Holy Week…The Way of the Cross

The following are a series of Scripture readings and prayers for each day of the Passion Week. May the Holy Spirit use the Word to engender within you a deeper love for Christ, a greater adoration for his suffering and sacrifice on your behalf, and a firmer conviction to extend the love of Christ to a broken world at war with itself.

March 28, Palm Sunday… 

Philippians 2:5-11

Mark 11:1-11

Almighty and everlasting God, who, by your tender love towards humanity did send your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the Cross, so that all who believe might be reconciled to God and to each other; grant unto us that we might bend our stubborn hearts toward Him and to confess that He is our Lord and King so that we can become agents of his peace ; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

March 29, Monday before Easter…

Romans 5:1-8

Mark 14:1-16

Almighty God, whose dear Son did not experience joy before he first suffered pain, and did not enter glory before has was crucified; mercifully grant that we would also walk in the way of the cross even in our pain, and find it to be none other than the way of life and peace; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

March 30, Tuesday before Easter…

Isaiah 50:4-11

Mark 14:17-42

O Lord God, whose blessed Son, our Savior, gave his back to the smiters and did not hide his face from betrayal and shame; grant us grace that we might bear joyfully the affliction and injustice of this present time, knowing that we will never be separated from your love and that our suffering is discipline—not punishment of our sin, through Jesus Christ or Savior. Amen

March 31, Wednesday before Easter…

John 4:7-11

Mark 14:43-65

Assist us mercifully by the Spirit, O Lord God, that we might love others with the love whereby we have been loved by you; and may the sacrificial love of your Son move us to give ourselves away to others for the sake of the gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

April 1, Maundy Thursday…

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-15

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night he was betrayed, did institute Communion; mercifully grant that we might thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him while recognizing the responsibility to serve those around us, even those with whom we sit at table; through Jesus Christ, the Servant. Amen. {Perhaps you can gather a few friends or family members and share the Lord’s Supper together.}

April 2, Good Friday…

Hebrews 10:4-25

Mark 15:16-41

Merciful God, who made all people for yourself and for your glory and desire none to perish, but that all should come to repentance; have mercy upon those who do not know you, and lead them to the One who was lifted up, so that all might be drawn to him and become one flock under one Shepherd, even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 

April 3. The Saturday before Easter…

Hebrews 13:20, 21

Mark 15:42-47

Grant, O Lord, that as we have been baptized into the death of your blessed Son, we might die to sin and the evil inclinations of our hearts, looking forward to the Blessed Hope and glorious appearing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, when we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is; world without end. Amen. 

Postscript: Please take this opportunity to pray for all those who will come under the preaching of the Gospel in Easter services around the world.

Lenten Devotionals, Week 6…March 22-27

As we prepare for next week, Holy Week, let us do an inventory of our spiritual lives as the basis for personal revival. May we not shy away from a close examination of our own sinfulness before a Holy God. We do all this in the light of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

March 22, Monday… Acts 2:37, 38 

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven (remitted). And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

So, what is the best thing to do with true guilt?…get forgiven. 

John Calvin wrote, “Justification by faith is reconciliation with God and that consists solely in remission of sins…the only way in which those whom God embraces are made righteous, is by having their [sins] wiped away by the remission of sins, so that this justification (reconciliation) may be termed in one word the remission of sins.” 

The word REMISSION has an interesting meaning. It has the word missio in it, which means to send away. It is used as a medical term- the cancer is in remission (no longer present, sent away); a financial term- please remit (send away your money to us); a theological term- forgiveness- (aphesis, to send away one’s sins).

Psalm 103:12 “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he (God) removed our transgressions from us.”

Micah 7:18, 19 “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread all our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”

Isaiah 1:18 “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.’”

The scarlet “A” on Hester Prynne’s chest represented the crimson stain of her sin. She cried out, “O to be forgiven, to have this letter taken away!”  And here God says, “Though your sins be as scarlet… No matter how dark the stain of sin in your life, I can take it away and make you clean.” 

Have you cried out to God for remission of your sin? If you are ready, He is willing.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
 (Horatio Spafford)

March 23, Tuesday… Personal Revival

When we properly confess our sins before God, we are essentially agreeing with him that a certain area of our life has fallen short of his glory and we recognize our need of forgiveness. It is important that we are specific about our confession in order to prevent self deception.

Over the next few days, I would like to give you the opportunity to do a moral inventory and to bring specific things before God and agree with him that they are sin and need to be forgiven. These are adapted from Richard Owen Robert’s Twelve Articles of Agreement for Personal Revival. Prayerfully consider each one and the Scripture upon which that agreement is based. 

Lord, I agree that sin in my life has always been and is now a very real problem and that I deserve to go to hell for it [Romans 3:9-23; 7:24; Ephesians 2:1-2; Hebrews 12:1]. 

Lord, I agree with You that the great wickedness of all my sin has been and is against You. “Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned and done this great evil in Thy sight” [Psalms 51:4]. “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” [Genesis 39:9]. 

Lord, I agree with You that repentance from all my sin is demanded, that I must cease taking advantage of Your goodness by failing to repent [Romans 2:4] and that I cannot know the refreshing that revival brings until this accomplished [Acts 3:19].

March 24, Wednesday…

Lord, I agree that public confession of public sin is mandatory [James 5:16] and that private confession of private sin must be regularly practiced. “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” [Matthew 5:23-24]. 

Lord, I agree that restitution to any I have wronged is a necessary qualification for personal revival [2 Samuel 12:6; Jeremiah 35:15; Ezekiel 33:15; Luke 19:8], for knowing that I have defrauded another and not to make it right will prevent me from having a conscience void of offense toward all men [Acts24:16] and will leave me with a heart that condemns me and hinders my prayers [I John 3:20]. 

Lord, I agree that you are holy and so must I be (Leviticus 19:2). But Father, I am so aware of my own tendency to wander onto unholy paths that have been well-worn over the years. “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.” May I be holy, like you. 

March 25, Thursday…

 Lord, I agree that holiness is Your will for my life, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification” [I Thessalonians 4:3]. 

 Lord, I agree that holiness was purchased by Christ on His cross [I Corinthians 1:30] and is received by faith just as is justification [II Thessalonians 2:13]. 

Lord, I agree that You elected me to holiness [Ephesians 1:4] and this election has removed forever my right to choose to be sinful. I accept as my duty the daily reckoning of myself to be dead indeed unto sin and alive unto God [Romans 6:11]. 

Lord, I agree to guard what I read and what I see: books, magazines, television, movies, women (men) on the street, [“I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” Job 31:1]. I agree not to look upon another person with disdain or prejudice due to their wealth or poverty, skin color or ethnicity (James 2:1. I also agree that I would be better off without eyes rather than to have eyes that bring me down to hell [Matthew 18:9-10]. 

March 26 Friday…

Lord, I agree to guard what I listen to: jokes, gossip, racist criticism of others, flattery, religious views, suggestive stories, etc., and will regularly heed the words of Jesus, “Take heed how you hear” [Luke 8:18]. “Take heed what your hear” [Mark 4:24]. 

Lord, I agree to guard what I touch and how I touch it — money, goods, sex, etc., knowing the grievous error of sins of greed and lust [Exodus 20:17; Proverbs 15:27; Matthew 6:27-30]. 

Lord, I agree to guard what I taste and smell and the reason related thereto, for I acknowledge that gluttony and drunkenness are evil in Your sight [Psalms 34:8; 119:103; Proverbs 23:2-3; 20-221; Luke 21:34; Romans 16:18; I Corinthians 10:31; Galatians 5:19-21; Philippians 3:19; James 1:13-15; I Peter 2:2-3; 4:3]. 

Lord, I agree to place a guard over my entire body, knowing that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 10:28; Romans 6:12; 8:13; I Corinthians 6:19; 9:27]. 

March 27, Saturday… Isaiah 53:1-6

Early in the nineteenth century, Philip Doddridge wrote his classic work

The Rise and Progress of Religion In The Soul. It traces God’s work of salvation from the point of conviction of sin through conversion, from awakening to the life of God to preparing for death. After a lengthy discourse on the depths of human sin, Doddridge begins his presentation of the good news of the gospel. 

“Look upon our dear Redeemer! Look up to this mournful, dreadful, yet, in one view delightful spectacle, and then ask in thine own heart, do you believe he suffered and died thus? And why did he die? Let me answer in God’s own words, He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him, that by his stripes we might be healed; It pleased the Lord to bruise him and to put him to grief, when he made his soul an offering for sin; for, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.  You have indeed been a very great sinner, and your offences have truly been attended with the most heinous aggravations; nevertheless you may rejoice in the assurance, that where sin abounded, there shall grace much more abound…That righteousness, to which on believing on him, thou wilt be entitled, shall not only break those chains by which sin is (as it were) dragging thee at its chariot wheels with a furious pace to eternal ruin, but shall clothe thee with the robes of salvation, shall fix thee on the throne of glory, where thou shalt live and reign forever among the princes of heaven…But I have the authority of God’s Word to tell thee, that if thou this day sincerely believest in the name of the Son of God, thou shalt this day be taken under his care, and be numbered among those of his sheep, to whom he graciously declared, that he will give eternal life; and, that they shall never perish…With this gospel, O sinner, which is my life, and which, if thou dost not reject it, will be thine too.”

My soul confides in your goodness, O God. I adore the patience with which you have carried me for so long, and the grace which now makes me wiling to be yours- on your terms. As I prepare for this Holy Week, have mercy upon me and unite me to yourself so that none of the allurements of this world or the unbiblical perspectives of my culture may draw me back from you and plunge me into guilt and ruin. May I keep my hold upon you until at length I know more completely how sufficient a Savior you are. Through Christ, I pray. Amen.

The Future of Hope…

I have observed that one of the side-effects of our present pandemic is to narrow our focus on life down to the present and muddle our ability to see the big picture offered by the future. Any crisis does the same thing, because it crushes future hope by the incredible weight of present circumstances.

I’ve had to struggle with this with my cancer; the tendency to lose perspective and to allow my life to cave in upon itself, to the place where I lose hope and life becomes just about me. This is why it has been important to do things to get myself out of myself: praying for others who are suffering, learning new things (like reading extensively on Black history and racial inequities in the history of our nation), like keeping a month-at-a-glance calendar (so that I’m looking ahead and not just at today), looking at my medical appointments and treatments as field trips where I get to travel to places I have never been and meet new people (like going to Bethesda, Maryland each week for treatment and getting to stay in a hotel or with my grandchildren who live within half-an-hour from the hospital), creating daily and future projects (like fixing up my basement, writing a blog or a devotional, or a book), and planning future events even though I might not still be around (like speaking in some churches this summer). I do this knowing full well that the future belongs to God, but just thinking about the future gives me hope.

I have also observed that in my reading of the prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, while God spends a great deal of time raking Israel over the coals of judgment for its history of idolatry and rebellion, he also scatters a message of a future throughout, “For I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future and a hope.” There is a future beyond exile, beyond coming back into the land, beyond a rebuilt Jerusalem and a Temple. It is a future where Messiah will establish his kingdom of truth and justice, and God’s people (the New Israel= Church) will have a heart to worship and obey their God throughout eternity. In the face of calamity, God is always pushing his people into the future—always giving them hope.

This morning, I read Daniel 1-2 and saw the same thing. Daniel and his 3 friends were captives in Babylon taken from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar (Neb) during the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah. They were older teenagers at the time and most of you know the story… they graduated from a 3-yr. training program at Babylonia U and were put on the staff of advisors to King Neb himself—not a bad job for right out of college. The king had a dream that scared him and asked his team of advisors to tell him his dream (apparently he had forgotten it) and what it meant. His advisors were smart enough to realize this was mission impossible without knowing what the dream was in the first place. The King was not a reasonable man—people with power don’t tend to be, and ordered that all his advisors be shot at dawn (or executed in some way, maybe not at dawn).

Daniel heard about this and sent word to the King asking for a little more time and he would relate the dream and its meaning. Then he and his buddies pulled an all-nighter (prayer meeting) until God graciously gave them the answer. He related it to the King and asked that no advisor be executed. He humbly acknowledged that it was the God of heaven who gave him the answer and not because he (Daniel) was wiser than anyone else.

The dream revealed the image of a man made up of different kinds of metals/material, representing the different empires of the world and their worth/power. King Neb was the head of gold; next would come the Medo-Persian Empire under Cyrus, then the Greek Empire under Alexander, then the Roman Empire which would ultimately be divided up into smaller kingdoms making alliances with one another, which anticipates the rise of nationalism and our present world of nation-states and their treaties—America is included in here along with NATO, etc.. (These are my interpretations, by the way.) Then Daniel saw a Rock cut from the mountain that struck the image and brought it all tumbling down, the same way that the God of heaven will someday bring an end to the nations of the world and set up a kingdom that will never be conquered or destroyed and which will rule forever. This is a glimpse into the future that God allowed those whose lives had been narrowed by captivity to see. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for he alone has all wisdom and power. World events are under his control. He removes kings and sets others on their thrones. He gives wise men their wisdom, and scholars their intellects.” (Dan 2:20, 21-Living Bible) Idi Amin of Uganda fathered 43 children (or more) and called himself, His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall of Al Hadj, Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. He also called himself The Last King of Scotland for reasons known only to him. This peacock died after 8 yrs., just like every other peacock that has ruled, or will rule.

Yet, the time is coming when “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run; his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.”(Isaac Watts, 1719) This is our future and our hope; to have a king (president, premiere, prime minister) who loves us, who died for us, and will rule with justice and equity, truth and righteousness. Let this pry open our narrowed views caused by our present crises and give us a hope-filled perspective by which to live. “If the last hour belongs to God, we need not fear the next moment.” (Helmut Thielicke)

Lenten Devotionals, Week 5… March 15-21

March 15, Monday…Psalm 42:5 

Why are you downcast, O my soul?  Why are you disquieted within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him for his help. .  

The mistake we often make is that we look for a source of comfort in ourselves rather than in God. Our hope is in God not what we feel him to be at the moment. For it is only in His countenance or presence (not our own) that our help (salvation) is found. That is why the Scripture is so important to our prayer life. The Word of God reveals to us the being and character of God and encourages us to place our hope and trust in him.  

Notice also how the psalmist here speaks to himself.  Why are you downcast, O my soul?  I think that is one of the traits of spiritual health.  We get into trouble when we listen to ourselves:

Why did God allow this if he loved me?

Maybe I’m being punished for my past sins.

Going back home to God will be such a long process I don’t want to try.

Instead we need to learn to speak to ourselves and utter forth a confession of faith and trust in the Lord.  “Why are you so discouraged, O my soul?  All of your past experience adds up to the fact that God has not abandoned you.  Hope in him, hang onto him, though you may feel no reason to do so, your past gives you full warrant to trust God.”  This is faith at its strongest- believing in God in spite of our feelings and circumstances, because we have remembered his goodness to us in the past. 

My God, my Life, my Love.

To thee, to thee I call.

I cannot live, if thou remove,

For thou art all in all.

Thy shining grace can cheer

This dungeon where I dwell. 

‘Tis paradise when thou art here.

If thou depart, ‘tis hell.

Thou art the sea of love,

Where all my pleasures roll,

The circle where my passions move

And center of my soul. (Isaac Watts, 1674-1748)

March 16, Tuesday… Psalm 42:6-11

Here the psalmist turns from talking to himself to speaking with God in prayer.  Mark that; though he is in despair he is also in prayer.  He also says that God is “my God.”  It reminds me of the prayer that Jesus prayed from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”  Most of us don’t even speak to God when we have a crisis of faith. Instead we speak about him, almost like we talk behind his back:  

If he is so powerful why didn’t he do something?

If he is so loving, why did he let that happen?

In addition to claiming God as his God, the psalmist also says that he “remembers God.”  In the face of crisis, he rehearses what he knows to be true about God so that he has a context in which to work out the things he does not yet understand. To put it another way: he is speaking out his strong convictions so that he might have a framework in which to work through his strong emotions.  He goes back to the basics through his remembrance and finds a place for his faith to stand.  Like a calf on ice, he gathers the legs of faith under him.  Look at what he remembers about God:

v. 8- The steadfast love of the Lord. The word for steadfast love is hesed, God’s covenant love to his people.  It is a love that has been pledged by God to those he has chosen and therefore can never be withdrawn.   

v. 9- God is my Rock.  He is unchanging even though life has changed for the psalmist. “I was young and now I’m old but I have never seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread.”  God will never change from the time we called out to him when we are children to the time we take our last breath.  God is our Rock.

Do you see what he is doing?  He is rehearsing what he knows to be true about God’s character in order to put into perspective what he doesn’t understand about God’s ways.  This leads to the refrain of hope in v.11, “Why are you cast down O my soul.  Put your hope in God for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God.”

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

When darkness hides His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace;

In ev’ry high and stormy gale my anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant, His blood support me in the whelming flood;

When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. (Edward Mote)

March 17, Wednesday… Psalm 139:1-6

The intimacy of relationship with God is reflected in God’s comprehensive knowledge of us.  It should be noted that the perfect tense is used throughout this section indicating that God is not some “heavenly deteco-guard system,” continually testing and evaluating us. He already knows all there is to know about us.  

To search for something usually implies some measure of ignorance, some lack of knowledge. However, the Psalmist is saying that He has always known us completely.  As Spurgeon said, “There never was a time in which we were unknown to God, and there will never be a moment in which we shall be beyond his observation.”  

To paraphrase: “He has always known my sitting down and my rising up- my passive and active moments. He has always discerned my thoughts from afar- not merely detected what I’m thinking but has discerned them even before they are fully formed in my mind. He has always comprehended my path (my journey), my lying down (when I stop off at the hotel), and all my ways (the very reason for the trip). He has always known the words I will speak before they are formed. He has set limits on my behavior so that I am not able to ultimately destroy myself. He has always guided me by His hand.”

The Psalmist responds in amazement, “such knowledge is too wonderful,” it is too lofty for his finite mind to comprehend.  How could such a great God take such a personal interest in him? And for the believer in Christ, how can such a great God know me so completely and yet love me so intimately?  As someone has said, “Isn’t it odd, that a being like God, who sees the façade, still loves the clod, he made out of sod. Yes, isn’t it odd?”

Could we with ink the oceans fill and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and ev’ry man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry,nor could the scroll contain the whole tho’ stretched from sky to sky. (Frederick Lehman)

March 18, Thursday… Psalm 139:7-12

The Psalmist considers another characteristic of God’s nature, His omnipresence.  He wonders if there is any place where he can go where God is not present.  I don’t think he is asking this question because he is guilty and wants to run away from God. Instead, the Psalmist meditates on the extent to which God’s presence permeates His creation and he takes great comfort from this.  Probably better to translate it “Where could I go from your presence?” The Psalmist explores the physical dimensions of the universe; its height and depth, its breadth, its light and darkness, and concludes that there is nowhere in the universe that he could go beyond the presence of God. An old poem by Bela Edwards (1802-1852) says it like this:

How from thy presence could I go,

  Or whither from thy Spirit could I flee,

Since all above, around below,

  Exist in Thine immensity?

If up to heaven I take my way, 

  I meet Thee in eternal day.

If in the grave I make my bed

  With worms and dust, lo! Thou art there!

If on the wings of morning sped,

  Beyond the ocean I repair,

I feel thine all-controlling will,

  And Thy right hand upholds me still.

“Let darkness hide me,” if I say,

  Darkness can no concealment be;

Night, on Thy rising shines like day; 

  Darkness and light are one with Thee.

For thou mine embryo form did view,

  Ere her own babe my mother knew.

We could also personalize this section.  “Could I reach any point in my life that would separate me from your presence?  If I experience the heights of success, you are there.  If I am dragged through the depths of failure, you are there as well.  If I fly away from responsibility and live in the land of my own self-gratification, even there you are present and will bring me back to my senses.  If depression and despair come over me like a dark cloud so that I feel you no longer care, I will remember that you are also present in the darkness where you are doing your greatest work.”    

March 19, Friday… Psalm 139:13-18

The Psalmist indicates that God’s knowledge and care of us flow from His creation of us.  It is almost as if the writer sees himself as some kind of masterpiece of God’s design. 

      “You formed my vital parts (literally the kidneys, those deepest organs which cannot be detected, like a heart through its beat) and knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

        “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  We are to consider ourselves so wonderful as to recognize that we have been wonderfully created by an awe-inspiring God. Here we see that the main focus of the Psalmist is God and yet creation takes on significance because of the character of the Creator.  (When we jettison God we also scuttle our human dignity- Romans 1:18 f.)

        “My very frame (literally my bones (our strength and latent potential) was not hidden from God when I was being made, skillfully made in the lowest parts of the earth.”  This is a poetic expression. All of us like Adam come from dust and “the same skill that made Adam makes every son and daughter of Adam.”  (H.C. Leupold) 

         “All of my days were ordained” by God, even before I came out of the oven. God has given us significance by virtue of our creation and a destiny by virtue of his sovereignty. Compare this to Jeremiah 1:5.

Instead of getting caught up in questions concerning foreknowledge and foreordination the Psalmist asserts how precious these thoughts are to him.  Who can comprehend God’s love and mercy?  Who can number God’s thoughts for all his creation? I may at times be unimportant in my own sight or that of the world, but I am never thus in the sight of my God.  

March 20, Saturday… Psalm 139:19-24

There is a surprising turn in the mood of the psalmist which is baffling. He seems to lash out at the wicked for their disobedience and ill-treatment of God.  This is not a New Testament response. We are not told to hate those who hate God, but to pray for them.  However, I do not believe that the Psalmist is motivated by a spirit of revenge (as in Psalm 63) as much as a spirit of grief over the dishonoring of a Holy God who is merciful and gracious.  We may be more tolerant, but are we as zealous for God’s honor and glory?  Do we grieve when others used the name of the Lord in vain? Do we grieve when we see those wonderfully created by God and blessed by His providential care blaspheme that same God, worse yet, ignore their God and live at the level that belies their dignity and significance?

 It is important to notice that the Psalmist finishes his thought not by condemning the sin of the ungodly, but by directing the radar gun on his own life. He asks God to continue to search him and know him and point out to him the unwholesome things that may keep him from the path of life.  He submits himself to the scrutiny of God. More specifically he asks that God might know his “anxious thoughts.” In what ways do our worries lead us to sin? Since he has already acknowledged that God knows him better than he knows himself, this is a prayer for further sanctification. He desires that God reveal things about his life that he does not yet know so that he can be purified.

 There are two kinds of hypocrisy: one where we deceive others and a second where we deceive ourselves. The first kind is dealt with by recognizing God’s omniscience and omnipresence in our world and in our lives. The second kind of hypocrisy—that of self deception, is dealt with by placing ourselves under the search light of God’s holy gaze and asking him to reveal the filth of our own natures to our own eyes. He doesn’t say, “I have searched myself and find no wicked way in me,” rather “Search me O God…and see if there be any way of pain in me.” That is an interesting way to describe sin- “the way of pain.”  However, it is true isn’t it? When we live our lives apart from the command of God we bring great pain upon ourselves and others. This way of life is put in sharp contrast with “the way everlasting” in which the Psalmist desired to walk. The way of pain results from the unexamined life. The way of righteousness comes as God searches us out and purifies us. 

In which way do you desire to walk? What are you going to do about it?

March 21, Sunday… Matthew 26:26-28

A universal question: What do you do with your guilt? The discussion of guilt takes religion out of the theoretical and brings it down to the real. So, let me ask you that question again: what do you do with your guilt?  What do you do with those feelings of shame or remorse that haunt you because of certain things that you have done? Someone has likened dealing with guilt to wrestling an octopus in a dark aquarium at midnight. We all have to do it and we have set up ways to deal with our guilt:

Denial. “What, me? I don’t have any guilt.” Psychology over the last forty-five years has tried to get rid of guilt through psychotherapeutic means –  helping people relieve their guilt by convincing them they did not do anything wrong. The problem is that guilt does not disappear just because we deny its existence. In fact, we are learning that many physical, psychological, and character disorders are the result of the following cover-ups for guilt: 

Transfer- shift the blame. “I know I shouldn’t have said those awful things about her, but she deserved it for all the things she’s done to me.”

Rationalize. “I know I lied, but it was just a little one—not nearly as bad as others who lie all the time.”

Conceal and Self-Punish.   Many of you have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne is prosecuted in a New England Puritan town as an adulteress and has to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her clothes as a life time punishment for her sin. She would not reveal the name of the man with whom she had committed adultery, who is none other than the local pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale. He does not go public with his sin and it eats away at him and causes him to literally carve a letter “A” into the skin of his own chest. 

All of these responses indicate that guilt is both powerful and important. What we need to understand is that guilt has a pay-off; it serves a purpose and that is why it needs to be dealt with and not ignored. God has given us the ability to feel guilt very much like he has blessed us with the ability to feel pain. Did you ever think that if you could not feel pain you would never know that something was wrong?  If you put your hand on a hot stove and didn’t feel it, you might never know that your flesh was burning until it was too late. Likewise, when we feel guilty it usually indicates that something is wrong, and that we have to do something about it. Is it time to “fess up?” 

Let me warn all careless members of churches to beware lest they trifle their souls into hell. You live on year after year as if there was no battle to be fought with sin, the world, and the devil. You pass through life a smiling, laughing gentleman-like or lady-like person and behave as if there was no devil, no heaven, and no hell. Oh, careless Churchman…awake to see eternal realities in their true light! Awake and put on the armor of God! Awake and fight hard for life! Tremble, tremble and repent. (J,C. Ryle, 1816-1900)   

Listen up, you people…part 2

Listen to this message from God, O King of Judah, sitting on David’s throne; and let your servants and your people listen too. The Lord says, “Be fair-minded. Do what is right! Help those in need of justice! Quit your evil deeds! Protect the rights of aliens and immigrants, orphans and widows; stop murdering the innocent! If you put an end to all these terrible deeds you are doing, then I will deliver this nation and once more give kings to sit on David’s throne, and there shall be prosperity for all.”

And woe to you King Jehoiachin, for you are building your great palace with forced labor (slave labor). By not paying wages you are building injustice into its walls, and oppression into its doorframes and ceilings….Why did your father Josiah reign so long? Because he was just and fair in all his dealings. That is why the Lord blessed him. He saw to it that justice and help were given the poor and needy and all went well for him. This is how a man lives close to God. Jeremiah 22:2-4, 13, 15-16 (TLB)

Please refer to my previous post (part 1).

The second major point that I see in the Book of Jeremiah (as with nearly all the major and minor prophets) is the tremendous emphasis on “social justice.” I know that is a loaded term now days, but the above verses put it in context. One cannot get away from this clarion call that God wants his people and their leaders to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) The problem I see is that some isolate justice issues and empty them of their spiritual dimension. In the same way, others isolate the spiritual from social realities—separating out walking humbly with God from doing justice and loving mercy.

Israel was punished by God because of idolatry; they broke the first and second commandments and all of their other grievous sins as outlined in the passages above flowed out of this. “Idolatry isn’t just one of many sins; rather it’s the greatest sin that all others come from….Idolatry isn’t an issue; it is the issue.” (Kyle Idleman) Read Ezekiel 20 and see that the history of Israel was a history of idolatry.

The “social justice issues” raised in the passages above illustrate this. Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, providing justice for the oppressed, paying fair wages, etc., flow from knowing and worshipping the true God and bestowing honor and dignity upon all those whom he has created. Replacing the knowledge and worship of the true God with idolatry (like King Jehoiachin and Israel had done) exposed the social order to injustice and removed the protective shield of ultimate value of the individual that worship of the true God alone provides.

Paul’s graphic portrayal of idolatry in Romans 1:21-32 clearly reveals the connection between the refusal to believe in the Creator God, the worship of created things (idolatry), and all forms of consequences which plague our world, our society, our families, and our own personal lives today. When we exchange the truth of God for a lie, we believe the lie and live our lives any way we choose, often to our own self-destruction. We also give ultimate value to issues that we deem most important such as freedom, nationalism, institutional racism, social justice, immigration, reparations. We worship these idols and they drive us to actions where the end often justify the means—like an attack on the Capitol. When you have a god before God it can lead to a toxic and self-destructive springboard to all kinds of havoc and injustice.

“Racism, therefore, is not merely horizontally unjust, depriving other creatures of what they are due; it is also vertically unjust, failing to give the Creator his due by making race and ultimate issue of devotion….Look deep enough underneath any horizontal human-against-human injustice and you will always find a vertical human-against-God injustice, a refusal to give the Creator the worship only the Creator is due.All injustice is a violation of the first commandment” (Thaddeus Williams, “Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth.” p 18)

The Black church was at the center of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s. Many of its most prominent leaders were empowered by the belief that all humanity was the children of God to be treated with justice, kindness, and equality—because God gave them that dignity. As long as we fail to recognize that all injustice is a deeply spiritual issue (“a violation of the first commandment”), we will never have a unified platform from which to solve the multiplex of social justice issues facing us today. Instead, we will divide ourselves into tribes, declare war on other tribes, and arrive at solutions that only satisfy our tribe and the gods we worship. Our nation needs revival if it is to have unity!

Listen up, you people… part 1

Listen to this message from God, O King of Judah, sitting on David’s throne; and let your servants and your people listen too. The Lord says, “Be fair-minded. Do what is right! Help those in need of justice! Quit your evil deeds! Protect the rights of aliens and immigrants, orphans and widows; stop murdering the innocent! If you put an end to all these terrible deeds you are doing, then I will deliver this nation and once more give kings to sit on David’s throne, and there shall be prosperity for all.”

And woe to you King Jehoiachin, for you are building your great palace with forced labor (slave labor). By not paying wages you are building injustice into its walls, and oppression into its doorframes and ceilings….Why did your father Josiah reign so long? Because he was just and fair in all his dealings. That is why the Lord blessed him. He saw to it that justice and help were given the poor and needy and all went well for him. This is how a man lives close to God. Jeremiah 22:2-4, 13, 15-16 (TLB)

I really enjoyed reading through Jeremiah recently. What a difficult ministry this prophet had—being called a traitor and persecuted because he preached a spiritual message that became politicized because it advocated surrender to the forces of Babylon and not seeking help from allies such as Egypt. Essentially, he was called to speak on God’s behalf to a people that would not listen. I had never before noticed how often the word listen was used in the text, especially from chapter 20 through through the end of the book. To listen to the Word of the Lord means to obey the Word of the Lord—you will not listen to me and obey the laws I have given you. (26:4)

There is a powerful example of this in Chapter 42*, where a guy named Johanan comes to Jeremiah and asks him to pray to God on his behalf, to show him and the men he was leading what to do next. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had already captured Jerusalem, removed King Zedekiah, and replaced him with a governor who would rule of the king’s behalf. Johanan was a Jewish guerrilla leader and did not know whether they should stay and fight or whether they should flee to Egypt. Apparently this guerrilla force was sizable because it included families as well. “May the curse of God be on us if we should refuse to obey whatever he (God) says we should do. Whether we like it or not, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we send you with our plea.” (42:5-6) So far so good. God gives his answer to Jeremiah who sends for Johanan and his guerrilla force: “Stay here in this land. If you do, I will bless you and no one will harm you….Don’t fear the King of Babylon any longer, for I am with you to save you and to deliver you from his hand.” (42:10-11)

You won’t believe what happens next. Johanan and his leaders said, “You lie! The Lord our God hasn’t told you to tell us not to go to Egypt!” They proceeded to flee to Egypt and took Jeremiah as a captive along with them. He was viewed with distain as he continued to prophesy and the people continued to worship their false gods. In fact, there was a group of women who were burning incense to the “Queen of Heaven” (the goddess Isis of Ashtoreth) and said to Jeremiah who was most likely on their case, “We will not listen to your false messages from God. We will do whatever we want to. We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and sacrifice to her just as much as we like—just as we and our father before us, and our kings and princes have aways done in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem… ” (44:16-17) Tradition tells us that Jeremiah died in Egypt, most likely stoned to death by his own people.

We may marvel as the brashness and irrationality of this Jewish remnant who seemed so eager to hear from God and then refused to listen to what he said. But we must understand there this was the result of a long process of disobedience, where their hearts had become hardened to the place where they listened only to what they wanted to hear. Do you listen when you read or hear the Word of God or does it in one ear and out the other? Please do not get to that place where your heart grows hardened and your ears deaf. We must daily be on our knees before our God asking him to bend our hearts toward him so we might listen to him speak to us in his Word. And when we hear it, It must lead us first to repentance, then to worship, and then to obedience. May we heed to counsel of old Eli to young Samuel; “Speak Lord, for you servant is listening.”

*another powerful example can be found in Jeremiah 38:14-28

part 2 is coming...

Lenten Devotionals, Week 4…March 8-14

Monday, March 8… Romans 6:1, 2

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

The apostle Paul is saying that the key to victory over sin is to preside over our own funeral, as my friend Dick Burr used to say. In other words, victory over sin comes when we see ourselves as dead men/women walking. 

Perhaps we might respond by saying that if Paul wanted to challenge us to overcome sin in our lives, he might have done it in a more positive way. However, Francis Schaeffer once said, “True spirituality does not stop with the negative, but without the negative…we are not ready to go on.”  

Many people do not like Paul because he always sounds pessimistic. We like Jesus much better; he was so kind and positive. Yet we forget that the first words that Jesus preached were the same as that fire and brimstone crazy guy, John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17) Repentance is an acknowledgement of our sinful condition and a turning away from our self-centered life, not just as a one shot deal but one a daily basis. Jesus also said to those who claimed to be his disciples, “If anyone would be my follower, he must deny (say “no”) to himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) Argh! So much for the positive; for self-affirmation and awareness! Perhaps that is why there are so few followers of Christ compared with those who claim to be Christians. Just as we are to be engaged in on-going faith and trust in God, so we need to practice on-going repentance. 

God almighty, eternal, and merciful; I confess that I have sinned against you in thought word and deed, especially (be specific about what the Holy Spirit brings to mind). I repent of these things and pray that you would take the practice of them away because they are interfering with my love and honor of you, my Father. I understand that repentance does not magically eliminate the consequences of my sin and in some cases I will need to make restitution. But I bask in the thought that you will no longer hold these things against me for the sake of my crucified savior, and that you have promised to place them as far from you as the east is from the west. I am humbled and amazed and ask that you would use me to help others find their way back to you again. Though Christ, I pray. Amen.

Tuesday, March 9… Romans 6:3-5

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?      

It is my understanding that the New Testament teaches that faith in Christ is the key to acceptance with God and water baptism is an external symbol of this internal faith. This is why many of us do not baptize infants who are incapable of faith (although there are fine believers who do baptize their infants because they see baptism as the NT counterpart of circumcision; a covenantal rite by which these children become a part of the believing community). 

However, in this passage Paul claims that baptism is more than a symbol of faith; it is also a symbol of the union or personal relationship that we have with Christ because of our faith. Note the linking phrases:  baptized into Christ…baptized into His death…buried with Him…united with Him in His death…united with Him in His resurrection.  Faith so connects me to Christ that his history becomes my history. Thus, from God’s perspective, whatever happened to Christ has happened to me, and whatever will happen to Christ will also happen to me. For example, if I slip a piece of paper into the book I am holding, and close the book, whatever I then do with that book I also do with the paper inside.  If Christ is the book and I am the paper in the book, then whatever happens to Christ happens to me. When Christ died, so did I; when Christ was buried, so was I; when Christ rose to newness of life, so did I. My old identity has changed and now Christ is my new identity; when God looks at me, he sees his beloved son. His history, my history: His future, my future. Praise be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! Amen. 

O my Lord, how can I live a morally indifferent life, as if little has changed? Grace forbids it, because the life of grace is a life of profound spiritual union with you, my crucified, buried and risen Head. You have taught me to expect new holiness to emerge from within my character, for the life of grace includes sanctification no less than justification. After all, you rose just as much as you died and were buried. So how could your grace fail to lift me to a new life? Make your grace for me not an excuse for sin but a power for obedience, I earnestly pray. In your holy name. Amen. (R.C. Ortlund, Jr)      

Wednesday, March 10… Romans 6:6-10

For we know that our old self (identity) was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away…

My old self, the old (I mean, the really old) Dave McDowell, who was as guilty as sin before God and dominated by the power of sin, was crucified with Christ when the savior died on the cross as my substitute – to what effect?  …. that our body of sin might be done away with (katargeo– defeated, disabled, deprived of power), that we should no longer be slaves to sin.  The body of sindoes not mean that our bodies are sinful.  Rather, it means that my old sinful nature, which used my body to express itself (as an instrument), has now been deprived of its power to enslave me.  Now, because I am in Christ, I am free (not to live as I please, but) to use my body as an instrument of his righteousness.  Sin’s power to accuse me, to condemn me, to control me has been broken.  Although sin still has an influence, over me it does not have the right or the power to enslave me. 

“Dead to sin as meaning dead to the influence and love of sin is entirely erroneous.  Paul is not referring to a death to the power (influence) of sin but to a death to its guilt, that is, our justification.” (Haldane, Commentary on Romans, p. 251)]

Even so, consider (reckon, regard, look upon, count) yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Jesus Christ. (Romans 6:11)  In other words, “think about this very carefully: even though you don’t feel dead to sin because some of the old software has been showing up on your new computer, you are to regard yourself as dead to its authority over you.”  The key to holy living is found in the way you think rather than the way you feel. Let me repeat that: The key to holy living is found in the way you think rather than how you feel.

May the mind of Christ my Savior live in me from day to day; By his love and power controlling all I do and say. May the Word of God dwell richly in my heart from hour to hour. So that all may see I triumph only through his power.  (Kate Wilkinson)

Thursday, March 11… Romans 6:12, 13

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.  

This is the conclusion to Paul’s thought that flows out of what he has already said in Romans 6:1-11.  Therefore, since Christ died to sin and lives to God, and because we also died to sin and live to God in union with Christ, this should motivate us to take action in order to be victorious over sin: we should refuse to let sin tyrannize us to obey its lusts; we should stop presenting (present tense) our physical bodies as instruments (hopla-weapons) of unrighteousness; we should present (aorist tense, indicating a deliberate commitment) ourselves to God as the result of our new lives and use our bodies as weapons of righteousness.

Paul concludes with this powerful affirmation of victory in v. 14, For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.  He doesn’t say, “sin might not be your master” or “sin need not be your master?” But “sin shall not be your master!”  Why? Because you are no longer condemned by God as a sinner, rather you stand before Him in an environment of grace because you are connected by faith to His Son, Jesus Christ.**

True spirituality means that the basis for my identity is who I am in Christ, not who I used to be.  I am dead to my past, but alive to God.  The truth of this still hasn’t hit my feelings but it must govern my mind as I daily consider who I am in Christ.  This leads me to recognize that I no longer owe anything to my former identity and should not be deceived into thinking that I have any other obligation than that of living a life totally dedicated to serving the One who saved me. Have you died yet?  

Master and Lord, you have given me no choice. If I want to be a Christian at all, I must serve you with a holy life. So how may I “enslave” myself more fully and more particularly to you? Put your finger on the definite attitudes, habits, perceptions, feelings and desires which displease you. Identify them for me and root them out of me. I cannot take my sins to heaven with me, and I have so little time now to become holy. So let me work out my salvation, as you work in me. Take my sins, one by one, and build a new me out of the wreckage I offer you. I open my heart to you now. In the holy name of Christ. Amen. (R.C. Ortlund, Jr,)

Friday, March 12… Galatians 2:20

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

This is the next element in true spirituality: a belief that Christ lives in us by his Holy Spirit.

In Romans, Paul spoke much about the believer being in Christ. Here he speaks of Christ being in the believer. Christ is central in this verse, not the believer. In the Greek text the sentence begins with Christ. Christ through his death has freed me from the penalty of my sin and from being on a performance treadmill in my relationship to God. Christ has also placed his own resurrected life within me. It is not an ego-centered life but a Christ-centered life. Some people think that because Paul says it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me that he is advocating some kind of passivity…just let go and let God. I disagree; I’m not just an empty pipe through which the life of God flows. Paul means that the old principle of my life that drove me, fed my ambitions, created a system of performance whereby I could make myself acceptable to God, is no longer alive. Instead, the principle of life that exists within me and uses my skills, talents, resources, my opportunities, and even my disease is the very life of Christ. 

Does this seem too mystical? Are we supposed to feel this life within us? Paul says, this life I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Just as I believe that I died in Christ and that in Christ God has accepted me into his family, so I believe that I’m under new management and Christ is living out his life through me. I began to practice this when I worked in Young Life while in Seminary. I would often visit kids in the high school in order to build relationships with them. I carried a picture in my mind every day of what I wanted the kids to see and experience in relationship with me: NOT I, BUT CHRIST

It would constantly be my prayer that in all my contacts and in all my conversations these kids would not just see Dave McDowell, but they would experience the life of Jesus Christ through me. This is still my desire. Is it yours? Cultural spirituality puts the emphasis on the “I” and not the “Christ.” True spirituality says the opposite; “Not I, but Christ.” How is your spirituality defined?

Saturday, March 13… James 1:27; 2:15-17

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

The final element of true religion that we want to meditate on is contained in this powerful verse. It is a dual element: care for widows and orphans, and personal purity. God is revealed as a father to the fatherless and a judge of the widows (Psalm 68:5). He expects those of us who have his nature to be like him. If we are truly spiritual then we will be people who care for those who are most vulnerable; those who are being oppressed; those who need a voice and who need justice. The parable of the Good Samaritan graphically teaches us that true religion does not get in the way of compassion, but motivates it. James takes this so seriously that he paints a powerful picture of this in 2:15-17. If someone comes to you and asks for clothing and food and you substitute religious jargon for real help, your faith is dead. What an indictment! Even the loving disciple John asks, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:17)

James concludes with the second element of true religion, that of personal purity. In our attempt to influence the world and to help right the wrongs we see, we must be careful not to let the world press us into its mold so that we justify our behavior at any cost . Our activism should not be a covering for unholy habits nor should involvement with the world be a cloak for worldliness. 

O thou Father of compassions, give to us such tenderness and melting of heart that we may feel deeply the miseries and calamities, outward and inward, of our brethren, and diligently remember them in love. Grant that we may not only seek our own things but also the things of others. Let this mind be also in us which was in Christ Jesus that we love the brethren, that we may be pitiful and courteous, and may endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace; and may the God of grace, mercy, and peace be with us all. Amen. (St. Thomas a Kempis, 1399-1471)

Sunday, March 14… Psalm 42:1-5

The psalmist feels that he is separated from God. He feels it so intensely that he describes it in physical terms- like a thirsty deer trying to find water in a dry and arid land.  The psalmist is both spiritually and emotionally desperate for the presence of the living God.   

Have you ever thirsted for God?  David mirrors this desire even more vividly, “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you” Psalm 63:1. What do you think that means? I think we all have thirsted and yearned for God, but have not known it. I believe that a desire to be personally related to God is the basic human drive, the reason why we have been created. (Isa. 55:1; Jer. 2:13) Robertson states, “There is a desire in the human heart best described as the cravings of infinitude… We are made that nothing that has limits satisfies.” 

The problem is that this hunger for God is often masked behind human desire.  This can be proven by showing that the fulfillment of every human desire does not lead to permanent satisfaction. In fact, such desire may actually cause us to hate the very thing we thought we loved.  You will see this graphically illustrated in 2 Samuel 13, by the example of Amnon and Tamar. In v. 4 Amnon said, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.” He mistook love for lust and after he forced her to have sex with him things changed. In v. 15 it says, “Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.” 

The reason why the thing that we crave most does not satisfy or even has the opposite affect is because our ultimate desire is not for ice cream, or sex, or tobacco, or alcohol, or money and fame. Our ultimate desire is for God.  We were not created for these things, we were created for God.  “If I find in myself a desire which nothing in this world can satisfy, I must conclude that I was made for another world.”  (C.S. Lewis)  

St. Augustine put it like this: “I sought for something to love, for I was in love with love. There was a hunger within me from a lack of inner food, which is none other than Yourself, my God.” Amen.

**For those of you who have my Romans commentary, “The Just Shall Live by Faith,” there is a very help illustration of this point on page 64. If you would like to obtain a copy, it is available on Amazon. If you would like to buy multiple copies to use as a group Bible study, I can provide them at a reduced rate.

Lenten Devotionals…Week 3, March 1-7

Monday, March 1…Psalm 68:24

Your procession has come into view, O God, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. In front are the singers, after them are the maidens playing tambourines

The Psalmist here describes the festal procession celebrating the occasion of the Ark of the Covenant being brought back to the Temple.

He says that the worshippers actually see God processing as this festival is played out. I think that if some of us American Christians were there we would have only seen the procession (the costumes, the professionalism, the precision, the ages of the singers and what style of music they played) and not God himself. We would have separated out the “spiritual” from the “act” and made a judgment as to how worshipful the service was. CS Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms uses the analogy of a child who cannot separate the religious from the festal character of Christmas or Easter. To the boy, chocolate eggs and Jesus’ resurrection are a unity. “And once he has distinguished (them), he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They have taken on independent, and therefore a soon withering, life. Either at some period in Judaism, or else in the experience of some Jews, a roughly parallel situation occurred. The unity falls apart; the sacrificial rites become distinguishable from meeting with God.” 

Do we separate out the spiritual from the act of worship and judge the effectiveness of the latter by how it moves us? Might it be that we judge those who lead us in worship as guilty of performance when it is we who fail to see God “in the procession”?   

Reflect on this reflection and tomorrow we will make another application.

Tuesday, March 2… Psalm 50:8, 9, 12, 13, 17, 19

I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens…If I were hungry I would not tell you for the world is mine, and all that is in it…Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you…You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit.   

The other danger of separating out the unity of worship (the spiritual from the act) is vividly portrayed in Psalm 50, as well as in Isaiah 58. Israel’s performance of worship and other acts of piety became separated from the obedience that God required, or the slave-owning church-goer making no connection between his worship and his ownership and treatment of human flesh of another color. 

Instead of seeking and honoring God in all of life, the sacrificial system and the worship of the Temple became a kind of commercial transaction, which traded carcasses of animals for God’s blessings, as if God needed animals and blood in order to survive. Many a “religious” person in our day looks to rites and rituals as a means of merit that earns God’s favor eventuating in salvation. In Morocco, I am told that a Muslim earns one point each time he prays at home, but twenty-seven points for praying at the Mosque.

It is a proper understanding of the gospel that provides the antidote. “Not the labor of my hands can fulfill the Laws demands.” We cannot achieve a right-standing with God on the basis of any work or act of worship. It is only through the worship (sacrifice) of Christ that we are made acceptable to God. And it is through the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit that we are given a heart that desires to seek after God, to long for his beauty and to obey his commands. It is, therefore, God’s work for us and in us through Christ that breaks down the barrier between the sacred and secular, and all of life becomes a venue for expressing our praise and adoration to God—whether it is in act of “temple” worship or in the worship of making coleslaw for supper for the glory for God. 

Not what I feel or do, can give me peace with God. Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin. Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.Thy love to me, O God—not mine, O Lord, to thee, can rid me of this dark unrest and set my spirit free. I bless the Christ of God, I rest on love divine, and with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine.  (Horatius Bonar)

Also, please pray for me (Dave McDowell) today as I will be receiving the first infusion of my clinical trial for cancer at the National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, MD. Thank you.

Wednesday, March 3…Job 40:1-5; 42:1-6

I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?  I lay my hand over my mouth.  I spoke once, but I have no answer; twice, but I will say no more… Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

Spirituality has become a very big business. The tools and techniques that were used by New Agers off in the dark corners of our culture twenty years ago have now been mainstreamed into a very popular vague, tolerant, and fluffy spirituality. There is also a very interesting shift in our culture where the terms religion and spirituality have been separated so that the latter has more to do with us than with God. 

However, unlike our culture’s version of spirituality, biblical spirituality does not begin with our own self awareness, but with God and the awareness of His holiness. John Calvin wrote “True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. [But] which of them preceded and produces the other is not easy to discover. [For] no man can take a survey of himself but he must immediately turn to the contemplation of God, in whom he lives and moves.” (Institutes1.1.1.),

In doing this (contemplating God), however, we run into an immediate problem. True Spirituality does not “feel good” initially because coming to know the biblical God is a deeply unsettling experience. Modern religious movements “de-fang” God and transform him into some nebulous higher power or tolerant grandfather.  

You know the story of Job, a righteous man who lost all his possessions through war, a natural disaster that took the lives of his ten children, and finally he was incapacitated by a painful skin disease.Job yelled and complained and wondered why he was even born.  He told his friends who were no help at all and only added to his suffering. Then he turned to God and asked, Why?  Why me?  Why not someone else?  All the normal questions; but as we read on it gets uncomfortable because of Job’s uncensored honesty.  Job tried to reconcile his integrity with his adversity and he couldn’t, so he questioned God’s justice.  God is tormenting me for reasons that have nothing to do with my behavior.  Is that justice?  I want God to come out of hiding and answer my questions!    

Suddenly God showed up! It was He who hurled question after question at Job.  He didn’t unlock the mystery of suffering or solve the enigma of death.  He simply revealed Himself as a God of power and wisdom. And before the presence of the Living God, all Job could do was repent in dust and ashes.

Almighty and merciful God, to whom the light and darkness are both alike, and without whom nothing befalls your children; strengthen us to meet all the experiences of life with a heart that responds like Job who said, ‘the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’ We pray this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, March 4…Isaiah 6:1-4

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…

Isaiah had this vision of the sovereign God in a time of national crisis.  Uzziah (Azariah) was the first godly national leader since Solomon.  Under his leadership, the nation prospered and Temple worship was restored to its proper place.  He reigned for 52 years and with his death, the hopes and dreams of Judah also began to die.  It is in this context that Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision, probably while worshipping in the Temple.   

Isaiah saw the awe-inspiring splendor of God.  He saw his sovereignty and his holiness. What a scene! Isaiah saw the holiness of God, the only attribute ever mentioned in this three-fold way (the Trisagion). Never do we hear, Love, Love, Love or Justice, Justice, Justice…but we do hear, Holy, Holy, Holy.  God is ethically pure, absolutely upright and utterly truthful in all His ways.  All his other attributes flow from his holiness.  The primary meaning of God’s holiness, however, is not just his ethical purity, but the fact that He is distinct or separate from all created things. [hagiasmos, signifies separation; we are to be holy, which implies a separation from the world and unto God.] There is nothing in this universe like God; He is completely unlike anything we can ever imagine. “God is not beautiful; he is beauty itself, the fountain from which all beautiful creatures draw their excellence. God is not loving; he is love. His attributes are the infinite standard against which all limited perfections are measured.” (Richard Lovelace)

What are you, O Lord, what are you? How shall my heart think of you? Certainly you are life, you are wisdom, you are truth, you are goodness, you are blessedness, you are eternity, and you are every true good. But these are many, and my narrow understanding cannot take in so much in a single glance and take delight all at once. (St. Anselm, ca.1033-1109)

Friday, March 5…Isaiah 6:5

Woe to me, I am coming apart.  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.  

What was Isaiah’s reaction to this vision of God? Did he get warm and fuzzy feelings all over? Did he experience a sense of worthiness and acceptance, embraced by love? On the contrary, Isaiah found that God’s holy character was too much for him to bear. He had the sense that his whole being was being undone, coming apart, “shriveled to a clinker.”  And so, Isaiah fell on his face in worship before the mysterium of God, and repented.

We have seen Job’s and Isaiah’s reaction to the untamed, undomesticated God of the universe. If we desire to know true spirituality, than we must begin to know God for who he is and that he is holy; that he is completely different than we are and there is no possible way we can stand to be in his presence. Our only possible recourse is to bite the dust in humble repentance. 

This is also where the gospel begins. Saving faith in Jesus Christ can so radically change the spiritual landscape of our lives that instead of cowering in God’s awesome presence or trying to flee from him in fear, we will desire to draw near to him and to be in his presence. Jonathan Edwards wrote: “As I walked (in my father’s pasture)…there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express…God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity, and love, seemed to appear in everything… I had vehement longings of soul after God and Christ, and after more holiness, wherewith my heart seemed to be full, and ready to break…Prayer seemed to be natural to me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent.”  

Jonathan Edwards’ relationship to God was changed when he understood the work of Christ. Christ Jesus came into the world to bridge the chasm between a holy God and sinful humanity, so that we might be forgiven and brought near to Him. Has that been your experience or are you still running from God and involved in a spirituality of your own making? Have you found your rest in Christ?

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought; my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. It is well, with my soul, it is well, it is well with my soul. (Philip Paul Bliss)

Saturday, March 6 … Romans 1:16

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation of everyone who believes…just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  

Martin Luther in commenting on this passage wrote, “Night and day I pondered until…I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, He justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on new meaning… This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.” 

This was a radical departure from the Roman Catholic understanding of Justification. The Church understood it as an infusion of righteousness whereby a person is actually made righteous through the sacraments. However, Luther discovered in The Book of Romans that Paul used the term justification in a declarative and forensic manner. In other words, when we believe in Jesus Christ we are not made righteous (we can talk about that in terms of Sanctification), but we are declared righteous. Here is an excellent definition: Justification by faith is “the legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” (Louis Berkhof)    

Luther was a priest and a professor in the Roman Catholic Church. He had been taught that one’s acceptance by God was based upon the spiritual life of good works and the merits of Christ’s death. The Scriptures convinced him otherwise; that his only hope of being in the right with God was not on the basis of our efforts, but on the basis of faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. 

In Christ alone, I place my trust , and find my glory in the power of the Cross. In every victory, let it be said of me, my source of strength, my source of hope is Christ alone.

Sunday, March 7 … Psalm 32:1, 2

Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.    

Paul quotes these verses in Romans 4:7, 8 and gives us another perspective on Justification by Faith. God justifies completely the one who believes, so that not only is the righteousness of Christ credited to our account, but He also refuses to credit our sins against us.  Paul quotes King David who wrote Psalm 32.  It should be noted that David was a believer, one whom God had declared righteous and yet he committed adultery and tried to cover it up by becoming a conspirator in the murder of an innocent man.  He kept his crime to himself for about a year before the prophet Nathan confronted him and said, “You are the man!” David confessed his sin and repented of what he had done and then wrote of the blessings of forgiveness in Psalm 32. 

Thus, we see that being justified by grace through faith involves a positive; the crediting of righteousness to our account even though we are morally and spiritually bankrupt.  Justification also involves a negative; the forgiveness of all of our sins and never counting them against us ever again. That is why the play on the word justified is so accurate: just-if-I’d never sinned. When a person believes in Christ, that person is accounted righteous in the sight of God. Every sin—past, present, future, is washed away and God will never bring them up again. David also expressed this in Psalm 103:12, As far as the East is from the West, so far has He removed our sins from us. The prophet Micah agreed in 7:18-20, Who is a pardoning God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgression…and hurls all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. God doesn’t throw them into the shallow water where we can go and scoop them out, but he casts our sin into the depths of the sea where they are lost forever in his grace. 

As believers, our slate is clean with God because of Christ. We should not respond to this grace by sinning all the more because we know we are forgiven.  In fact, it calls us to a higher standard of righteousness (“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.”) It calls us to a life in community where love, justice, and mercy live. It calls us to care for the poor and the oppressed, because that how we were before Christ liberated us by his grace. This grace should humble us and motivate us to live in such a way never to disappoint the one who has been so gracious. “O God, thank you for your grace and forgiveness and that I stand completely accepted and loved in your sight. Now, help me by my love for others to show just how much to you I owe to you. Amen”

Be sure to check back here next week for our last week of Lenten Devotionals...

Lenten Devotionals – Week 2, February 22-28

May the Lord continue to bend your heart towards him in humility and repentance…

Monday, Feb 22…Matthew 4:3, 4  

After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’  (Deut 8:3) 

The tempter did not come to Jesus when he was full, but when he was empty— and when he was alone. He had also just come off a spiritual high point—his baptism. (Luke 4:1 says that he was full of the Holy Spirit.)  Such mountain top experiences are often the times when one is particularly vulnerable to temptation. And yet Jesus was not left unprotected, after all the Holy Spirit led him to this place. This particular temptation was aimed at the area of bodily appetites. Jesus was hungry because he had been fasting for forty days. Satan impugned the trustworthiness of God. “Doesn’t it seem a bit strange to you that your Father who, by the way, said at your baptism that you were his much loved son has led you to be in this place where you are starving?” Jesus choice was between satisfying his own appetite or trusting that his heavenly Father would provide for him. He chose the latter and learned that the only thing that really satisfies is found in relationship with God

He already knew that God satisfied, but his knowledge was experienced through being tested. It is one thing to sing a worship song that God alone satisfies, but it is quite another to affirm that when you are in the struggles of life. Jesus was willing to trust God’s provision for him rather than taking matters into his own hands. Perhaps you are feeling deprived in some area of your life or feeling frustrated that if God really loved you then he would want you to be a lot more happy. Perhaps you feel justified in grabbing for some of that satisfaction now instead of trusting the Lord to provide it for you in his time. As a consequence, we do not learn the secret of the Christian life that our deepest fulfillment can only come through a relationship of trust, and trust also includes waiting. Could it be that God might allow us to suffer deprivation or disappointment just to show us that he alone can satisfy? Wouldn’t that be worth it in the long run? It was St Augustine who said, “He who has God has everything; he who has everything but God, has nothing.”

O Lord you are more precious than silver, more costly than gold, more beautiful than diamonds and nothing I desire compares with you. O Lord, whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and heart may fail, but you are the strength of my life and my portion forever. Please help me to stay steadfast in trusting instead drawing conclusions about your love for me based on a very limited understanding how you are working in the situation with which I am most concerned. Amen.

Tuesday, Feb 23…Matthew 4:5-7

Once again, the evil one tempted Jesus to force the hand of God into showing how much he was loved. And once again, Jesus chose not to yield to temptation and confirmed the lesson that the gifts and resources given him by his Father are to be used for God’s glory at God’s command and not for his own selfish ends. God did not ask Jesus to jump 450 feet into the middle of the Temple worship in order to begin his ministry with a powerful demonstration of Messiah-ship. If Jesus had done this on his own initiative, it would have artificially and presumptuously forced the hand and the plan of God. Instead he chose to only act upon God’s command and wait upon his timing.

The preacher Alexander McClaren once said, “If we take a leap without God’s command, we shall fall mangled to the pavement below.” Perhaps that is why so many of our plans and programs fail, because we create them without God’s command and then ask God to bless our doomed creations.

Father, help me to clearly see the difference between faith and presumption. Help me to understand that faith is about you and presumption is usually about me. May I learn to trust in you and listen for your instruction. May I not just do good things for you, but may I do the things you desire that reflect your goodness. Teach me to wait, O God, teach me to wait…Amen.

Wednesday, Feb 24…Matthew 4:8-10

If the first temptation dealt with the physical, and the second dealt with the religious, this third temptation zeroed in on ambition and power. Satan lied, he always does. Even though he claimed a certain amount of power over this world, he had no right or authority to give anything to Jesus.  Nonetheless, he tried to tempt Jesus into thinking that the crown of glory need not come through the path of suffering, but through the easier road of ambition. “C’mon, Jesus, bow to the inevitable. You know you’ll be King, that’s why you’ve come, so why suffer for it? There’s an easier way, however; just one little compromise, no one will know, just one little act of worship, it will be over in a jiffy, C’mon Jesus it will be so much easier.”  NO! AWAY FROM ME SATAN! I WILL WORSHIP GOD ALONE AND DO WHAT HE SAYS NO MATTER WHAT THE COST! 

Jesus learned that following the rough pathway of suffering, which had been chosen for him by his heavenly Father, was more important than seeking a pain-free road to success and power.  Perhaps we’ve made an idol out of success or personal ambition and we will do anything and everything to gain it. Such a mindset is a philosophy of failure. God is the only legitimate object of worship and the only way “up” is the downward pathway of humility and serviceWhat an essential lesson to learn!

O God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn for Thee. Consume my life, O God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life, but a full one, like yours, Lord Jesus. Amen. (Jim Elliot) 

Thursday, Feb 25…Matthew 4:11 

And so the devil left him. In the parallel passage of Luke 4:13 it says, When the devil had finished his tempting, he left him for an opportune time. Jesus was successful in resisting the temptation, but satan would be back again. How many of us have experienced this scenario of successfully resisting temptation on one occasion only to fall for the same temptation the next moment or the next day?

How did Jesus successfully resist the temptations of the evil one and keep him at bay? 

Jesus brought a weapon with him into the desert—a sword. It wasn’t the light saber of the Jedi Knights, or the glowing “sting” sword that Frodo used against the Orcs, or the bright blade of Anduril belonging to the future king of Aragorn. Jesus used a weapon far more powerful, the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.  Jesus parried each thrust of the evil one by using the Word of God and satan was defeated.

93% of Americans say they have Bibles, 90% believe in God, 90% of teens say they believe Jesus was divine; yet our culture continues to crumble morally and spiritually. The problem here has nothing to do with a shortage of Bibles or churches, but rather a desperate shortage of people who both read and obey the Bible. Countless people claim to be Christian, but so few are successful in overcoming temptation and having a godly influence in this world. We know so much and show so little. In a fascinating article in Christianity Today, one pastor asked, “ Why in a Christian subculture served by 24 hr Christian radio and TV, bathed in books and periodicals of unparalleled quality and quantity, instructed by state-of-the-art seminary systems, and inspired by state of the heart worship music industry… why are so few people good Christians?” He goes on, “Why are our marriages falling apart and our kids straying away from the faith? Why are the most biblically knowledgeable so often so mean-spirited? Why are our pastors dejected so often? Why do our speakers (both human and electronic) have to blare so loudly to get a response, and even then, why is it so shallow and temporary?” Why? 

O Lord, you make a profound and searching distinction between natural human morality and authentic spirituality. A veneer of correctness would only conceal my corruption within and utterly fail to touch the root of my sinfulness. Your gospel, O Lord, is not just another human religion. It is new and full of hope, because it replaces the best that I can do with the best that you can do. Dear and blessed Savior, I look up to you now with open-hearted faith and hope an desire. Let me draw strength from you right now. Make me a living example of authentic Christianity today, I pray. In the holy name of Christ. Amen.(Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr)

Friday, Feb 26…Matthew 7:24-27

Do you remember the graphic story that Jesus told at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, about two men who built houses? One built on the foundation of rock and the other built in a prime location, but on the sand. A huge storm came and washed away the house on the sand. I used to think that this represented the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian, the one who built his life on the rock of Christ and the other who did not. But this is not necessarily true. Jesus said, Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like the foolish man who built his house on the sand. (7:24, 26)

Do you understand the implications here? Everyone who hears and does not do builds his house on the sand; this includes Christians. It was to the church that James wrote be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves (1:22).  How can you expect your marriage to be healthy if you are dealing with your spouse in ways that are inconsistent with scripture, especially relating to issues of forgiveness, anger, respect, faithfulness, and sexual purity?  Your marriage will be built on the sand and in danger of being swept away. How do you expect your children to grow up as faithful followers of Christ when the only time your faith is practiced is when you decide to show up at church? How can you expect to have an influence for Christ when you spend more time filling your minds with the thoughts and images of our culture than with the word of God? You are deceiving yourself—you are “a sand-man or woman.”

Lord, please do a work in my heart this Lenten season so that I will dig deep into the bedrock of your Word and allow the Holy Spirit to show me the areas of my life in which I have been content to be just a hearer and not a doer. Reveal those areas of my life that are quite obvious to others, but to which I am blind because of my self-deceit. Amen  

Saturday, Feb 27… Matthew 7:24

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice will be “a rock-man or woman.” There’s the secret; hearing and practicing the Word of the Lord. I must read and do what God commands. Pastors, elders, deacons, church members —you must always be practicing the Word. No Christian can rest on her laurels; yesterday’s obedience does not fulfill today’s responsibility. Everyday we must intentionally read the Word of God and put it into practice, like Jesus did in the wilderness. Then we will see some victory, some healing of relationships, and experience freedom from our addictions to this world. The Holy Spirit will work in our lives through God’s word to strengthen us and to protect us from the temptations of the evil one. 

There is a certain tribe of indigenous people that had an interesting rite of passage for a boy to become a man. On the night of his thirteenth birthday, the boy would be blindfolded and led deep into the forest. There, the blindfold would be removed and he would be left in total darkness to spend the night alone. He would hear the howl of the wolf, the growl of the bear, and the snarl of the mountain lion. He would hear the cracking and snapping of twigs and branches and prepare himself for any approaching danger. Then, as dawn came, and he began to see the leaves and trees and colors of the forest, he would also see something else. He would see that not far away stood an armed warrior from his tribe who had been there throughout the night. The boy would also notice that this warrior was his father who had been ready to defend him from all danger. He was never alone for his father was with him. (Dr. David Fiddes, Back to God Hour)

We in ourselves are no match for the evil one, but when we are in the wilderness striving to live according to the word of God, we can be confident that our Heavenly Father will be our guard and defender. He will take whatever wilderness experience we are facing and turn it into an opportunity for growth and ministry. Count on it!

Here I sit in the dark, Lord, like a little child fearing there are monsters in the closet. I trust you are here watching me in the darkness and will protect me from the fear of the uncertainty that awaits. Would you just let me know that you here, Lord? Amen

Sunday, Feb 28… Psalm 27

One thing I ask of the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

The Psalmist delighted in the presence of God and desired to behold the beauty of the Lord and to dwell in his Temple. I love that verse and share the same desire for the presence of God and for his beauty to be reflected in my own life. The only part that I have trouble understanding is what it means to dwell in his Temple. Sounds like it means hanging out in church all day, and for a pastor that’s almost a reality. However, the Hebrew believer did not make a distinction between the loving God in everyday life and their worship. Life was a unity and whether one was eating, working, being hospitable, or worshipping. The Hebrew recognized God’s presence and beauty in the very act and not as a separate experience. Do you dwell with God (recognize his presence) in all of life or just when you are in church? How about right now? Do you separate out the sacred from the secular and think you need a mystical experience to satisfy your soul?

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.(E. Browning)

O God, give me eyes to see your glory in all things created and may my proper response be to dwell with you—to worship and adore you, no matter where I am and what I am doing; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

(Look for the 3rd week devotionals that will be posted on Feb 28.)