December 31, 2009

An adventure for 2010

On this last day of the year I am thinking about the year ahead, unusual for I’m more often in the moment rather than in the future. The reason is this verse that God has put on my mind.
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).
Gain in dying is not so hard. When I die, I will go to be with Christ and enjoy Him and eternal life without the sorrows and struggles of this world. That is the Christian hope and the promise of God for us. The more difficult challenge is living for Him now.

In verse 20 Paul says that “Christ will be magnified in my body” and my first question is how do I do that? How can I live so that others see Jesus? How can He be greater and I be less?

I know the pat answers. Deny self. Praise and glorify Him. Yet I also know that some people do that without actually “magnifying Christ.” It is possible to think I am denying myself, but still drawing attention to me. It is possible to praise God, but others are noticing me.

I remember a class where one of the women spoke often of the Lord. Later, another person in the class was trying to recall the first woman’s name and said, “You know, the one using all the God-talk.” Her tone was mocking. For some reason, the other woman’s praise did not magnify Christ in her heart.

While that second woman could have been lacking spirituality, was her response indicative of something selfish in the first woman? I have not idea. Of course I assume that I am not responsible for the actions and responses of others, but am reminded of something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
Jesus made commands that seem impossible. Christians know that we cannot obey Him in our own strength. However, with His grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, I can do what He says. That means it is possible to live in such a way that people see what I do and glorify God, not me. That is, when they look at me they see Jesus.

While I shake my head at that, I also remember a man named Fred Barshaw whom I met in California. His light so shone before me that when I stood beside him, I felt as if I was standing beside the Lord. How did he do that? It is a mystery.

This coming year will be the year of the mystery then, the mystery of finding out what I must do, or not do, take up, or abandon, and so on. God will teach me how to magnify Christ by my life. Whatever else this might mean I’m absolutely certain that an adventure awaits me.

December 30, 2009

Always with Him

God has impressed this as my focus verse for 2010: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). The easier part of this verse is the last part.

Today’s devotional reading describes the positive aspect of death for those who believe in Jesus Christ. It says that when I die, I go immediately into the presence of Christ. Some say there is a “soul sleep” or an intermediate waiting place, or something called purgatory, but the Bible teaches none of those. In Philippians 1:23, Paul wrote about his desire “to depart and be with Christ” as it is an instant thing. Also, the verse for today says:

We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8)
The Bible does talk about a resurrection of our bodies. However, from what I understand, when my spirit leaves my body, my body will “sleep” until that resurrection, but my spirit will be with Jesus.

Paul also wrote that Christ “died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10). The point is that whether I am physically awake (alive) or physically asleep (dead), because I believe in Christ, I am with Him. I am with Him in a spiritual sense now and will be with Him in a literal sense when my body is dead.

That means there is no time in my life when I am ever out of the presence of Jesus Christ. He also said that He would never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). Being conscious of the reality of His presence is one of the most joyful experiences of being a Christian.

December 29, 2009

He plans my future

For the past few years God has given me a focus verse for each year. Many times that verse has helped me with decisions and certainly changed my attitudes and behavior. As 2009 draws to a close, it seems that my verse will be Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

I’m reacting to this verse already. It is both convicting and a bit frightening, because it makes me wonder what lies ahead. Is death in the picture? Or will 2010 be a year where God firmly cements my purposes for all that I do?

Today’s devotional points to the next two verses. The author ponders what he would do if he had the choice to live or die and only five minutes to make up his mind. He says that he would be like Paul who could not decide which to choose. 

But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. (Philippians 1:22-23)
I’ve noticed that the decision to live is not based on selfish reasons, but the decision to be with Christ has that element. The  Apostle wants to be with Christ. I do too, but as I’ve already considered this, my desires to go to heaven often have the added element of wanting to escape from the challenges of life.

I also know that my life purpose is not always about serving Christ or others. I’m often more interested in me, myself, and I. That is not what being a Christian means, yet overcoming selfishness is a constant battle. So the year ahead could mean a battle, not against external enemies but the one mentioned in Galatians 5:17. It says, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.”

Whatever God has in mind, He has already given me a few words to pray whenever things happen that distress or frighten me, words of both faith and submission, and words that have great significance in whatever the new year will bring. They are simply this: Thy will be done.

December 28, 2009

Fewer resolutions, more obedience

As the year nears its end, evaluation tempts me, yet looking back poses a couple of problems. One is that without hard thinking and reading my calendar and journals, I cannot remember three quarters of what happened last year. The other problem is recognizing what God has done as far as using my life to help others. I have no clue and such evaluation is best left to Him.

Planning for the new year is more tempting. By the will of God, and with His help, I want to more effectively live for Christ. I want to do things that count, not only in this life, but that make a difference in eternity. I’d like to genuinely say the same thing as Paul wrote:

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell.  (Philippians 1:21-22)
These are noble words. Are they for everyone? Paul had a different calling from mine. He was told by Jesus Christ to preach the gospel to the Jews first, then the Gentiles. He was called to travel all over the known world and make Christ known.

My calling is more like, “As you live in this world, make disciples and teach them what I have taught you.”

I’ve learned that I cannot push myself on others. I teach a ladies Bible study but cannot make them come. Besides that, other forms of discipleship depend on the opportunities that God gives, and they happen every day. In fact, every time I open my mouth I am leaving people with an impression, whether I or they are conscious of it or not. Because of God’s grace, my life is a representation of Christ.

This reality could be a “pressure to perform” but I’ve learned that while living for Christ is made of many conscious choices, it is also a natural thing. It is as Paul said, living in the flesh (which in this case means simply being alive) means spiritual fruit.

In other words, those who are Christian, at times, cannot help but be like Jesus. If I choose obedience and am not acting like an idiot, the One who is my life will produce spiritual fruit in my attitudes, words and actions. Ministry to others might be a labor at times, but the production of attitudes like love, joy, and peace are the work of the Holy Spirit. I make no effort to produce that kind of fruit. It comes from Him.

He also says I should not heavily plan my words, but let the Spirit give me what to say. Even so, words and actions require effort and choice. Otherwise, I would silently do my own thing and not get involved in spiritual living or caring about others. I might seem happy, but living just for me has no impact on the eternal well-being of others.

I’m also noticing that as I grow older, making “resolutions” comes with less excited zeal than it once did. Today I am more aware of choice, regardless of enthusiasm. Each day comes with varying opportunities, but before they come, I know I must have my mind set to do God’s will, whether or not I’m emotionally driven. “Being” is the root of “doing.”

O God, You have taught me from my youth; and to this day I declare Your wondrous works. Now also when I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to everyone who is to come.  (Psalm 71:17-18)

December 27, 2009

Bottom-line purpose

We leave soon for a different kind of holiday than we have ever taken before. I’m anxious. I do not holiday well. I’m adult attention deficit and being away from home and routine throws me off kilter. Besides a regular schedule, my scattered mind struggles without things to do and constant stimulation. I can take whatever I wish to keep myself busy while my hubby is golfing, but making those decisions seems difficult.

Today’s challenge is difficult too. I’m supposed to fill in the blanks: “For to me, to live is __________, and to die is _______.” If I am totally honest, at times my options have included:

• For to me, to live is having a sense of purpose, and to die can’t happen until the stuff on my to-do list is checked off.
For to me, to live is a blast, and to die is the last thing I want to do.
For to me, to live is far too difficult, and to die sounds like a better choice.
For to me, to live is being creative, and to die is going to be hard on my kids who have to decide what to do with my artistic creations.
For to me, to live is tiring, and to die is a good long rest.
Of course I know what should go in the blanks. It comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He was in jail and a death sentence was possible. He wasn’t afraid to die, yet his generous heart wanted life. His reasons were far nobler than most of mine. 
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again.  (Philippians 1:21-26)
If he lived, he could serve his brothers and sisters in Christ. They needed him and he was determined to help them. He wanted to be with Christ in glory, but was willing to put that desire aside and do what was best for the people around him.

I’m not that unselfish. Sometimes I want to be needed for the sense of purpose it gives me, not for what I can do for others. Sometimes I want to go to glory because I am tired of the work that God has given me to do here. When life goes well, I don’t want to die. When life is hard, I mutter that I want to go home.

Again, the apostle Paul is a rebuke. Being a Christian is not about me, but about making the best use of what God gives me so that I can glorify Jesus Christ, whether in life or in death.

As I pack up for this holiday, I’m trying very hard to listen for His direction and take what He tells me to take, and think as He encourages me to think. With Him in charge, experience has taught me that my worries are groundless. Faith says the same thing. I need to stop listening to my “what ifs” and just trust Him.

December 26, 2009

By life or by death

I used to think that being put on the shelf by God was the worst thing that could happen to me as a Christian. In my mind, my life had no value at all unless I was doing something.

This was a worldly value, part of the work ethic in my family as I was growing up. My dad often verbally put down lazy and shiftless people. His opinions about hard work became part of my value system. Since then I have learned that serving Christ isn’t only about doing things.

Those who have totally given their lives to Jesus are willing to do whatever He asks. That means seeking His will on each matter and being obedient to whatever He says, easy or difficult. But what if He gives no direction, no go ahead on a project, or no guidance concerning a matter?

In my Christian life, some of the biggest mistakes concern things I did that God did not tell me to do. Whether it was misplaced zeal, disobedience, or assumptions about His will, those actions resulted in trouble and sorrow. While these mistakes taught me to pay attention, I also paid a price. I’ve also learned that following Jesus and doing what He says can also include doing nothing.

Another part of living for Jesus means being willing to also die for Jesus. My first reaction to this is martyrdom, which seems noble in concept, but is horrible in historic reality. God’s people have been mocked, tortured, put in prison, burned alive, cut in half, and stoned to death. My preference would be sitting on the shelf when compared, yet Paul sets a higher example. He says,

For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.  (Philippians 1:19-20)
When my husband was diagnosed with CLL (Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia), we were glad this was the least threatening form of cancer, yet still had to face that often shocking reality that life does end, and it may not end pleasantly. Paul wrote the above verses from jail. His threat was not disease, but dying because he followed Jesus Christ. His commitment to serve the Lord included serving Him alive or dead and, for him, death could have been very nasty.

For us, John Piper’s article on “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” (see sidebar for the link) was both helpful and challenging. My husband continually says that we are all terminal. Piper tells Christian cancer patients that their cancer can be a way of glorifying Christ and pointing others to Him. God amazes me with the opportunities He gives my husband (and sometimes me) so we can do just that.

The actual dying part is another challenge. I’ve heard of people who raised their arms in praise to God as they were slaughtered by enemies of Jesus Christ. Could I do that? Perhaps the key is in what Paul says, that he magnifies Christ in his body by life . . . and in that boldness, his fear of death (who does not fear death?) evaporated into the same determination that Christ will be magnified, no matter what happens to him.

Everyone dies. I will die. What better way to end my life by somehow glorifying God. I am now willing to serve Him no matter what He asks — to work hard or sit on a shelf — but I’ve a ways to go before I can say I’m willing to serve Him by dying.

December 25, 2009

Why was Jesus born?

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.  (Mark 10:45)
Christmas is only the beginning of the reason for this season. May His birth, His entire life, His atoning death, and His victorious resurrection produce deep and lasting joy in every heart!

December 24, 2009

The greatest Gift

My father died ten years ago this morning. He’d been ill for three weeks and at least one of us four children were with him twenty-four seven. The end came early in the morning, fitting because my Dad had a habit of waking everyone up early in the morning. We had two funerals, one where he’d farmed the last half his life, and the other in the community he’d farmed the first half prior to moving. In the midst of that, we also celebrated Christmas, something Dad would have wanted us to do.

So much of what happened during those few days gave evidence of God’s expertise in timing. My devotional readings during those days gave comfort. The weather was decent. My mother, even with Alzheimers, was healthy and coherent. There was sorrow, but Dad knew Jesus and we knew that he was in a better place. Our Christmas was quiet but very much blessed.

God’s timing is important. It takes the lead in today’s verses as they describe the first Christmas and the reason that Jesus came. This reason gives me comfort and joy every day, not just Christmas. God continues to comfort us concerning our parents who are now both with Him, and gives us much joy as we spend time with Christian family and friends.

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born  of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Galatians 4:4-7)
God’s timing was right. He sent Jesus into the world through a virgin birth and into a culture steeped in the history of His dealings with them. The Jewish people knew the high standards of God. Those who were honest and humble also knew that they could not keep His Law. They looked forward to a Redeemer who would save them from their sins.

They perhaps didn’t know that the promised Redeemer would do more than that. He would also release them from the bondage of trying to keep a Law that was too lofty and adopt them as His own children. Those who believe in Jesus would become God’s sons and daughters and be placed in a spiritual family.

The word “Abba” is an endearing term. The commentaries say that it was used to address God in prayer. However, many say that it also means “Daddy.” Imagine that — calling God Almighty both Father and Daddy!

Not everyone has been blessed with the loving father that I had, so this verse and the privilege may not give everyone the same sense of awe. Yet as I think of Jesus coming to earth so I could be set free and become a child of God, I am overjoyed to be able to call Him “Abba, Father.” If Christmas is about gifts, then this is the greatest gift of all.

December 23, 2009

No Room?

Our pastor tried to describe what that first Christmas might have been like. He said because of the census that required people to come to their birth city, Bethlehem must have had more visitors than usual. He said it may not have been that “silent night” we sing about. Instead, “It could have been busier than West Edmonton Mall on Boxing Day.”

Everyone laughed. Most of us have experienced (at least once) that wall-to-wall mob of people all jostling for bargains. This image puts a different spin on our image of that little town of Bethlehem and the silence we tend to think prevailed. 

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
Pastor also reminded us that a manger is a feeding trough. Nativity paintings and cards depict it as a cradle with straw, but it was more likely a rough wood container shaped something like a shoe box, and not exactly the most comfortable place to put a baby. Yet it was the only place that Mary and Joseph had.

Writers make up stories about the inn keeper saying that he offered them a place in the stable out of sympathy. The Bible says nothing about him. Obviously he turned them away because his inn was full. They might have found a barn, stable, or a cliff-side hole used for animals on their own. Any late-night trip through an unfamiliar city with “no vacancy” on all the hotels and motels would produce a similar sense of desperation. Add to that labor pains increasing in intensity and frequency, and I can hardly imagine the stress that this couple was feeling.

While the stable may have been warmer than a room in an unheated inn, nevertheless Jesus was born in a smelly place. He was too little to notice what was going on (assuming that the incarnation included the weakness of being an infant). However, His mother wrapped Him in strips of cloth and took care of His needs.

Flash forward. Does He notice today what Christmas is like? Does He notice that many homes, never mind the inns and crowded malls, have no interest in Him? Does He watch when cities and governing bodies refuse nativity scenes? Does He feel dismay that people go through the celebrating of Christmas with wild parties and have no idea what this holy day is about?

I read of a newspaper that did man-on-the-street interviews asking people their opinions of the real meaning of Christmas. The article said that some were sentimental and said Christmas is a family time, a time for children, and being together. Others were more humanistic and thought that Christmas is a time to celebrate love for one’s fellow man and the spirit of giving. Others were insensitive and hedonistic. They thought Christmas was just another excuse to have a party. In all the interviews, no one mentioned the miracle of God’s birth as a human baby, the wonder that God Himself came to earth because of His great love for us.

Jesus was born in a lowly place. The inn, a place of commerce and busy with people, had no room for Him. There is significance in this because it is the same today. The busy, worldly people do not have time for Him. Only the lowly and humble are open to the Christmas child, but He has to find them just as His parents had to find a place for His birth.

When Jesus grew to manhood, He explained the reason that few open their hearts to Him. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick . . . For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13).

How is this practical for my life? First, I must never think that I am “well” and do not need His soul-healing power. I must listen for His call and repent of any sin that I allow into my life. As Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”

Obviously, making room for Jesus is more than a priority. It is a lifestyle. He is the center of everything, the One who directs my thoughts, decisions, words, and actions. If I’m filled with me-me-me, having more stuff, dominating others, etc. then I am no different than the innkeeper or the mobs of shoppers who have no idea who Jesus is or what Christmas is all about.

December 22, 2009

Call on His Name

She claims to be a Christian. She testifies to all the spiritual things that she has done. She is super nice to everyone (and avoids those who are “nasty” and are what she calls negative thinkers). She says she reads her Bible and is certain that she is pleasing God. However, I’ve never heard her say, or even seen her write, the name of Jesus.

This person and others use euphemisms for God. He is “the man upstairs” or “the big guy” or even “lord” but without regard to the meaning of that title. Why can’t they call Him by name?

Yet, even those who are genuine Christians sometimes struggle to use His name. It is relatively easy to talk about God and refer to Him as Creator, Maker, and even Father, but saying the name Jesus Christ is difficult. Calling Him Lord and meaning it is also difficult.

Jesus comes from the Hebrew name Joshua, or Jehoshua. It means “Jehovah will save” and that meaning is what bears the offense. The name of Jesus directly implies that people need saving. It is a name that addresses sin, and I’ve noticed that no one wants to talk about sin either, particularly their own sin.

I remember a man that said to me, “Everyone believes that Jesus died for the sins of the world. What is so difficult about believing that?”

I replied, “But what about your sins?”

He paused for several moments, then said, “Oh. I see what you mean.”

The rub is personal sin. I find it easy to talk about the sins of others (doesn’t that make me look better than they are?) and I am not the only one who pulls back when it comes to confessing personal sin. However, the Bible is clear about this: unless a sinner is willing to admit their sin and confess it to God, there is no forgiveness or salvation from sin. Furthermore,  

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
Salvation is not in the confessing of sin; salvation is in the name of Jesus. He is the One who paid the price for sin. He is the One who secured forgiveness and eternal life for us sinful mortals. Not only that, we can do nothing about it (except confess and repent). He does the saving, and only He can save us.

The name of Jesus ought not be a name hard to say. It is the most precious name, a name above all names. When Joseph discovered that Mary was with child and he was not the father, he thought about all he had heard. At that point, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream again, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”  (Matthew 1:20-21)

Mary and Joseph did as they were told. They named the child Jesus. A couple of thousand years later, His Spirit and His Word convicted me of sin and my need for saving. I struggled, yet by grace was able to name my sins. He came into my life and I knew that this was the One who was God in human flesh, the only One who could save me from the wrath of God that I deserved.

So many say His name in blasphemy or meaningless cursing, or they refuse to say it at all. Instead, the Name should be said softly, with entreaty and expectation, with faith and hope, with joy and gratitude. He is able to save sinners, and there is no other who can do that.

December 21, 2009

Who is that Baby?

People make fun of a virgin birth. They also write books, make movies, and mock it in television shows. Yet if God is God, the Creator of all things, why would a virgin birth be impossible?
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: after His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.  (Matthew 1:18)
The author of my devotional reading for today says that the virgin birth is an underlying assumption in everything the Bible says about Jesus. To throw out this part of His story is to reject His deity and the authority and accuracy of Scripture. It may not seem very important to the average onlooker, but the virgin birth is essential to the Christian faith.

This is true because the identity of Jesus is key to the essence of Christianity. Everything else the Bible teaches about Christ hinges on the truth we celebrate at Christmas — that Jesus is God in human flesh, Emmanuel, God with us. He came as a baby, born to a virgin, fully man yet fully God.

Because Jesus is God, He can be our Savior, the sinless Lamb of God who could atone for our sin because He had none of His own. Because He is God, death could not hold Him. He rose from the grave and lives forever to intercede for us.

Today’s devotional reading also says that the virgin birth is as crucial as the resurrection in substantiating His deity. Believing it is not an option, because anyone who rejects Christ’s deity rejects Christ and the Gospel.

This is a highly contended issue. If I get negative and argumentative comments on this blog, they are always over the deity of Christ. Those who reject Jesus might say He didn’t exist, or that He was a good man, or that He was an angel or a prophet, but they do not accept that He is God in human flesh. The implications are simply far too great.

How do I know that the virgin birth is true? I could claim the human side of things, like faith, believing what God says, and so on, but I know that I did not believe it until God opened my mind and heart. He did that one afternoon while I was reading in my living room. Suddenly I realized and knew beyond a doubt that the Jesus of the Bible was far more than a baby in a manger, a good man, or a prophet.

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end . . . (Isaiah 9:6-7)
He is fully God in human flesh. Because that is true, He also saves me from sin and daily transforms my life.

December 20, 2009

The Christmas Tree

Christians know that many of the “traditions” we celebrate seem to have been “borrowed” from secular celebrations. However, what if the reverse were true? What if the pagan peoples of the world warped the symbolism God intended? Then instead of borrowing from them, they have robbed us of that which was intended to glorify God.

For instance, some say Christmas trees have their origins in the ancient celebrations of Saturnalia, mostly a time of wild revelry. The Romans decorated their temples with greenery and candles. Also, the Roman soldiers who conquered the British Isles found Druids who worshiped mistletoe and Saxons who used holly and ivy in religious ceremonies. All those things found their way into Christmas customs.

However, in the early 1500s, a man named Martin Luther  introduced the practice of putting candles on trees to celebrate Christmas. Luther was the father of the Protestant Reformation (protesting corrupt church practices and restoring more biblical faith and practices). Instead of copying the pagans, he said that Isaiah 60:13 was the biblical reason for this idea.

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the pine, and the box tree together, to beautify the place of My sanctuary; and I will make the place of My feet glorious. (Isaiah 60:13)
Luther may have taken this passage out of context. However, sometimes when we ask God for direction, He gives us verses out of context, not so that we abuse a proper exegesis, but so we can see what He is like and how He thinks.

From that verse, Luther could have heard God say that the trees He created can be used to beautify places where we worship Him. If our homes at Christmas are places of worship, then the use of a tree could be a fitting symbol of that.

The danger of using any kind of object or icon as part of worship is that as sinful human beings, we tend to turn our focus from Whom the object represents or reminds us of, and begin to venerate the object. The Christmas tree might be glorious (and some of them are), and the place of worship may be beautiful, but the One we worship cannot be pushed from the scene.

Most of the people who put up a Christmas tree do it as a heart-warming ritual. The glory of a God-created tree has even been reduced to plastic instead of pine. (Actually, I’ve no problem with that. Even though real trees smell wonderful, an artificial tree has some practical merit.)

The issue is not the tree anyway. For me, it is what I think about when I see one. Does my heart turn toward the One spoken of by Isaiah? He talked about making the place of His feet glorious. Here is what the Bible says of Jesus:

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.  (1 Corinthians 15:24-28)
One day Jesus will reign and all things will be put under His feet. Isaiah says the place of His feet will also be glorious.

So when I look at a Christmas tree, I can be reminded that the Christ who came as a babe will eventually rule as King of Kings, and that those who are under His feet and submitted to Him will share in His glory. That makes a Christmas tree far more than a decoration during the holidays. It is also a reminder to worship the Lord of glory!

December 19, 2009

Christ came to save sinners

For some people, sin is the big stuff like murder, adultery and grand theft auto. Think Hitler, serial killers and so on. Those who do these things may suppose that their sins are too great and that they are beyond salvation.

For others, their sins seem so slight (in their minds) that salvation is not necessary. They compare themselves to the Hitlers of this world and believe that they have no need for repentance and salvation.

Both ends of the spectrum and a lot of people in the middle fail to understand the nature of sin. For us, sin is by degrees, but in the mind of God, sin is sin. A small lie labels a sinner  just as a far more serious (in our minds) act. In fact, the Bible reveals that God is a black and white thinker when it comes to evil.

This diagram helps me understand the nature of sin: 

pure evil < < < human good reborn/godly > > > like Jesus
To explain, all human beings fall short of the glory of God. Sin separates them from God, one sin or many. That puts all humanity on the left side of the Cross. This includes “good” people by human standards, and “evil” people by anyone’s standards.

Those who are saved by grace through faith and given new life in Christ are moved by God to the other side of the cross. They have been given the life of Christ, become godly in His sight, and are changed and being changed so to be like Jesus. This is the “one way” that Jesus talked about. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Human goodness can look something like fresh reborn godliness, sometimes even better, but it is not the same. Human effort cannot save anyone from sin because it is external. The heart remains the same (selfish and separated from God) and only Jesus Christ and regeneration can change the heart, human nature, and a sinner’s standing before Almighty God.

This is the message of Christmas. Of course God didn’t need a diagram to know that whatever end of the scale a person is on, humanly good or outright evil, each of us needs a Savior. So He sent One.

And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
No one is beyond the saving power of Jesus. The person who thinks he cannot be forgiven can be born again. Jesus died for whatever sins that person has done. The person who thinks she is good enough, or that her goodness will save her also needs forgiveness, for her pride if nothing else, and that person can be born again.

Whatever anyone has done (or not done), the good news of Christmas is the same as the good news of Easter: “Jesus is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

December 18, 2009

There is always hope

There is a vast difference between “religious” people and those who have been saved by the power and grace of Jesus Christ.

A religious person recently gave me her “testimony” saying she had been “saved” as a young person. She listed a paragraph or two of good deeds she had done, with no mention of sin, repentance, faith or Jesus Christ. In further conversations, she never once said His name. She also became very angry at the suggestion of sin in her life and made it obvious that she thought she was righteous before God because she was a good person.

Today’s devotional reading reminds me how the religious leaders in Jesus’ day looked down their noses on Jesus because He ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” When Jesus about it, He said to them, 

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Matthew 9:12-13).
Just as a sick person will not go to the doctor if he thinks he is not sick, no human being is interested in a relationship with Jesus Christ if they think they don’t need His saving power. They will claim they are Christians, even do things that appear to be acts of goodness, yet Jesus says,
Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’  (Matthew 7:22-23)
Jesus knows the human heart. He knows that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). He also knows that we try to justify ourselves, and try to appear good when we are not, and that “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). This is why He came — to save sinners, and all of us are sinners.

But what if some are blind or refuse to see that they are sinners and need saving? He isn’t interested in their efforts to be good because those efforts are tainted by selfishness. As the Pharisees, the merely religious who claim goodness do what they do in their own power and those deeds, no matter how good they appear, fall short of God’s glory.

Just as salvation is not available to those who think they don’t need it, the power and life of Christ to live a righteous life is not available to anyone who is satisfied with their own righteousness. This applies to Christians too. Paul said, “I know that in me (that is my flesh) nothing good dwells” (Romans 7:18). He knew that apart from Jesus Christ, he was nothing and could do nothing that pleases God.

I know that too. Without Jesus, I can do nothing. I also know that those without Jesus Christ do not understand any of this. In their minds, they are not sick; they do not need His healing power. They have no need of repentance because they are convinced that they have not done anything against God and therefore do not need a changed life. Like the Pharisees did with Jesus, they are also prone to turn on anyone who tells them otherwise.

Perhaps that is why the Word of God tells Christians to avoid senseless arguments with those who walk in the darkness of self-righteousness. Believers are to admonish them twice and then leave them alone (Titus 3:9-10). The Holy Spirit can convince sinners, but arguing never does it. Not only that, by arguing, believers walk into fleshy territory themselves. 

Those “religious” but self-righteous people must have brought sorrow to Jesus. He knew their need and He knew how to give them true righteousness, but they rejected His words and rejected His offer. What encourages me is that after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, some of these religious leaders who once rejected Him became genuine believers.

I think too about my own blindness. I once thought that I did not need anything or anyone, but the Spirit of God never gave up on me. Jesus softened my heart and helped me see how much I need Him. No matter how hard a person seems, there is always hope that God will change their lives.

December 17, 2009

Christmas celebrations

Some people are so opposed to the idea of Christmas that they reject all of the current celebrations. I have a relative who belongs to a cult. He says that the Bible does not command the celebration of the birth of Christ so they do not. He taught his children to reject all of it, even to the point that one of them told my mother that Christmas lights were totally disgusting.

This is not a new thing nor is it restricted to cults. In early America, the Puritans rejected Christmas celebrations too. They deliberately worked on December 25 to show their attitude toward Christmas.

English law also reflects this Puritan influence for in 1644 a law was passed to make December 25 an official working day. For a while, it was literally illegal to cook plum pudding or mince pie during the Christmas season.

These days, some Christians have two celebrations; one day for gift-giving and turkey dinner, and another day to rejoice that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

God’s Word does not mention Christmas. It does talk about how believers might have differences of opinion about the importance of some days over others. 

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.  (Romans 14:5–6)
The point is not whether Christmas is the Lord’s actual birthday or not (it likely is not), or whether we should celebrate His birth or not (I am so glad He came), but that we do everything in His name, filled with His Spirit, and because we love Him.

My family traditions concerning Christmas were secular. Each family had their own gift Christmas morning. None of us had a lot of money, but my parents always managed something for the four of us. Then my grandmother or one of the aunts hosted the families for dinner. This was no small celebration. My father was one of six, and with all those couples and kids, more than 25 people sat down for turkey. After dinner, the men played poker, the women played another card game, and the children played with one another. I remember lots of laughter and lots of food.

Now some of those cousins are Christians. These believers continue to have children and grandchildren over for dinner, and still exchange gifts. For us, Christmas Eve is the celebration about Jesus. Our church has a candles and carols service that has become a time of worship and rejoicing. Jesus came to earth, became a man, and then died on the Cross for our sin. We have a Savior and Redeemer who choose to first become a baby in a manger. Wow, that is wonderful! This is a special event in our lives.

The next day, our family reads the Christmas story from the Bible and we pray as usual before our meal. We eat too much, play games and laugh until our stomachs hurt. All day I have one ear on the carols playing in the background and my heart is singing because Jesus came.

From this passage today, I’m glad that God says there are no rules about celebrating Christmas day or celebrating Jesus any day. We do it because He loves us, and because that is so, we can love Him and each other with great joy, not just December 25 but all the time.

December 16, 2009

Peace on earth?

The carols proclaim the words of the angels, at least the words as translated in the old favorite King James Bible: 
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men! (Luke 2:14)
In the days that the KJV was translated from the original languages, the focus may have been a hopeful one that looked toward that day when Jesus returned the second time to bring peace on earth. The translators may have liked the sound of those words and the idea of God’s goodwill toward all. I know that I do.

Yet is there peace on earth? We joke about the beauty pageant hopefuls who desire “peace on earth” in their short speeches and smile at children who ask for the same thing, but this is a serious matter. The earth has known only extremely short periods of peace since the birth of Christ. War prevails. War is happening somewhere on the planet all the time. Were the angels merely song writers out of touch with reality? Or did the people who translated the KJV make a mistake?

The original manuscripts are long gone. Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the Old Testament texts have not survived. Fortunately they were copied over and over, partly for circulation among the churches, and mostly because those who copied them knew their value. These ancient texts were penned by men but inspired by God.

When Christians agreed on the writings that were definitely God’s inspiration, they compiled them into a two-part volume. Those were then also copied, and recopied. In the Gutenberg Museum located in Mainz, Germany, I saw dozens of hand-copied bibles. I knew the people who did this counted characters and carefully checked in other ways to make sure their copies were accurate. I wept because their dedication meant that I could read the Word of God.

Later, I became aware of the differences in the manuscripts used for translation. Some are numerous.  Others are older and considered more reliable. While they both declare the same glorious message, there are some small differences between the two. Another result of finding more manuscripts is that scholars today realize that there are more accurate translations of some passages. One of those is Luke 2:14. The better translations show that it should say: 

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace toward men on whom God’s sovereign pleasure rests (Luke 2:14).
This makes sense. Peace on earth has not happened (yet), but peace has happened in the hearts of those whom God has blessed. This peace with God is a corollary of justification. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I don’t know of peace on earth, but I do know peace with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a wonderful reality, and it was God coming to earth in human flesh that made it possible. For that, I praise Him!

I don’t think the angels made a mistake. I’m thinking the KJV translators did not err either, but had more than good intentions. God did promise that this child would reign in a never-ending kingdom, a kingdom of peace. While it hasn’t happened yet, the Bible tells of the day when Jesus will return and reign on earth, so the idea of peace on earth is also possible.

This peace does not mean a universal salvation, but it does mean peace with God is available to anyone who responds to the goodwill of God toward them. His goodwill was demonstrated when He entered His creation as a babe — a babe who would eventually die on a cross so that all who believe, both in heaven and on earth, could enjoy peace with Him.

December 15, 2009

Mary’s Hope

Christmas is ten days away. For many, this is a hectic time of preparation, buying gifts, baking, and decorating. For others, it is a sad time, a reminder of losses and loneliness.

As I grew up, our family celebrated a secular Christmas. It was much simpler than the secular Christmas observed today. However, we did know this marked the birth of Jesus Christ. I didn’t know the importance of that event until I was well into my thirties and had become a Christian.

Today’s devotional talks about Mary and says, “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Mary was told she would have a child even though she was a virgin. This child would be a miracle from God.

As amazing as that is, the virgin birth is not the greatest miracle in the story of Christmas. The most astonishing thing is the identity of that child. This was no ordinary baby. God’s angel said that He was to be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

Every day I am astonished by this reality; God became a man! If I were God, would I choose to be born as a helpless baby? Would I pick two people to parent me that were not yet married to each other? Would I select a dirty stable as my birthing place? If I were God, would I come here at all?

I can scarce imagine the sensations that assaulted Him that hour of His birth. The smell would be most foreign. The One who is Light and sees all was born in the dark. The One who is Almighty and spoke the worlds into existence could not walk or talk. The One who was rich beyond compare became poor for our sakes.

Before it happened, the angel told Mary that she would conceive in her womb and bring forth a Son and call His name Jesus. The angel said that He would be great, and would be called the Son of the Highest. The Lord God would give Him the throne of His father David and He would reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom would have no end. (Luke 1:31-33)

Mary was amazed and accepted her role in this astonishing event. As I read this today, I could see how God helped her by giving her an understanding of the ultimate goal. Had she focused on the days ahead, what might have happened? She had to explain to Joseph that she was pregnant and he was not the father. She had to endure the skeptics in her family. She had to travel a long way on a donkey during the last trimester. She would birth in a barn. She must endure the perplexities of raising a perfect child. (Think about that for a minute! What would the neighbors think?) Then she must watch that child become a man who could do miracles and raise the dead. Then she must watch Him arrested and crucified.

God didn’t tell her about all those things. He told her the end result; this was Emmanuel, and His kingdom would have no end.

As a mother who prays for her children, who sees them stray from God and who wonders about their choices, I am astonished at Mary. Did she lose focus as she watched her Son arrested? Did she lose hope when she saw Him die? I would have. I know that because I lose focus and get discouraged and forget the promises of God for me and for my children.

I’m not one to worship Mary. She was a good Jewish girl given a huge task by Almighty God and it was God who enabled her to do it. Yet she was humble and she believed God. She said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Mary gives me an example today. She accepted the will of God for her life and did not let the visible but temporary negatives destroy her hope in His ultimate goal. She clung to His promises for herself and for her child — and she was blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

December 14, 2009

Without shame

If it were up to God, none of His people would ever be ashamed or put to shame, but sometimes we do it to ourselves.

My sister told me of a time with her ladies Bible study group. They were talking about sharing their faith with others and some of the reasons why they failed to do so. My sister said, “Sometimes I don’t because I am ashamed of Christ.”

She was dismayed when the other women said, “Oh no, not you” — in great reluctance to let her confess or be guilty of it, perhaps because it was a reflection of their own excuses. Even as I think about it, saying that out loud makes me feel terrible. We love Jesus and do not want to admit anything that hints otherwise, even if it is sometimes true.

The Apostle Paul knew the promises of God about being ashamed. This is not part of His plan for His people. In these verses, Paul says the opposite of being ashamed is being bold.

For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.  (Philippians 1:19-20)
As I think about what it is like to “be ashamed” of Christ, it seems that for me it is not exactly the description of what is going on. When I do not want to share Him with others, I’m thinking more of myself and that I don’t want to admit how much I need Him. I am ashamed or embarrassed to confess that I am a sinner and helpless to do anything about sin without the saving power of Jesus. I am not ashamed of Him so much as I am ashamed of myself.

Yet all through the Bible, God promises that His people will not be ashamed. In most of those promises, He is talking about our status before others and how others think of us. 

Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers; they shall bow down to you with their faces to the earth, and lick up the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the Lord, for they shall not be ashamed who wait for Me.”  (Isaiah 49:23)
I’m trying to wrap my head around the connection between being disillusioned, disappointed, or disgraced in the eyes of the world because I am a Christian, and being ashamed to tell others that I am one. Part of it is that many people think Christians park their brains at the church door and cannot think rationally. While that is not true, I don’t want to be thought of in that way. That is pride.

Other shameful accusations include stuff like, “Your religion is a crutch” and “The Bible is just made up by a bunch of men” and “Jesus was a good teacher, but no more than that.” People without faith cannot make sense of what Christians believe; therefore, Christians must have their heads on backwards. Such accusations put up my defenses.

However, the answer to all this is not a verbal defense before people without faith. Unless the Holy Spirit opens their hearts, Christianity will never make sense to them anyway, no matter what I say. Instead, I need to think like Paul thought.

He said, “For I know. . . .” His statements were not opinions but based on the revelation of God. The Word of God is true. It is safe to believe it, even when others cannot or will not. Also, knowing reminds me that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is knowing that God is true, that His promises are true, and that nothing can prevent His will from being accomplished.

Being ashamed is doubting all that. Being ashamed is more concerned about what people think than what God thinks. It is also a pride thing in that shame is being more worried about my own reputation than remembering that God is God. Those who mock Him will eventually find out their error and then they will be ashamed.

December 13, 2009

His power is not like mine

Outside temperature this morning is -37 C. I flicked on a small electric fireplace in my studio. Except for the fan, it runs silently, delivering warm air into a chilly space. I cannot see the electricity that fuels that heater, but the effects are evident.

In the Old Testament God gave His people the task of rebuilding the ruined temple. Zerubbabel was in charge, but he was not sure he was up to the task. Manpower was low as were supplies and morale. The Lord showed him a lampstand. Much like my heater, the oil went up into the stand without effort to produce a flame. Then God spoke.

So he answered and said to me: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
“Might” is a general word for human resources such as physical strength, ability, wealth, military power and force. Zerubbabel already knew that no armies of workers or the tons of wealth which Solomon employed in the first building of the temple would be at his disposal.

“Power” is a word used for the strength of human beings in all its forms — physical, mental, and material. The sentence structure repeats the negative to emphasize a total insufficiency of human strength and resources to accomplish the work of God.

If human resources could do God’s work, the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary. This verse makes the point that just as a lampstand was fed with oil without human effort, the temple would be restored not by the strength of Zerubbabel’s hands, but by the Spirit of God.

I looked up several other verses that talk about the power of God. Each one of them points to some aspect of Holy Spirit power that is unlike human ability.

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  (Acts 1:8)
And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. (Acts 4:33)
And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power . . . (1 Corinthians 2:4)
I can talk until I am blue in the face. I can debate with a strong, persuasive argument. Yet nothing I can say will convince the heart of a sinner that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. Like my heater, I cannot see Him at work in someone’s heart. If He allows me, I might see the results.

The work of the Spirit within a speaker or teacher or someone sharing the gospel is not at all like human effort. It happens because God has granted his people, “according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man” (Ephesians 3:16) and in that power, lives are changed.

Paul acknowledges this over and over. He wrote, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). He knew that words alone were not enough, but if the Holy Spirit was in their efforts, amazing things happened.

There is a difference between the power that makes oil go up a wick or the electricity that produces heat and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person, not a mere power. He points men and women to Jesus Christ. He convicts of sin, renews the heart, imparts comfort, teaches truth to God’s people, and so much more. I’ve learned, as have most Christians, that apart from the Holy Spirit we are dead in the water. He is God’s gift to us and our greatest resource in living the Christian life.

December 12, 2009

Simple or specific?

My mother wrote prayers in her journals. As she aged and her memory became confused, those prayers became simple requests that God would bless certain people and help them with what they are doing. Her heart shows in the prayers she wrote and I am blessed when I read them.

The Apostle Paul wrote prayers too, and prayer requests. His prayers are also a blessing and offer instructions in how to pray. For instance, these verses show how our requests can be specific.

Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you.  (Romans 15:30-32)
First he asked the Christians at Rome to pray for him through the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is our access to God, our mediator. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” This excludes priests and those that have been exalted to a superior status of saints (the Bible says all believers are saints).

The Bible makes clear that Jesus is “also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). That is why Christians pray in the name of Jesus and through Him. He gives us access to God.

Paul also asked the Christians at Rome to pray through the love of the Spirit. Natural affection might produce fervent prayer for a little while, but the love of the Holy Spirit will keep me praying long after my own emotions wear thin. Not only that, the Holy Spirit takes our prayers to God when we don’t even say them with our mouths.

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.  (Romans 8:26-27)
This are foundational concepts concerning Christian praying. Paul wrote about them again and again. Jesus talked also of the need to pray in His name and to love one another as He loved us. The love of the Holy Spirit not only motivates, but He helps us when we pray.

Paul’s actual prayer requests are specific too. He wanted the Christians at Rome to pray that he be delivered from those who persecuted him in Judea. They wanted to kill him. Paul was ready to die, but he also wanted to finish the work God had given him.

He asked that his work be acceptable to the “saints” meaning all those who believed. This could be a two-pronged request; one that he did an excellent job of what he did, and two, that the hearers had receptive hearts. Both were important to him.

His last request in this passage is that God’s will would bring him to them with joy and that they could be a blessing to each other. Sometimes I forget that these early Christians did not have the New Testament to comfort and instruct them. Of course they did not have e-mail, the Internet, facebook, Skype or conventional telephones. Communication took a long time.

Also, when I want to hear a well-known preacher, I can find many of his sermons on the Internet, even on i-tunes, but hearing Paul speak in those days meant a great deal of travel for either Paul or his listeners. It would have meant much to the church at Rome to know that Paul wanted to be with them and asked them to pray toward that end.

Now as I write this, I think again about my mother’s simple “God bless my children, in Jesus’ name” and know that God heard her. The Holy Spirit took those prayers to the throne of God and put His own spin on them, rounding them out so they included details of what we needed. I know God heard because God also answered — and I have been blessed.

December 11, 2009

Walk by faith

More than a decade ago and during several months of turmoil in my life, keeping a journal helped sort out my thoughts. To remind me that this time of life was not permanent, I wrote ahead on the top of random blank pages, “This too shall pass.”

Today’s devotional reading suggests the same idea about today’s challenges. I’ve been ill, struggling with a few “monkeys on my back” and having difficulty focusing. God seems far away — even though I know that He is not. This is a spiritual valley and I’ve been in them before.

Paul had walked through them too. He was physically in jail when he wrote Philippians, and although he spoke about joy, he also spoke about his choice. Rather than worry about his situation, he trusted God for the outcome, whatever that outcome might be.

For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  (Philippians 1:19-21)
Paul knew that his current distress was only temporary. He also knew that he would be delivered from it one way or another. His statement, “I know this will turn out for my deliverance” is a quote of the Greek version of Job 13:16, “He also shall be my salvation.”

I like the reference to Job. Job was a righteous man who suffered for seemingly no reason. Readers can see that his faith was being tested, but Job himself had no idea of the spiritual battle concerning him. In the end, he was delivered because God always delivers the righteous. Job also said, “After my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26). His faith was that God would deliver him, either temporally from his distress, or eternally from all distresses.

Paul had the same faith. His circumstances would work out for good, whether he was released from prison, vindicated at his trial, and delivered from execution, or whether he passed into glory as a martyr. No matter the method, he was not stuck in jail. This too would pass.

My trials are different and mostly concern my mental state and attitudes. Yesterday I began thinking about Job. I’m also reminded that faith is defined as, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). I recognize that I’ve been tipping too far into “walking by sight” and disappointed because I was not “seeing” God at work. Trust is not always rewarded immediately and I cannot demand that it be.

I also know that this valley is not permanent. Taking a jaunt with God through a dark place is His remedy to overcome my problem. He holds my hand and will not let go no matter what happens. His goal is the same as His goal was for Job and Paul. He wants me to trust Him, and know that He will do with me whatever He thinks best.

December 10, 2009

Don’t judge anyone, even myself

The fitness tests to enter the ranks of our city police are challenging. Friends have passed the test, but they questioned its value. I do too. Getting into the force is one thing, but what about the need to stay fit afterwards? Can a veteran police officer still leap buildings at a single bound? Some of those blue uniforms seem overstuffed.

We had a policeman help us move some furniture. A smaller, less muscular neighbor had little problem, but he had to stop for frequent rests. The requirements to get into the force do not seem to be maintained to stay in the force.

Today’s devotional verse also makes me pause. Jesus says, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33)

At the moment of conversion, I’m supposing that many Christians felt that way about forsaking all. This is not a painful decision for the wonder of knowing and following Jesus Christ is worth it. We are forgiven. God loves us. We can conquer anything.

Jesus also said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). This attitude of forsaking all is supposed to be a daily relinquishing of self, a constant attitude of heart with a follow-through in action. It is about not caring if I live or die as long as the will of God is done in my life. It was here at conversion. Is it still here?

My reading says that this attitude is practically unheard of in our materialistic, self-centered society. I agree. Most people today live for everything except the will of God. Sometimes Christians start out with a heartfelt willingness to forsake all then seem to slide gradually into a lesser commitment.

What happens? What happens to the policeman who trains for weeks to pass the test yet winds ups with a bread basket and becomes unlikely to outrun a robber? Too many donuts according to most cartoonists, but is that it? And what happens to Christians who once were filled with zeal for God and later find themselves more interested in doing their own thing?

I know the temptations of turning from all-out commitment to “wait a minute.” The energy of youth, and a zeal for changing the world both falter — one with age and the other with increased disappointment. Someone suggested that following Jesus would be easier with age, but I do not agree. The tests and trials become more challenging. The resources of youth and even health began to fade. The temptations to quit become stronger.

I’m thinking that part of the problem is that my former energy and zeal do not cut it and maybe I had been relying on them too much. Part of it is also realizing that the will of God is not as simple a matter as I once thought. My zeal isn’t always the same as His will.

At first, I met those tests to commitment with a youthful verve that could “handle anything” but now, my response must be different. I don’t have the same energy. What do I need to replace it? The Bible says that God is true and gives strength to the weak. The disciples said that they had no one else to go to but Jesus. Maturity discovers these things, or at least it should.

It takes more than physical strength to be a good policeman. Years of experience make up for some of that increased flab. A lesser sense of excitement and power is compensated for by steadfast wisdom and good judgment. The experiences of being “on the job” have great value over the high of an emotional commitment, for them and for God’s people too.

During the past week, I’ve noticed changes in the way that I think. At first I wondered if I’d lost something in the ups and downs of battling temptation and the trials of life. Then I thought of something the apostle Paul wrote:

Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.  (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)
Any evaluation of a policeman by his waistline is apt to be flawed and is certainly narrow-minded. In the same way, I am apt to also misread my own test results. Some things are better left with God.

December 9, 2009

Power to preach

Moving around North America gave us opportunity to experience many different churches and church leadership styles. Perhaps my love for variety and change helped, but in all of those moves, I’ve rarely become disenchanted with the preacher.

It helps to pick the right church in the first place. In one move, it took several months to find it. We tried to be discerning rather than fussy and eventually found one where the Bible was preached and the congregation was paying attention.

We always hoped for skill in the pulpit. Preaching is important. I’ve heard plagiarized sermons, sermons that were read, and sermons that had no basis in Scripture at all. I’ve heard poor preaching that impacted my heart, and good preaching that seemed empty. Sometimes a complex sermon offers a great challenge, but the challenge can also come from a simple message. Preaching is a mystery.

For all this, I’ve concluded that hearing a good sermon is not about the messenger or style of preaching. It is more about the message, but even a well-written message falls flat if the power of the Holy Spirit is not in it. 

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.  (Philippians 1:18)
The word “preach” often means “to proclaim with authority.” The message is important, but the authority behind it makes the difference between a powerful sermon and one that falls flat. Jonathan Edwards used to read his sermons without a great deal of speaking ability, yet the power of the Holy Spirit used what he said to bring sinners to their knees in a great revival.

Paul, as the verse indicates, knew that even a selfishly motivated preacher can still be used of God. God can also use those who fumble with their words, and those whose speaking is weak. This is possible because the truth, and the authority behind the truth, is more powerful than the package it comes in.

I remember sharing the gospel with a woman in California. I felt as if I’d bungled the message and was amazed that this woman received Christ and was saved. Later, I asked her what had been said that touched her heart. From her response, I realized that it was not my presentation that got through to her, but the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul didn’t care who received the credit, but that the gospel was preached. Most Christians think that way too. When we hear that the cause of Christ is being furthered and His name is proclaimed, we rejoice. Yet far too often, we critique the preacher instead of being thankful that Christ is proclaimed.

Sometimes I’d like to give someone a good sermon, but I know that my zeal to “set them straight” has nothing to do with the power of God. Preaching is vital, but anyone can preach. As Ephesians 3:21 says, God is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.”

I know that the power the Bible is talking about is not in my ability or in the ability of any preacher. Oratory or debating skills do not matter. For the message to get through to the human heart, the sermon must be infused by and delivered in the power of the Holy Spirit.

December 8, 2009

Support your pastor

Pastors can struggle in ways that their congregations may not realize. In our travels, we’ve found ourselves in several churches. For some reason, perhaps because the pastoral staff knew we would not be there long, we found ourselves taken into their confidence and sought out for encouragement and advice.

Today’s devotional reflects that leaders are targets. The pastor who wrote it finds it painful that Paul endured opposition. He even said, “At my first defense (speaking of his first trial in Rome) no one stood with me, but all forsook me” (2 Timothy 4:16). This happened to Paul, a godly man who was being obedient to God!

On another occasion, Paul wrote to the Philippians and said of Timothy, “I have no one like-minded . . .”  (Philippians 2:20). He felt there was just one person at that time that he could depend on. This is scary for the average person, even worse for someone in leadership.

Despite this sense of being alone, Paul was a positive thinker. He could see the hand of God in even the worst situations. Just before writing that only Timothy shared his mind on things, he wrote about his imprisonment:

But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice. (Philippians 1:12-18)
It was not Paul’ personality or anything about him that made him a target; it was his goal. All the unseen spiritual forces of evil are against the preaching of the gospel. The wickedness in this world opposes the message that will deliver people from sin and from the clutches of the evil one. No Christian leader is exempt from this opposition. No Christian layperson is either.

I’ve experienced some of this negativity during the past couple of days. God gave me the opportunity to share Christ with a person that I’ve known since my teens. She is of the opinion that she is a Christian, yet she does not know forgiveness, or have the assurance of eternal life. She is totally in the dark about redemption and grace. To her, Christianity is a “nice” kind of life in which she protects herself from unpleasantness, including the avoidance of any discussion about sin and repentance.

This time she asked me if I had any memorized prayers I could share with her. I told her that my prayer life was not like that, but more of an intimate conversation with a dear Friend. I shared how Jesus came into my life and changed me. I used a couple verses from the Bible, but my desire was not to “preach” but to share with her how the Lord saved me.

This was the second or third time I’ve shared with her. Both times it went right over her head. I’m reminded that Jesus said for some, when the seed of the Word is sown, the devil comes and snatches it away. The spiritual enemy has her happily living in her weeds and thinking they are sweet flowers, and he wants to keep things that way.

But he also doesn’t want me to talk about Jesus. I felt like he was hitting me again and again with sad, deflated, and hopeless kinds of thoughts, stuff I would not otherwise be thinking. This comes with a sense of spiritual oppression is like a black cloud and heavy.

All this supports the valid point of my devotional reading. If I get that sort of stuff thrown at me for sharing Christ, what happens to Christian pastors and leaders who are expected to do it all the time? Far too many Christians have “roast pastor” for Sunday dinner and have no idea how spiritual forces make their lives a battlefield. All of us ought to be on our knees praying for our pastors and others in leadership ministries.

December 7, 2009

Who am I pleasing?

I’m told there is a dearth in North America of biblical preaching. Even some of the giants are falling, men who normally held fast to the truths of Scripture are now waffling and trying to make the message more “appealing” to their listeners.

My sister told me yesterday that her pastor preached a sermon on a particular sin and said during his message that he knew only two other preachers who would dare to preach on the same topic. Can this failure to proclaim what the Bible says about this or any sin be stamped “people-pleasing” or are the reasons behind it more complicated? I don’t know. I do know that this is not a new thing.

Today’s devotional verse is insightful. Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel. He writes about his experience and says that he is glad the gospel continues to be preached even though,

Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: the former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains. (Philippians 1:15-16)
Even in the early church, some were jealous of Paul. They thought if they took over his job, they would “win” some sort of invisible competition and make themselves look better than the apostle, as if they were better because they never wound up in jail like he did? For them, it was more about looking good and being popular than proclaiming Christ.

After reading another chapter in Lou Priolo’s book, Pleasing People: How not to be an “approval junkie” I spent some time thinking about his topic and my own motivations. I came to the conclusion that, for me at least, pleasing-people is not an accurate description. I’m more interested in pleasing myself. At my sinful worst, I really don’t care what people think as long as I look good, and apart from Christ, I will not go out of my way to do anything to make them happy.

Of course Jesus died to redeem me from that attitude. He offers me His life and the Holy Spirit to change that selfishness into “love thy neighbor as thyself.” While doing so requires my cooperation, His kind of selfless love is His doing. I am not up to it without His grace and without that new life He gave me.

In our many relocations, we have gone to many churches and experienced many kinds of preaching and preachers. Some are gracious and like Jesus most of the time. They know how to speak the truth, surely in love, but without waffling. On the other hand, some have been an on and off mix of flesh and Spirit, confusing the congregation when selfish ambition or arrogance gets thrown into their ministry.

If the preacher is using the Bible and faithful to declare what it says, God is honored and the church enjoys a measure of health. When this does not happen, me-ism, and self-pleasing that looks like people-pleasing are usually present too, and in the long run, no one is pleased.

This is a warning to me and to everyone. Putting my own interests first can take many forms, but if left unchecked, it will have an impact on all that I do. God put me here not to please myself, not even to be a people-pleaser, but to please and glorify Him.