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

Grow Up, Grow Strong

Remember when you were young and just beginning to learn to paint? You probably didn’t even receive a paintbrush back in those days. Finger painting was your medium.

Perhaps you discovered a love for art, and graduated later to water color brushes and paint-by-numbers. Eventually, you learned and grew to using different kinds of media — pencil drawings, chalk, oil paintings, and perhaps you even went 3-D, into the medium of sculpture.

“Keep on learning and growing.” That’s good in the art world. And it’s exceptionally good in the spiritual realm.

That phrase represents one of CrossWalk Church’s key values. We believe that church was designed by God to be a learning organization filled with people who want to be life-long learners.

Christ-followers are never satisfied with the knowledge they have today. We are on a continual quest for deeper and deeper knowledge. We possess a constant thirst for training that leads to us becoming more solid, steady and secure in Jesus.

The author of the book of Hebrews voices this value as important for the church of the first century. He wants his listeners to grow up and move forward into a mature faith. He wants them to become fully-developed followers of Jesus Christ.

And while the basics of our doctrine will always remain necessary and important, he says, it’s time we move into deeper teachings. We must study the whole word and will of God and familiarize ourselves with the entirety of God’s revelation found in the Bible.

Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear that maturity is not a “classroom only” type of experience. What we listen to, we are to believe, and in faith, learn to obey. What we receive from the word, we must act on and put into practice in our lives.

Anything less will not lead to maturity. Anything less will lead to us being weak, vulnerable and susceptible to spiritual attack.

Listen to God’s word — all of it — and put it into practice — all of it. Then we will be taken forward by the Holy Spirit to maturity.

God permitting, we keep on learning and growing for a lifetime, and become stronger every day.

“Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so” (Hebrews 6:1-3, NIV).

Lord Jesus, through your word and sacraments send me your Holy Spirit so that by his power I may keep on learning and growing.

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, November 4, is Ezekiel 4:1 – 6:14, Hebrews 5:11 – 6:12 and Proverbs 26:23 – 27:4.

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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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Light for Your Path

It’s one thing to fear physical darkness and things that go bump in the night. Every year, at the end of October, we get our fill of movies and TV programs that feed off of those kinds of fears.

It’s another thing entirely to endure emotional darkness. Emotional darkness takes many forms, and none of them are the least bit pleasant. Confusion, depression, feelings of deep shame and guilt, fears of being exposed as a fraud, obsessions and compulsions that we feel powerless to overcome — all of these can lead to feelings of deep darkness.

But the worst kind of darkness is spiritual darkness. Because it’s a deceptive, stealthy kind of darkness — a deep shroud of darkness we may not initially recognize as darkness. In fact, many who walk in spiritual darkness are absolutely convinced that they’re walking in the brightest of light. But sadly, it’s the complete opposite. It’s the very deepest kind of darkness.

Paul, the apostle, talks about those trapped in spiritual darkness as he writes to Titus. He says, In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:15b-16).

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

By the grace of God, we have been given a light that can drive out the deepest spiritual darkness. It can flood our hearts with light. It can shine a spotlight on our footsteps, and show us the path to God.

God’s word is that light. And you can pick up that light as easily as picking up your Bible. It probably doesn’t even weigh as much as that flashlight you keep in your kitchen drawer. But spiritually, it has megawatt power and great luminous intensity!

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105, NIV).

Lord Jesus, I thank you for your word. And I thank you that your word points me to you, my Savior and my Lord. May the Bible always shed the light of your grace into my heart, guide my footsteps, and light my path until I am at your side eternally.

Our Bible reading for Monday, October 26, is Jeremiah 52:1-34, Titus 1:1-16 and Psalm 119:105-112.

Header image based on "Lighting the way" by Stephen Bowler, CC By 2.0

Letters from Home

Augustine of Hippo (350-430 AD), one of the early Church Fathers, and a deeply respected theologian and philosopher, once said about the Bible, “The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.”

If you’ve ever lived far from home, you know the power of that statement. When you are on the other side of the country (or the other side of the world) and you get a letter from home — you treasure every word. You pore over it again and again. Those words reconnect you with your loved ones.

Paul encourages young pastor Timothy to treasure every word of the Bible like a letter from home. In the previous verses, he has just reminded Timothy that he lives in a world that is not friendly territory for the Christ-follower. He says, “There will be terrible times in the last days… in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:1, 12, NIV).

But as Timothy lives like a stranger in a strange and hostile land, he can stay connected to his Father through these letters from home. Timothy had grown up in the scriptures. They were familiar territory to him. And this was not the time to abandon them. Rather, he should double-down on them.

Paul explains why. The Bible is useful. And the Bible is inspired. If Timothy wants to be wise and ready for eternal salvation, he simply needs to keep on studying the Bible. If Timothy wants to know the things that will make him wise for life right here, right now, he can read the Bible and meditate on it.

There’s nothing like the Bible to show us the truth, and keep us safe from self-deception, the world’s myths, and the devil’s lies.

There’s nothing like the written word of God for exposing our personal rebellion against God, for correcting our mistakes, or for training us to live God’s way.

Better yet, there’s nothing like the gospel to point out Jesus’ love for rebellious sinners, Jesus’ willingness to pay the price for our mistakes, or Jesus’ self-sacrificial kindness in taking our place and living God’s way on our behalf.

These letters from home remind us where we came from and whose we are. And they show us how to get home again from this strange, hostile land we now live in.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-17, NIV).

Lord, help me to continue in what I have learned from you in the Bible. Help me to stay convinced by your Spirit’s power that Jesus is my Lord and my Savior. Help me to place full confidence in your word, and to know that it is truly useful to me.

Our Bible reading for Saturday, October 24, is Jeremiah 50:11 – 51:14, 2 Timothy 3:1-17 and Psalm 119:89-96.

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Diligence and Vigilance. Doctrine and Life.

God loves to see us progress in our faith. And that’s what Paul tells his young protege Timothy. As you grow, he says to Timothy, let everyone notice your progress.

Diligence and vigilance are the key ideals Paul employs when he urges Timothy to make progress in his faith. Once we become believers, it can be easy to coast. We can be lulled into being satisfied with the minimum. And we can drop our guard — forgetting that the devil is out there prowling around like a roaring lion.

For Timothy, as a leader in the church, diligence and vigilance were doubly important. Because he was setting an example for others. As he “gave himself wholly” to his ministry and to his own faith, his followers would take note. As he kept a close eye on his way of life and his doctrine, he would help not just himself, but also his hearers.

Notice here, that Paul mentions both doctrine and life. Not doctrine or life. Doctrine and life. Both are critical for Timothy to have a healthy life of faith that sets the tone for those whom he is teaching.

This is good for us to remember too. When we are diligent about our faith, when we watch to see that our teaching conforms to the Bible, when we live according to God’s commandments, we show our progress and we help others make progress as well. And when we persevere and keep on doing this, people notice our habits.

Lots of “ands” here. Diligence and vigilance. Doctrine and life. Perseverance in these helps us make progress in our faith. And it helps others make progress in their faith, too.

“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:15-16, NIV).

Lord, help me to stay diligent and vigilant. I know that it is impossible for me to do this on my own. So strengthen me to keep close watch on both my doctrine and my life, so that I may progress in my faith, and help others progress in their faith as well.

Our Bible reading for Monday, October 19, is Jeremiah 40:7 – 42:22, 1 Timothy 4:1-16 and Proverbs 25:11-20.

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Vital Signs

When we are concerned about a person’s physical life, we check their vitals. Do they have a pulse? Can we detect breathing? Do their pupils contract when a light is shined in their eyes?

When we are wondering about a person’s spiritual life, we can look for vital signs, too. Do their eyes light up with the joy of their Savior? Does their prayer life have a pulse? Do they constantly breathe out complaints and curses, or gratitude and hope?

When the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, he lights a fire in our hearts. Fire will always produce heat and light. Faith, like fire, will always produce its effects, too.

Just like you can’t have fire without heat and light, so you can’t have faith without producing the effects of faith — effects like joy, prayer, and gratitude.

That’s why Paul encourages the Thessalonians not to put out the Spirit’s fire. Without the fire, you don’t get the effects of the fire. And without faith, you also don’t get the effects of the faith.

Life. Fire. Faith.

They all work the same way. Snuff them out, and you also snuff out the effects they produce. But keep them going strong and healthy, and you will always get vital signs that reflect that strength and health.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ’s Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19, NIV).

Lord, I know that when I sin and fail to repent, or when I lose touch with your word and sacraments, I move closer to quenching your Spirit. Help me to live a life of devotion to word and sacrament, and to repent of my sins daily. These will keep my faith strong and healthy, and bring me joy, gratitude, and an active prayer life.

Our Bible reading for Monday, October 12, is Jeremiah 25:15 – 26:24, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-28 and Psalm 119:17-24.

Header image based on "Lubbock Heart Hospital, Dec 16-17, 2005" by Mark, CC By-SA 2.0