise.

The hope of Christmas is the hope of God with us – in the flesh. It is the fulfillment of the promise of His presence. God – in the person of Jesus was born as a flesh-and-blood baby in a stable in Bethlehem. He had tiny toes and tiny fingers, and He cried for the comfort of His mother.  He walked with His creation. He talked to them. He touched them – healing, comforting, and cleansing them. Imagine being able to reach out and touch God’s own hand. The most wonderful Christmas present is the presence of God. That is the promise of Immanuel—God with us.

Christmas Hope in a Manger

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Kids on Christmas morning hope for the newest toys and electronics under the tree. The soldier’s mother hopes for her son’s safe return for the holidays. Teachers hope to survive until Christmas break and students hope there will be no pop-tests before they reach the last day of class. Travelers hope for good weather and light traffic while law enforcement hopes for safe drivers and no accidents. The merchants hope for record sales and shoppers hope for great bargains. Christmas is synonymous with hope – but not for these reasons.
For the Jewish people, hope was in short supply. Their nation had long been under the control of others; at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Romans ruled over Jerusalem. The Jews had hoped for God’s Messiah to rescue them from oppression. They hoped for a leader who would overthrow the Romans and reestablish David’s throne and Israel’s independence. God would indeed send the Messiah to rescue His people from bondage and establish His Kingdom, but He would overthrow a greater enemy than the Romans. He would save more than just Israel and would rule over an everlasting Kingdom from David’s throne. He would not come in power with a sword in his hand and a crown on his head. He would come as a helpless baby with straw in His tiny fist and a crown of thorns in his future. He would not raise a scepter over Jerusalem but would be raised up on a cross outside the city gates. He would not overthrow Rome – He would overthrow death. Their hopes would be fulfilled – but not as they envisioned. It would exceed all they could ever ask or imagine.
Your hopes might be for something flashy and fun, or simple and quiet this Christmas. You may have hopes that can’t be put in a box with a bow. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true at last, there is life and Joy.” In God’s good and loving hands, hope is a sure thing – a promise given and fulfilled in the same instant. It may not look what you thought it would be Beloved, but you have His Word that it will be full of life and Joy.

Kanye and the Church

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What does it mean to be a “righteous person?” Merriam-Webster says that “righteous” means “to act in accord with divine or moral law.” In Scripture, it means to be “right.” But who sets the standards for “right” and “wrong?” In our culture, that standard shifts like a sheet caught in the wind. God gave His law and commandments so that His people would know exactly what He deems to be right and live accordingly. Righteous behavior was rewarded and unrighteousness was punished. In a previous post, I shared how the Prodigal Son would, according to Levitical law, be stoned to death when he returned home for rebelling against his father. Likewise, a woman who was found to not be a virgin when she married would also be stoned to death. The law stated: “She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her Father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). According to the Law, this was the right way to deal with her.

So how is it that Joseph was called “a righteous man” when he decided to disobey this law? When Mary revealed her pregnancy to her fiancé, Joseph “did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [so] he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Joseph did not want Mary to endure what the law said she deserved. Yet the Scriptures called him righteous. Because Joseph opted for mercy over judgment. No wonder God chose him to be the earthly father who would raise His Son.

A popular entertainer professed to be a Christian recently and just dropped a full gospel album. He has a reputation as a foul-mouthed, wild, arrogant, rebellious guy, but now he says he is a follower of Christ. And the church has judged him and his claim by his past. Where is mercy? Where is righteousness? Who among us has the right to judge his faith? Shouldn’t we instead be proclaiming the saving power of Christ? If the angels are rejoicing that a sinner came to Jesus, why aren’t we? We have an opportunity to show the world the grace and mercy of God by embracing this man and his new-found faith – but we’re showing them that Heaven has slammed the door in his face. And theirs. Why would they want a God like that? The truth is, it took the same amount of holy blood to cleanse my sins as it did to cleanse his. And it takes the same grace to overcome my mistakes as a believer as it will to overcome his. If God can save a wretch like me, no one is outside of the reach of His salvation.

James said it clearly and boldly: “Judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).

I’m choosing righteousness here. I’m choosing the same mercy that was shown to me. I’m going to believe that my God can save. Anyone.

God’s Sonnet of Love

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Her hands were rough from years of hard labor. Her face was lined with deep wrinkles from years of living. Her body was bent, her legs weak as she shuffled along. But still she carried herself with a grace that belonged to women in a royal court, not in a grocery store in Alabama. She was scanning the flowers on display in my floral department when I greeted her and offered my assistance.

“My great-granddaughter is coming for lunch today, I want some pretty flowers to let her know she is special to me.”

“How old is she?” I asked.

“She just turned 16 last month. Oh, she’s had such a rough time lately. She’s a little on the heavy side, and the kids in school have been so mean to her. But she’s a wonderful girl and I want to help her see that she is special to me and special to God.”

“She very blessed to have you – I sure could have used those kind of words when I was 16.”

She reached her rough, wrinkled hand across the counter to mine, “Sweetheart, hear it now, you are special to God – like I tell my girl – you’re His poem.”

I placed her bouquet in her cart, hugged her and thanked her for her purchase and her sweet words. She reached up and patted my cheek, “Look up Ephesians 2:10 dear.” I smiled because I knew the verse well: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I’ve referenced it often in the context of being created by God for a purpose and a good work. But I dug into it again when I got home. As I studied, I saw that the original Greek transliteration of the word workmanship was poiema – from which we get our English word “poem.” I read that verse again with a personal touch, “I am God’s poem.” What a wonderful thought!

Beloved, do you know that you are also God’s poiema? You are His sonnet of love, of grace and beauty and rhythm in a world that is ugly and chaotic. When you look in the mirror you may see freckles or wrinkles, blond hair, or strands of grey. You may see someone with a little extra weight, or the effects of time and life etched into your face. But never forget that you are looking at the pièce de résistance of the One who created stars and mountains and vast oceans. You are the expression of God’s creative brilliance and power. You were formed and fashioned to show the world the creative beauty of the Author of your life. You, beautiful one, are a masterpiece.