Suffering and Victory

I held the dear saint tightly as she wept. She has served the Lord faithfully and lovingly, even radically, for most of her life. Now, her mind is failing. Physicians have told her that she is in the early stages of dementia. She watched her husband slide into the hazy confusion of mental deterioration before he died and she fears the future holds the same for her. Is her suffering and/or fear the result of some sin? Do her tears reveal a lack of faith that would allow her to ‘claim her victory?’ There is a kind of triumphal Christianity in the land that would say, yes to both of those questions. Suffering has no place in the theology that see God as the Dispenser of perpetual happiness! But, my study of the Word reveals something different.

The Bible teaches the Believer to live in victory and to embrace suffering: two themes that seem, at first glance, to be in direct contradiction. How do we reconcile Jesus’ words- “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NIV) with this- “So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you.” (1 Peter 4:19, NLT)?

First, we must conquer our culture’s love of “now.”
We have little patience with problems that persistent beyond a few days. We crave the satisfaction of our desires right now, many of us convinced that we are entitled, as children of a good God, to a better life right here and right now; however we might define it. Christians are not immune to this impatience. We expect God to heal us, now! We demand freedom from our pain, now! We think that we should attain spiritual maturity and depth of intimacy with God, now! We think that Jesus should step in and fix the things that trouble us, now! But, God does not work in our limitations of time. His desires for us span our lifetime; and beyond into eternity.

Second, we must try to understand the difference between momentary happiness and the greater work of grace.
When I am wrestling with temptation and the fight exhausts me, I just want God to come now and ‘do something!’ When pain, of body or emotion, gnaws away at me, I want something or someone to soothe me. And that is natural. However, the Word reminds me, “We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17, NKJV) For me, it takes greater faith to walk willingly with God through fiery trials, than it does to holler long and loud for Him to ‘get me out of this mess!’

Third, we allow for mystery!
I have no idea why God allows some of his saints to pass through dementia on their way to Heaven. That makes no sense to me! But, then again, neither does electricity or nuclear physics! I lack the knowledge to grasp how much of life works. Charles R. Swindoll in Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life says, “We’re not supposed to have airtight answers! Why? Because our understanding is earthbound. . . . Our focus is from the ground up. . . . We see now, He sees forever. We judge on the basis of the temporal; He, on the basis of the eternal. . . . His vantage point is infinity.” [Discipleship Journal : Issue 32. 1999]

In the book of James there is this direct instruction- “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” (James 5:13, NKJV) What is prayer? It is the communion that we enjoy with Him – ranging from praise, to petition, to weeping wordlessly, to shouting in exultation, to silent contemplation, to watchful waiting…. and more. To think that prayer is only making a list of wants and grievances to be recited before the Lord, bracketed with a Scripture and ‘I ask this in Jesus’ Name, Amen’ is both immature and foolish.

My God reveals Himself as the Creator of Awe-inspiring Majesty and as a tender Father. Relating to Him, in faith, in both ways can be a stretch, but it is exactly the stretch that I need to make to remain steady. And, I would urge that you do the same.

Are you suffering? Pray! But not just a simplistic, childish prayer that says, “God, if you love me, get me out this trouble right now.” Instead, talk it over with the Lord. Tell Him the desire of your heart. Ask boldly of Him, even as you confess His goodness and His greatness. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7, NKJV) One author writes, “The angry person bangs, the guilty person lightly taps, and the confident person knocks. If I know I am asking and seeking with the right spirit and motives, I can confidently knock. Believing in my status as God’s child, yet accepting His sovereignty over my life, helps me exert just the right amount of pressure. That kind of knocking reveals my reverence and respect for God’s omniscience. ” [Discipleship Journal : Issue 32. 1999]
____________________

A Wretch, No more!

John Newton penned the now familiar line – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” Newton knew the depths of wretchedness. In his youth, he had gone to sea and over time became a captain, but not of noble ships. His ships carried human cargo from their African homes to lands far away. Those ships were islands of misery and death with sick and suffering humans chained below decks in squalor that defies our imagination. In addition to the physical horror, there was the utter loss of hope, the terrible grief of having their lives stolen while their bodies still lived!

In the film, “Amazing Grace” released in 2007 to tell the story of William Wilberforce, the member of England’s Parliament who led the 30 year struggle to outlaw slavery, Newton reveals that the horror of slave trade haunts his dreams, despite his own experience of Christ’s transforming grace, becoming a minister of the Church of England. He was a wretch, no longer, because of God’s intervention.

Some churches have taken to changing the word – ‘wretch’ – to ‘soul’ when they sing the that hymn. I prefer to hold onto the word – ‘wretch’ – because it makes God’s grace all that more amazing! What is a ‘wretch?’ My dictionary defines it as ‘a deplorably unhappy person of base or despicable character.’ No wonder some hymnals are taking the word out of the song. We moderns don’t like to think of ourselves as wretched. We make many excuses:

We don’t sin anymore, we just make mistakes.

We were raised by parents who messed us up psychologically by failing to love us adequately.

We lacked opportunities to excel, to get the right education, etc.

Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong again! Inside of every person lives a wretched sinful nature,which is inherited from Adam, the first in the long line of sinful wretches.

Paul knew of the wretched state of humanity first hand, too. He spent years pursuing Christians to bring them, with whatever means necessary back to their senses. He even stood at the murder of Stephen, watching him die as stones thrown by hate-filled men pummeled that young saint’s body. Then, he too,met Christ and experienced amazing, transforming grace. Paul never forgot that his sinful nature was ready to make a re-appearance if given the least chance. He wrote, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24, NKJV) But he does not dwell on hopelessness, nor does he make excuse for sin! A greater Power can give a new heart and a new start! Praise pours from his being at the demise of the wretch and the appearance of the glorious man – “The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” (Romans 7:25, The Message)

I awakened today with a strange mixture of wonder and revulsion in my heart- the dark outlines of the wretchedness at the edges of my life repulse me. The utter depravity of humanity – the pornographers, the greedy money merchants who steal the meager wealth of the unsophisticated, the powerful among us who use their power selfishly, the strong who oppress the weak- is everywhere. But against the dark backdrop, there is glory all around, for I am no longer a depraved wretch! I am a saint saved by grace!

And, most amazing of all, I am privileged to join with God in the fight against the wretchedness of the world, a priest of Heaven who is able to make the appeal, “on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV) I rejoice that the God of the ages, through Christ Jesus, would liberate me from wretchedness, not because of anything good thing I’ve done, but because He is so good and His grace so amazing.Have you bowed your heard, and humbled your heart, recognizing your wretchedness? There is no need to remain in that unhappy state. There is a Savior who gives new hearts and fresh starts to those who receive His amazing grace. He accepts wretches and makes heart, soul, and mind new! The Word promises – “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NIV)

Yes, you and I will, from time to time, slip back into our wretchedness when we take our eyes off of Jesus. The sinful nature waits to assert the wretch in us. But we need not wallow in the shame of our sins. Instead, we turn back to our God, and like the lost son, find the open arms of the Waiting Father.

Here’s a word from the Word-“We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory,are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory,which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)

Away darkness of the wretch! Shine brighter as you live in His amazing grace!

Wright is Wrong

Given that life can be frustrating, that people disappoint us, that situations of unfairness exist all around us, we get fed up and sometimes vent our anger in entirely inappropriate ways. Well, I do, anyway! I would not want some of my past tirades displayed on YouTube for all the world to see. So, I feel some compassion for the Rev. Wright, the pastor of Barack Obama, whose pulpit tirades were the object of much media attention this week. There is good reason for black American to feel anger, to hate what was done by a social structure that first enslaved and then oppressed their fathers. But, Wright as a Christian, should have known what we all need to know: rage feeds irrationality and, though it feels good in the moment, produces terrible fruit down life’s road!

Paul challenges Believers to deal with the ‘justifiable’ anger over life’s injustice with stern admonitions. He says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32, NIV) He says the same thing in both Galatians and Colossians! That ancient book of wisdom, Proverbs, tells us that “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32, NKJV) When I reflect back on times when I set aside moderation and self-control to give myself over to rage, I see moments of folly. With reason replaced by white hot passionate emotions, I am capable of saying and/or doing things that can only cause pain, that hurt others and myself.

And, while my first reaction to Wright is sorrowful indignation, what follows quickly is a kind of fear and humility. Why? Because I know that I, too, am a man with a sinful nature that struggles to master me. And, Believer, so are you! In a recent gathering of pastors that I attended, someone spoke of a local minister who had broken his marriage vows, sinning against God and his family. We all made the appropriate noises of disgust and professed our dismay that one of our fraternity would ‘do such a thing!’ Our indignation masked this simple truth – anyone of us sitting there could easily do the same thing except for the grace of God. Wright’s rage and our brother’s adultery are evidence of the very real struggle with the sinful nature that goes on inside the mind and heart of every person!

Please don’t read this as excusing sinful behavior. Paul, even as he acknowledges being “the worst of sinners,” (1 Tim. 1.15) determines to live a holy life that honors his Lord and Savior. And so should we. Here’s the paradox, when we acknowledge the reality of the potential to sin that is very real, we have taken the first step to break its hold on us. By humbly admitting the truth, we release the power of God in our lives. No one cleans himself up morally and then presents himself to Christ as worthy of being a child of God. The Bible dismisses even the most sincere attempts at making ourselves holy saying, “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory!” (Romans 3.23) Isaiah declares that our attempts at self-righteousness have all the value of ‘filthy rags!‘ (64.4)

But here’s the rest of the story…. “now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—”he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26, NIV)

God stepped in! What we cannot do for ourselves, He did for us. What is impossible for us, holiness, He makes not only possible, but inevitable, as we are filled with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The Word exults in our victory. After listing many evidences of the old sinful way of life, Paul says, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. … By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.”
(1 Corinthians 6:11,14, NIV)

Believer, do not accommodate your sinful nature. Make no excuses for those things that are ‘normal’ but not God-glorifying. Watch out for spiritual pride that points out the sins of others while failing to admit your own. Instead, kneel at the Cross! Receive the gift of salvation and the power to live a new life that is free to all who will believe and receive.
______________________

Trophy

Trophy – it’s a funny word, isn’t it?

The dictionary defines it as “anything serving as evidence of a victory, valor, or skill.” Last year I won one, sort of, at the Pinewood Derby, sponsored by our church’s boys group. Using a kit purchased from them, I made a small car to race down a long track. They awarded me the prize for ‘slowest car.’ I kid you not! It was a moment of glory that won’t be remembered. I have another trophy, a copy of a national magazine, issue date in the early 1990’s, when an editor first took note of my words and published an article I had written. I remember the pride I felt on receiving an advance copy, opening to that page, and seeing the title and my name printed under it. The paper of the magazine is starting to yellow and the excitement over being ‘published’ has long since faded.

John Ortberg writes about the fleeting nature of earthly success and the speed with which our trophies become insignificant. “God has a wonderful sense of humor and often sends people to help to remember that ‘being enough’ is His department. No trophies can confer that status. A few years ago I spoke in a conference in Germany and afterward was asked to sign some books. A woman handed me a German translation of one of my books and said in thickly accented English, ‘Danka. This is the best book I ever read.’ Germans aren’t famous for their sense of humor, but I thought she might be pulling my leg. ‘No kidding?’ I asked her. ‘Yah,’ she said, by way of ruthless explanation, ‘I don’t read much.’ ” – It All Goes Back in the Box, Zondervan, 2007

What trophies are you reaching for? What serves as evidence of victory for you? More money? Status in your community? Your kids’ achievements? Grades, degrees, certificates? Sexual conquest?

Awards and recognition are wonderful. We need to commend those who show skill, who achieve proficiency. But, we are best adjusted when the award is secondary in our order of importance. A real scholar loves to learn more than the degree that comes with education. A true athlete loves the game even more than the championship ring that comes with the win. A genuine Believer loves to serve the Lord and others more than the appreciation that comes to faithful servants! Trophies lose their luster quite quickly. This year’s ‘magna cum laude’ graduate is replaced by the scholar in the next class! Those who make world records in this year’s games will see them replaced by someone in a year or two.

Believer, there is a trophy that lasts! The commendation of God, for a life of love, never loses it’s value. The Word says, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, NLT) “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:4, NIV)

Jesus spoke of “laying up treasure in Heaven… where it never decays.” He wasn’t just talking about giving a generous donation to the church. He was talking about investing our time, our affection- all of our resources – in those things that are of eternal value. How you do your job makes it either just about earning a paycheck or about making life better for others for God’s glory. Loving, forgiving, seeking to serve makes relationships rich and creates unity in our families, churches, and communities that glorifies God and builds an eternal reward.

I pray that the trophy case in my life isn’t just full of fading trinkets of past glory. May God help me to live in a way that connects today with eternity. How about you?
Here’s a word from the Word. Embrace the promise!
“Be diligent and turn from your indifference. Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. Those who are victorious will sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on his throne.” (Revelation 3:19-21, NLT)

A Good Loser?

There are hundreds of books that teach us skills we need to win. Some counsel on the ways of building wealth, others on the agility necessary to mastering a game. But, I am convinced that a skill most needed is that of learning how to lose well! The fact is that we all lose, probably more than we win. It is a fact of life – Nobody wins everytime! It is what we do with the disappointments the come with loss that marks us as great people.

In her book, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts the story of Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, two men who met in 1854. One was a country lawyer from Illinois, the other a cultured lawyer from Washington, DC. A big case was to be heard in Illinois, so Stanton’s firm retained a local lawyer, Lincoln, just to make a connection with the local judge. Lincoln did not know this so he spent weeks preparing for the case. When Stanton came to Illinois for the case, he ignored Lincoln’s work completely. He insulted Lincoln endlessly, until finally Lincoln withdrew from the case, losing his ability to gain compensation. Five years later, Lincoln was the President of the United States and Stanton was the outgoing Attorney General. Lincoln needed a man to run the War Department as the nation was in the crisis of the Civil War. Stanton, his old critic, was the man recommended by many. Lincoln had not forgotten the insults, public and private, that Stanton had rained on him, yet he swallowed his pride and appointed the man for the good of the nation. In the end, they became stalwart allies and Stanton served his President faithfully until the day Lincoln was shot. Stanton mourned Lincoln intensely in death.

How was Lincoln able to choose a man for high office who had previously treated him with such contempt? Because Lincoln had learned to deal with adversity as a result of many losses in his life. He had endured poverty, overcame the early death of family members, lived through successive hardships, and suffered multiple political defeats on his way to the Presidency. Along the way, he had discovered that suffering can be an excellent teacher. He knew that today’s loss is an opportunity to make the choices for tomorrow’s success! A man less acquainted with personal hardships may well have lacked the courage, grit, and endurance to lead the nation through that dark time that preserved the Union at such terrible cost in life. Suffering had produced a person of great character who realized that the world did not exist to serve him; but that he existed to serve others in this world.

Do you complain bitterly when you are faced with loss?
Do you love to rehearse your sorrows so as to gain the sympathies of others?
Do you carefully protect yourself, your time, your resources from situations that might be costly, or demand inconvenience?
If you answer consistently answer with a ‘yes,’ dear Believer, then you will be of little use in the work of God.

Jesus Christ lays down these words of uncompromising challenge to each of us who would be part of His work in the world.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26, NIV)
His call is not to stoicism!
He does not demand detachment, nor a stiff upper lip!
Jesus was a man of tenderest emotions. He wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. He wept over the city of Jerusalem, knowing the judgment that awaited her. He was touched by the hunger of the crowd, the pain of the sick, and the hopelessness of those controlled by evil. He willingly took on the ‘loss’ of His Glory as God, to become a Man, and to become sin for us all. And why? For the joy of doing the will of God, for that is was, and is, the greatest Win-Win ever! In our obedience to His will, God’s Kingdom advances, we are blessed eternally.

Often our bitter wails and manipulations are born of an overdeveloped sense of entitlement! We do not say it in so many words, but the thought is there too often, “God, I am owed a better deal than this!” Truthfully, He owes us nothing, but gives us all things by His grace as we are able to receive them with thanksgiving, holding them loosely, and ready to use them for His purposes. When you find yourself in a hard place today, pray for the grace to give real thanks to God for His purposes in that moment. Careful now. Do not give the fraudulent words of empty praise to Him that is unmatched by a worshipful heart. Surrender yourself, from the first moment of the day, to His reign. Commit yourself to accepting wins and losses with equal grace, as the Lord helps you. A paradox that is amazing results. You will begin to experience greater joy as you live nearer to the Heart of God, which will increase the love that you enjoy for God, and from others. “Whoever loses his life for Me, will find it!”

Here is a word from the Word for your meditation today:
“I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:8-9, NIV)
_________________

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.

All to Jesus I surrender,
Lord I give myself to Thee.
Fill me with Thy love and power;
Let Thy blessings fall on me.

I surrender all,
I surrender all.
All to Thee my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

I Surrender All
Van DeVenter, Weeden© Public Domain

Right Words Matched with Right Actions

The greeting card business has to be a lucrative thing! It costs four bucks for a piece of paper, some foil imprinting, and a ribbon! The practical side of me says, “Jerry, just go fold a piece of paper, write your thoughts on it, and send it off.” Message delivered, money saved. What a cheap guy, huh? Of course, I realize that the message of encouragement or love that a greeting card communicates is much enhanced by the decorative way it is presented, so despite my inclination to be cheap, I buy the cards. As I stood at the card rack yesterday, I wondered how often a card gets purchased and sent simply to meet an expectation? A person can buy a card that says all the right words and mail it. There is no lie detector at the check out register that determines if the heart of the sender is actually filled with the love professed by the card. Sending a card is easy. Really loving somebody is much more expensive!

Jesus challenged his disciples to think about the importance of matching ‘right words’ with ‘right actions’ in a teaching story that He told about the religious leaders of His day. These men were His greatest foes. They professed a love for God. They knew all the right words, even how to create loopholes for themselves so they could look righteous while doing exactly what they wanted to do. Jesus wanted those who followed Him to know that God wasn’t buying the Pharisees’ professions of devotions as authentic. Here’s His story.

“A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. “Which of the two obeyed his father?” They replied, “The first.” Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (Matthew 21:28-31, NLT)

Cheap religion is all about making a good impression by singing the ‘right’ kind of songs, being in the church at the ‘right’ times, or saying the ‘right’ kind of prayers -all unmatched by a right kind of heart! No matter how we dress it up, God isn’t impressed by words alone. He desires true devotion that encompasses the totality of our lives. According to His story, God would much prefer that we honestly admit to our desire to do our own thing than to say we love Him while continuing to live for ourselves.

Honesty, before Him and with ourselves, allows the Spirit to convict us and change us. Adopting a superficial holiness is a kind of vaccine that prevents us from feeling the effects of sin’s sickness that drives us to desperately seek Him! Listen to the passion in the words of the Lord when He challenges a heart-less religion. “Frauds! Isaiah’s prophecy of you hit the bull’s-eye: These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their heart isn’t in it.” (Matthew 15:7-8, The Message)

Believer, as we worship through another Holy Week, let’s engage our hearts! Let God’s love, demonstrated in the death of Jesus on the Cross, touch you deeply, calling you to a life of love. Invite the Spirit to take the story of the Resurrection and drive it deeply into your mind, making you a person passionate about living for eternal purposes, not just the things of this present world. Be on guard for mere sentiment replacing real heart-felt devotion.

Here’s a word from the Word on which to meditate today.
“Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.” (James 2:14-18, The Message)
_________________________

Secured by the Truth

When I was a little tyke in Sunday School, we sang –
“The devil is a sly old fox
and if I could, I’d put him in a box.
I’d lock him up, and throw away the key,
for all the dirty tricks he’s played on me!”

The Scripture is more sophisticated in saying it, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:11, NKJV) The enemy of all that is good cares nothing for a fair fight and he will exploit anything in his pursuit of destruction. That is why we, Believers, must be full of the Spirit and centered in the grace of God so we are not duped by him.

Recently, I struggled against the temptation to serve Self all day long. I prayed for the tempter’s power to be broken and focused my thoughts in praise and meditation on the Word. I know that when I am tired, when life has required me to give everything I have, that my sinful nature will clamor for attention. Just when I thought the battle was won, the enemy of my soul found opportunity to take a couple of more swings at me. Someone questioned my competency and an email arrived that added insult to my character! Ah, yes, he is a canny foe. He whispered, “See, you’re really hurting now. You need to just let down your guard. Serve yourself!”

No matter what our occupation, regardless of how long we have been a follower of Jesus – evil is a real foe. The devil and his demons operate in the shadow world of deception and illusion, playing off of the very real circumstances in our lives, offering us ‘relief’ from our pain through things that will ultimately destroy us: hatred, unforgiveness, greed, sensuality, lust, drunkenness, use of drugs, laziness – to name a few. But in the hour of temptation we seldom see those things for what they are! He dresses them up in his lies and they appear to be just what we need to survive in the moment.

In the 4th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, there is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Devil. In the wilderness, where He was ‘led by the Spirit’ He found Himself weakened. The tempter shows up to exploit His desires, to offer false solutions to His longing to fulfill the mission God had given Him. “Turn these stones into bread. … presume on God’s power by forcing Him to intervene to save you from yourself … take a shortcut to power by giving me worship!” Jesus did not argue with the tempter. He turned to Truth! Each deception was countered.
“It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4, NIV) “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” (Matthew 4:7, NIV) “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10, NIV)

When you find yourself in the wilderness of Temptation, don’t trust your own strength. Let the Truth secure you. Pray for the Light to shine brightly dispelling the shadows. Name the temptation as God does, not with the pretty descriptions offered by the tempter, and the Lord will be your shield and strength.

Here’s a word from the Word. Take it with you.
“How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!

Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You. Blessed are You, O Lord! Teach me Your statutes.” (Psalm 119:9-12, NKJV)
_______________

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb.
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?

Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed thro’ bloody seas?

Sure I must fight if I would reign,
Increase my courage, Lord:
I’ll bear the toil,
endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.

And when the battle’s over
We shall wear a crown!
Yes, we shall wear a crown!
Yes, we shall wear a crown.
And when the battle’s over
We shall wear a crown
In the new Jerusalem.

Isaac Watts© Public Domain

Which Jesus do you follow?

Christians celebrated Palm Sunday yesterday, the day in which people of ancient Jerusalem welcomed Jesus as their King, or so it would seem on the surface of the story. The story of the restoration of Lazarus from the grave after he had been dead and buried for four days circulated, stirring great excitement. “Many in the crowd had seen Jesus call Lazarus from the tomb, raising him from the dead, and they were telling others about it. That was the reason so many went out to meet him—because they had heard about this miraculous sign.” (John 12:17-18, NLT) The story out-raced Jesus to Jerusalem and quickly morphed into a “Messiah is coming to restore the Kingdom of David” narrative. So when people heard He was on the road into the city they greeted him with palm branches and shouts that welcomed a new king. They thought that He was about to start the revolution and set them free from Rome’s tyranny. Even His own disciples got the fever and started debating which one of them would be Prime Minister, causing Jesus to wash their feet at the Last Supper to remind them of the importance of serving one another in love!

Days later when those crowds saw Jesus in Roman custody, bloodied and bound, their disillusionment turned into fury that was fed by the religious leaders. They screamed for His blood – “Crucify Him!” This is the problem with getting only half the story, with failing to know the Christ of the Bible! Jesus mission was one of liberation and restoration, but not to recreate Israel’s earthly glory. He came to announce the Kingdom of Heaven, to raise up a new people of God from every nation, something that only started to come into focus weeks later with the birth of the church, and which only became crystal clear several years later when the Spirit was poured out on the household of Cornelius!

Have you followed the Jesus of the Word or a “Jesus” of popular imagination? We have many Jesus stories being told in our time.
There is the “Happy Good Luck Jesus” who is supposed to make all our troubles vanish, keep our cars in good repair, and protect us from the sorrows of life.
There is the “American Patriot Jesus” who supposedly will keep America first, protect our privileged place in the world’s power structure, and allow us to continue to consume prodigious quantities of the world’s resources to make ourselves more and more rich!
And, then too, there is the “Prosperity Gospel Jesus” who supposedly is a lot like Santa, handing out health and wealth to all His good kids, so they can enjoy their best life now!

Follow one of those “Jesus” stories and you’ll find yourself – sooner or later – disillusioned when ‘it doesn’t work!’ Jesus Christ did promise that He would bring “life to the full” (John 10.10) meaning that He would restore our place at the Father’s table, forgive us our sins, and assure us of eternal life. And it is true that those who live in His ways and as He teaches us to live, generally enjoy better lives than those who are slaves of sin and Satan. After all, if you follow the Owner’s Manual, life tends to find better emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical health! But He is not the Savior of Indulgence, the giver of perpetual ease! Just as fulfilling His godly mission required sacrifice and suffering, so if we desire to live godly lives that serve His purposes we must be prepared to ‘die to self.’

At the beginning of this Holy Week, I urge you to prayerfully consider whether you have the Jesus Christ of Scripture as your Lord and King. Here’s how the Word describes Him. May the Lord bless the Word to your mind today.

“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.

Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. This includes you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions.” (Colossians 1:15-21, NLT) Hallelujah, What a Savior!
_________________

A Holy Week

Tom Rees, a pastor in Pennsylvania, sent out the following….
My prayer is that you might follow some or all of his suggestions and find that your celebration of the Resurrection is more blessed than ever before.
________________________

I invite you to join me on a week long journey that leads us from Palm Sunday to the Cross to the Resurrection. During this journey I encourage you to participate in any or all of these three ways;

1) Reflection on the Word:

Spend time each day reflecting on the events that happened during Holy Week through taking time in Bible reading and prayer. This is a great way to prepare our heart to re-discover of the amazing gift of new life that is found in Jesus.

Below you will find a suggested Scripture Reading Plan to help you.

The selected Scriptures are linked directly on line to BibleGateway and are arranged chronologically from the Gospels. Read as much as you can digest. Do not let it overwhelm you. Let God’s word speak to your spirit.

1. Sunday, March 16
Matt. 20:17-34; Mark 10:32-52; Luke 18:31-43

2. Monday, March 17
Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-15

3. Tuesday, March 18
Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46

4. Wednesday, March 19
Matt. 21:18 – 26:16; Mark 11:11 – 14:11; Luke 20:1 – 22:6

5. Thursday, March 20
Matt. 26:17-75; Mark 14:12-72; Luke 22:7-62; John. 13:21 – 18:27

6. Friday, March 21
Matt. 27:1-61; Mark 15:1-47; Luke 22:66 – 23:55; John 18:28 – 19:42

7. Saturday, March 22
Matt.27:62-66; Luke 23:56

8. Sunday, March 23
Matt. 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-6


2) Fasting:

Consider giving something up during this week in order to help you focus, and to humble yourself before God.

3) Fellowship:

I encourage you not to experience Holy week alone. Pray with your family or a good friend.Share your journey, read the Scriptures together and discuss things that God is teaching you.
_________________

Thank you, Tom, for your excellent suggestions!
Now, for those readers who live locally and are not part of another congregation, I extend an invitation to corporate worship.

At the Assembly we have these events planned for next week….Weds. Bible Study – cancelled

3/20 Thursday –
A showing – The Passion of the Christ, at 7 pm in the sanctuary

3/21 Friday – Communion Worship, 7 pm

3/23 Sunday – Christian Education hour in recess

Breakfast served in the Family Fellowship Center from 8:45 to 9:45 am.
(Donations accepted to benefit Youth Ministry and Speed the Light)

Resurrection Celebration – 10:15 am

Pour It On!

I love my wife. Serving her, caring for her, meeting her needs is no burden to me. I do not calculate whether we are ‘equal’ in our expression of love, or that I have ‘done enough’ for her, or if she owes, me something in return. It delights me to give her as much of my time, attention, and resources as possible! The simplest things – stopping by her classroom just to say, ‘Hi’ – figuring out what she would like for dinner and preparing it – greeting her when she is sleepy-eyed in the morning with a “Hey, Beautiful!” – provide me with more joy than I can tell. I do not believe that genuine love is about calculated benefits or minimum requirements. Love always appears irrational to those who view it from the outside.

I want to love Jesus in a similar manner, extravagantly and without calculation of personal benefit! A story in the Gospel tells about one woman’s expression of love for the Lord that provoked a strong reaction. Take a look. “Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. “That’s criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year’s wages and handed out to the poor.”
They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me.” (Mark 14:3-6, The Message)

When we devote ourselves to a passionate pursuit of Christ, we no longer think that we have ‘done enough’ when we go to church and/or give our tithe. We do not feel that we are entitled to some blessing just because we have completed some act of worship! We lose any sense of having a ‘holy obligation.’ Increasingly, our love for Him pulls us to extravagance, worshipping and serving for the sheer delight of giving ourselves to Him. In a recent conversation with some other Pastors, one of them mentioned meeting with a some couples who were preparing to leave the United States to ‘bury’ themselves in remote locations, far from convenience and comfort, to do missionary work. They are bright, skilled people who could enjoy great careers, make real money, and live safely and comfortably in an American suburb. Yet, they choose an entirely different way of life that appears terribly difficult to some of us. To them it is a delight. Why? No other reason than love! Some look at their choice and, like the men in the text above, say, “a sheer waste.”

Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, talks about the ways he has served the Lord and His Church. Some called him insane for what he put himself through in order to preach the Gospel. Remember the lengths to which he went? He traveled endlessly, was persecuted, beaten, rejected, thrown out of cities and towns, arrested, jailed, and eventually would be a martyr. Why? “If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us.” (2 Corinthians 5:13-14, NIV) John says, “We love, because He first loved us.” Love begets love. Christ loves us, saves us from judgment and destruction, and sets us on a new course. And, we love Him in return.

So, Believer, have you experienced the love of Christ?
What kind of love are you giving Him in return?
Is it a calculated love that seeks to minimally meet His expectations?
Or is your love ‘over the top,’ extravagant, and irrational in the eyes of those who do not share it?

Jesus, in His own words, describes how we express love to Him while we are still in this world.
Read His words and then ask yourself, “How can I pour it on?”

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’ “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’

Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ ” (Matthew 25:34-40, The Message)