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.)

Lenten Devotionals, Week 1

Please use these brief daily devotionals throughout Lent as an aid to your faith and a help in the bending of your soul toward God in humility and repentance.

ASH WEDNESDAY, Feb 17… Luke 15:11- 24

Ash Wednesday begins the 40-day period leading to Easter known as Lent, which simply means “Spring.” Ash Wednesday has developed throughout the history of the Church as a day of repentance. It is a day to put aside our busyness and get back to the basics of our faith: a time for returning to the Lord and basking in the grace of our wonderful God. 

Some of us can identify more than others with the pitiful condition of the Prodigal Son in our Scripture. The shameful consequence of a Jewish man feeding pigs was the result of a willful rebellion and separation from his father. Such an act also brought disgrace upon his father much like our sins have “fallen short of the glory of God.”  

The greatest miracle in this story is not the Prodigal’s repentance but the father’s love; not the boy’s return, but the father’s willingness to receive him back.

Let us get one thing straight on this Ash Wednesday, our repentance does not earn for us the grace of God. He is a God we whose very nature is gracious and who produces in us the very repentance that brings us back home.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fastbound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray: I woke- the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart went free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee. (Charles Wesley)

Thursday, February 18….Luke 15:25-32

The Lenten season provided the Ancient Church 40 days in which converts to Christianity were prepared for baptism and incorporated into the Body of Christ. It was also a time when those who had been separated from the community because of serious sin were reconciled upon repentance and restored to fellowship.

There have always been some in the Church who like the older brother in our parable have grown so used to the grace of God that they think it is unfair to restore those who have run away from home. The older brother challenged the Father’s grace. He not only accused his father of wasting grace on his rebellious brother, but never demonstrating it to him after all his years of faithful service. What the older brother failed to see was that his very relationship with the father was a gift of grace. “My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

The greatest gift anyone could receive is a relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. Who needs the reward for faithful service? Who needs a gold watch after retirement if we have Him?

I’d rather have Jesus than silver and goldI’d rather be His than have riches untold. I’d rather have Jesus than houses or landsI’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand; than to be the king of a vast domain or be held in sin’s dread sway. I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.(Rhea Miller)

Friday, February 19…Psalm 51

The ashes used during the traditional Ash Wednesday service are a powerful symbol of repentance.  In the Old Testament, ashes were a visible sign of humiliation and abasement. There is nothing that humbles one more than to see her/his sin in juxtaposition to God’s holiness. 

The Psalmist, King David, pleads for the mercy of God after his sins of adultery and being an accomplice to murder.  His greatest sadness was that these sins were committed against God; against you, and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. David does not ask for forgiveness, but for God’s mercy. He is so humbled that he believes only God’s mercy can save him. He wants more than to be forgiven. He wants a new heart so that he would never again offend his God. 

This is exactly what God has provided for us in Jesus Christ. He has given us a new heart, a new spirit (Ezek. 36:24-27) so that we might obey him. How it should grieve us when we do not perfectly love and serve him after all he has done for us.

Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in though word and action, by what I have done and what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart nor my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and repent; for the sake of your son Jesus Christ have mercy upon me and forgive me that I might delight to do thy will and walk in all your ways to the glory of your wonderful name. Amen.

Saturday, February 20… Genesis 3:1-8

The Lenten season not only reminds us of the need for repentance, but also of our human frailty. What better picture of this than in our text for the day? It also reminds us that we have an enemy of our souls who is hell-bent on our destruction.

Satan used a specific strategy in order to deceive Eve. He began with using the good with which to tempt her toward evil. He focused upon the single tree which God had prohibited from use and twisted the words of God to imply that all trees were off limits and that God was miserly with his gifts. Satan then denied the truth completely by telling the New Age lie that Eve become like God if she ate from the tree. 

Satan was so deceptive that he made Eve see the things that were not there and then blinded her to things that were. Can we be deceived like this? You better believe it! Paul wrote, I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:3)

What do you need to do in order to simplify and purify your life with God?  In what ways do you unnecessarily complicate your relationship with Christ? Have you been tempted to believe that God has become demanding and has ceased to be gracious to you?

Avoid every tendency that takes you away from simplicity of relationship to God in Jesus Christ, and then prayer will be as the breath of the lungs in a healthy body. (Oswald Chambers)

Sunday, Feb 21…Matthew 4:1, 2 

The first thing we notice about this account are these words, Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In other words, God orchestrated this desert experience. Why would the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness? The fact that both Matthew and Luke place this account at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry should give us a clue. Before he could minister strength and healing to others, Jesus had to learn that the source of his own strength and provision was his Father. Before he could influence others he had to be certain of the greatest influence in his life.

Admittedly the very acknowledgment that Jesus had anything to learn is one of the great mysteries of the incarnation. However, perfection and growth in understanding are not mutually exclusive as the writer of the Hebrews indicates, Jesus learned obedience through the things that he suffered. (5:8) In his human nature, Jesus continued to grow and deepen in his relationship with the Father. It was Luke (2:52) who said And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.

Perhaps you are at a “growth point” in your life because things are not going well. Maybe you don’t look at it that way, but why not? Don’t waste these desert moments, because it is usually in these that we learn to trust and obey, and build the muscles of faith.

Then in fellowship sweetwe will sit at his feet or we’ll walk by his side in the wayWhat he says we will do, where he sends we will go—never fear, only trust and obey. (John Sammis) 

[Be sure to look for next week’s devotionals)

Above all things the heart is deceitful, and desperately sick…

Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:21-23

The recent news of the frivolous sexual dalliances of Ravi Zacharias is a disturbing case in point. I met Ravi at a conference at Gordon Conwell many years ago. We were the same age. He was beginning his upward rise as an apologist and I was just beginning as a young pastor of a church in New England which (ironically) just had a pastor leave because of alleged sexual liaisons.

An article in Christianity Today relates that on the day of RZ’s funeral, in May 2020, where he was eulogized by such notables as VP Mike Pence and retired football player Tim Tebo, one of his victims was there and wondered why no one had set the record straight. She had googled a website put up by an atheist who had story after story of women who were sexually abused by RZ. Of course, no one wanted to believe the word of an atheist about a man of God. She finally contacted Christianity Today who did their own investigation which led to a 4-mo. investigation by the authorities and eventually by RZ’s own organization. His computers revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia, as well as hundreds of pictures of young women, some of them unclothed. He also owned several massage parlors in the Atlanta area. He used tens of thousands of ministry money to pay for 4 therapists, providing housing, schooling, and monthly support. One woman told an investigator that after he arranged her support, he required sex.

I could tell you stories of other pastors I’ve known who have crashed and burned, who have lived double lives (literally). They deceived themselves into thinking that somehow the laws of God did not pertain to them. In fact, they were so self-deceived that their sinful behavior was transmuted (in their minds) into something righteous, holy, and justified. They had been bitten by the snake of pride and co-opted by the father of lies. Seeking to deceive others they themselves were led into self-deception. They became hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:13) to the extent that they could “honestly” think they were being faithful to God while they were being unfaithful to him. Therein lies the hardness—they crossed the line between hypocrisy and self-deception.

I’m not judging these men, as much as I am terrified by them. I know that I have the capacity to “bring it all to destruction” – to quote Luther. I know the feelings of pride in my accomplishments and the secret sins of my heart, which never broke out into the open, probably because I was too chicken. (I wish I could say it was because I was too holy.) However, by Grace and Mercy, I have never crossed the line for in my own halting way I know how essential it is for me to begin every day and fulfill every task from a place of repentance and humility— literally, bowing before my Creator, Redeemer, and Father in child-like dependence. I am aware that while have the skills and gifts to do the “job,” I am also fully aware that I have the capacity to use what God has given me to puff myself up and build my own kingdom. I never want to be like Samson who, when he went to snap the cords that bound him, was not even aware that the Spirit had departed from him.

Listen to what RZ said during one of his teachings, about a year before he died. Those of you who have seen me in public have no idea to what I am like in private. God does. God does. And I encourage you today to make that commitment and say, “I’m going to be the man in private who will receive the divine accolade, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'” Either this was a cry for help and a wish to come clean or he clearly evidenced self-deception.

Come clean before God for he knows your heart! Don’t be a lone wolf, like Samson or RZ; stay accountable to others, which is an act of humility itself, especially if you think you’re a big shot. Stay humbly on your knees before the Lord; be in the Word daily to feed your own soul. And if you have a secret life developing, bring it to the light now no matter what the cost. God knows, God knows… confess it and deal with it now!! Don’t find a hiding place except in Christ. Don’t cross the line!

“But I the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.” Jeremiah 17:10

Underneath are the Everlasting Arms

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. (Deuteronomy 33:27)

This verse reverberated in my mind and heart as I read it this morning. Sometimes I feel that the ground beneath me is beginning to slip away and I am about to fall into an uncertain future. Have you ever felt this way, like you were standing in the ocean and the sand beneath your toes keeps running away? I have cancer and I have Covid—so where is my solid ground? I take heart in the words of the hymn, “when all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay,” as well as in the words of Moses, “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” But these words in Deuteronomy 33:27 are especially encouraging that “the eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

CH Spurgeon preached a sermon on this text on May 12, 1878 titled “Underneath.” I want to share some brief portions of this message with you for your encouragement this morning:

“Within Thy circling power I stand;
On every side I find thy hand;
Awake, asleep, at home, abroad,
I am surrounded still with God.”

     “Underneath”— the word arouses thought and enquiry. Everything ought to be sound, solid, and substantial there. “Underneath” must be firm, for if that fails we fail indeed. We have been building, and our eyes have been gladdened with the rising walls, and with the towering pinnacles; but what if something should be rotten “underneath”? Great will be the fall thereof, if we have built as high as heaven, if the sand lie underneath, yielding and shifting in the day of flood.

     “Underneath” is the great matter to which the architect, if he be wise, will give his best attention. And truly, brethren, when you and I begin to examine into our graces and our professions, that word “underneath” suggests many a testing question. Is it all right with us as to the root of the matter— “underneath”? If not, the fair flower above ground will wither very speedily. The seed has sprung up hastily, but how is the soil underneath? for if there be no depth of earth the scorching sun will soon dry up the superficial harvest.

“Underneath,” though it be mysterious, is also intensely important, and hence the great joy of being able to say by faith, “Yes, ‘underneath’ is well secured; we have trusted in God and we shall not be confounded; we have relied upon the eternal promises and they cannot fail; we have rested on the infinite merits of the atoning sacrifice of God’s dear Son, and we shall never be ashamed of our hope.” Happy is he who rests upon the everlasting covenant ordered in all things and sure, for with him all is safe underneath; and, though the earth be removed, and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, he need not fear, but may patiently hope and quietly wait for the salvation of God.

     For a period we may be content with superficial pleasures, but there are times of trial when we have to fall back upon something deeper and more reliable: earthly props give way in their season, and we need superior sustaining power. The carnal mind meets with an hour when “the proud helpers do stoop under him”; and believers too, in proportion as they foolishly lean upon an arm of flesh, find their confidences departing; then it is that we feel the value of divine upholdings, and rejoice that “Underneath are the everlasting arms.” Let us look more closely into this most important matter.

  “Underneath are the everlasting arms.” That is, first, as the foundation of everything. If you go down, down, to discover the basement upon which all things rest you come ere long to “the everlasting arms.” The things which are seen are stayed up by the invisible God. This outward visible universe has no power to stand for a single instant if he does not keep it in being. By him all things consist. There are no forces apart from God’s power, no existences apart from his will. He bears up the pillars of the universe. He alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea. He maketh Arcturus, Orion, and the Pleiades, and the chambers of the south. Foolish are those philosophers who think that they can reach the essence and soul from which visible things were evolved, unless they bow before the invisible God. He is the foundation of creation, the fountain and source of being, the root and basement of existence. “Underneath” everything “are the everlasting arms.”

That leads me to read my text in [another] sense as teaching us that the everlasting arms are the rest of his people. If these everlasting arms are always outstretched to preserve me lest I totter in weakness and fall into destruction, then on those arms let me lean my whole weight for time and for eternity. That is the practical lesson of this choice word. Repose yourselves, beloved, in those arms which even now are embracing you. Wherefore vex your heart when you may be free from care? Underneath everything your Father’s arms are placed— what, then, can fret you? Why are you disquieted when you might dwell at ease and inherit the earth? Are you afraid to rest where the universe resteth? Are not your Father’s arms a sufficient pillow for you? Do you think that it is not sale to be at peace when the love and might of God, like two strong arms, are stretched out for your upholding, and the divine voice whispers to you “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him”? His own word to his prophets is, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem.” Will you not accept the comfort which he sends by his Spirit, and bids his servants impart to you? When God himself doth rest in his love will not you rest in it, and shall it not again be proven that “we that have believed do enter into rest”? Is not the Lord Jesus our peace? Why, then, are we troubled? Well may you lie down to sleep in peace when underneath you are the everlasting arms. Well may your spirit be filled with composure and become indifferent to outward trials when you are thus upborne. Blow ye winds and toss ye waves, the barque cannot sink, or if it did sink it could not sink to our destruction, we should only drop into the great Father’s hand, for underneath even the sinking vessel are the everlasting arms. Now, let the earth reel with earthquake, or open wide her mouth to swallow us up quick, we need not fear to descend into her dreariest gulf, since underneath us still would be the everlasting arms. What a fulness of rest this secures to the believing people of God!  

     I will fetch from the text one more meaning while I am speaking upon the position of these arms. The text seems to give us a promise of exaltation and uplifting. We may be very low and greatly cast down, but “underneath are the everlasting arms.” The merciful God is great at a dead lift. “He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill; that he may set him with princes, even with the princes of his people.” Who can tell how high a man may be lifted up– to what sublime elevations he may safely ascend when the Lord makes his feet like hind’s feet that he may stand upon his high places? If still underneath him are the everlasting arms he may safely obey the word, “Get thee up into the high mountains.” He may outsoar the eagle, mounting higher and higher till he has left the sun like a speck beneath his feet, and still underneath him shall be the everlasting arms. Therefore higher, and yet higher may we hourly ascend in thought, in joy, in holiness, in likeness to our God; this is meant to encourage us to rise, since there can be no danger while the arms of God are underneath. This then, my brethren, is where we may expect to find the strength and power of God: it is underneath us, bearing us up. We may not always see it, for the underneath is hidden from our sight, but surely as in secret the Lord upholds the huge columns of the universe so he upbeareth all his own servants, and their concerns. “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”

     This beautiful hymn is another affirmation of God’s care and preservation of the one who trusts in him. May you experience the solidity of God’s everlasting arms underneath you and the grip of Him who will never let you go.

Remembering MLK… An “extremist for love”

This is a 4 1/2 min. video that my friend Robb Emmett and I put together a few years ago while I was the pastor of Community Fellowship Church in West Chicago. I did the narration and another friend, Anthony Turner, read a portion of a “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” which was written by Martin Luther King Jr. As we celebrate his memory today, may we take his message to heart at this crucial time in our nation’s history and, as Christians, may we be driven not by our politics but by the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, an “extremist for love.”.

When Angels Go Away…

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)

The shepherds had just experienced the greatest sight and sound show in history. Suddenly, in the darkness and boredom of the Palestinian night, a great company (an army) of heavenly hosts appeared to them and the radiance of God’s glory surrounded them; an angel spoke to them (probably Gabriel) and an angelic choir sang to them! Talk about a spiritual high that could shrivel you into a clinker! Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped and things went back to its normal darkness. The all-important question is, What did the shepherds do then?

We have prepared for Christmas and experienced the brightness of Christ’s birth. We have decorated our homes, given and received gifts, prepared special meals, and connected with family and friends (though not as many as usual). We have lit our Advent wreaths, read our Advent devotionals, and experienced the light of Jesus enter into out dark world—I know I have as I continue my journey with cancer. And now, it’s over…the angels have gone away and it is dark again. The all-important question is, What do we do now?

Look at the shepherds—they acted upon what they had experienced and pursued Christ. What a great example to us because most of our lives are not spent listening to angelic choirs or experiencing beatific visions. Most of the church year is spent in ordinary time. Most of our lives are spent in the dark fields of everyday life contending with our jobs, our health, our family’s safety, and our finances. We cannot sustain the excitement of Christmas, but we can act upon what we have experienced and continue to pursue Christ when the angels go away.

Like the shepherds, we can take those powerful and visible moments of life when God shows up in all his glory, and work them out within the framework of our brokenness and against the dark backdrop of our daily lives by continuing to seek after Christ. Stay in God’s Word on a daily basis; continue to worship him; continue to seek, ask, and knock bringing all your concerns before him; continue to speak a word for him here and there, wherever you find an opportunity to share what you have seen and heard. Don’t get discouraged or become afraid as you face an uncertain future. “Are not five little sparrows sold for two pennies (one thrown in for free)? And [yet] not one of them is forgotten before God…Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6, 7)

So when the rubber band of spiritual experience snaps back to normal, continue to pursue Christ—like the shepherds did, when the angels went away.

NOTE: My latest book, The Goodness of Affliction: Encouragement for Those Who Suffer, has just been published and can be found on Amazon Barnes and Noble, and Christian Book Distributors.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Peace. Isaiah writes that “in that day” when our Lord returns, he will judge the nations; “cool the pride of ruthless nations…and remove the cloud of gloom, the pall of death that hangs over the earth…he will wipe away all tears.” (Isa 25:7, 8) As the Prince of Peace, he will bring peace upon the earth and will rule with justice and equity. “His ever-expanding, peaceful government will never end. He will rule with perfect fairness and justice… He will bring true justice and peace to all the nations of the world.” (Isa 9:7) Isaiah also says, ‘He will keep in perfect peace all those who trust in the Lord, whose thoughts often turn to the Lord.” (Isa 26:3) Thus we look forward to this Kingdom of Peace and, in the meantime, we can have peace within our hearts amidst these tumultuous times as we trust the Prince and acknowledge him in all our ways.

Go to the menu portion of this blog to see the daily devotional thoughts for this fourth and final week of Advent. I hope these have been helpful.

Special note: My new book, The Goodness of Affliction: Encouragement for Those Who Suffer, has just been published. It is available at Amazon (also as a Kindle edition), Barnes and Noble, and Christian Book Distributors. Also available at Books in Print, Ingram Book Group, Baker and Taylor (Yankee Book Peddler). It is also available internationally with James Clark & Co., Mosaic Books in Australia, Ingram, and Amazon.com. This will be a good book to pass onto those whom you know who are struggling with grief, sickness, or discouragement. May God use it for his glory and the good of the Church.