A Pure Heart

See the source image

When my son was younger, he was determined to do something he knew was wrong. When I caught him before he could put his plan into action he protested, “But Mom I didn’t actually do it!” “That’s not the point.” I told him, “You wanted to do it – that’s the heart of the problem.

Human nature has reduced “sin” to an act – a thing we do, while the Bible tells us that sin is a condition of the heart – our desires. When Jesus taught about adultery in Matthew 5:27-28 He said that the sin of adultery is committed when the desire arises – “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” James identified the pattern of sin in 1:14-15 as a progression from one’s “own evil desire,” to enticement, then to the action. Sin clearly starts in the heart. After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Urriah, David pleaded for God to “create in me a pure heart” (Ps. 51:10) for he knew that it was his heart that had led him astray. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:21), meaning we will pursue at all costs what our heart desires. If that desire is for sin, you can bet your hands, feet, and body will follow. Jesus also said only “the pure in heart . . . will see God” (Mat. 5:8). That should be incentive enough.

A pure heart recoils at the thought of disobeying and dishonoring God and breaking fellowship. It pursues the heart of God, which never leads to sin. A pure heart runs from temptation (2 Tim 2:22). Does that mean if you struggle with sinful desires You don’t have a heart for God? No – Paul attested to the battle within himself (Rom. 7:15-23) and I know well my own tug-of-war with sin. But it’s not unwinnable. You just need some Help.

Beloved, Are you weary of toying with the sinful desires of your heart? Victory comes as you allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God to purify your heart day by day. God isn’t just after your behavior Beloved, He is after your heart.  When you “delight yourself in the Lord,” that is when He is all your heart longs for, then “He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4). He will give you Himself.

What is God Worth to You?

See the source image

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

See the source image

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.

The Heavens told the Christmas Story

See the source image

“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.

God is Here

See the source image

The boy stood looking at the writing on the angry man’s poster: GOD IS NOWHERE. When the man laid down his poster to step into the nearby café, the lad turned the poster over and wrote diligently.  The man came back to his spot on the sidewalk and the boy said, “You had a mistake on your poster, but it fixed it. He picked up the poster to read what the boy had written: GOD IS NOW HERE.

That is the whole point of the Christmas story.  The Bible shows us that God has continually drawn near to man.  In the garden, He had close and personal fellowship with Adam and Eve, walking through the Garden with them in the cool of the evening.  But sin broke that intimate fellowship, and a barrier was placed between God and man.  God commanded the Israelites to make a Tabernacle that He might come and dwell among His people, and He did for hundreds of years until again, the sin of the nation of Israel became so great that God withdrew from the Temple.  The Old Testament records many visitations of God to Abraham, Jacob, Daniel, and others who were devoted to Him.  But these were brief occasions, to impart a message or empower His servant for a specific act.  God desired a deeper communion with man.  And God had a plan.

The angel recalled the prophecy: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him called ‘Immanuel*’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt 1:23).  Jesus brought God near to us as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, as a man proclaiming the Good News, as the sacrifice on the cross for our sins, and as the risen Lord.  Then He gave us His presence continually in His indwelling Holy Spirit.  Immanuel is with us in storms and darkness and trial and suffering.  He is with us in our times of doubt and fear and loneliness and emptiness.  The joy of Immanuel is knowing that there is no place we can go and no circumstance of life we will face that God is as near as your whispered prayer.  Jesus made Himself one of us that we might be with Him now and for eternity.

Beloved, I pray that the Joy of Immanuel is with you this Advent season.

* Some translations spell this word differently, the NIV uses Immanuel, the KJV uses Emmanuel – either way God is with us.

The Kingdom of God is . . .

See the source image

Sometimes when I’m reading the Bible the Holy Spirit will point His finger at a phrase like a divine highlighter. That signals me to start to dig and I always discover an unexpected treasure. This morning it was a single word. I was reading in the parables of Jesus in Matthew 20 and the Lord said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Is. Not will be. Is. There is a theological principle called “the now and the not yet” and refers generally to prophesy. The idea is like looking at a mountain range from a distance. Some mountains are nearer and some are farther away, but they all appear to be the same from a remote vantage point. It’s only when you draw nearer that you see the difference.

Jesus taught a great deal about the Kingdom of God and Matthew recorded the phrase thirty-one times in his gospel. Five of those mentions have a future focus.  But get this: twenty-five times Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as a present reality – as a Kingdom that “has come” or “is.” Not just something to look forward to “someday,”  but something that exists, something we can experience and live within now.  How could that be? Because Jesus is the Kingdom of God. When He drew His first breath in the musty stable, the Kingdom of God was present in the world. Okay, but Jesus is not here on earth anymore. But His Spirit is. Jesus said [the Spirit] lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). You and I, as believers in Christ Jesus, as His followers and friends, bring the Kingdom of God to the world in our generation through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God is here and now – in you and in me. Wherever we go we take the Kingdom of God with us. Whatever we do we involve the Kingdom of God in it. Oh, that ought to give us a sober pause.

It also ought to give us a sense of purpose. Because we bear the Kingdom of God, we can bring the peace and love of God into this hurting and angry world. We can bring the gospel to the lost. We can bring hope to the hopeless. His rule and reign is here and now in us. The Kingdom of God is like . . . you, Beloved.

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

See the source image

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.

Hebrews: How Can Jesus Understand My Temptation?

See the source image

I have a hard time taking advice from perfect people. That’s one thing you’ll never have to worry about with me. I am pretty transparent about my life, my past, my struggles, and my failures – perhaps a little too transparent – but there’s a reason. I believe that if you know I have been through a struggle similar to yours, you are more likely to trust me to help.

The Bible says we have a great high priest who can help us because He understands us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). But, wait just a minute. Jesus was perfect and sinless. How can He know how I feel? Indeed – Jesus was perfectly sinless, He never failed a single time—but he was certainly pressed by temptation. Glance back at Hebrews 2:17: “[Jesus] had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest . . .” Jesus was made like us – human flesh and bones, heart and lungs that kept Him alive just like yours. He got hungry and tired just like me. He had to walk on feet just like His disciples. He had normal bodily functions. He had emotions – anger, joy, and sadness. And He felt the weight of temptation. Remember the desert and the devil? Let’s join them in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11).

Temptation #1 – “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Have you ever been tempted to satisfy the needs and desires of your flesh in your own way? Ever heard of porn? Ever been tempted to steal?

Temptation #2 – “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” If you are, He will send His angels to save you from harm. It was the same question that set off the first sin and satan has been using it ever since: Can you trust God?

Temptation #3 – “I will give you [the kingdoms of this world] if you will bow down and worship me.” Ever wanted more than what you’ve got? Ever entertained less-than-honest ways to get it?

Jesus understands the weight of the temptations we face because He was human just as you and I are and those temptations pressed Him even harder than they do you and me. He gave us the perfect model to handle temptation. We’ll talk about that next time.  

Stormy Seas

See the source image

Brave, confident Peter stood up and stepped out of the safety of the boat and onto the liquid surface of the lake – and the water held him up! That is until he looked around to see if what he thought was happening really was. “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matthew 14:30). The laws of nature overrode his faith in Jesus. 

Peter knew Jesus – he had heard His authoritative teaching and had witnessed and participated in His miracles.  But in a moment, all he knew about Jesus sank into the waves with him.  He was overcome with fear.  Can you relate? Sometimes we seem to be doing good – walking along in our faith with our heads held high.  Then something happens – a crisis hits, the bottom falls out, and suddenly we are sinking and crying out for help.

I have walked with Jesus for almost 50 years and there have been many ups and downs, some pretty awesome highs and some very deep lows.  I wish I could say that I’ve always been a model of unwavering faith – but that would be a lie.  What I can say is that every trial has built my faith by degrees.  We’ve been through some very stormy seas the past three years.  At times, it all looked very dire, and we were sinking fast.  All I could do was cry out, “Lord save us!”  And He did. 

Here’s what I know – and what I want you to know.  God’s hand was in Peter’s stormy sea – and ours.  He stirred up the wind and the waves that rocked our boat and tossed us into the water. Why would He do that?  Because His was the hand that would reach out to rescue us.  Because I needed to know the power of His saving grace and the depth of His everlasting love.  And so do you.  You need to know that when all seems lost, God will rescue you.  When you think you’re about to drown, God will pull you up.  Your storm is real – but so is God.  Start looking for His hand over the waves.