Burning Ropes

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the refiner’s fire. Today is another hot devotional. Daniel’s three companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow and worship the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had erected in his image. They declared their allegiance to the God of Israel and said, “The God we serve is able to save us . . . but even if he does not we will not worship your golden image” (Dan 3:17-18, para). That infuriated the king, and he ordered the men to be bound and thrown into a fiery furnace that had been stoked to seven times its normal heat. It was so hot it instantly killed the soldiers who tossed them in.

But the king saw something unexpected in that fire. “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (3:25). When the men came out of the fire they were unharmed, “not a hair of their heads [was] singed, their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them” (3:27). How’s that for a miracle!

What stands out to me isn’t just that they survived but that the only thing that was destroyed by the fire were the ropes that were used to bind them. Just as we learned in Peter’s story, God often uses fire to free us from the very things that bind us and hinder our usefulness to the Kingdom. God’s enemy – Nebuchadnezzar – tied up the three Hebrew men. God’s enemy – satan – is still binding up the Lord’s people to destroy them and exalt himself as King over heaven and earth. But God uses the very flames that are intended to devastate us to instead free us.

I don’t know what ropes the enemy has used to try to tie you up (or down). It may be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or pornography (or something “innocent” like eating, shopping, or gaming). It may be pride, habitual lying, shoplifting, or gossiping. It may be a hard, painful past or an overload of responsibilities that are crushing the life out of you. Whatever it is, it will take the fires of heaven to set you free. But don’t fear the furnace of affliction Beloved. Jesus will be in the fire with you and only the ropes will be burned. You will walk away without one hair singed and not even a trace of smoke.

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.

The Heavens told the Christmas Story

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“The heavens declare the glory of God . . .” Psalm 19:1.

When my son was very young, we would pull an old blanket out into the yard and lay down to watch the stars.  I tried to identify some of the constellations, but he was much too young to understand, and I was too far removed from high-school science to remember.  But it is a memory I cherish—stargazing with my boy. There were stargazers in the Bible too. Matthew said of the Magi: “When they saw the star they were overjoyed” Matthew 2:10.

Scholars believe that these were Persian astronomers who studied the stars for prophecies, premonitions, and promises.  How did they know about a Jewish prophecy so far removed from Palestine?  Remember Daniel – you know, the guy from the lion’s den?   When the Jewish exiles left Babylon after seventy years of captivity, Daniel opted to stay as did many other Jews who had put down roots in the area.  Daniel knew the Hebrew Scriptures well and likely shared the ancient prophecies of a coming King who would rescue His people.  These were handed down through the generations to the time of Jesus’ birth.  When the star appeared and the astronomers put all the pieces together, they realized something very special had happed in Judea.

For the past fifteen years, I have been a student of the descriptive names of God in Scripture. One of my most names of the Lord is El Emunah—the Faithful God—because it reveals Him as the God who keeps His promises.  The Magi were overjoyed when they saw the star because they understood that the ancient prophecy of a new King of the Jews had been fulfilled.  God had kept His promise to send His people a Messiah.

The same God who was faithful to the Jews has promised His faithfulness to you.  He has promised to redeem you and restore your life.  He has promised to walk with you and guide you every day.  He has promised His presence, His peace, and His unfailing love.  He has promised to prepare a place for you in heaven, and He has promised to come again to take you home.

The Magi rejoiced when they saw the star because God had kept His promise to the Hebrew people.  He continues to be the Promise Keeper today for all who trust in His Son Jesus.  Beloved, every promise God makes is a promise you can take to the divine bank. He is forever faithful.

Jesus is . . .

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“We’re New Testament people, we don’t need to read the Old Testament.” “I just want to know about Jesus, so I’ll stick with the New Testament.” Ever thought or said anything like that? I’ve heard it many times. As Christians – Christ’s followers – we are focused on only what Jesus did and taught.  But the Old Testament looks ahead to Jesus Christ.  Check it out:

In Genesis, He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan.

In Exodus, He is the Passover Lamb and the one who leads His people out of bondage.

In Leviticus, He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice.

In Deuteronomy, he is the Great Prophet to come.

In Joshua, He is the Captain of the Lord’s host.

In Judges, He is the one who faithfully delivers His people from the cost of sin.

In Ruth, He is our Kinsman Redeemer.

He is the anointed King in the line of David in the books of Samuel.

In the books of the Kings, He is the Spirit filling the Temple.

He is the great Teacher in Ezra and the Restorer of broken walls in Nehemiah.

He is the Interceder for His people in Esther and the coming Redeemer in Job.

He is the Shepherd in Psalms and the Source of all wisdom in Proverbs.

He is the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.

He is the Beloved Bridegroom in the Song of Solomon.

In Isaiah, He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Suffering Servant.

In Jeremiah and Lamentations, He is the Man acquainted with sorrows.

In Ezekiel, He brings life to dry bones.

In Daniel, He is the Ancient of Days.

He is the faithful Husband in Hosea, the Hope of His people in Joel, the Judge of the nations in Amos, and in Obadiah the One who warns of coming judgment.

In Jonah He is the preacher of the Good News, in Micah He is the Ruler from Bethlehem.

In Nahum, He is the judge of His people’s enemy,  the Sovereign Lord in Habakkuk, and in Zephaniah, He is the God who is mighty to save.

In Haggai He is the Glory of the House of God, in Zechariah He is the Royal Priest and in Malachi Jesus is the Son of Righteousness.

Beloved, if you want to know Jesus, read the Old Testament. He is all over the place.  Then read the New Testament with a fresh understanding of Jesus who was and is and is to come.

What if God said, “No.”?

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I had a burden – a heartwrenching, sleep-stealing, desperate burden. I prayed. I called friends and asked them to pray. And God came through. In a big way, as only He could do. He worked beyond my expectations. I thanked Him profusely, proclaiming His goodness, kindness, and faithfulness. Days later, as I was again giving Him thanks and praise for His hand in the situation, I sensed His question, “And what if I had said, ‘No.’ Would you still praise me?”

The Spirit led me to Daniel 3, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. You know this one – King Nebuchadnezzar had commanded all the leaders of Babylon to bow down before his golden image. But the three Jewish men would not worship anyone or anything but the God of Israel. They proclaimed His power to deliver them, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand O king.” (Dan. 3:17).  There was no question of their faith in the power of God. But they also declared that “even if He does not we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (v. 18).  The question rang in my heart again: Would I still praise Him if He had not come through for me?

Ten years ago I probably would have said, “Maybe.” My relationship with God was largely about what He could do for me. But after all we’ve been through together, after all He has taught me about Himself, I can say that regardless of what He does or doesn’t do for me, I will always praise Him. Not because of His actions, but because of who He is. He is worthy of praise and worship and wholehearted love because He is God. If all He ever did was exist, He would still be worthy of praise.

Beloved, I pray that you will love and worship God for who He is, and not just for what you hope He will do for you. He has never been less than everything He claimed to be. And He never will.

Even if the answer is “No.”

Why the Old Testament Still Matters

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Reading the Bible is paramount for the believer who wants to live and walk as Jesus did – after all, that is the purpose for our salvation – “to be conformed to the likeness of [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:27). I’ll bet you have started trying to read through the whole Bible and found it to be more challenging than you thought. Especially in the Old Testament – especially in Leviticus! What do all those old rules and sacrifices and rituals have to do with us as New Testament believers? EVERYTHING!

The entire Old Testament looks ahead to Jesus Christ. He fulfills every promise and completes every command. In Genesis He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan. In Exodus, He is the Passover Lamb and the one who leads His people out of bondage .In Leviticus, He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice. In Deuteronomy he is the Great Prophet to come. In Joshua, He is the Captain of the Lord’s host.

In Judges, He is the one who faithfully delivers His people from the cost of the sin. In Ruth, He is our Kinsman Redeemer. He is the anointed King in the line of David in the books of Samuel. In the books of the Kings, He is the Spirit filling the Temple. He is the great Teacher in Ezra and the Rebuilder of broken walls in Nehemiah. He is the Interceder for His people in Esther and the coming Redeemer in Job.

He is the Shepherd in Psalms and the Source of all wisdom in Proverbs. He is the Beloved Bridegroom in the Song of Solomon. In Isaiah He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Suffering Servant. In Jeremiah and Lamentations He is the Man acquainted with sorrows. In Ezekiel He brings life to dry bones. In Daniel He is the Ancient of Days.

He is the faithful Husband in Hosea, the Hope of HIs people in Joel, the Judge of the nations in Amos, and in Obadiah the One who warns of coming judgment. In Jonah He is the preacher of the Good News, in Micah He is the Ruler from Bethlehem. In Nahum, He is the judge of His people’s enemy, the Sovereign Lord in Habakkuk and in Zephaniah He is the God who is mighty to save. In Haggai He is the Glory of the House of God, in Zechariah He is the Royal Priest and in Malachi Jesus is the Son of Righteousness.

When you read the Old Testament, always look for Jesus, He is on every page, in every verse. Then read the New Testament with a fresh understanding of Jesus who was and is and is to come.

Don’t be Afraid, the End is Near!

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I am very dependent on my glasses to see past the nose on my face. This morning as I was getting out of the shower, I saw something I couldn’t make out on the towel rack – and my glasses were on the counter several feet away.  A lizard? Or a baby snake?! Maybe it was a piece of trash that missed the can below.  As I got closer I realized it was a shadow from the fold of the towel. What I thought was ominous turned out to be something else entirely.

A lot of scary stuff has been happening lately. The pandemic has turned the whole world upside-down and inside-out. Violence is rampant. Jesus warned that “Nation will rise against nation” (Matt 24:7), but here in the U.S., our nation is rising against itself. He said that there would be famines and earthquakes marking the beginning of the end. The UN sounded an alarm about famine as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and major earthquakes are on the increase worldwide. But the most critical evidence of the nearing end is in the hearts of people. Paul prophesied that “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:2-5). If you don’t recognize all this in our world today, you’re living in a cave. It is very threatening.

I’m not about to say that the world’s problems and woes are simple, but for the believer in Christ they are not as frightening as they are promising. These are indeed signs of the end times, but looking closer we recognize them as signs of Christ’s return. Jesus warned that there would be an “increase of wickedness [and] the love of most will grow cold” (Matt 24:12). But He also said, “When you see all these things know that [the Lord] is near, right at the door” (Matt. 24:33).

Speaking of the last days, the angel of the Lord told Daniel, “None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand” (Dan. 12:10). Beloved, now is not the time to be frightened – it is the time to be wise. It is time to keep one eye on the eastern skies with great anticipation. The King is on His way!

And if He Does Not . . .

I prayed every day for three weeks. We thought he was going to make it. He endured three surgeries and overcame so many obstacles to recovery. But last Friday – three weeks to the day after his motorcycle accident, my brother passed away. So many of you were part of the roller coaster ride and my family and I are so very grateful for your prayers. You were as shocked as we were when we got the sad report. My brilliant, funny, talented, annoying brother with the dry wit and crooked teeth is gone. There will be no more Mark Twain quotes. No more rants about the crooked government. No more picking on his sister. No second book for his new series – Bracken and Platt are forever silenced.

I prayed so hard and believed God for a miracle. After all, He is Jehovah Rapha – the God who heals. He could heal my brother. He could mend all his broken bones. He could restore his neurological function. He could save his life. He could shield me and my family and his children and friends from this grief and pain. But He didn’t. God took Jim home and our hearts are broken.

But He is still God and He is still good. And I still trust Him with my heart and my soul and my life and the lives of those I love.  Like the three Jewish young men in Babylon who refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, I know that “the God I serve is able” . . .“but even if He does not . . .”[1] I will never stop believing. I will never stop trusting. I will never stop loving. I will never stop worshiping. My brother is gone, but the next time I see him – and my mom – it will be forever.
No one is promised tomorrow. Hug your loved ones today Beloved.

_______________________________

[1]. Daniel 3:16-18.

Worship the King!

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What kind of faith must you have to chase a star for two years and hundreds of miles based on an ancient prophecy? The wise men – Matthew calls them “Magi” – traveled what scholars suppose to be about 1,000 miles “from the east” (Matt. 2:1), most likely ancient Persia, or our modern Iran. They were probably devout scholars who studied ancient holy texts of many religions. The writings of the Jewish faith – which would include prophecies of a special King – would have likely come to them via Daniel’s time in Babylon. Through their studies, they came to recognize that the star that rose at a specific time signaled the birth of this very King. So they set out on a long, difficult journey with gifts fit for royalty.

Here’s what amazes me about the Magi – it wasn’t curiosity that caused them to leave their homes and families for such an arduous journey. It was worship. Matthew records their words to King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship him” (v. 2). Here’s the other thing that is surprising to me – He wasn’t their king. Remember – they identified Him as the “King of the Jews.” The Magi didn’t owe him homage. Why would they worship a king not their own? They realized from all they had studied that this king was worthy of worship – not just the worship of the Jews, but the worship of all men everywhere.

These Magi took ancient prophecies, looked forward, and recognized that Jesus was a unique king. In faith and awe, they set out on a long journey to worship Him. You and I have not just ancient prophecies, but we have the New Testament Scriptures that testify that Jesus is this King. We have the eye-witness of the Apostles and we have the heart-witness of the martyrs that testify that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The faith of all these should inspire faith in us. Jesus – the baby in the manger, the child in Bethlehem, the man healing lepers and raising the dead and dying on a cross and bursting alive out of the grave – this Jesus is worthy of our faith and worthy of our worship. Let’s give Him all He deserves this Christmas – and every day.

A Snowflake in an Avalanche

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“O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you” (Daniel 9:8).

I quote a lot of people, but I never thought I would quote Voltaire, the French Enlightenment philosopher who was an outspoken critic of Christianity, but I ran across one of his quotes and thought it was very powerful. “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Stop and think about that for a moment. An avalanche can be traced back to millions of harmless, individual snowflakes that come together to create a massive wall of white with destructive power. But who would lay the blame on a single, lacy snowflake?
That thought brings two things to mind. As Christians we look around in shock at the world that has turned from acceptance to hatred for the church. We shake our heads at the lack of morals of this country and the laws that declare wrong as right and right as wrong. And we look in disbelief at “churches” who have embraced and celebrate sin, putting a religious stamp of approval on what God has declared unnatural and ungodly. I’ve witnessed an incredible amount of moral deterioration in just my lifetime. And we sit, like frogs in a steaming stewpot wondering, “What happened? How did we get to this point?” We got here by ignoring the snowflakes. The church turned a blind eye to the first signs of compromise. We didn’t want to raise a fuss. It’s such a little thing, we shouldn’t make a big deal over it. We need to pick our battles. We have to be culturally relevant. We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. One wink at sin, one shrug of our religious shoulders – then another and another and another. And here we are in a sin-saturated nation with no voice to say otherwise.
The truth is, we are each individually responsible for the state of the nation. We overlooked the snowflakes of compromise in our own lives long before they started swirling in the culture. We turned the disciplines of holy living – Bible study, prayer, service, faithfulness to the church– into suggestions for living your best life. We made the church one option among many in our busy, over-scheduled lives. We decided purity wasn’t as important as entertainment and freedom in Christ meant no restrictions. The snowflakes eventually caused an avalanche that pushed us over the edge and away from God.
But the same principle can turn it all around. What if you and I decided, as individuals to turn our hearts back to God, to return to the disciplines of holy living and the priority of righteousness? What if we spent time in Bible study and prayer every day? What if we determined to make purity and faithfulness the rule rather than the exception? What if we followed the Spirit without compromise? What if we purged the sin from our homes and our lives? What if the church turned back to God in repentance and godly sorrow? What if we taught the Scriptures rather than cultural, feel-good-about-myself messages? What if we decided that our kids needed the church more than they needed sports? What if we recognized that we’re supposed to be different than the culture around us? What if we accepted the responsibility for the state of our nation? What if we cried out to God for revival? What if every person who claims the name of Christ told just one lost person about Jesus? What if – one believer at a time, one church at a time – we created an avalanche of godliness and holiness that could push us back to God?
If one snowflake can be part of a wall of destruction, then one believer can be part of a wall of restoration. I believe it’s possible. I also I believe it is necessary. I believe our nation is in a precarious position, so near the edge of a very steep cliff. We are in danger of falling into a dark abyss from which we might never recover. The time for personal godliness is now. The time for the church to repent is now. We must walk back the compromises we’ve made – in our lives and in the church – while there is still time. A single snowflake is not the problem, but it is part of the problem. A single committed believer is not the whole solution, but you and I can be part of the solution. On our own we have little influence or power, but together with God, we can change this nation. We must – before it’s too late.