Love One Another

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It is very compelling to me that in all the Gospels, there is only one time that Jesus declared a commandment: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). A command means it’s not up for debate. Ah, but we do debate it, don’t we? “Who are the ‘others’?” “Did Jesus just mean fellow Christians?” “Did He mean everyone everywhere?” “And what did He mean by ‘love’?” We are much like the lawyer who asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told Him the story of the Good Samaritan. You know this parable from Luke 10: 25-37.

A man was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road where two very religious men passed him by on the way to do their religious duties. But a Samaritan, whom the Jews despised, stopped and helped the man, took him to an inn, and paid for his care.  When the lawyer asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” he wanted to know whom he was “required” to love. Jesus turned his question around by defining the neighbor as the one who gave love, not the one who received it. The one giving love is living out the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

So love your neighbor. But God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose our neighbors. He commands us to love the person He places in front of us. Sometimes that’s a hard love because they are prickly and unpleasant and downright hateful. They take and never give. They growl and complain. Does that mean we are excused from the love command? I think they are the very ones Jesus had in mind.

Several years ago I read something in “Reader’s Digest” that has stuck with me ever since: “Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.” I think sometimes we withhold love because are afraid we will be “cheated” – giving more love than we receive. But the very act of loving others fills the one who gives it all away. Here’s how John said it: “If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12).  Beloved, the more love you give away the more of God’s love you have to give. Love each other – all the others – the way Jesus loves you (John 15:12).

What is God Worth to You?

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When I sit down to write every morning, I ask the Lord, “What do you want to say?” Some days it’s a word of encouragement. Everyone seems to like those. Some days it’s a Scripture lesson (like the Hebrews series). And some days God directs me to a passage of Scripture and I think, “This is not exactly a heart-warming story.” This is one of those days. I almost changed it, but God can be very insistent.

King David took a census of the men of  “fighting age” in Israel, a sign that his trust for his nation was in the strength of his army and not in the strength of his God. He soon realized his census was a slap in the face to the Lord God (2 Sam 24:9). He confessed his sin and pleaded for the Lord to take away his guilt. God gave him three options.  Israel could face three years of famine, David could spend three months running from his enemies, or there could be three days of plague in the land.  David decided on the last option and seventy thousand citizens of Israel died. The Lord finally stayed the hand of the death angel “at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (v. 16). The king approached Araunah to purchase the threshing floor that he might “build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped” (v. 21). Araunah offered the threshing floor free of charge but David would not hear of it. He said, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (v. 24).

Here’s what I hear from God: “Why are my people so stingy towards me?” In the little book of Malachi, God said He would prefer that the temple doors be shut than for the people to give Him meaningless offerings – “injured, crippled, blemished or diseased animals” burned on “useless fires” (1:10-13). But above all, the people considered their gifts and service to Him to be “a burden” (1:13). Jesus talked about the cost of being His disciple (Luke 9:57-62) and Matthew recorded His parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (13:44-46) to express how valuable the kingdom of God is. 

This is not about money, although giving is an important part of the relationship. This is about giving God our hearts, our time, our thoughts, and our whole selves. Is the kingdom worth giving up sleep to spend time every morning with the King? Is it worth turning off the T.V. to read His Word to your kids? Is it more valuable than having them excel in sports or dance? Is God your heart’s first desire, or your fifth or twentieth?

Beloved, my toes are throbbing too, but the question stands: What is God worth to you?

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.

Mary’s Treasure

I love Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth because, according to church tradition, it is Mary’s own recollections. Only Mary could recall intimate details about Gabriel’s visit the remarkable announcement: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (vs. 31-32). She remembered her question “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (v. 34), and the angel’s reply about the Holy Spirit’s part in the conception.

She even included the report about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy and her aged cousin’s joyful greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed I the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vs. 42, 43). And “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (v. 45). She remembered the song she sang: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .”  (vs. 46-55).

Mary was the one who included Caesar Augustus’ decree that sent them to Bethlehem where her Son was born among the beasts of domestic life, bound up in rags, and laid to sleep in the animal’s feed trough.

Mary told about the shepherds who surely reported the angel’s proclamation to the parents. And the angel’s song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (2:14). Mary also remembered when Jesus was presented in the temple according to the law and the old man and woman who spoke powerfully about her son (2:25-38). Mary remembered Jesus when he was twelve years old, being separated from her and Joseph, and how He amazed the Jewish teachers by speaking with wisdom and authority beyond His years (2:41-50). And he amazed His mother by answering her scolding by saying, “Did you know I had to be in my Father’s house? (v. 49). Oh, how I wish Luke had picked her memory for more details of His childhood – clearly He was no ordinary child. Or maybe He was and the details are much the same as your childhood and mine.

Luke said that Mary, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). I’m so glad she did because we have the most detailed, intimate account of our Savior’s birth and early glimpses of His ministry. Here’s my question for us both: What marvelous things has God done for you? Have you treasured them up in your heart (or written them down in a journal)? When someone (a grandchild, perhaps) asks you about your relationship with Jesus you will be glad you did.

A Baby Changes Everything

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“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son” (Luke 2:6).

They say that having a baby will change your life completely, and every parent knows that is true. You give your whole self away to your child and you never get yourself back. Your time is no longer your own – your days are filled with feedings and diaper changes, and more of the same through the night. Your money is not yours anymore – whoever imagined someone so tiny would need so much stuff? Your priorities are different, your goals are reshaped, and your entire identity is redefined. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is a baby who will change your life in far greater ways. This baby will give your life direction and purpose. This baby will bring you peace in the midst of a storm. He will comfort you when you are weary and broken. He will lift you up when you fall. This baby will bring you immeasurable Joy. He can wash away the stain of guilt and shame and make you new. This baby brings hope where all hope is faded. He brings light into the darkest night. This baby brings healing of body and mind and heart. This baby will change the way you think and the way you live. He will transform your heart and cause you to love in ways you never expected. And if all that wasn’t enough, this baby will change your life beyond this life.

This baby left the glory of heaven to save the entire human race. He brought peace between God and man. He broke the chains of sin. He erased the curse of death. This baby took on your sin and mine; He bore the punishment that you and I rightly deserved. He surrendered His body to the cross and the grave. He did it all so that you and I could have life – full and abundant and eternal. He gave Himself away so that you could get yourself back. This baby – the Lord Jesus Christ – changes everything.

Why Was a King Born in a Stable?

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“While they were there the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7)

When I was a kid the Christmas story made me sad because Jesus was born in a nasty stable. He should have been born in a palace! He was the King of kings for Pete’s sake! It was a shame that Mary and Joseph were forced to seek refuge in such an ugly, smelly place. She should have had the best doctors tending her as she gave birth instead of dumb animals. This was the Son of God! It was so unfair.

Or maybe, that was just how He planned it all along. Perhaps, in His divine purpose, Jesus chose the stable as His birthplace and a manger as his bed to make a statement that no place is too lowly for Him. Not the slums of the city or the farthest backroads of the country. Not a crack house or a bar or a brothel.  And I believe he wanted to assure humanity that no person is too sinful for Him. Not an alcoholic or drug addict. Not the girl who had an abortion or the young man who sits in a prison cell. Not the woman with the worst reputation in town nor the man who drove away everyone who ever loved him. Not me. Not even you.

Aren’t you glad to know that there is no place that is too smelly or ugly that Jesus will not go? There is no person too far gone that Jesus cannot love.  The Bible says His closest friends were smelly fishermen and hated tax collectors and healed demoniacs and lepers and people at the lowest rungs of society.  I think there was no room in the inn because Jesus wanted to show that there was enough room in His heart for the whole world – wherever and whomever you are.

Blessed Faith

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“Did that really happen? It must have been a dream. I have been so anxious over all the preparations Joseph and I are making – it must have caused me to have this strange dream.” Mary was traveling through the hill country of Judea on her way to visit her dear relative, Elizabeth. The angel in her dream had said something strange about her too – that she was going to have a child – in fact, he said she was in her sixth month. Elizabeth – of all people. She and Zechariah were too old to have a baby. Yes, this had to have just been a dream.JBut what if it wasn’t.Could she really be with child – with THE child – the Messiah? Why would he have chosen her? She was nothing special, wouldn’t God have chosen the wife of the high priest for such an honor? Someone in a lofty position in the temple, someone more mature, more wealthy, more righteous. No. She shook her head as if to shake loose the crazy idea. This was just not possible. She saw the familiar house and spied her relative in the doorway with her back turned toward the road. “Elizabeth!” Mary called out and gasped as the older woman turned to face her. The smile on her face was warm and welcoming, but the bulge under her dress was a shock to Mary’s heart. It was true! Elizabeth was pregnant! If that were true – then . . . “Mary! Dear Mary!” Elizabeth exclaimed, and then as if from deep within her spirit she began to speak. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for Joy” (Luke 1:42-44).

Oh, it was true! It was all true! Elizabeth was pregnant. That meant she really was pregnant too – with the Messiah! Then, as if reading the thoughts the younger woman had carried with her along the journey, Elizabeth took Mary’s hands in her own and said, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (v. 45).

Beloved, faith is the sweetest blessing of all.

Tiny King

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Image: “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianna

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” (Luke 2:29-32)

.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.

All or Nothing

Reading in Luke 14:25-35 where Jesus talked about the cost of being His disciple. It’s much higher than we imagine. He said, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (v. 33). The cost of following Jesus is everything you have and everything you are. It’s every minute of my time. It’s every dollar you have. It’s every thought in my mind and every desire of your heart. It’s my hopes and dreams and it’s your will. It’s my physical body, my abilities, and it’s your identity. “That leaves nothing for me!” you may say. That’s exactly the point.

Jesus said that there is no such thing as half-hearted disciples. You are either all in or you are all out. He said that a builder will determine the cost of a project and whether he can make that investment before he jumps in. A king will determine the strength of his army before engaging in battle. He said you and I are to consider whether we are willing to give up our lives and our very selves to follow Him – and if we are not, then we cannot be His disciple.

We have confused church membership with discipleship. They are not the same. This may be news to some but, church membership doesn’t get you into heaven. The church rolls are not the Lamb’s Book of Life. And this may shock you, but praying “The Sinner’s Prayer,” isn’t the ticket to heaven. Parroting words will not get you eternal life. Wholehearted surrender to the risen Lord – the Son of God is the only thing that will. Jesus said discipleship – the kind that is all-in, all the time, all the way to your last breath – is the mark of a heaven-bound saint.

Is it enough to show up on Sunday, pay your “dues,” sing, stay awake for the sermon and pat the preacher on the back on your way out the door? Not to Jesus. He demands more of His disciples than that. The modern church of lite and comfort is in for a rude awakening. It’s time to decide, Beloved. Are you willing to abandon all you have and all you are to be a disciple of Jesus? Have you counted the cost and deemed Him worthy?

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.