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

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

Suffering for Doing Good

So how do you feel about that old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”?

Are you of the opinion that this statement is dead-on correct?

Maybe you’ve experienced it personally. You resisted the temptation. You made the right decision. You took the high road. You sacrificed and you patiently stood last in line. But at the end of the day, the end result was not pretty. You didn’t get ahead. You only got further behind.

Why does this happen? Wouldn’t you think that if a dearly loved child of God made good choices — moral, God-pleasing choices — that this would be rewarded?

But so often it feels as if instead of a reward, all we get out of our suffering is more suffering. Being in agony for doing good — it just doesn’t make sense to us. And we often feel victimized when it occurs.

Peter has an antidote for the victim-mentality and turmoil in our hearts when the aforementioned, unpleasant circumstances come to pass in our lives.

His solution is to point us to the suffering of Christ. Our willingness to suffer with peace and joy in our hearts comes from recalling the cross Jesus bore. He reminds us that Jesus’ suffering is to be an inspiring example for us.

More important than that, Jesus’ suffering leaves us with a grace-altered heart. We know now that we can entrust ourselves to God. He will judge justly in the end of things.

Most critical of all, because of his suffering and sacrifice on the cross, Jesus will not judge us for our sins. Instead, he will grace us, forgive us, and heal us from our sins. Jesus’ good deed will make sure that we go unpunished — and return us to our close relationship, our right relationship, with him.

Return to Jesus, the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul, and your entire perspective on suffering will be transformed. And this is especially true when the suffering involves suffering for doing good.

 “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

 ‘He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:20a-25, NIV).

It’s true, Lord. I have strayed like a lost sheep. But you, through your suffering and sacrifice have restored me to a right relationship with yourself. Thank you for your grace and forgiveness. By your Spirit’s power, teach me do good, even if I must suffer for it.

Our Bible reading for Monday, November 23, is Ezekiel 43:1 – 44:31, 1 Peter 2:4-25 and Psalm 132:1-18.

Header image based on "Stray sheep on track." by Hefin Owen, CC By-SA 2.0

Tread on the Heights

Often we gauge God’s love for us by the outward circumstances of our lives. We begin to believe that what’s taking place around us defines how much God cares about us.

When Habakkuk wrote, Babylon was becoming the dominant world power. Habakkuk, a prophet in Judah, was trying to forewarn the people of Judah that cruel Babylon would soon be coming to crush their nation.

This raised major questions, and Habakkuk puts those questions directly to God. Why is there so much evil in our world? How is it that the wicked seem to prosper more than those who are righteous? Do evil people get off scot-free?

Right away, Habakkuk starts off the book with a complaint, a bitter complaint he takes directly to God: How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2, NIV).

God listens to Habakkuk’s complaint. And he responds. God wants others to hear his response and he instructs Habakkuk to make it plain to them.

The answer God gives is that Habakkuk must take the long view. In the short term, it may sometimes seem as if the wicked are getting away with their wickedness — and doing so with impunity. But eventually, God assures Habakkuk, they will be judged and justice will prevail.

God’s answer takes up all but the first verse of chapter two. Habakkuk absorbs God’s answer, and he responds with a prayer of triumph that concludes the book. The beauty of Habakkuk’s prayer is that it gives us a peek inside the heart of a man whose faith has been refreshed and renewed by God’s words and promises.

Habakkuk vows to stop judging God’s love by the circumstances and events that he is witnessing and simply trust God’s heart and God’s promises. Habakkuk commits to no longer allowing his feelings to be controlled by the externals, but rather by God’s willingness and ability to give him strength and help him through the tough times.

What we learn from Habakkuk is made plain. We do not see all that God is doing. And we cannot see all that God will do. But we can be completely confident that God is God, and he will do what is right in the end.

We can also know that God will strengthen us and carry us upward through the difficult times. God will renew our courage and confidence. Ultimately, through Christ, all God’s people will see victory and tread on the heights.

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LordI will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights” (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NIV).

Lord, help me to find joy in you, even when my outward circumstances are not joyful. You, Lord, are my strength, in good times and difficult times. In Jesus, I am confident you will enable me to tread on the heights of eternal victory.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, October 27, is Habakkuk 1:1 – 3:19, Titus 2:1-15 and Proverbs 26:3-12.

Header image based on "Panorama from the summit of Jewel Mountain. Chugach Mountains, Alaska" by Paxson Woelber, CC By 2.0

Keep Your Head

Keep your head. That’s so much easier said than done.

When emotional situations arise, the easiest thing in the world is instead to abandon self-control. Throw a tantrum. Pitch a fit. Have a cow. Lose it.

And anytime you are involved in ministry — or life — hard situations are going to be thrown at you. When life is going smoothly, it’s easy to keep your cool. It’s when things go south that our self-control really gets tested.

Can we keep our head when others are pushing our buttons? That’s the real question.

Paul, the apostle, is writing from prison. From these dire circumstances, he can see pretty clearly what’s coming. But he remains calm and steady. Whatever might come — discouragement, persecution, or death — Paul knows what Jesus has accomplished on his behalf. He is convinced that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead, has him fully covered.

The finish line is coming, and Paul has never been more confident in Christ. He has kept the faith. While he anticipates his heavenly reward, he has words of advice for young Timothy, the pastor who will succeed him and keep advancing the gospel.

Hard situations are going to come, Paul tells him. I’ve been through them. In fact, I’m going through them right now. And you’ll go through them too.

But whatever comes, remain calm. Keep your head. Endure and persevere.

Most of all, don’t ever forget this. Jesus has always had my back. And Jesus will always have your back, too. So no matter what, let’s keep the faith and a crown of righteousness awaits us both at the end of this life. In fact, a crown of righteousness awaits everyone who confidently waits for Jesus.

“But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:4-8, NIV).

Lord, I can so easily lose my head in tough situations. Fear rules. Anger springs up. I ask for your forgiveness for the times in the past I’ve lost my head. Help me to have the peace and strength you gave Paul. Give me your Spirit and grant me endurance and faith in Jesus that does not end until I receive my crown of righteousness from him.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, October 25, is Jeremiah 51:15-64, 2 Timothy 4:1-22 and Psalm 119:97-104.

Header image based on "Jesse Jackson: Hold Your Head High" by BK, CC By 2.0

Refresh Your “Why”

“By perseverance the snail reached the ark,” said Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher. But that simply raises a question: “Whose perseverance was it? The snail’s? Or God’s?”

There are really two things that keep a Christian going. These two things form our “why” for being a Christian.

The first is God’s love for us. There is no love as steady, as firm, as lasting, as God’s love. His love in unconditional and unrelenting. His love is forgiving and merciful. His love is caring and compassionate.

And the second is Christ’s perseverance. Once Jesus commits to something, he will always see it through to the end. It doesn’t matter how much it costs him, Jesus’ promise means it’s already as good as done. Because he will always persist until he has finished what he started.

And there’s no better reminder of both God’s love and Christ’s perseverance than the cross and the empty tomb.

The cross and and the empty tomb are our guarantee. A God and Savior as loving and persevering as ours will help us in our weakness. He will strengthen us when we are down. He will protect us when we are undergoing the devil’s attacks. He will help us repent of our sins and do the things God has commanded in his law.

That’s why the apostle Paul prays that the hearts of the Thessalonians would be constantly directed toward God’s love and perseverance. Here the word “heart” indicates not simply their emotions, but also their intellect and the will.

He knew that as long as the Thessalonians’ hearts, minds and willpower moved in that direction — in that correct direction toward God’s love and Christ’s perseverance — then their faith in God would grow, and their connection to Jesus would remain steady, solid and unbreakable. Their energy for Christ and for the gospel would never wane, and their unified, hard work for the kingdom would continue.

The love of God and the perseverance of Christ is the very source — the “why” — of our own love and perseverance. But far more importantly, it is also the source of our forgiveness, our reconciliation to God, and eternal life.

Does your “why” for being a Christian need to be refreshed and renewed? Say a little prayer today. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct the eyes of your heart, mind and will into God’s love for you, and into Christ’s perseverance that took him all the way to the cross for you.

“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. (2 Thessalonians 3:3-5, NIV).

Holy Spirit, direct my heart into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. Help me to remember God’s faithfulness and his protection. Give me a repentant heart for the times when I fail to keep God’s commands, and grant me forgiveness at the cross of Christ. Help me to continue to do the things God commands with the love and perseverance you first displayed for me, and now give to me.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, October 15, is Jeremiah 31:15 – 32:25, 2 Thessalonians 3:1-18 and Proverbs 25:1-10.

Header image based on "Snail's Pace" by Randy Robertson, CC By 2.0

It’s All God, From Start to Fuel to Finish!

What God starts, God fuels. What God fuels, God finishes.

Sounds a little bit like running a distance race, doesn’t it? You make your start. You make sure you’re fueled up during the race. And then you overcome all the obstacles and “walls” and make it through to the finish line.

But in the race of faith, the subject of all those sentences is God. God makes my start. God fuels me up. God overcomes the obstacles and walls and sees to it I make it through to the end. That’s important to know. Because what this means is that we don’t have to start this race, fuel it, or finish it.

That might sound pretty crazy at first, but think of it this way. God chose us and called us by the work of the Spirit to come to the starting line. He did this by having the gospel taught to us — typically through someone he sent. It might have been a parent, a friend, a family member, or just someone we know at work or in our neighborhood who invited us to church.

God then fuels our faith. Again, this is not our work, but the work of the Spirit. He does this through Bible teaching, and through sacraments like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This fueling of faith is typically done at a church. Paul told the Thessalonians, they had only to stand firm and hold fast. In other words, don’t push the Spirit away. Don’t stop listening to the word. And as it imperfect as it can certainly be at times, don’t despise the church.

And it’s God who finishes the work, too. By grace he encourages us to eternity. By his steadfast love he gives us good hope. And with his forgiveness and power, he strengthens us to experience life-change. Our deeds and words change over time and become more and more attuned to the deeds and words of Jesus. Stay in touch with word and sacrament, with Christian friends and leaders, with growing and serving, and God will finish his work in you.

In the book of Hebrews, God is called “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” And in the book of Philippians, we read that the apostle Paul is confident that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

That’s really what Paul is also saying in today’s reading. But here in his second letter to the Thessalonians, he gives us just a little more detail about how that works. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther described the process beautifully in his explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church he forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, NIV).

Lord Jesus, you are the impetus, the fuel and the finishing power in my race of faith. Give me the strength to overcome every obstacle and wall in my race. By your forgiveness, your wisdom, your power, and most of all, your love, take me through to victory!

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, October 14, is Jeremiah 29:24 – 31:14, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 and Psalm 119:33-40.

Header image based on "Spartan Race 092411 472" by Edwin Martinez, CC By 2.0