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

“Return on Investment?” or “Stop the Bleeding!”

Have you ever bought a car that had one mechanical issue after another? Do you recall what you called that car after a while?

Yes. A lemon.

But lemons come in more shapes and sizes than just cars. A house with one structural issue after another can be a lemon; so can an appliance that forces you to constantly call the repair person. An investment in what seemed like a sure bet can be a lemon, too. Ever own stock in Blockbuster, MySpace or Eastman Kodak?

Typically with a lemon, you stop talking about a return on investment and start talking about how to stop the bleeding.

Paul wanted the Romans to become aware of a huge spiritual “lemon.” But this is actually far worse than a lemon. He calls it an actual hazard — a tremendous hazard to life and limb, an eternal threat to body and soul.

It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

What is it? It’s buying in to the “pleasures of sin.” Paul says that those pleasures are very short-lived, and always lead to a very, very bad outcome.

“Buy in to what sin is selling,” he warns. “and ultimately, you’ll become a slave to sin — every last time.”

That sounds pretty “lemonish” to me. But then Paul says even more. Sin can only result in shame and far, far worse, it will lead to eternal death! This is one lemon that will never become lemonade!

Compare that with the return one gets — and all completely a gift! — when one follows Jesus by faith. The result of that, Paul states, is wonderful. It’s holiness, and ultimately, life eternal!

“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:21-23, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, July 21, is Hosea 3:1 – 5:15, Romans 6:15 – 7:6 and Psalm 88:1-9a.

Lord, send me your Spirit through your Word (through the words like these we read in today’s Bible reading) and empower me to “stop the bleeding.” Help me through a repentant heart to turn my back on the short-lived pleasures of sin that lead to death. Jesus, push sin aside in my heart, and take my heart over. Sin can only destroy me forever. I want the gifts you have for me, not the self-destruction and torment that sin always ultimately offers. Forgive me for my sins, and grant me your forgiveness and mercy. Grant me holiness and life.

Header image based on "Puzzle" by Erich Ferdinand, CC By 2.0

Love-Hate Relationship

It’s a love-hate relationship. By which I mean I love it way too much. I need to hate it more. And the “it” I’m referring to is life in this world.

There’s an old proverb that tells about a monkey who reaches into a tree trunk for some acorns that have been collected by a squirrel. But a problem develops, and what seems like treasure ends up becoming a trap.

The problem is this. As long as the monkey holds on to the acorns, he cannot extricate his fist from the hole in the tree. The tiny knot in the tree is only large enough for the hand to come out if the monkey flattens his hand. Of course, he doesn’t want to do that, because that means losing the treasured acorns.

In the end, sadly, the greedy monkey dies of his unwillingness to let go of the acorns.

Sometimes people are like that. We are so busy collecting and holding on to the things of this life, so consumed with all the little opportunities this life seems to offer, and so unwilling to give any of these up, that we lose something far greater — our eternal life.

Because of his great love for us, Jesus did it differently. Jesus willingly uncurled his hand and gave up his life here so that he could redeem all mankind. He unselfishly sacrificed everything he could have had as an earthly king so that he could provide an eternal kingdom for each of us.

Jesus urges us to follow him in this. He warns us of the danger of holding too tightly to the things of this life. He points out that this is the way to lose everything. If we will simply open our hand and let go of the things of this life, Jesus promises, we will keep our life for eternity.

Though he certainly could have, Jesus doesn’t ask us to do what he is unwilling to do. He did first for us what he asks now of us.

It’s pretty simple, the way Jesus puts it: Follow me, and you will end up being with me.

And there, with Jesus, you will forever enjoy the honor of God the Father.

“Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:25-26, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, May 21, is 1 Samuel 8:1 – 10:8, John 12:12-36 and Psalm 65:1-13.

Lord Jesus, thank you for willingly sacrificing your life here, so that you could win life eternal for me. Help me to willingly “hate” my life in this world, so that I may keep it for eternal life. Help me to follow you, so that I may be with you, enjoying the glory of the Heavenly Father for eternity.

Header image based on "LoveHate" by Adam McGhee, CC By 2.0

When Life Truly Begins

Sometimes it feels like we’re in a holding pattern, just waiting for life to get started.

Life will begin when we finally get to high school. Or is it college?

Life will really get started when we graduate and get that first big job. Or maybe it’s when we — at last! — meet that woman (or man) of our dreams, our soul-mate, our life’s companion.

Or maybe life will truly commence once I’ve achieved financial freedom. Then again, it could be when my health issue is resolved. Or is it when I finally get to retire and travel the world? No, no, I mean move to that cabin in the woods.

Or is it a beach house?

Surely, that’s when life truly begins.

Jesus has a different take. He tells us that life — true, eternal life — begins the moment the Holy Spirit moves our heart to trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. And how does the Holy Spirit move our hearts? The Spirit moves when we listen to Jesus’ word!

That’s what the Creator of all life tells us. We give life a chance to commence when we put ourselves in position to listen to the Bible. And true life begins when faith in Jesus begins. At that moment, as Jesus says, we “cross over from death to life!”

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (‭John‬ ‭5‬:‭24‬ NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, May 7, 2015 is Judges 6:1 – 7:8a, John 5:16-30 and Psalm 57:7-11.

Lord Jesus, thank you for giving me life. I no longer have to wait for it. You have already granted it to me, when you sent your Spirit to give me faith in you!

Spring of Life

Water is the source of life. But as important as water is to us, it’s a resource that we need to refresh frequently, if we want to stay alive.

Dehydration is quite dangerous. We can actually survive a long time without food. Dina Spector of Business Insider reports, “A person can last for more than three weeks without food (Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, survived 21 days of complete starvation), but water is a different story. At least 60% of the adult body is made of it and every living cell in the body needs it to keep functioning. Water acts as a lubricant for our joints, regulates our body temperature through sweating and respiration, and helps to flush waste.”

She goes on to state, “The maximum time an individual can go without water seems to be a week. However, one week is a generous estimate. Three to four days would be more typical. ‘You can go 100 hours without drinking at an average temperature outdoors,’ Claude Piantadosi of Duke University reports. ‘If it’s cooler, you can go a little longer. If you are exposed to direct sunlight, it’s less.'”

Imagine if there was a source of water — a source of life — that would never need to be replenished.

Jesus promises more that that. He promises that when we put faith in him as our source of life, he will not only be for us an unrelenting source of life, but he will turn us into sub-sources of eternal life for others — as we share the good news of Jesus Christ and his forgiveness, peace and joy.

“Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life'” (John 4:13-14, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Monday, May 4, is Judges 1:1 – 2:5, John 4:1-26 and Proverbs 11:9-18.

Jesus, thank you for telling me plainly that you are my true source of life. You are a source that never needs to be replenished. If I simply trust you as my Lord and Savior, I have the all the life I could ever need. In fact, I have so much life, that I can now share life with others! Help me, by your Spirit’s power, to do just that!

Header image based on "Fall Creek (Revisited)" by Nicholas A. Tonelli, CC By 2.0

Previews of Ultimate Power

I love movie previews. In fact, when I go to the theater to watch a movie, I always want to be there early enough that I don’t miss any of the previews. Others may wander in and find their seat rather lackadaisically. But I am already rapt with attention at the coming attractions.

Jesus gave his disciples multiple previews of his most important “coming attraction” — the resurrection. Through miracles, he clearly showed them that he possesses power over death. He openly demonstrated his authority to grant life.

Don’t be the person who misses the previews. Especially this time of year!

Because the main event is almost here. It’s called Easter. And in this event Jesus shows us the greatest evidence of all that death has no power to overcome him. Easter assures us beyond any shadow of a doubt: in the bitter rivalry of Jesus vs. death, Jesus is the clear and final winner!

But know this: Easter does not stand alone as evidence of this. One of the best previews of Jesus’ ultimate power over life and death is the story of his healing of the widow of Nain’s son:

“Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’

Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Luke 7:11-15, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Saturday, March 28, is Numbers 23:27 – 26:11, Luke 7:11-35 and Psalm 38:1-12.

Lord Jesus, thank you for being the Lord of life. Heal me. And grant me life. I am confident you have both the power and the authority to do this — both now, and in eternity. Amen.

Header image based on "Warner Grand Theater" by Graham, CC By 2.0

He Rose. So Will You.

Jesus was doing some amazing stuff. He healed a blind man in Bethsaida. He was transfigured in front of the disciples, allowing his divine glory to shine through for a few brief moments. He healed a boy who had been possessed with an evil spirit ever since he was a small child.

And those are just a few of the highlights.

But Jesus was also saying some disconcerting things to the disciples. He told them that though he was the Son of God, he would suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders, and be killed.

In fact, Jesus didn’t just say this once. He emphasized again and again that it would occur. And each time, the disciples weren’t happy. Jesus’ words wounded and confused them.

But he always tried to reassure them. These bad things would occur. But they would not be final. Not final at all. Three days after his death he would rise from his grave. Not even death would be able to hold him.

The Bible tells us that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important event in the history of the world. The implications are staggering. If one person can defeat death, then certainly others will too.

And that’s why Jesus wants us to know. He rose. And all those who trust in him as “the resurrection and the life” will one day rise too. Not even death was able to hold Jesus. And it will not be able to hold us either!

“He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise'” (‭Mark‬ ‭9‬:‭31‬, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, February 26, is Exodus 39:1 – 40:38, Mark 9:2-32, and Psalm 26:1-12.

Lord Jesus, thank you for winning the victory over death. Help me believe in you as the resurrection and the life. As the man whose son was healed from demon possession prayed, so I also pray: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Header image based on "Garden Tomb Jerusalem" by Holt, CC By-SA 2.0

The Single Most Valuable Thing You Possess

Jesus taught his disciples to put the right value on things. And he made it clear that one should not value anything more highly than their own soul.

Whatever a person needs to sacrifice to gain their soul, Jesus said, they would be well-advised to give it up willingly.

Even if someone could promise you that he could deliver on your fondest wishes.

Even if someone could promise you the winning Powerball ticket.

Even if someone could promise you the person of your dreams, the mansion of your wildest imagination, the fulfillment of your greatest vision.

Even if you could gain the whole world.

Let it go. It would be far, far better to hold tightly to your soul. Don’t ever forfeit that.

Not for money, not for power, not for the most gorgeous woman or the most understanding man. Not for fast cars, sex, drugs or rock and roll.

Just don’t do it.

Because your soul is the single most valuable thing you possess. And Jesus died to redeem it from sin, death and hell. He paid a precious price for that soul.

And he wants you to keep your soul for eternity.

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mark 8:36-37, NIV).

Lord, thank you for giving me an eternal soul. Help me to value my soul above all things, and be willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of my soul. Thank you for sacrificing your life for my soul, for bleeding and dying on the cross as the payment for my soul. Help me to cling to faith in you for the salvation of my soul.

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, February 25, is Exodus 37:1 – 38:31, Mark 8:14 – 9:1 and Proverbs 6:1-11.

Header image based on "Light of Soul" by odysseus-Studio, CC By-SA 2.0

God to My Right

Sometimes it really helps to know that God is around. He hasn’t departed. And he’s not going to.

But it’s important for us to notice him, isn’t it? For that, we have to keep coming back to the words and promises of God. By reading our Bibles, we keep our eyes always on him. Coming back to the gospel keeps God at our right hand.

When God is at my right hand through his word, I can go through life unshaken by the challenges that test me, the sins that tempt me or the the failures that torment me. I can hold on to my joy, and hang tight to my hope.

“I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (‭Psalm‬ ‭16‬:‭8-11‬, NIV).

There’s no better proof of these truths than Jesus himself. Peter tells us these same verses are a prophecy about our Savior. He went through a crucifixion unshaken. He willingly gave up his life in hope. He rose from the grave, because our Heavenly Father did not abandon him to the grave. He now reigns in heaven at God’s right hand. It’s just like David foretold.

So look right. God’s right there. Keep your eyes always on the Lord and he will help you get where you’re going safely.

Just like he did with Jesus.

Lord, remain always at my right hand. Give me the peace of knowing you will never leave me. Grant me the joy of knowing that you will get me safely home.

Our Bible reading for Monday, January 26, is Job 1:1 – 3:26, Matthew 18:10-35 and Psalm 16:1-11.

Header image based on "Look Right" by Knight, CC by 2.0

Broadcasting Repentance

Once Jesus settled into a base of operations in Capernaum, he began to do what he came to do: broadcast the news. And the news that he came to broadcast was not the evening news. (Thank goodness. Have you ever noticed how relentlessly bad the evening news can be?)

The news Jesus came to announce was very good news. The news was that he is the Light of the world and Life to those living under the shadow of death (Matthew 4:16).

As the light and life of the world, Jesus had wisdom that needed to be heard. But to be received this wisdom would require a change of mind on the part of people.

By nature, people’s minds are not on a receptive track, as Moses clearly indicates in the book of Genesis: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5, NIV).  

Jesus wants to get people back on track, receptive to God and to God’s loving plans for them. And he knows that getting on track begins with the fear of the Lord: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7, NIV).

So what’s the best characterization of Jesus’ teaching? Matthew tells us what it is: Changed minds. Changed hearts. Changed lives.

Repentance, in other words. Receptiveness. Because when Jesus comes near, his kingdom comes near, too. That’s why wise people tune in when Jesus is broadcasting.

“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Matthew 4:17, NIV). 

Lord, change my mind and heart. Make me receptive to you and your wisdom. Get me back on track by shining the great light of your salvation into every corner of my mind and heart. May listening to you give me a repentant mind and heart. You are my Savior. You are my Lord. You are my light and my life.

Our reading for Sunday, January 4, is Genesis 7:1 – 9:17, Matthew 4:1-22 and Proverbs 1:1-7.

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