New Strength for a New Year

All the research indicates the same thing. More and more young people are shying away from attending church on Sundays. They’re feeling it’s become old school and irrelevant.

Of course, the reality is, it’s not just young people, but people of all ages who have determined to ditch church for greener pastures. And I kind of get it.

Listening to music that might not be anywhere near my preferred musical style, followed by a lengthy monologue — even a relatively interesting one — and then after all that, being asked to fork over some of my hard-earned cash. That kind of sounds like a recipe for disaster in today’s fast-paced, attention grabbing, economically challenged world.

Who wants this anymore? This is supposed to build up our spirits and give us strength to face life’s challenges? How does that work?

I’m going to take a stab at responding to these questions. More than that, I’m going to take on the even more daunting task of challenging you to make getting back to church on Sundays your number 1 New Year’s resolution.

In Old Testament times, the children of Israel had been serving a sentence of exile that lasted — for many of them — over 70 years. When they finally returned from Babylon to their homeland, they were so grateful to be home that they demanded their “pastor” Ezra come out, read the Bible, and teach them.

The sermon lasted something like 6 hours. Yikes!

But something strange happened. The people listened like their lives depended on it. The people stood still, perked their ears up, and asked themselves, “How is this relevant to me? How does it apply to my life?”

What they heard from God’s word brought them to their knees. It grounded them in divine, spiritual reality. It rang true in their hearts and compared favorably to their life’s experiences. “Amen!” (“This is absolutely true!”) sprang from their lips.

So many people were eager to learn that they broke into small groups where they could ask their questions, and have other teachers respond. The Levites dove back into the Bible and worked with the people, explaining the meaning so they could be clear on what God was telling them.

Then their leader Nehemiah stood up and reminded them why they had so strenuously sought to have Ezra and the Levites teach them. It was to bring them out of their grief and restore their strength.

And where would that strength come from? God’s words and promises would remind them always. The joy they receive from the Lord would be their strength. God’s love, mercy, grace, the Lord’s peace, provision and protection — these would be their joy. And that joy would be their daily strength.

Who doesn’t need peace, joy and strength in their lives? My challenge to you this New Year’s is simply this: Take a serious look at the Israelites’ example. They believed the Bible’s teaching would give them these things and they gave God a chance to make good on his promises.

How about you? Will you give God a chance to make good on his promises in 2016?

It might just lead to surprising new strength for you in this new year!

“All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites… instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength'” (Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-8, 10, NIV).

Lord Jesus, let your joy — the joy of the Lord — be my strength. Help me to stay faithful to you and your word in the coming year, and grant me your Holy Spirit so that I may live in your love, forgiveness and power in the coming year.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, December 27, is Nehemiah 7:4 – 8:18, Revelation 18:17 – 19:10 and Psalm 148:1-6.

Header image based on "2016 Calendar..." by Jeff Djevdet, CC By 2.0

My Calm, My Safety, My Courage

What I love about being a Christian is that it calls out the best in me. It encourages me to make the kinds of changes in my life that will make me a better man. It spurs me to the kinds of changes that will bring my heart, my mind, my words and actions in line with the kind of person God wants me to be.

But my Christian faith does not leave me with mere encouragement. It follows up the encouragement with the very real power to make the changes God wants me to make. That power is the gospel. That power is Jesus Christ, my Savior, who died for me and lives in me.

That gospel message assures me that Jesus came because of his great love for me. I am a sinner in need of his deliverance. And Jesus came to win that deliverance for me. He, the righteous one, came to offer his own life in exchange for mine. He came to take my sins, and offer me his righteousness.

John, the apostle, puts it this way: “Christ’s forgiveness is the most amazing motivation to not sin again. Christ’s forgiveness is also the guarantee that when you do sin again — and you will sin again — then that sin too has been forgiven.

The gospel is the most highly-motivating “carrot” to lead us on to more fully experience our freedom from sin. And even more importantly, the gospel is the most secure safety net in which to land when we do fall into sin.

The gospel points us to Jesus Christ, the one who, as our advocate with the Father, offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins — the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. He offered his life up on the cross to atone for our sins, and reconcile us fully to God the Father.

It’s just like Van Gogh once said, “I feel a certain calm. There is safety in the midst of danger. What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”

Jesus is my calm. He is my safety in the midst of danger — especially the danger to myself that’s created when I sin against God. He is my courage to attempt to become a man who brings glory to God in everything I do.

“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2, NIV). 

Jesus, thank you for being the perfect sacrifice, the atoning sacrifice, for all my sins. Thank you for sacrificing your life so that I could be reconciled to the Father, and enjoy everlasting life in heaven with you. Give me courage to become the person you want me to be, bringing glory to you in all I do.

Our Bible reading for Monday, November 30, is Daniel 5:17 – 6:28, 1 John 1:1 – 2:11 and Psalm 136:1-12.

Header image based on "Vincent Van Gogh I feel a certain calm..." by BK, CC By-SA 2.0

Advent: He Comes!

In the “church year,” a calendar that many churches use to plan their weekly worship, this coming Sunday will be celebrated as “The First Sunday in Advent.” The Advent season is a time when Christ-followers look back to Christ’s first coming, and look forward to his second coming.

It’s valuable to have the perspective that Advent gives us, because it reminds us that God makes promises. And regardless of the opinions of the doubters and skeptics, he keeps his promises, too.

In Old Testament times, he promised to come as the Messiah. People waited a long, long time for that promise to be fulfilled. But when the timing was just right, God sent his Son to be born of Mary.

In New Testament times like today, we have the promise that Jesus will return to judge all mankind. Jesus told us that we cannot predict when this will be. But it will be rapid and unexpected.

The apostles — such as Peter — encourage the church (us) to have an “end times mentality.” In other words, we are wise to keep Jesus’ second coming in mind at all times.

Doing so will inform our decisions in life, and our character.

It defines our decisions because if we believe the end of all things is coming, we want to really think through each decision in light of the temporary nature of this life, and the permanent nature of the life to come.

It defines our character because when we believe that the Jesus who is coming again is not simply our Judge, but also our Savior and our Lord, we look forward to that day with joy.

We know we are loved, because the cross of Jesus proves his love. And so, flowing from gratitude, and filled with joy because of Jesus’ forgiveness and the gift of eternal life, we are drawn to become a little more like Jesus every day.

  • We live a little more alertly and a bit more expectantly, with a sober sense of life and self.
  • We love more deeply, knowing that love covers over all kinds of wrongs — our own wrongs, and the sins of others too.
  • Every talent we have is God’s gift. So we use the talents and gifts we’ve been given not to serve ourselves, but to serve others.
  • When we speak, we don’t express our own ideas and worldview. We express the ideas and worldview that God has taught us in the Bible.
  • When we serve, we know that it is God’s strength that keeps us going, growing and working.
  • We know full well that God deserves the glory and the praise for anything we are able to accomplish.

It’s Advent. Jesus is certainly coming. From our perspective, it may be sooner, or it may be later. But from God’s point of view, it’s very, very soon.

And knowing that changes everything.

“The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:7-11, NIV).

Lord, grant that I wait expectantly for your return every day. Forgive me for all the times when I have lost perspective and forgotten that you are coming soon. You have loved me and sacrificed your life so that I could be in heaven with you. Give me an eternal perspective to inform my every thought, decision and action in this life.

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, November 25, is Ezekiel 47:1 – 48:35, 1 Peter 4:1-19 and Psalm 133:1-3.

Header image based on "everything-i-am-for-your-kingdom-cause-1024" by jubileelewis, CC By 2.0

Cut Through the Clutter

“Most people don’t have that willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they talk like victims,” says Carlos Santana, pioneer musician, winner of multiple Grammy awards, and the person listed by Rolling Stone magazine as number 20 on its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

The author of the book of Hebrews understood this little “secret” about people too. We of the human race tend to have a self-defense mechanism that resembles the defense system of modern military aircraft. When a radar-guided missile is fired at it, it dispenses a cloud of chaff — small, thin pieces of aluminum or metallized glass fiber — in an attempt to distract the missile from its target.

In our case, the missile is guilt. When guilt threatens to strike us in a vulnerable place, a place that strikes close to home, we tend to dispense the chaff of our excuses. The reality is just as Santana said. It’s really a self-protective measure we use to stanch the hurt, and avoid having to break our bad habits.

We forget that God sees past all the excuses. He knows our hearts and our minds. He can see to the core of our being. With him, we have no secrets.

Praise God, he loves us enough that he has given us a tool to help us move beyond the excuses. He gave us his word, and it knifes through all the excuse-making and the blame-shifting. The word of God cuts through all the clutter and gets straight to the heart of the matter.

God knows and sees everything very clearly. With the help of his word, we can begin to see everything very clearly, too — even the motives of our own heart. And that will help us break our self-destructive bad habits, eliminate excuses, and put an end to the victim-mentality.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13, NIV).

Lord, help me to set aside all my excuses. I want to trade in all my excuses for the forgiveness of Jesus and true life-change. Keep me studying the Bible so that your word can cut through all the clutter and help me to break bad habits. I know your love and your mercy are the true power to change my heart and my life.

Our Bible reading for Monday, November 2, is Joel 2:18 – 3:21, Hebrews 4:1-13 and Psalm 119:145-152.

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Faith and Hustle

When my kids were younger they had a list of chores on the refrigerator. The list was something that Julie and I had put together for them so that they could learn to help out around the house, and develop a habit of taking responsibility for the overall good of the family.

Of course, the chores were not always beloved by our children. But they did develop good habits and were good about getting the chores done. Most times, they hustled and got them done pretty quickly, in fact.

But there were a few times when they just weren’t into the chores. So, they would drag their feet and not get started on completing the list. We would remind them, of course, but sometimes reminders weren’t enough to get the children moving.

Accountability breeds responsibility, so on our kids’ “less than energetic” days, Julie and I might have had to finally resort to threats of privileges being taken away. That was never the way we wanted it to be. Our goal was for them to be motivated from the inside (their own willingness and desire), not from the outside (us and our threats).

In Psalm 119, the poet talks, in a way, about God’s “chore list.” He calls them statutes or commands, God’s law. The author says that he has looked at himself, compared his actions with God’s law, and has turned things around so that his actions are aligned with God’s statutes and commands.

Something that stands out here is that he commits himself to a personal “zero-tolerance policy” for foot-dragging. He will obey God right away. He will find out what God wants and then hustle to get it done. And his motivation to do this clearly comes from within. This is what his heart is moving him to desire, and desire immediately.

Is there an area in your life right now that you find yourself dragging your feet when it comes to obeying God’s commands? Is it the right time for you to take a moment to consider your ways, and begin to more closely align to God’s will? Are you ready to commit to going about this in an expeditious manner, hastening to obey, and make the change immediately?

In other words, is now the time for some “hustle” in your relationship to God? When the love of Jesus truly touches our hearts, this is what our hearts will be motivated to desire — just as the Psalmist’s heart was.

“I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands” (Psalm 119:59-60, NIV).

Lord, help me to consider my ways and turn my steps to your statutes. Give me the inner desire to hustle and do this quickly, so that I may align my heart to yours right away.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, October 18, is Jeremiah 38:1 – 40:6, 1 Timothy 3:1-16 and Psalm 119:57-64.

Header image based on "Chores" by Roxanne Ready, CC By-SA 2.0

What God Works In, We Work Out

There’s an old saying that when you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, the first thing you should do is ask, “What’s it there for?”

In the case of Philippians 2:12, the “therefore” is pointing back to the previous section of Paul’s letter (Philippians 2:1-11), where he poetically describes the humility of Christ in going to the cross, and his subsequent exaltation to the right hand of God.

Paul coaches his Philippian friends: “Therefore,” since Jesus went to the wall for you to win your eternal salvation, now you go to the wall to take the gift of salvation you’ve been given and put it to work. Whatever you do, don’t let the gift just sit there and gather dust.

This gift of salvation is such a great and priceless gift that it should actually be put to use with fear and trembling. And how do we put it to use? It’s not complicated. It’s really quite strait-forward. Take Jesus’ words and actually practice them in your life.

In other words, really believe that what you believe is really real — and then obediently act on your faith:

  • Trust Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life — and find true peace in this
  • Trust that God’s commandments are the way to be attuned to God’s heart — and find joy in living according to them
  • Trust that putting the interests of God and others ahead of your own interests will bring you great blessing
  • Trust that this life is not all there is — God has an amazing inheritance in store for you in eternity
  • Trust that the Bible is God’s word, and therefore, your perfect guide to walking in step with the Holy Spirit

You won’t need to do any of this by your own willpower or energy. God will give you everything you need. He will provide you with the willpower, and he will give you the energy. To believe. And to obey.

Because whatever God demands, he also always graciously provides — just as God first graciously provided us with Jesus, the Savior we all need.

God first works in us by being gracious to us. And what God works in, we then work out by being obedient and faithful to him.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV).

Lord Jesus, you humbled yourself and became obedient to death to win forgiveness of sins and salvation for me. Lord, I want to express my gratitude by being faithful and obedient to you. Work in me to will and to act according to your good pleasure.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, October 1, is Jeremiah 2:31 – 4:9, Philippians 2:12-30 and Psalm 115:12-18.

Header image based on "Typography Gradient" by Tyler Neyens, CC By 2.0

Redefining Rituals

Rituals are nurturing practices that allow us to learn about God and be reminded of his most important attributes — his holiness, his love, his omnipotence, his mercy, his omniscience and his forgiveness.

Healthy worship rituals help us to meditate on God’s holy will expressed in the law. And they help us dwell again and again on God’s gracious promises expressed in the gospel. Rituals help us to form helpful habits that feed our faith, and do so on a consistent basis over the long haul.

All this is a good thing — a very good thing!

Yet, there is a danger inherent in rituals. If we’re not cautious about rituals, we can lose the substance of our faith in the midst of carrying out the ritual forms of our faith. Though it looks perfectly healthy and right on cursory examination from the outside, faith becomes an empty shell.

That’s what occurred with the Jews in the days of Isaiah. They were still faithfully carrying out the practices and rituals of their faith. But somewhere in the midst of carrying out their worship rituals, they had lost their love for God and their neighbor. The things most important to God were ignored, while the things most abhorrent to God were affirmed.

God — through Isaiah — suggested that his people needed to seriously evaluate themselves and redefine their rituals, such as fasting. The most important “fast” is not simply to give up eating. It’s to share our food with those who are hungry. It’s to provide travelers with shelter. It is to give clothes to those who lack clothing to wear. It is to bring justice and mercy to those who are oppressed and being treated unjustly.

Making this change was critically important to God. So as a special encouragement to the Jews to redefine their rituals, God also attached promises of grace to his command to do so. He tells the Jews that those who will redefine fasting in this way will see their influence grow. They will experience God’s protection and his blessing on their work. They will see their needs being met. He even promises that health and strength will be the hallmark of the people who “fast” in this new way.

Fast-forward to us, today, already living in a position of great influence, highly secure and protected, not to mention quite wealthy (certainly far beyond needs simply being met), with the best health and medical care in the world. That’s not to mention the even more important spiritual wealth that we possess. Jesus, God’s Son, has given us his righteousness, peace, faithful love, forgiveness, the power to experience a changed life, and the right to call ourselves the children of God with eternal life as our inherited destiny.

Every now and then it’s good for us, as well, to evaluate our hearts and examine our rituals. It’s a healthy exercise to reconsider and, if necessary, redefine. It’s important to make sure that we have not lost the substance of our gratitude and love for God, or buried our love for our neighbor somewhere beneath the ritual rubble that’s supposed to be nurturing our faith.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:6-11, NIV). 

Lord, I thank you for your many blessings. You have graciously provided all I need for my body and life, as well as for my heart and soul. Help me to notice the needs of others and willingly seek to serve and generously give to those who need my help and assistance. Help me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Strengthen me to love sacrificially, as you have first loved me.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, September 24, is Isaiah 57:14 – 59:21, Ephesians 3:1-21 and Psalm 111:1-10.

Header image based on "Charity in the dictionary" by Howard Lake, CC By-SA 2.0