Amazing Grace

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Meditating this morning on Luke 1:26-30 and Gabriel’s words to Mary: “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” (vs 28) What was it about Mary that make her “highly favored?” Was it that she was a virgin? Hardly – there were many virgins in Israel. Was she somehow superior to other young women? The Scriptures don’t support that, even though the Roman Catholic Church teaches that she was.
Here’s the point we struggle with in the 21st century – it wasn’t about Mary at all. When we read the Bible we tend to focus heavily on the characters in the story because we are looking for something in them with which we can identify. “My favorite Bible character is Peter, because I can identity with him; we’re just alike.” I’ve said it myself about certain Bible people with whom I feel a “connection.” In the same way, we look at God and identify characteristics that highlight how He relates to us. And again, I’ve done it – my favorite attribute of God is His faithfulness, because He has been so very faithful to me. That is not wrong in and of itself, but it’s miss-focused. You and I need to see God for who He is, not who He is “to me.”
The Greek word “favor” means “grace.” Favor is a gift, a kindness, a blessing and it says nothing about the recipient, and everything about the Giver. When Gabriel spoke his greeting he wasn’t exalting Mary, he was highlighting the undeserved grace of God to her. We have a hard time wrapping our minds around that because we are a merit-based society. But there was really nothing special about Mary – God’s favor was purely His own choice. She received it in the same manner – praising Him for His grace, mercy and power (vs. 46-55). It is the same with our salvation. Despite what the church teaches, we don’t “choose to receive Jesus” – He chooses us to receive His grace – our only part is to respond in faith.
What’s your story with God Beloved? Do you recognize that you were chosen by nothing more or less than His grace? If we are in God’s blessed family it is all His doing, not yours or mine. Let’s refocus our spiritual understanding on this gift. It’s not about who we are – it’s all God’s Amazing Grace.

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God is moving . . .

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Just an observation . . .
The Bible is a full-circle story – from Genesis to Revelation and points in between.
In Genesis 11 men, in their ego and disobedience, determine to build a tower “that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4). In response to their pride and sin, the Lord confused their language so that they could not understand one another and He scattered them across the earth.
Now hop over to Acts 2 and the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled the believers and they “began to speak in other tongues” (v. 4). Because of the season, Jerusalem was filled with multiple nationalities, and suddenly they could hear and understand the Gospel – in their own language. God was moving . . .
Our final destination is Revelation 7:9 where “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” will stand before the Lamb. The throne room of heaven will ring with Christ’s praises – in every language – languages that came to be because God had to punish man’s rebellion and sin.
God has been working throughout human history for one purpose: the glory of His Son. Every moment, every action, every breath is leading us to this scene. Image the beautiful sound – praise to the Lamb of God in every tongue known to man.
So what does this mean as you struggle through your day? Beloved, God is in control of it all – all of human history and all of your life. Nothing, not even your foolishness and failure is wasted in the hands of the one who holds it all. And just as a multi-language song of praise will fill the heavens, all things in your life will all come together in a beautiful, multi-color picture of God’s glory and grace. Precious one, God is moving . . .

The Day Between Death and Life

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“It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how His body was laid in it.  Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”  Luke 23:54-56

It was the darkest day of their lives – the day after Jesus had been crucified on the cross.   They’d heard the hammers pound the nails into His hands and feet.  They listened to Him cry out to His Father in anguish and surrender.  They saw His body slump as He give up His Spirit.  They watched the soldiers pierce His side and witnessed blood and water drain from His battered body.  They held their breath as Joseph and Nicodemus took His lifeless body down from the cross.  They followed in a sad processional to the garden where their Lord was entombed.

In our modern understanding of these days, we hold solemn vigils on Good Friday, remembering the death of Jesus, and we come together for joyful celebrations on Easter Sunday to celebrate His resurrection.  But Saturday is the day for egg hunts, travel, shopping, and preparing our Easter Sunday finery.

More and more the Holy Spirit is teaching me to sit in the moment with the Bible characters.  To put myself in their sandals and their experience and not rush on to the end of a familiar story.  He is teaching me to take a holy pause.

What must this day have been like for these devoted women?  Were they numb with grief?  Or was it the kind of sorrow that aches deep in the bones?   This day – the day after darkness filled the noon-day sky and the curtain was torn in two – must have left them empty inside – confused, in anguish, and filled with disbelief.  How could this be?  Their Jesus was dead.

Looking back from this side of the Cross, we want to take their faces in our hands and tell them, “Just hold on! Don’t grieve. Everything is going to change tomorrow!”  As Paul Harvey says, we know “the rest of the story.” We know death cannot keep its grip on Jesus. We know they will soon find the tomb empty.  We know this is only the day between death and life.  But they didn’t.  In their world, death was final.  It was all over.

They didn’t know they were only waiting. . .

Is That What the Bible Really Says?

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One of my responsibilities is to help my sister-in-love create a bulletin board in the church. The Lord gives her the image and I craft it. She is in charge of inspiration and I am the perspiration. This month, we naturally did an “Easter” theme – based on the song, “Love Grew Where the Blood Fell” and on Luke 22:44: “And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” My husband crafted a wooden cross and we mounted it to the board. Because we wanted to emphasize the Lord’s prayer of surrender in Gethsemane, we talked about adding the “rock” upon which Jesus prayed. But something stopped me. I went to the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of the anguished prayer in the garden, but there is no mention of a rock; rather, the Scriptures say “He knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41) and “He fell with His face to the ground and prayed” (Matthew 26:39). No rock. But, the prayer on the rock is entrenched in our memory of the story. So where did the rock come from? From the 1886 painting, “Christ in Gethsemane” by Heinrich Hoffman. This classic work of art has become part of the story, just as the “Three wise men” have become part of the Christmas story. But read Matthew’s account again – there were three gifts, but no mention of the number of wise men. John Henry’s 1857 song, “We Three Kings” cements the idea in our minds.
I share this to warn you and me – don’t let side stories and paintings and songs and culture add to or take away from the Word of God. Sure, there’s no harm in having a rock in Gethsemane or three kings in the Christmas story (who, by the way, did not come to the manger, but to the holy family’s house about 2 years after Jesus’ birth). But there are other false teachings that slip in just as easily and can do great harm to your faith and mine. Even if it is something you are sure of, go to the Scriptures and verify it. Our own thoughts and recollections can be colored by something as simple as a children’s nativity play. Friend, we need to be like the Bereans – who listened to Paul’s teachings and “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts17:11). I’ve been a Bible teacher for 20+ years, and my sister-in-love has studied the Bible even longer and we both had a rock in Gethsemane. We were both surprised to discover that there ain’t no rock. Beloved, don’t take anyone else’s word for what God said but God Himself. Even mine. Go get your Bible right now and check it out.

This is My Passion

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“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly hands the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV)

I’m taking a writing course and the first lessons are on understanding my “writing style” and my passion. As I’ve pondered the passion question: “What burns in my heart?” the answer always comes back to “rightly dividing the word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

In the modern Western church, we are taught the Christian faith in “soundbites,” a story here, a parable there, Noah and David and Jesus. But those disjointed Sunday School lessons fail to teach the beautiful continuity in the Bible and the seamless work of God throughout human history. Worst of all is a verse pulled from it’s neighbors, sitting out all alone. It makes for a nice wall plaque, but do we know why this verse matters. What is its context? What is its backstory? What is the heart and principle within?
Jeremiah 29:11 is the “graduation verse” in every church, but do we understand its context? Do we know why God spoke those words and to whom? Do we understand the history of Israel and how that verse was such a source of hope to them and how it can be for us as well? It’s a great verse, but it’s even better taken in its full context.
John 3:16 speaks eloquently of God’s gracious love, but the greater context in chapter 3 also speaks powerfully of the condemnation of the human race and the reason why God sent His one and only Son. It’s the breadth and width of the gospel and it makes the truth of His love shine as brightly as a diamond on black velvet. We need to know the whole Bible, not just a verse here and a passage there.
That is my passion. That is what I long to give to the church. That is the seed God planted in my heart. It’s why I write and teach. It’s who I am.

22 Inches

“Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent”  (John 17:3).

It’s been a long dry spell in my heart lately.  I’ve sensed a distance between me and God.  Not that He has moved away, but more that my focus is off and my passion has cooled.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not abandoning my faith.  I love the Lord, I am committed to follow Him and live for Him, but something seems – off. Prayer has been a struggle and while I continue with my daily devotions and Scripture reading, I’m not all in like I once was.  I’ve tried to figure it out.  Maybe it’s the turmoil of the past year and the uncertain future we are facing.  Maybe it’s disappointment or disillusionment. Maybe it’s a lot of heartache. Maybe . . . maybe . . . maybe.

One recent morning, as I rolled this over in my mind again, I had the urge to grab a tape measure and measure the distance between my head and my heart.  22 inches.

“What does that mean Lord?”

“That is the difference between what you know in your head and what you know in your heart.”

Last fall I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Biblical and Theological Studies.  It was four years of hard work, study, and pounding out acres of papers, reports and tests.  I loved it! I learned so much about the Bible, God, Jesus, creation, the Church – and yes, even algebra.  I read hundreds of pages every week in my textbooks and read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation with courses dedicated to individual books. I dug into words and context and history and ate up every minute of it.  Mind you I am not a biblical expert – far from it.  I don’t know it all; in fact, I barely scratched the surface.  But I learned a lot.  You would think all that I learned would cause me to draw closer to God, but in truth, the opposite seems to have happened.  You see, I was so busy and so focused on learning all I could know about God and His Word that I failed to know Him.  All that knowledge does me no good if it just sits in my head and never reaches my heart.  It’s like a seed lying dormant on the surface rather than under the ground where it can put down roots and grow strong.

So how do I make all this knowledge jump from my head to my heart?  I don’t think it’s something I can do but only the Holy Spirit.  Still, I do have some responsibility, like blocking out all the distractions (can you say Facebook?) and inviting the Spirit to speak to me as I read His Word.  By sitting still before Him and listening with intention and focus, praying about what I’ve read, then living it out.  Then again, experience is often the best teacher.  Sometimes we don’t know who God really is until we have to.

Through my studies I learned that God is El Roi – the God that sees – but how do I know that He is the God that sees me. He is Yahweh Maphalti – the God who delivers – but I won’t know that in my heart until He has to deliver me.  How will I know Yahweh Chereb – the Lord—the sword – unless He fights for me? Is He Yahweh Sali – the Lord my rock? Do I know El Simchath Gili is God who brings me joy? Is He El Hayyay – the God of my life?

I used to think it was enough to know all I could learn about God, but I’m finding that when it’s all head-knowledge, it doesn’t move my heart – and my heart is what God is after.  My heart is where change happens.   So every morning when I come to meet with God, I will turn my phone off, log out of Facebook and email and soak in His Word.  I will come in a spirit of humility and be still and listen.  I will meditate on the Word and let the truths—and the Truth—take root in my heart.  I will pray about what God says to me and ask Him to help me receive it and believe it.  I will “come near to God and He will come near to me” (James 4:8).

Twenty-two inches isn’t much on tape measure, but it is the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. I’m not satisfied with a head full of knowledge anymore.  I want to know God with all my heart.

I’ll share my journey with you in this blog.  I pray you too will discover the difference 22 inches can make.

El Hayyay, God of my life, please don’t let me waste all I’ve learned about you.  Take all my head knows and make it take root in my heart.

Who is This Jesus?

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

Ink wells run dry from all the words written about Jesus. Great scholars and theologians have spent their lives studying, not only the Scriptures, but scores of other ancient writings in the hopes of understanding Him.  Still, He is so much more, so much other, than mere words can describe. Thankfully we have the testimonies of those who walked closest to Him, we have His own words, and we have the pronouncement of the God of heaven and earth upon which to study and meditate.  That is more than enough for a life-long pursuit.  Even then, we’ll barely scratch the surface of who this Jesus really is.  I know I can’t do Him justice in a few hundred words, but I write this to whet your appetite to know Him more.

Matthew tells us He is “God with us” – “Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23).  This is not a new concept.  God was with man in the Garden, in perfect communion until sin entered the picture.  He was with the Israelites in a cloud in the desert and in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and later, the Temple.  But when Jesus came, He was “God-in-the-flesh with us,” walking among His people, touching them with hands they could feel, speaking words their own ears could hear, eating and drinking and laughing and crying as any other man.  Yet He was very much God, performing miracles and speaking with divine authority.  If we need any more proof of His God-ness, 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).  That’s a ringing endorsement if there ever was one.

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

Dr. Luke shines his spotlight on 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 reveals 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), and His declaration:  “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).  Revelation shows Him to be the victorious conqueror over evil.

Many, many people have written many, many words trying to elaborate on these accounts.  Popular culture has tried to stretch the story of Jesus far beyond the Scriptures and a great many unbelievers have spilled much ink attempting to discredit and refute His Name. But there is only one place to find the truth about this Jesus. Everything you need to know about Him is recorded in the Bible.  He is present in every book from Genesis to Revelation.

We began this devotional by asking the question, “Who is this Jesus?”  But Jesus has a question for you: “Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15).  Is He “God with me?”  Is He your King?  Can you declare, “He is my salvation!”?  Do you recognize Him as the Son of God?  If not, I encourage you to take another look at the Jesus of the Bible.  He is all this and more—and if you believe in Him and confess His Name, He will be all this for you.  Grab your Bible and get to know the one who loves you enough to die for you.  His Name is Jesus.

Lord Jesus, if I could mine the depths of all the Bible I still would barely scratch the surface of who You are.  I want to know You as deeply and truly as I can this side of heaven—I rejoice in knowing I will have all of eternity to fill in the gaps.  Amen.

Image from https://pablorenauld.deviantart.com/art/Jesus-Christ-55567468.

Is the “Good Book” Really Any Good?

Know What You Believe; Believe What You Know: The Bible

“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .” (2 Peter 1:16).

Oh, the B I B L E,

Yes, that’s the book for me,

I stand alone on the Word of God,

The B I B L E!

This little children’s chorus has been around since I was a girl.  I taught it to my son and to children in the preschool department for years as we shared stories of Creation, David and Goliath, Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Whale, the fall of Jericho, Baby Jesus, the Cross and the Empty Tomb.   I loved learning and later telling those familiar stories and like all the other children, I believed them.  But come on you say, you’re an adult – isn’t it time stop believing in “stories?”

I suppose that’s a valid question, and it deserves a solid answer.

The truth is, I would stop believing if I thought they were only stories made up in the minds of men.  But I am confident in the authority of the Bible as the Word of God from the mind of God given to human authors through the Spirit of God.  That’s exactly what Peter says following up our key verse: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).  God wrote the words of Scripture through the pens of men like Moses, David, the Prophets, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and James.  David, in the last of his Psalms said, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; His word was on my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2). It is so important to understand that the Bible is not man’s ideas, thoughts, opinions or views on what God has said – it is man as the scribe recording what God has said through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Many people view the Bible as a directive for how we are to live our lives.  Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  First, notice that Paul confirms the inspiration of Scripture as coming directly from God to man.  Secondly, notice that Paul said the Scriptures are useful for life-direction – but that is not the chief purpose of the Holy Writ.

Neil Lightfoot, in his study How We Got the Bible notes, “It was God’s purpose that by means of a written record he would be revealed to all ages and tongues as Creator and Redeemer.”[1]  God is all about relationship, about knowing and loving us and us knowing and loving Him.  Since the beginning God has been revealing Himself to His beloved creation.  He came to Adam and Eve in the Garden until sin broke that pure fellowship.  He revealed Himself in various ways to Noah and to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and to Moses.  He revealed Himself through words given to His prophets.  And finally and perfectly, He revealed Himself through His Son, Jesus.  The Bible is a written testament to the reality of God the Creator and Redeemer of all that exists.  Over and over in Scripture God reveals His will, “That you may know Me.”

Consider this:  If God desires to reveal Himself to humankind, why would he allow men to include fantasy and fallacy in the written account of Himself? Archeological finds such as the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm the accuracy of the Bible as we have it today in comparison to the most ancient manuscripts available.  Most modern translations have been painstakingly taken from the ancient Hebrew and Greek and research has proven that any changes from those manuscripts are minimal and do not affect the original message.

That said, I don’t hold to the authority and authenticity of the Bible because of these things.  They support my faith in the Bible, but they are not the reason I trust it.   I believe in the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God because it has changed my life.  It was there that I met Jesus and He turned this sinful woman into the daughter of the Most High God.  The Bible is so much more than a good book – as Moses declared, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life (Deuteronomy 32:47).

Holy Father, thank You for all the ways You have revealed Yourself to human beings.  Thank You for inspiring men to records words that we can understand to make Yourself known.  Give me a holy passion to drink in the words of the Bible for as long as I live.  Amen.

[1] Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible: Third Edition, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2003), 23.

The Sword of the Spirit

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“Take up  the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God,” (Ephesians 6:17).

Did you notice that Paul called the Word of God the “sword of the Spirit”? There’s a very good reason for that – it is the only offensive weapon in our Christian arsenal.   And it is enough because Satan runs from the holy power of God’s Word.  Hebrews 4:12 says “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword.” Revelation 1:12-16 describes the God-Man, Jesus Christ as He appears in John’s vision; verse 16 tells us “out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.” Even in the heavens, Jesus still uses the Sword of the Spirit to deliver justice.

So where do we get this sword, and how do we learn how to use it? Psalm 119:11 gives us the answer – “I have hidden your Word in my heart,”   Simply put, we memorize Scripture. Every verse, every passage, every promise and every truth adds to the weight and length and strength of your Sword. And the more you study the Word and meditate on it, the more adept you will be at using it. Is there a particular area of weakness or stronghold where Satan usually attacks? Look for Scripture that addresses that area. Read the verses aloud, write them on notecards and place them in areas like the kitchen, your desk, your bathroom mirror or bedside table. Get a journal and write the verses out, look up the words, consider how this verse applies to your life – these are all excellent “drills” to help you grow in knowledge and strength in the Word of the Lord.

Consider this, when Satan launches an attack against you, and all you know is John 3:16, (which is an awesome verse to know), you are trying to defeat the enemy with a pocketknife. But if you have been reading, studying, meditating and memorizing Scripture, when you reach into your heart where that Word has been stored and grab hold of those verses, you are going to pull out a SWORD that will send your enemy reeling and scrambling to get away. That’s how the child of God does battle with the enemy of our soul!

Big Little Words

reading-bible“Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

The little book of Philemon is one of those books in that Bible that I thought had no value for me – I mean it only covers one page and is just Paul’s personal letter to a friend about a slave.  Not as inspiring as the Psalms, not instructive like his letters to Timothy, not even about Jesus like the Gospels.  Until I saw it through fresh eyes and the Holy Spirit.  Philemon is the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ in 25 verses. 

Philemon was the owner of a slave named Onesimus, who desperately desired freedom from his bondage.  He did the only thing he could do and ran away from his master, and apparently stole from him as well.  Through God’s grace he connects with Paul who is in prison and who leads Onesimus to salvation in Christ.  Now he wants to make things right with his master, but fears the repercussions of his actions.  Paul intercedes for him, reminding Philemon that his former slave is now his brother in Christ.  Paul asks for Onesimus’ release so that he can serve with Paul.

The gospel says that you and I were slaves to sin and death, and though we desperately desired to be free, our best attempts only made our situation worse.  We are fearful of God, condemned because of our sinful human nature.  Then through God’s grace, Jesus finds us and offers us true freedom.  Now we can come to God without fear because Jesus has made things right between us and intercedes before the Father for us.

The heart of this book is also the heart of the Gospel: “If [Onesimus] has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me . . . I will pay it back” (v. 18, 19).  You and I have wronged God and we owe Him a debt we can never repay.  Jesus took our sin-debt and paid it with His own precious blood.  If you are in Christ, you are no longer a slave to sin and death.  You are free by God’s grace.  You are a child of God and a Christ is your brother.  There is power in every word of the Word of God.  Power to set you free.