Step-By-Step

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“Okay God, what’s the plan?”  It’s human nature, isn’t it? We want to have the full strategy laid out before us before we start.  And that’s a good thing in certain situations. No builder would begin a house without a complete set of blueprints – down to the location of every wall socket and light switch.  A smart business proposal outlines a long-term plan and prospectus for the success of a project.  We set out a plan for the day, the week, the month, and the year – and even for years ahead, even though we don’t know how things will turn out in the end.  Still, we want the whole picture.

But God doesn’t give us the whole picture.  He gives us one step at a time, just as He did for the prophet Samuel.  “The Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.”  Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do.’ ”  (1 Samuel 16:2,3)

He told the prophet to go to Bethlehem and prepare to make a sacrifice with Jesse and his sons.  That’s it.   “Do step one and I will show you step two.” 

God delights in obedience – the kind that doesn’t wait for the full plan but willingly acts on each step as it’s given.  I don’t know of anyone in the Bible – except Jesus – who knew details of God’s plan from beginning to end.  God doesn’t expect you to complete the whole task in one grand push; He wants you to do the one thing He told you and wait for the next instruction.  And He will not give you the next step until you are obedient to the first one. Besides, if you knew the whole plan you would a) be completely overwhelmed and/or b) set off doing things your own way which results in c) a mess.

Beloved, God has a plan – a very good plan, but it requires your daily, step-by-step obedience.  You can trust Him – He will not forget you or leave you stranded.  He will see you all the way through.  Just determine to obey what you know to do – the rest will come – right on time and with the strength you need.  Step by step by step.

Hebrews: Jesus Understands

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Joy helping Nana make “pankins”

Every Saturday Joy and I make “pankins” (pancakes) for breakfast. She loves to dump all the ingredients into the bowl and “crush” the eggs” then stir the batter. It is our tradition and I love it probably more than she does. I handle the skillet, which is positioned out of her reach, always telling her, “Don’t touch the skillet, it’s very hot. It will hurt you.” This past Saturday, she discovered that for herself. Before I could stop her, she stretched across the counter and barely touched the edge of the skillet. She didn’t have a mark on her fingers but it sure scared her. Later, watching me clean up, she said, “Careful Nana, dat skillet is hot.” I’m pretty sure I won’t have to tell her again not to touch it.

The writer of Hebrews, in discussing Jesus’ final hours, said “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him . . .” (5:8). Just as we saw back in 2:10, Jesus was, is, and will forever be the perfect Son of God. So why would the Scriptures say He had to “learn obedience” – wasn’t He already obedient? Absolutely. He didn’t learn obedience for His sake. He learned it for ours.

Remember, the author has been building a case that Jesus is a worthy, compassionate high priest who can sympathize with us in all of our human struggles. He had previously said that “He had to be made like His brothers (us) in every way” (2:17). Including obedience. He didn’t need to learn obedience to keep him from the harsh consequences of disobedience like my granddaughter learned. No, it was to give us a high priest we could identify with. Perfect people are not much help to imperfect folks like you and me. His struggle to submit to the Father’s plan gives us the confidence to call out for His help when we are in the same battle. The best high priest is the one who can help us out of His own experience.

Beloved, what is that thing you’re clinging to that is so hard to submit to God? What has God called you to that you’re not sure you’re willing to do? Jesus understands. He can help you be obedient. He’s not so far above you that you can’t reach Him. He’s right there in the garden, on His knees.

Hebrews: When God Says “No.”

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“We’re going to pray, and God will give us the funds for this new building,” the preacher bellowed, and the crowd, whipped into a frenzy shouted their agreement. “Yes!” “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” I, however, did not. The woman beside me said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you believe God can do it?” “Oh, I believe God can do it, I just don’t believe He’s obligated to do it.”  She looked at me like I had two heads and turned her back to me. Please don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely believe that God answers prayers – He’s answered more than a few of mine recently.  But some of my prayers are still hanging, and for some of my prayers, the answer was “No.” God knew better. God always answers according to what He knows is better – what fits His good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). Sometimes that means we don’t get what we pray for. Even Jesus got a “No” from His Father.

In our last Hebrews devotional, I left you in the Garden of Gethsemane, listening to Jesus plead with His Father, “Take this cup from me . . .” Let’s leave quietly and head back to Hebrews 5 to see how it came out. The writer said, “He was heard.” Jesus’ word did not fall to the ground nor fall on deaf ears. His Father heard His prayers and pleading. So Jesus got what He wanted, right? After all, the Father listened to His Son “because of His reverent submission” (v.7b). Yet you know the rest of the story. God said “No” to Jesus. And He knew He would – the eternal fate of the entire human race hung in the balance. If God had saved Jesus from the cross, you and I would be lost forever.

What do we do with those “Nos?” The same thing Jesus did. “He learned obedience from what He suffered,” (v. 8a). We accept the “No” as coming from the heart of our loving, gracious, all-knowing Father and submit to Him in obedience without grumbling. Are we disappointed? Sure – and we can take that disappointment right back to Him and say, “I’m surrendering this to You because I trust You, but my heart is hurting.” God honors honesty and “He heals the brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3).  Whether the answer is “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait,” you can trust the heart of your Father, Beloved. It’s the same heart that said “No” to His Son so that He could say “Yes” to you.

Ordinary People in the Hands of God

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Moses said to the Lord, ‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since You have spoken to Your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue’” (Exodus 4:10).

Think you have nothing to offer to God and His kingdom? You’re too young or too old (60!) or have no gifts or talents? You’re just a mom wiping dirty noses, or a regular guy at a regular job, or a college student trying to survive your classes. You’re in very good company my friend!

A young slave sat in a prison, unjustly accused of rape. But God lifted Joseph up and used him to save the founding family of Israel through whom the Savior of mankind would come.

A widow had nothing to offer God but a loyal heart. She humbly out to gather grain to feed them herself and her mother-in-law. But God interceded and Ruth became the great grandmother of God’s anointed King of Israel and part of the lineage of Jesus.

Esther had no influence in the politics of Persia – but she had courage. Because she stepped up and stepped into the King’s court, the Jewish people throughout the Persian empire were saved.

A young captive in a foreign land, Daniel had nothing of value. But he did have integrity. God used him to show His sovereignty and power to Nebuchadnezzar and Darius.

Jesus called twelve men from fishing boats and tax booths and used them to turn the entire world upside down.

Two women did what women throughout the ages have done – raised children and grandchildren. God used Lois and Eunice to shape young Timothy into the Apostle Paul’s right-hand man and true son in the faith.

You may not be in a position of importance, but you are important to the Kingdom of God. You may see yourself as small and insignificant or past your prime, and that’s just fine with Him. He likes to use the least likely people to accomplish the most amazing things. That way He gets all the glory.

If you think you have nothing of value to offer God, you’re wrong. You have yourself. That’s all He needs. He will take you and use you in the most ordinary – and yet extraordinary – ways. He’s got an important task, and you’re just the person He’s been looking for.  All you need to do, Beloved, is be available and watch Him work.

Waiting Well

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It seems as if we’re always waiting. Waiting for the baby to be born. Waiting for school to let out. Waiting for your kid to come home. Waiting for a call about a job or a medical test. Waiting is an unavoidable part of life. You and I need to know how to wait well. Thankfully the Bible – especially the Psalms – has a lot to teach us about how to wait.

Psalm 5:3 tells us to wait expectantly – “Oh Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.” I love how the NKJV renders this verse: “ I will direct my prayer to you and I will look up.” The heart of expectation is watching intently for what you are certain will come.

Likewise, Psalm 33:20 says, “We wait in hope for the Lord.” Hope and expectation are synonymous.

Psalm 27:14 says to wait courageously: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” Courage is a by-product of hope and expectation. Courage is the best cure for doubt.

How long must we wait? Psalm 25:5 tells us to wait “all day long.” Wait for the long haul. Wait until we see God act. That’s why we need hope and courage.

I don’t want to include this one, but here goes: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7). Waiting is an act of patience and we all know how we learn patience. I’ll just leave that one there.

Psalm 119:166 adds a new wrinkle: “I wait for Your salvation, O Lord, and I follow your commands.” In the waiting, we are still obedient. Those small steps of submission will often lead to the very thing for which we are waiting.

There’s one theme in all these “waiting” verses that is key to waiting well – it’s not what we’re waiting for but whom.  Psalm 62:5 says, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.” Wait for God alone. Not for the desired outcome, but for the living God of heaven. Wait for Him, not just for what He can do for you. His ways and acts are wonderful, but the true treasure is the presence of God in your life. Don’t just wait, Beloved, wait well.

I Did It My Way

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Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Michael Bublé sang it and is one of the most often requested songs for funerals. Paul Anka wrote lyrics in English to a French tune and pitched “My Way” to Old Blue Eyes. We applaud people who do it their way. But should we? While the rugged individualist charts his own course, he seldom does it God’s way. 

God, through Samuel, directed King Saul to attack the Amalekites, the enemy of God’s people. God specifically said, “totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them . . .” Not the people and not even their livestock (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul and his men were somewhat obedient. “Saul and the army spared Agag [the king] and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs, everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy” (v. 9). They were unwilling to be obedient. God’s heart was grieved by Saul’s disobedience (v. 11). He sent Samuel to chastise the king.

When the prophet arrived at the camp, Saul greeted him saying, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions” (v. 13). And Samuel said, in today’s language, “Oh, really? Then why do I hear sheep bleating and cattle lowing?” (v. 14). And Saul answered that they saved the best of the animals “to sacrifice to the Lord” (v. 15).  He essentially sang Sinatra’s song – “I obeyed the Lord – my way.” Samuel replied, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (v. 22). And from that point on, God rejected Saul as Israel’s king.

No, this is not one of those warm and fuzzy devotionals. I feel an urgent need in my spirit to tell you to stop trying to do life your way. Do it God’s way. Be fully obedient to the Lord. Partial obedience is disobedience. James gave us two keys to doing life God’s way: “Submit yourself to God” (4:7) and “Humble yourself before the Lord” (4:10).

I’m not pointing fingers at you without pointing them at myself first. This morning I prayed, “Lord please give me a word for your people – and for me.” I know I need to learn the discipline of obedience, submission, and humility before God. This honors and pleases the Lord who – despite what Sinatra and all the rest believe – created man. Self-made men and women are on the road to self-destruction. Beloved, will you do it God’s way?

Bible Study

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You’ve heard me say this before, and I’ll say it to my dying day – one of the most important Bible study lessons I’ve learned is to not take any Scripture out of its greater context. That is crucial to understanding the text and making the right application.  When we isolate a verse or passage we can make it say pretty much anything we want. I’ll give you just one example.

Two points are always taught from the miracle story in Luke 17:11-19. Jesus met ten lepers who cried out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (13) And He did. He told them to “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” which the Law demanded. The first point is that the lepers didn’t wait around until they saw their flesh restored but immediately did what Jesus said, and “As they went, they were cleansed” (14). The lesson is drawn that obedience proceeds blessings. The second, and you’re probably familiar with this one, is that only one of the ten healed men returned to thank Jesus – and this brings the lesson of gratitude.

But the point of this miracle story is not just a reminder to be obedient to God’s commands nor to be grateful for what God has done for you, although these are both important lessons and life habits that we should adopt. They are secondary to the miracle-working power of Jesus which added evidence to His claim to be the Son of God. That is Luke’s point throughout his entire gospel – the greater context. Luke stated his purpose for writing in 1:1-4. He wanted to assure “Theophilus” of “the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Now we don’t know who Theophilus was, but we know what he was taught. The heart of the gospel is in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Everything in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, points to Jesus, the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. Without that firmly fixed in our minds, Bible study misses the point.

Beloved, I am passionate for you to get into the Word and get to know God’s heart for you – it begins and [never] ends with Jesus.

Proofreading Your Life

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My late brother, who was a published author, recommended Grammarly to me and it has been invaluable for helping me in my writing both for school and for ministry. It alerts me to misspelled words, incorrect syntax, better word options, poor grammar, incorrect punctuation, and – my most frequent error, too, many, commas. When I open it with my Word document, it sits on the right-hand side of my screen and constantly checks my work. When I make an error, it comes to life with colored lines and warnings about what I’ve done wrong. So far it has caught 13 mistakes in this devotional (*I’m updating this number as I’m writing). Yet for all its benefit and wise advice, it has one flaw – it won’t make the corrections for me. It finds my problems and makes suggestions but leaves the choice to make the changes up to me.

I think you know where I’m going with this. God has given us a powerful tool for our lives: His Word. The Bible can point to the problems in our lives and give us wise counsel for fixing the problem, but it is up to you and me to make the change. Two things can cause Grammarly not to do its job. I can neglect to turn it on and never see the issues in my document, or I can ignore it – which I do when I like the word I’ve chosen and don’t want to change it. Likewise, if we never bother to read God’s Word, we will never recognize what is wrong in our lives. Or, we just ignore what God said because – let’s be honest – we like the sinful choice we’ve made and we have no desire to change.

James said, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). He compared the person who hears, then disregards the Word to someone who looks at his reflection in a mirror and then forgets what he saw when he walks away. All through his letter, James emphasized the hearing and the doing of the Word. Reading the Bible is really useless if you and I aren’t going to obey it. (Note: Grammarly suggested I take out the “really,” but I am ignoring that suggestion because I want the emphasis.)

Beloved, the Bible is the living Word of the living God and it has great power to transform your life – if you will read it and heed it. It’s a good thing to be a good writer, but it’s eternally better to be an obedient doer of the Word of God.

You Must be Righteous

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Continuing our study of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s gospel is all about the Kingdom of Heaven and revealing Jesus as the rightful King. So far we’ve learned about who the Kingdom people are in the Beatitudes. We’ve learned about the influence Kingdom people should bring to the world in 5:13- 20. In Matthew 5:17-26, Jesus taught about Kingdom righteousness. I’ll jump ahead and give you the key to this passage: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). The Pharisees and teachers of the law were considered the most righteous people in Jerusalem. They built their righteousness on following every jot and tittle of the law – and most of those jots and tittles had been added to God’s Law by man. Their lives were consumed with following rules and rituals, even washing their hands was an elaborate process that was more about the show than about cleanliness.

Who does the Bible point to as “righteous?”  Matthew 1:19 says, Joseph [Mary’s husband-to-be] was a righteous man, but not because he adhered to the letter of the law. When Mary announced that she was pregnant, and he knew this baby was not his, by the Law he should have taken her out to be stoned to death. But “he did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph chose to treat Mary with mercy. That is why the Scripture called him “a righteous man.”

Jesus later called the religious leaders hypocrites (and a brood of vipers!) because, though they did everything right, they did it all for the wrong reasons. He said “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matter of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matt 23:23).  They obeyed the letter of the Law but neglected the heart of the Law, which is love.

So how could anyone be more righteous than the religious hierarchy? By understanding that God commanded obedience to the Law, but not for obedience’s sake. The Israelites were to obey the law because they loved God. And love changes everything.

Serving God in Hard Seasons

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I originally wrote this three years ago today, when I was in a job I disliked. God has worked in such amazing ways since. Within six months of this post, we were back home and I was in my dream job at The Baptist College of Florida. I am blessed every day to work among men and women who love the Lord, to be immersed in my two passions, Jesus and learning, and to be pursuing a Master’s degree for whatever God has ahead for me.  

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1)

Paul and Timothy were in prison, yet they continued to see themselves as “servants” of the Lord. Wouldn’t you think that being in prison would give them a “pass”? I mean, they are not able to do all the things they did as free men. They can’t go to the market and share Christ with people. They can’t stand in the public square and proclaim the Gospel. They can’t gather with and teach fellow believers about the resurrection and the return of Jesus. They are isolated, cut off from every avenue of fulfilling their calling. Yet they are still servants.

This spoke to me so deeply. I am not where I thought I should be. I am not “in ministry” like I envisioned. I am not in a position serving God as I expected or hoped. But God says I am still a servant – His servant. I am not on a shelf nor am I excused from doing the good work God created me to do. Servants go where the master assigns and do what the master commands. Servants serve wherever they are.

My friend, it may be true that your place in life is not what you expected, hoped, envisioned, or wanted. But you are God’s servant nonetheless. You are called to a good work by a good Master. Let’s be good servants right where find ourselves today, whether in a palace, a prison, or a pre-school. It’s who we are.

It occurs to me that God could have inspired this post today in this pandemic, lockdown, snowed-in, life-changing time in the world. The circumstances may be different, but the feelings of frustration are the same. Beloved, you and I are servants of the Most High God. How we serve may change, but the call to serve does not.