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

Perfect Protection

God’s promises are like a powerful shield that guards us from the slings and arrows of life. Make no mistake, life will throw its best blows at us. But God’s promises are our perfect protection — whether from sin, the temptations of Satan, or even death itself.

God’s promises are our rest. We can lie in them when we feel exhausted.

God’s promises are our rescue. We can look to them when we feel lost.

God’s promises are our medicine. We can find healing in them when we feel broken.

God’s promises are our power. We can find strength in them when we feel weak.

God’s promises are our vindication. We can find justice in them when we feel wronged.

God’s promises are our guidance. We can find direction and purpose in them when we feel life has lost its meaning.

And the Israelites were all of these when they were exiled in Babylon. They were exhausted, lost, broken, weak, wronged and felt life had lost its meaning. So God sent Ezekiel to them to remind them of his promises.

According to Ezekiel, the Israelites would find everything their souls were missing in the promises of their gracious God.

And so will we!

“I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice” (Ezekiel 34:15-16, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, November 18, is Ezekiel 33:21 – 35:15, James 2:1-26 and Psalm 128:1-6.

Lord, your promises are wonderful. Help me to always remember how important and helpful they are. They are my perfect protection. I want to look to your promises for everything my soul needs in life.

Header image based on "Museum of London - London before London - Bronze shield" by Elliott Brown, CC By 2.0

Faith-Filled Self Talk

When we’re under pressure, we have to monitor our self-talk. Because the difficulties and challenges we face may well turn our minds onto a negative track. That’s why the apostle Paul wrote, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV).

If we fail to take our thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, we’ll find ourselves coping with pressure by blaming others, or getting frustrated and flying off the handle, or putting ourselves down. Thanks to our sinful nature, negativity takes over and we begin to take our pessimistic point of view as reality.

The Hebrew Christians were under a lot of pressure. They were being persecuted from two different sides — the Romans and the Jews. Their friends were leaving Christianity. Their property and possessions were on the line — as were their businesses and employment. Their personal freedom was no longer a given. Their very lives were in danger.

Samuel Johnson once said, “It is more necessary to be reminded than it is to be instructed.” Long before Samuel Johnson, the author of the book of Hebrews seems to intuitively understand this, and he reminds the Hebrew Christians what their self-talk should sound like.

These are the things that we still need to remind ourselves of. And we need to do this frequently. Inside our own minds, we have to make sure that we say true things to ourselves — that we say faith-filled things to ourselves — things that are based fully on God’s gracious words and promises.

What are the things I can tell myself when I’m under pressure? Take a look:

  • The Lord is my helper, so I can put aside anxiety and be fearless.
  • Because the Lord is my strength, and death is already defeated, mere mortals can not really damage me.
  • God has give me leaders here on earth who can coach me and mentor me. In other words, I have allies. I need to remember them. If they’re still around, I can find them and learn more from them. And I need to imitate their successful way of life.
  • Jesus doesn’t change. That means his love for me doesn’t change. His promises don’t change. His forgiveness doesn’t change. His patience doesn’t change. His offer of strength and hope doesn’t change. His gift of eternal life doesn’t change.
  • Jesus doesn’t change, so that also means his teaching doesn’t change. What he taught people in Bible times still applies to my life today. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise or tries to introduce strange new teachings.
  • There is nothing better than God’s grace. That grace is mine. Truly mine. And that is a good thing for straightening and strengthening my heart.

“So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’ Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace” (Hebrews 13:6-9a, NIV).

Lord Jesus, help me to speak faith-filled words to myself. I am sorry when pressures in my life cause me to respond sinfully and with negativity, rather than with faith and hope. Forgive me. And remind me of your words and promises, so that I can remind myself of those same words and promises. I want to take every thought captive and make it obedient to you.

Our Bible reading for Monday, November 16, is Ezekiel 30:1 – 31:18, Hebrews 13:1-25 and Proverbs 27:23 – 28:6.

Header image based on "Portrait of a young business woman at office" by Anton Petukhov, CC By 2.0

The Big “Why” for Practicing Forgiveness

It is tough to live with people whose nature is to bully, abuse, oppress and torment. To live at peace with such people is nearly impossible. Because if this is their nature, they don’t — and they won’t — be sorry for their ill behavior, or try to change.

How do you forgive such people? How do you move past it?

Intriguingly, the people to whom the book of Hebrews was written were under persecution. And likely, this was not just occurring from one group of people, but from two groups of people — both the Jews and the Romans. Socially, the Hebrew Christians were becoming outcasts. And physically, they stood to lose their income, possessions, property and even their lives.

Sadly, many of their brothers and sisters in Christ were leaving the church because that seemed the only way to avoid persecution. So imagine facing stiff opposition while simultaneously feeling like your closest friends and allies were deserting you. It would feel like an act of betrayal.

Yet, the author still tells the believers, “Don’t allow all the bullying and the abuse get to you. They may oppress and, at times, even torment you. And don’t allow your brothers’ and sisters’ betrayal suck the life out of you either.

Whatever steps are necessary to avoid holding a grudge, you should take those steps. Don’t allow your anger to become bitterness. Because bitterness inevitably leads to jealousy, dissension, and even immorality.”

Wow. Talk about a tall order! But the author wasn’t done yet. He pushes the bar still higher: “Be at peace with everyone — including your tormenters. And even when they don’t act right, you still must. You are set apart, and you must show that you are set apart, even when all around you are being unholy.”

But the most important thing is not the “wow!” It’s the “why?”

The author is here to remind us of the why. We are here, he says, to insure that everyone — even our enemy — knows about the grace of God. We are here to help others understand how generous, how forgiving, how merciful our Savior Jesus is. Bitterness and unholiness will only hinder and prevent us from sharing God’s love in Christ — and that just can’t happen!

Peace, forgiveness, holiness and sharing the beautiful message of the gospel is the way to make sure no one falls short of the grace of God.

“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV).

Lord, help me to have a forgiving heart, as you have a forgiving heart toward me. By your Spirit’s power, rid my heart of bitterness and fill my heart with holiness. Have mercy on me when I fall short. I want to help others know of your grace.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, November 15, is Ezekiel 28:1 – 29:21, Hebrews 12:14-29 and Psalm 126:1-6.

Header image based on "Why?" by BuzzFarmers, CC By 2.0

Popular But Obsolete and Outdated

Have you noticed how quickly things become obsolete of late? Consider some of the items that became obsolete just in the past decade, for instance.

Remember Palm Pilots? How about dial-up connections to the internet? Or Kodachrome film and getting your photos developed at the local drugstore?

Then there’s Blockbuster and Hollywood video stores, maps that were actually printed on paper and landlines physically connected to the wall. Oh, and don’t forget fax machines, VCR’s and public pay phones.

Yeah. Those are all pretty much a thing of the past. And frankly most of them didn’t have that long of a life span. Interestingly, the book of Hebrews reminds us of another thing that has gone the way of Kodachrome, Blockbuster and Bell Telephone.

What’s been made obsolete is the covenant that says that our relationship with God is based on the law, on our obedience, and on our faithfulness in keeping the traditions and customs of the Old Testament. The book of Hebrews says that this way of approaching God is now a dead letter. It’s archaic and outdated. And really, the author points out, it never worked in the first place.

Yet, any honest assessment would say that this is still the most popular way of building a relationship with God. Be a religious person and you will win God’s confidence and love, or so goes the prevailing opinion.

But, there’s a new and better way, the author of Hebrews tells us, a “next-generation” way through which God builds a relationship with us. It’s through the gospel, not through the law. It’s through Christ’s obedience, not ours. It’s seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament traditions and customs.

This new way is to simply look in faith and trust to Jesus Christ as our perfect Savior and Substitute. Then God will be our God, and we will be his people. Jesus will send us the Holy Spirit through word and sacraments, and he will personally teach us to know the Lord. He will write God’s law on our hearts, so that we obey not because we have too, but because we get to, knowing deep down that obedience is simply aligning ourselves with God’s heart and God’s design for our world.

And when our hands or feet, our words or our ideas, lead us into sin, we will be forgiven of our wickedness. Our sins will be forgotten and put into the past along with the old covenant.

Out with the obsolete, outdated and popular way of trying to worm our way into God’s heart by our righteousness. In with the new way — of God working his way into our hearts by his righteousness, his sacrifice, and his grace.

“But God found fault with the people and said: ‘The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:8-13, NIV).

Lord, help me to move away from trying to earn my place in your heart and move toward your grace, mercy and forgiveness, all of which assure me that my place in your heart has already been earned and won by Jesus. Help me by your Spirit’s power to turn my back on the righteousness that comes by works, and learn that I am accepted only through the righteousness that comes by faith.

Our Bible reading for Saturday, November 7, is Ezekiel 13:1 – 15:8, Hebrews 8:1-13 and Psalm 120:1-7.

Header image based on "Blockbuster store closing sale" by Consumerist Dot Com, CC By 2.0

Grab and Go!

Answer this one question: Who is Jesus, really?

According to the author of the book of Hebrews, he is…

  1. God’s Son
  2. Our great high priest, who represents us before the Father
  3. Our ascended Lord, who from his powerful seat at God’s right hand rules the entire universe for the church’s benefit
  4. Our empathetic Savior, who understands us perfectly because he subjected himself to every temptation we face in our daily lives
  5. Our sinless Substitute, who offers his perfection so that we might claim it as our own righteousness, and be made acceptable in the eyes of a holy God

Since this is who Jesus is, we should let no person and no event diminish our faith in him. Our faith is rightly placed when it is placed on Jesus Christ. By faith, we should fiercely cling to Jesus — like a person being lowered over the edge of a cliff by Bear Grylls clings hold of the climbing rope.

Grab hold tightly. Have no plan to loosen your grip.

And then?

We go freely to God. We approach him with confidence, as a child approaches their loving parent or grandparent. We go to him with boldness. We’re not held back by guilt or shame. We’re not worried that we’re not enough. We don’t turn and run because we’re frightened by his holiness. And we’re not angry and frustrated because we can never seem to measure up.

Jesus has that all covered for us.

So, we go to God in full freedom and with absolute confidence. And we find mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

Simple. Grab Jesus and go.

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV).

Lord Jesus, help me by your Spirit’s power to grab hold tightly of you. And then, confident of your grace and mercy, guide me to go to the Father’s throne in prayer and make my requests with boldness and confidence.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, November 3, is Ezekiel 1:1 – 3:27, Hebrews 4:14 – 5:10 and Psalm 119:153-160.

Header image based on "Hebrews 4 16" by New Life Church Collingwood, CC By 2.0

Rend Your Heart

It’s the most unnatural thing in the world. “It” is saying we’re sorry for something wrong we’ve done.

There are so many other “better” approaches to wrongdoing — to sin. Or so it seems to us.

There’s denial. “I didn’t do it.” Or, “I didn’t know that it was wrong.” Or, “I didn’t understand what I was doing.”

There’s cover-up. Pointing the finger. Comparing yourself to someone who’s done something “much worse.”

For many of us, confession is not good for the soul. Guilt and shame don’t even make sense. Why should we pummel ourselves? Won’t that just bring us down? Isn’t it just unnecessary negativity? Won’t it destroy my self-esteem and self-confidence?

The Bible contends for another path to understanding our worth. The real way to self-esteem and self-worth is via a healthy relationship with God. And how does a relationship with God become healthy?

One word. Forgiveness.

Are you ready to recognize your need for forgiveness? In the time of Joel the prophet, that was the appeal he made to the children of Israel. Return to God. Recognize that your loving God has only created his laws to bless and protect you. He wants to see you thrive.

Be broken over your sins. They are going to wreck you if you stay on your current path. So, instead, recognize your wrong-doing, and take your guilt and shame to God so that he can forgive you. Simply turn back to your compassionate God and to his ways.

“Rend your heart,” as Joel puts it.

He is kind and merciful. You don’t need to earn his love. He loves you even though you are sinful. And he will always be patient with you. No one wants your relationship to be restored more than he does.

After all, he gave his one and only Son to make that restoration and reconciliation possible. The cross equals certain forgiveness for hurting sinners.

“‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity'” (Joel 2:12-13, NIV).

Lord, I am sinful. I have wronged you and I have sinned against my neighbor too. I have transgressed your laws in my thoughts, my words, and my actions. Please forgive me. I want to return to you. I long for your grace and compassion. I know that true peace is found in your sure love for me, a sinner.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, November 1, is Joel 1:1 – 2:17, Hebrews 3:1-19 and Psalm 119:137-144.

Header image based on "Red Heart" by Brandon Zierer, CC By 2.0