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

Who Is Your Go-To?

Do you have a “go to” person in your life — someone you can share your hurts and troubles with? Or maybe it’s a “go to” place where you’re certain you’ll be safe and protected?

Philip Philips has a song titled, “Gone, Gone, Gone.” In the song, there are some lines that go like this,

You’re my backbone.
You’re my cornerstone.
You’re my crutch when my legs stop moving.
You’re my head start.
You’re my rugged heart.
You’re the pulse that I’ve always needed.

In a time of uncertainty, we need something reliable to keep us going. In a time of powerlessness, we need to know that there is a source of power that we can access. In a time of loneliness, we need to know there is someone who loves us. In a time of danger, we need to know there is a shield that can protect us from harm.

Who better than the One who came down from heaven, who though truly divine, became fully human? Who better than He who has power over the wind and the waves? Who better than the Creator of the heavens and the earth? Who better than the Speaker of prophecies and promises?

Surely you know who I’m talking about. We have God the Father. And his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The living Word. He is our shield from harm.

This is why the book of Proverbs teaches us that the “fear of God” is the beginning of wisdom. When we respect God, when we trust his love and power, when we listen to his word as absolutely flawless, we have certainty in uncertain times, power in our powerlessness, a friend in our loneliness and a shield in times of danger.

He is our backbone, our cornerstone, our crutch, our head start, our rugged heart. Our very pulse.

“Who has gone up to heaven and come down?
    Whose hands have gathered up the wind?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak?
    Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is the name of his son?
    Surely you know!

‘Every word of God is flawless;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him'” (Proverbs 30:4-5, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, December 10, is Zechariah 12:1 – 14:21, Revelation 2:1-17 and Proverbs 30:1-10.

Lord God, thank you for being my certainty, my power, my friend, and my shield. When times are troubled and difficult, you are my “go to” and my refuge. Help me to always seek to be in you when my heart is hurting and weak. Your word is flawless, and your promises are my courage. You, Jesus, are my shield and refuge.

Header image based on "Kinard Beach today" by Barbara Walsh, CC By 2.0

The Strongest Link

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The well-known saying goes all the way back to the early days of our country’s history. In the year 1786, a gentleman by the name of Thomas Reid wrote, “In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest” (Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man).

So, the proverbial saying clearly has a long and illustrious history. And it’s hard to deny that it’s clearly true in the case of a literal chain. Nevertheless, in at least one case, the chain is really as strong as its strongest link.

The apostle John points out that our relationship with God the Father is linked to our relationship with Jesus. Jesus is the strong link in our relationship with him. A strong relationship to Jesus will always mean a strong relationship to our heavenly Father. And our possession of our eternal reward in heaven is linked to our restored relationship to the Father.

This is why John tells us to be very careful to guard and protect our faith in Jesus. If we lose Christ, we lose the Father. If we lose the Father, we lose our reward.

How do we maintain a strong relationship with Christ? How do keep our faith in him strong? John says, continue in the teaching of Christ. The more frequently we are reminded of the gospel, the stronger our faith will become. Grace, mercy, forgiveness, the cross, the empty tomb are our tie to Jesus. And his to us.

So the chain looks like this.

Me – the gospel – JESUS – God the Father – our heavenly reward.

What a chain that is! Step back for just a moment, and rejoice that with Jesus as the strong link in the middle, you stand at one end, and heaven stands at the other.

Pretty cool!

“Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (‭‭2 John‬ ‭1:8-9‬, NIV‬‬).

Jesus, thank you for being the strong link in the chain that will one day bring me into eternal life in heaven. Because of you, I know that my sins are forgiven, and the barrier of anger between the Father and me has been broken down. Thank you for your grace and mercy. Thank you for all the blessings you give me every day.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, December 6, is Haggai 1:1 – 2:23, 2 John 1-13 and Proverbs 29:19-27.

Header image based on "chained" by Trevor Leyenhorst, CC By 2.0

The Real Law of Attraction

How do we, as Christians, prove that God — and his love — are real? A lot of times Christians answer that question through apologetics, which uses logical arguments in support of the Christian faith. The idea is to uphold and defend Christianity against objections through the use of reason.

Peter takes another tack. He indicates that the very best Christian apologetic is to live in love ourselves. That includes a willingness to be misunderstood and mistreated without retaliating in kind. In that way, we don’t worry so much about persuading others via the brilliance of our arguments. Instead, we woo people through the “genius” of our love and gentleness.

Don’t simply, in other words, tell people what Jesus said. Not that this is at all bad. The gospel is the key power to change hearts and minds. Hearts and minds will not change without it. Peter has already made this point: For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23, NIV).

So by all means, preach the gospel. Tell people what Jesus said. But also, Peter says, live what Jesus said. Live as Jesus did. And this act of worship will show others how much you really revere Christ in your heart as Lord.

This one-two punch — preach Jesus, and “be” Jesus — will far exceed any defensive arguments that we might be able to advance to try and prove the reality of our Savior-God and his love. It’s the real law of attraction. Attraction to Jesus, that is.

What Peter says here is no different from what Paul wrote to the Corinthians when he told them, If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians, 13:1, NIV).

“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing… But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:8-9, 15-17, NIV).

Lord, I know that you are real. You have proven that to me through your love for me expressed in the gospel. Help me to “prove” you and your love to others through teaching the gospel, and also through loving others the way you have first loved me. Give me strength not to repay evil for evil or insult for insult, but rather with blessing. By your Spirit, help me to revere you, Jesus, as Lord, and treat others with gentleness and respect.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, November 24, is Ezekiel 45:1 – 46:24, 1 Peter 3:1-22 and Proverbs 28:18-28.

Header image based on "HCD Apologetics" by Ryan Holloway, CC By 2.0

Heart of Stone

“The embarrassment and the disgrace are too much to bear. What I did, what I said, what I thought and felt was just wrong. I’m disgusted with myself. I feel so ashamed and so dirty.

How did my heart ever get so hardened? Will my conscience ever again feel clear? Can my soul ever be cleansed?”

When we have fallen in a big, public way, and the ugliness and uncleanness of our horribly wrong choices are out there for everyone to see, we may feel as if we will never recover. Things will never be the same for us again.

In the process much more than our reputation may have gotten demolished. Perhaps our rebellion against the will of God has also destroyed our relationships, our home, our health, our savings, or even our faith.

Such was the case with the Old Testament people of God. After centuries of idolatry, selfishness, and greed — with few, feeble attempts to turn things around and repent — God had finally scattered his people to the nations as a discipline for their sins.

But God’s love for sinners would not allow him to leave it at that. God’s love for us will not allow him to live it at that, either. He has a way of taking our stone-cold hearts and turning them into warm hearts — beating once again with spiritual life.

Through the gospel he calls us and gathers us back to himself. Through baptism he cleanses us. Through faith in Jesus Christ he softens our hard hearts and restores our sin-shattered minds.

He gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament. The Spirit motivates us through the message of Jesus’ love and forgiveness to return to God and willingly follow his laws.

And the end of all that grace, mercy and forgiveness is the gift of citizenship in heaven. We’ll be God’s people. God will be our God — and we’ll never be separated again!

Yes, maybe we’ve tumbled far and fallen hard. But by God’s grace, we will recover. In his forgiveness, we rise again.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness” (Ezekiel 36:24-29a, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, November 19, is Ezekiel 36:1 – 37:28, James 3:1-18 and Psalm 129:1-8.

Lord, thank you for your immense love and forgiveness. You have cleansed me from all my sins. By your blood you purified me of all transgression. By your Spirit you changed my heart and inspired me to follow your ways. Grant me the hope and peace of eternal life.

Header image based on "Ezekiel 11-19" by New Life Church Collingwood, 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.

Header image based on "20050904151031-0" by Cesar Rincon, 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.

Header image based on "050810-F-9032T-010" by poter.simon, CC By 2.0