More than Live, Love, Laugh

This week in VBS we are learning about the value of life. One night our lesson was about God’s design for us. We were made by a Designer for a wonderful purpose. I asked the 5-6 graders what are the three purposes for which man was designed. One student blurted out “Live, Laugh, Love.” Somebody’s mama loves Hobby Lobby. The correct answer was “to know God, to praise God, and to love God.”

Jeremiah 24:7 says, “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” Paul said that everything God does in this world is so that “men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him . . .” (Acts 17:27). Of all the things that God created – which is everything – only man was designed to know his Creator. When we miss getting to know God, we miss the foundational purpose of our lives.

We were also made to praise God. The psalmist said, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6). Praise is the natural response to knowing God. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, seen the Eiffel Tower, and witnessed both sunrises and sunsets and my reaction is always the same: “Wow!” How much more so when we see even the smallest glimpse of God.

We were made to love God. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Your heart is the foundation and seat of your thoughts, passions, desires, and intelligence. Loving God with all your heart is an emotion driven by reason or conscious thought. The mind is the part of the inner person that thinks and processes information into understanding. Loving God with your mind involves making choices driven by a thoughtful process of information. The soul is the immaterial (and eternal) part of the inner person, Loving God with all your soul involves emotion fueled by desire and affection; a special connection to the beloved (in this case, God).  Strength is a marker of great degree or quantity, something beyond measure. Loving God with all your strength denotes a measure of quantity, abundance, and ability, in other words – obedience. When we know God, praise God, and love God all the rest falls into its proper place. Beloved, do you know your purpose?

Jesus and John Lennon

The Beatles sang it in the mid-’60s and it is the mantra of our culture today: “All you need is love, love, love.” In a world of mass shootings, child abuse, hatred, racism, and war, love is the only antidote. And the Bible agrees. The problem is our definitions of love. John Lennon’s lyrics are empty. He called for love but said nothing about how to love. The culture deems love as permissiveness and approval to indulge in every kind of earthly attraction. But is that truly love?

In a sense the Beatles and the culture are right. Jesus said that the second most important commandment, after loving God, is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). But what does that look like? Whose meaning is right?  I believe the Author of love is the best one to define it.

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom 12:10).

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13).

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2).

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you” (Eph 4:32).

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19).

“Bear with each other, and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another (Col 5:13).

 “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)

“Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

Does that look like the kind of love the culture is touting? Do you see that in Lennon’s lyrics? No and no. But can you imagine how this love would change the world? How about just your family? Love is much more than an ethereal notion. It is practical. It has substance. It has hands and feet. It has a voice. Your hands and feet. Your voice. And mine. Truly, all we need is love – love for God and love for one another. Yes, John, you were right – love is all we need.

Do You Know Jesus?

I recently saw a meme that said, “I follow Jesus, not the Bible.” But the Bible is where you will find everything you need to know about Jesus.

He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan and the Passover Lamb. He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice, the Prophet and the Captain of the Lord’s army.  He is the Deliverer and our Kinsman Redeemer and the King in the line of David. He is the Restorer of Jerusalem, the Shepherd, and the Source of all wisdom.  He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and Suffering Servant. He is the Man acquainted with sorrows and the one who brings life to dry bones. He is the Ancient of Days, a faithful Husband, Source of Hope, Judge, Preacher, Mighty Savior, and the Son of Righteousness.

Matthew declared Him as the long-awaited Messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy. Mark showed that He was the King with power and authority over every realm. Luke proclaimed Him as the Son of God full of compassion and mercy.  John said that Jesus “was the Word” made “flesh” and the “true light” and the “One and Only” from the Father (John 1:1, 14, 9, 14, respectively). And throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed as “the Bread of Life” (6:48), “the Light of the world” (8:12), “the Door” and “the Good Shepherd” (10:9,11), “the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25), “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (14:6), and “the true Vine” (15:1). Paul said Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) and the writer of Hebrews said that “the Son is . . . the exact representation of [God’s] being. In other words, when you see these truths about Jesus, you are seeing God. What we know about Him from the Scriptures is enough to change our lives forever.

The Lord posed the most important question when He asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:15). You need to know the right answer, Beloved. Your eternal destiny depends on it.  You will only find Him on the pages of Holy Writ. I encourage you to pick up a Bible and meet the Son of God. It’s the most wonderful discovery you’ll ever make.

Optical Illusions

“Things are not always what they seem,” the magician said. He launched into several tricks that amazed the children at the park. They were all simple – done by sleight of hand and most of the adults – myself included – could see through them. But the kids were mesmerized. My son talked about them for several weeks afterward. But the illusionist’s words stuck with me: “Things are not always what they seem.”

The Bible is filled with stories when things seemed bad, difficult, even impossible. The Israelites seemed to be stuck in a death trap – between an impassible body of water and an angry Egyptian army. But things are not always what they seem. The sea parted and they crossed over on the dry ground (Ex. 14). Three Hebrew youths were thrown in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow before the king’s statue of gold. Daniel defied a royal order not to pray to his God and was thrown into a pit with hungry lions. But things are not always what they seem. A fourth Man kept the flames away from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – the only thing that burned was the ropes they were bound with. God’s angels shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel emerged from the pit without a scratch on him (Daniel 3, 6). A young girl lies dead and her family grieves. Jesus knows that things are not always what they seem. He tells the mourners: “She is not dead, only sleeping” then takes her by the hands and raises her back to life (Mark 5:21-43). Their lord and teacher was dead and his body was missing – ah, but things are not always what they seem. You know the rest of this story.

Beloved, things may seem bleak right now. Hard times are upon you. Life is difficult and it doesn’t seem like it will ever get better. You’re facing an impossible situation, a mountain you can’t climb, a pit you can’t get out of, a roadblock you can’t get around. But things are not always what they seem – especially when God is with you. Trust Him to get you over that mountain, out of that pit, and past that roadblock. He is light in the darkness. He is hope when life seems hopeless. He is the God of the impossible-made-possible. When God is in the picture, things are not always what they seem.

Questioning God

If anyone should have believed in Jesus without wavering, it was John the Baptist. John’s whole life was for one mission, “to prepare the way for the Lord” (Luke 3:4). Even in the womb, he recognized the Lord, leaping at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1: 41-45). He knew Jesus was the Messiah and he declared Him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world !” This was confirmed to John at the Lord’s baptism – “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” He added emphatically, “I have seen, and I testify that this is the Son of God” (John 1:29-34). Yet John asked a big question, “Are the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:20). What changed? John was in a prison cell for calling out the unrighteousness of the King. No wonder he was questioning Jesus. He did everything God asked of Him and the results were harsh. Can you blame the poor fellow? Despite all he knew, John – weary and discouraged – began to doubt.

But Jesus didn’t chastise John. He knew the man’s heart and that those doubts arose from the overwhelming blow he had been dealt. Jesus pointed John back to the evidence. “What do you see, John?” “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22). Look beyond your circumstances, John. You preached the coming of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:1). You spoke of my power (Mark 1: 7). Your own words are being fulfilled in Me. Then He added, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Luke 7:23).
Questions are often the starting point for discovering the truth. Do you have a question for God? He will not chasten you. He will give you answers that will ground and strengthen your faith. Ask, Beloved, even with hot tears and a twinge of doubt. You will find that Jesus not only has the answers, He is the answer.

The King is Coming!

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In the first-century world, before a king came to visit one of his cities, the call would go out to prepare the roads on his path – to make the way level and straight and free from any possible danger. When God prepares a people for a great move on His part, He always calls them to make themselves ready by repentance – confessing and turning away from sin, and consecration – setting oneself apart exclusively for Him. “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:44).  Before Jesus began His earthly ministry John the Baptist was sent to “Prepare the way for the Lord, [to] make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:3).   John was calling for the people to prepare their hearts for the Lord by repentance and consecration. He declared a clear warning of the coming wrath of God – but you might be surprised to know his comments were aimed directly at the “religious leaders.” 

Christians have pleaded with God for a great move of His Spirit in the world.  We want Him to “do amazing things among us.”  But are we hearing the call to prepare the way for Him?  Are we heeding the call for repentance?  Am I carefully examining my life for habits, desires, laziness, distractions, and selfishness that serve as a quiet rebellion against God?  Are our lives straight paths for the King? Are we consecrating ourselves unto the Lord?  Are you willing to let go of everything that draws your heart away?  Are you getting rid of the things that compromise your testimony and drag you into the world?  What T.V. shows, movies, music, magazines, and websites need to go to make your heart ready for the Lord?  What attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, rights, and worldly influences do I need to turn from in order to be used for the Kingdom of God?

I believe God is getting ready to do a great work in the world.  But it will require His people to will set everything aside and prepare the way.   That means wholehearted devotion to Christ and an unwillingness to compromise with the world.  I also believe a great battle is coming in this nation; the lines have already been drawn in our culture and our courts.  Only people with pure, consecrated hearts will be able to stand firm in the face of it.   Beloved, how will you get ready?

Don’t Pack Up the Christmas Spirit

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Christmas Day has come and gone and my living room looks like a toy store exploded all over the place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So what now? Well, I’ll clean up the blast zone and eventually pack away the ornaments on the tree. We’ll finish off the last of the Christmas dinner leftovers today. But, where does the Christmas spirit go for the next 11 months?

You probably know by now that Joy abides in my house year-round in my precious granddaughter. But what of the peace the angels declared? According to Jesus, that peace was His gift to me, something the world can’t offer (John 14:27). It doesn’t belong in a box in the shed. It belongs in my heart to rule over my relationships (Col. 3:15). 

Is there a box in my shed for the “Hope” of Christmas? The Hope that God is who He claimed to be, that He is trustworthy and faithful (2 Thess 3:3), that His love is unfailing (Ps. 136) and His promises are as sure as His Name (Heb. 6:13). Hope that His eye is ever on me and His ear is tuned to my cries (Gen. 21:13, 11). Hope that one day this wicked world will be turned right-side-up (Rev. 21:5). I am hanging on to hope – it is my word from the Lord for the coming year. I need it desperately; this past year has drained most of my hope.

And then there is love – the greatest of all gifts (1 Cor. 13:13). Love slept in a manger (Luke 2:7). Love walked the dirty streets, healing and lifting up the downtrodden (Matt. 8:1-3). Love died on a cross (Mark 15: 37) and love brought life from death (Mark 16:6). Love must never be packed away for the world needs it more than any other thing. Love – holy love – is the only thing that can save mankind. And it is the only thing that will draw men out of darkness into the light.

I don’t know if your Christmas was merry or jolly or less than you’d hoped, but I know that the spirit of Christmas lives in the hearts of God’s people all year long. Beloved, pack up the decorations but don’t pack away the Joy and peace and hope and love. Set it out for all the world to see.

At the Sound of His Voice

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He proved Himself as God over and over when He walked this earth. He proved His power over creation – His creation – when he commanded the wind and waves to “Be still!” (Mark 4:39). The demons proclaimed His divinity crying out that He was “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (Mark 5:7). He proved His authority over the spiritual realm when He cast them out of a tortured man (Mark 5:1-20). He proved His sovereignty over disease and death when He healed a woman with a 12-year long issue of blood then raised a dead girl back to life (Mark5:21-43). He was – and still is – the all-powerful, all-mighty God of the Universe. Nature, spirits, sickness, and even death had no choice but to obey Him when He spoke. It was the same voice He used to call the heavens and the earth into existence (Genesis 1).

Yet here He was tiny and helpless in the arms of a peasant woman – the only one who responded to the sound of His voice. He was just a baby now – unable to form words into a command. Yet I wonder . . . did the wind and waves begin to still at the sound of His cries? Did the demons tremble when they recognized His cooing? Did weak legs strengthen when his wails filled the night air? Was there a stirring in the graves as He protested the hunger in his belly? Despite his physical state, the baby in the manger was still God. Still the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Still the Author of life. Still the long-awaited King. Did creation recognize Him, even if His image-bearers did not?

Yes, He was a baby just like any other baby who needed someone to feed and clothe Him, to carry Him from place to place, to wrap Him in swaddling clothes from the cool night air. But He was a baby unlike any other baby and heaven held its breath in awe at the sight of God in tiny flesh, so helpless and frail. I believe the creation that obeyed Him “in the beginning” knew that these were no ordinary cries. There was always power and authority and sovereignty in the sound of His voice. It was just small and quiet tonight.

Jesus

“. . .the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth”  John 1:14b

Who is this Jesus?

Matthew said He is “God with us” – “Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23).  For thirty-three years He was “God-in-the-flesh with us,” walking among His people, touching them with hands they could feel, speaking words their ears could hear.  Yet He was very much God, performing miracles and speaking with divine authority.  Twice Matthew reports a voice from heaven saying, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him, I am well pleased” (3:17; 17:5).

Mark expands the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, showing His uncommon power to heal, raise the dead,  give sight to the blind,  multiply a few loaves and fishes, calm the raging sea, and drive out demons who recognized Him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24).  He also shows Him to be a King who endured uncommon suffering to rescue His people from the sentence of death.

Luke revealed Jesus as the salvation of all people (2:32).  He wrote to give an ordered account of Jesus from reliable eye-witness testimonies.  Luke offers the most detailed version of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and tradition holds that these were Mary’s own memories.   How incredible that we have the testimony of Jesus’ Father, and the recollections of His mother to confirm that this Jesus was fully God and fully man.

From his opening testimony – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1) – John most powerfully proved Jesus as the Son of God, the One and Only, divine in nature and one with His Father.  John records Jesus’ “I AM” statements, a direct connection to God’s own self-revelation (Exodus 3:14). He recorded Jesus’ statement:  “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9).  John also devotes half of his gospel to Jesus’ final week, His death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. (John 12-21).

Paul said that He is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and the writer of Hebrews said “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being’ (Hebrews 1:3).  Jesus. “God with us.” “The Son of God.” “The Salvation of God.” “The Word of God” “One with the Father.” “The image of God.” “The radiance of God.” “The exact representation of God.” And that barely scratches the surface. Jesus is . . . everything. Beloved, what more do you need to believe?

Hebrews: Jesus, Man of Sorrows

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I’ve been told I am a “strong” person. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I appear strong because I do a pretty good job of hiding when I am falling apart, although some of you have learned to read between the lines. Like you, I have cried and yelled and begged God to change certain things in my life. Like you, I have struggled with depression and anxiety and despair.  But you and I are in good company.  Even the strongest person in human history came under the weight of emotional affliction.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death . . .” (Hebrews 5:7). If you didn’t know who Jesus was, you would probably think that this guy went into whatever he was facing kicking and screaming all the way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Luke said, “As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51). Jesus walked toward the cross with determination. But the Scriptures are clear that it was a terrible strain on Him.

Of course, you know that this verse is speaking of His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. Jesus was “very sorrowful and troubled,” even “to the point of death” (Matt. 26:37, 38). He said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Luke said His anguish as He prayed produced “sweat like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).  He pleaded, Abba, Father, everything is possible for you Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). I’ve prayed much the same thing, and I am sure you have as well.  The difference is, you and I bear much smaller burdens compared to Jesus, who was feeling the weight of the sin of the entire human race being piled on His shoulders. Isaiah called Him “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). So when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus, our great high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). it is because He also felt the weight of despair. It was one of the most “human” moments in Jesus’ life.

I’m going to leave you right here, Beloved, in the Garden with Jesus, watching Him cry to His Father. But know that He was not lost to despair, nor are you and I. When we return to Hebrews, we will see that this very human moment is also a moment of divine glory.