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

Uniquely You

In today’s world, there’s a huge interest in having a unique identity. And our culture’s answer to discovering our identity, and being able to see ourselves as unique and special, is described beautifully in the song “Let it Go.”

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!

In other words to discover our true, unique self is to push the boundaries and declare ourselves free from restrictions. It is to pursue freedom without limits.

Interestingly, the Bible also makes the point that each of us possesses a unique identity. It addresses our yearning to be special, and especially loved. But how that identity is established, how our individual uniqueness and giftedness is to be understood is based on something completely different.

The book of Psalms reveals that we were unique from the word go. God himself presided over our DNA at conception, and subsequent creation in our mother’s womb. He carefully knit each of us together, paying attention to crafting our personalities, gifts, abilities and attributes down to the finest detail.

God’s works are wonderful. And that means you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

More importantly, by the blood of Jesus Christ, you were fearfully and wonderfully redeemed and remade into the image of God’s Son. By grace, you have a solid, secure identity as a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ. And now, your unique gifts serve to benefit God’s kingdom and bring glory to God.

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:13-16, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Monday, December 7, is Zechariah 1:1 – 4:14, 3 John 1:1-14, and Psalm 139:11-16.

Lord, thank you for your one of a kind love. That love has knit me together into a one of a kind person. Because of how you created me, and how you redeemed me through your Son, Jesus, I can know that I am a truly unique person. My identity is secure. The pressure is off to show how special I am. I can simply be the me you created me to be. What grace you show me!

Header image based on "Stand Out From the Crowd" by Steven DePolo, 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

Transparent Waiting

Transparency of heart is when the thoughts and feelings of our heart are apparent to all who watch us in action. For the follower of Jesus Christ, one of the marks of a transparent heart is a deep desire to do the will of God — to live a holy and godly life. It is not self-centeredness, but “Christ-centeredness.”

In the apostle Peter’s day, those who wanted to live a self-centered life would scoff at the idea that we are waiting for Christ, our King, to return. They wanted to live their selfish lives as if there was no King, no Judge and no day of judgment.

Sadly, their selfish way of life was deceiving some of Peter’s listeners. So Peter is forced to reaffirm that Christ is not going to be a “no-show.” His return is timed perfectly to match God’s patience. And God is patient because he wants as many people as possible to repent and be saved.

We don’t know what that timing is. But come he will. Swiftly and unexpectedly. And on that day, everything around us will be destroyed. Our entire material world will be laid bare.

As we wait for our King’s return, we are to live as people who know that the King is alive. We know this because we daily witness the living King’s work in our own hearts. Being transparent people, our actions allow people to see through to our hearts. And to see Jesus living in our hearts.

Meanwhile, we look forward to the glorious return of our King. And we wait for it expectantly — we speed its coming, as Peter says — when we live holy and godly lives. Living with a transparent heart is, in other words, the very best preparation for the return of our King.

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:9-12a, NIV).

Jesus, my King, as I wait for your return, help me to live transparently, with holiness and godliness. Forgive me for the times when my sinful heart takes over. Wash me clean again in your blood, shed on the cross for me. I want to give you glory every day as I anticipate your coming.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, November 29, is Daniel 4:19 – 5:16, 2 Peter 3:1-18 and Psalm 135:13-21.

Header image based on "Greta Oto (wings open)" by Alias 0591, 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

The Way Up Is Down

The way God works is sometimes counterintuitive. This happens in so many areas of our life. With God, for instance, we don’t find happiness by pursuing happiness. We find it by pursuing God. We don’t discover our true selves by looking to ourselves and following our own path. We discover our true selves by looking to Jesus and following his path.

And it works that way with moving upward in life. Most of us hope to see some kind of progress in our life. So we try to climb the corporate ladder. Or we try to move the needle on our saving accounts upward. Or we take the extended trip to discover ourselves. All of that, we hope, will tell a story of us moving on up.

We try to go up by going up. Seems natural.

But this too, with God, requires a counter-intuitive approach. God’s grace is the operating principle of the Christian’s life. That is, God’s undeserved love and favor on our lives is what makes our life truly move in a positive direction.

Earning God’s grace and favor is not possible. But we certainly can ward off that grace and favor. We do that with a prideful heart. By definition, grace requires a person to know that he doesn’t deserve it, to realize that he has not earned it. Pride says, “I did this. I have earned the credit for achieving and accomplishing this result.”

The two attitudes cannot coexist.

Which is why James says we are to humble ourselves before God, and submit ourselves to his will. Shout a loud “No!” to Satan, and a quiet but firm “Yes!” to God.

That may mean hitting rock bottom. It may mean pain, grieving, and getting really, really tired of where our rebellious streak is leading us. It may mean a period of time in our lives that is dark and gloomy and depressing. The fun and games are over. Hitting rock bottom hurts because rock bottom is hard.

But it also humbles us enough that we become willing to cry out, confess our sin, grieve over the hurt we have caused ourselves and our God, and finally — finally! — stop trying to lift ourselves up and make our own progress.

Because lifting us up is God’s job. And he promises to get his job done.

“But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

‘God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.’

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:6-10, NIV).

Father, humble me so that you can lift me up.

Our Bible reading for Friday, November 20, is Ezekiel 38:1 – 39:29, James 4:1-7 and Proverbs 28:7-17.

Header image based on "Morning Workout" by Dawn, 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