The Big Religion Show

In my Scripture readings this Holy Week I am ‘walking with Jesus’ in the final chapters of Matthew. These passages are not among the most enjoyable in the Gospels, to be sure. They are full of challenge, confrontation, and conflict. Today’s reading in chapter 23 are Jesus’ words of scathing condemnation for the religious leaders of His time. He did not talk about sexual scandals, nor did He mention their salaries, which are favorite targets for church critics in our time.  

He challenged their habit of ‘puttin’ on’ a big religion show. They were very, very good at it. They knew how to look holy, dress holy, and walk among ‘ordinary’ sinners without even being touched.  Many lived in awe of them, thinking that they were amazingly godly. Jesus didn’t!

These are some of the kinder things He said. “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear extra long tassels on their robes.” (Matthew 23:5, NLT)  “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! You are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” (Matthew 23:25, NLT)

So what’s the big deal? Why is Jesus concerned with these pious frauds?   

Jesus explains that their big religion show is not just ridiculous. They keep people from knowing God’s grace and power. “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you won’t let others enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and you won’t go in yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13, NLT)

Puttin’ on a show, having a religious ‘life’ that is inauthentic and mostly words, has been a sin problem for eons.  Centuries before the time of Christ Jesus, Isaiah saw it Jerusalem. The Spirit of God moved him to write this – “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  (29:13) 

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught about a practice of prayer that accomplishes nothing – “babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”  (Matthew 6:7)  He plainly says that our most intimate moments with the Lord will be found in our prayer closet, not in public places. “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. … ““Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6:1, 6, The Message)

Regular practice of spiritual disciplines – worship, Scripture intake, meditation, prayer, confession, giving, service – are good. We should do these things even when we do not feel like it not because we impress God or worse, other people, but because these are a means of opening up our minds and hearts to the Holy Spirit.  

Remember that authenticity is not the same thing as spontaneity. As much as I love those moments when God’s Presence finds me and moves me, I do not wait for them to worship. However, we must take care not to just be content to go through the motions of daily worship without our heart engaged.  IF the only reason we pray, or show up at church, or talk about the Bible is to keep up appearances, we are hypocrites who offend God and look ridiculous.

Perhaps your conscience is hurting as you read this. (Mine was as I wrote it!)  You’re realizing how often you just slip into the ‘religion show.’ 

You sing songs you don’t understand or mean.
You write a tithe check to your church without praying for the ministries you support.
You open your Bible and read words you can’t remember even a minute after you put it away.
You pray prayers that fall from your lips out of habit but leave the basic issues of your heart untouched. 

Jesus reminds us that the answer is NOT just to try harder!  Curiously that is what we think we ought to do. He invites us to change our focus, to raise our eyes to Him. A first step is to admit – to yourself, to God – in real confession those areas in your faith practices where there is a yawning gap between your words and your reality.  I find that the discipline of silence is a good place to start. When I turn off the music, get on my face before the Lord, and just listen – I begin to get real.  Get honest and tell Him you’re sick of saying the same old words. 

Tell Him about the uncertainties you’re hiding inside. Confess your love for things of this world that contribute to your lack of desire for godly things. In your private prayers, how about admitting, out loud, that you would rather go golfing than to church, that you like others to serve you more than your like serving them, that Heaven seems far away and the pleasures of the moment are alluring.  Yes, it’s hard!  

“But, Jerry, I can’t admit to those things.”  Why not?  He knows your heart better than you do!  Humility and confession allow us to grow, to find the Spirit’s transformation that is inside out. 

Real faith is not a matter of doing religion better; it’s about loving Jesus, focusing on Him. He makes a wonderful promise to us about meeting us where we are.

The word from the Word is His invitation.
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20, NIV)

So, ready to be real?
______________

At The Cross (Love Ran Red)

(a song of focus to turn our hearts to Him)

There’s a place
Where mercy reigns and never dies
There’s a place
Where streams of grace flow deep and wide
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood comes flowing down

At the cross at the cross
I surrender my life
I’m in awe of You I’m in awe of You
Where Your love ran red and my sin washed white
I owe all to You I owe all to You (Jesus)

There’s a place
Where sin and shame are powerless
Where my heart
Has peace with God and forgiveness
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood comes flowing down

Here my hope is found
Here on holy ground
Here I bow down here I bow down
Here arms open wide
Here You saved my life
Here I bow down here I bow (down)

Chris Tomlin | Ed Cash | Jonas Myrin | Matt Armstrong | Matt Redman
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Come to the Feast!

Yesterday I was privileged to ‘join’ a few hundred others from around the world in an online prayer meeting.  At one point I knelt in my living room, face down to the floor, in humble acknowledgement of God, my heart broken by the sin and Self that is rampant in this time, and in earnest prayer for spiritual renewal – starting with me!  

There are many millions of people who are trying so hard to satisfy their soul’s hunger with hobbies, pleasure, diversions, and even achievement. The Spirit moved me with the heart of Jesus Who was, Himself, broken-hearted by the refusal of people to receive His love.  So, I prayed for eyes to be opened, hearts to be stirred, that we might know Him and find, as He promises, “eternal life.”

Jesus told a story that reveals the peril of living without God, ignoring His invitation. Take a look. “God’s kingdom,” he said, “is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. He sent out servants to call in all the invited guests. And they wouldn’t come! “He sent out another round of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, ‘Look, everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!’ “They only shrugged their shoulders and went off, one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop. The rest, with nothing better to do, beat up on the messengers and then killed them.

The king was outraged and sent his soldiers to destroy those thugs and level their city. “Then he told his servants, ‘We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on—every place filled.” (Matthew 22:1-10, The Message)

Come to the feast! Be part of His kingdom celebration!

Holy Week is an invitation to us to walk with Jesus to the Cross where we see the heart of the Father. There we see that His response to the sins and suffering of His Creation was to extend the gift of Grace and Salvation. John reminds us of the love that is behind the whole story – “So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.” (John 1:14, NLT) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NLT) 

Jesus Christ is God come to earth, God becoming Man, God warring with Evil, God defeating sin.  Our churches are decorated by crosses, but do we understand the love they symbolize? Yes, the Cross is amazing and key to our hope.  There we see Jesus becoming sin for us, bearing the guilt of the world. 

It is of great hope to us to know that our journey this week will not stop at the Cross! Thank God!  

The ‘rest of the story’ includes the Resurrection morning. The Empty Tomb is the evidence that sin’s power is broken.  We are invited to be like Jesus in that we choose to ‘die’ to Self, engage with a suffering world at great cost, all with the hope that there is more beyond – an assurance of our resurrection!  

Along the way, God asks us to become His people, saints,  joining in the work of bringing a message of hope to a broken Creation; to tell the lost that they can be found, the dead that they can live.  We may shed tears, we may bear the weight of the work, but we go steady on. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NIV)

Christian friend, come to the feast He has prepared. Life will offer us a million distractions. But, only One can give us Life eternal.

Here is a word from the Word. Take hold of its promise by faith. “It was for us, too, assuring us that God will also declare us to be righteous if we believe in God, who brought Jesus our Lord back from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised from the dead to make us right with God.

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.” (Romans 4:24-5:2, NLT)

“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11, NIV

______________

Living Hope

How great the chasm that lay between us
How high the mountain I could not climb
n desperation I turned to heaven
And spoke Your name into the night

Then through the darkness Your loving-kindness
Tore through the shadows of my soul
The work is finished the end is written
Jesus Christ my living hope

Who could imagine so great a mercy
What heart could fathom such boundless grace
The God of ages stepped down from glory
To wear my sin and bear my shame

The cross has spoken I am forgiven
The King of kings calls me His own
Beautiful Savior I’m Yours forever
Jesus Christ my living hope

Hallelujah praise the One who set me free
Hallelujah death has lost its grip on me
You have broken every chain
There’s salvation in Your name
Jesus Christ my living hope

Then came the morning that sealed the promise
Your buried body began to breathe
Out of the silence the Roaring Lion
Declared the grave has no claim on me

Jesus Yours is the victory whoa
Jesus Christ my living hope
Oh God You are my living hope

Brian Johnson | Phil Wickham

© 2017 Phil Wickham Music (Fair Trade Music Publishing

[c/o Essential Music Publishing LLC])

Sing My Songs (Fair Trade Music Publishing

CCLI License # 810055

The fruitless fig tree

Does your faith connect to life? Does the Spirit produce the fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) that is evidence of a living relationship with the Lord in you?

Jesus began what we call “Holy Week” with the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. He rode the donkey through the gate receiving the welcome of people’s cheers and the praise, “Hosanna!” But, the days that followed would be full of  confrontation and escalating conflict with religious leaders of the city.  

Matthew records one of the things that Jesus did on Monday morning, an act that seems so out of character for Him. “In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs on it, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up.” (Matthew 21:18-19, NLT)  What?  Why? Was He having a bad day?  While it may seem so to us at first reading the rest of the chapter gives a context to that moment.

It was a living parable, a teaching moment that remained unforgotten in the minds of His disciples. He had taught, loved, and done miracles that pointed to the fact that He was the long awaited Messiah. He longed for the people to receive Him, to know the joy of entering into the New Kingdom He brought, to experience the gift of a new relationship with their Father. But, instead, they mostly argued, rejected, and challenged.  Like the fruitless fig tree, their lives had no evidence of the Spirit of God and they were ‘dead to God’ because of their rejection.  Jesus knew the tragedy of their rejection. Like the withered fig tree, they were facing destruction.

The cursed fig tree set the stage for a parable Jesus told to the religious authorities who questioned Him about His own authority.  When they heard the story, they knew exactly what He was saying. It was an infuriating challenge, a direct indictment of their disobedience to the God they professed to serve.

But what do you think about this? 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 was obeying his father?” They replied, “The first, of course.” Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I assure you, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the way to life, and you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to turn from your sins and believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32, NLT)

His words were shocking and offensive. Those Pharisees who took pride in their external morality, in their scrupulous observation of the ritual Law, were scandalized by Jesus’ suggestion that the outcasts, the crooks, and the women who sold their bodies could be eligible to ‘enter the Kingdom!’  This Man had to go! And so the decisions to eliminate Him began to be made.

We would do well to think about our lives this Holy Week.

Are we content to sing songs of praise, to give mental assent to the Creed, to say a few prayers as we close the day while largely carrying on life without any real Love or obedience? Do we think that our social respectability gives us a place at God’s Table?

I want to leave these passages with you for your reflection today. I pray that we will let the Holy Spirit make them truth to live by.

“Consequently, it is clear that no one can ever be right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life. (Galatians 3:11, NLT)

“What is faith? It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see.” (Hebrews 11:1, NLT)  “So, you see, it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that there is a God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, NLT)

When the Lord looks at your life does He find fruit or nothing but leaves?

_____________

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

(Lauren Daigle sings this great old song)

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth
Will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

O soul are you weary and troubled
No light in the darkness you see
There’s light for a look at the Savior
And life more abundant and free

Through death into life everlasting
He passed and we follow Him there
Over us sin no more hath dominion
For more than conquerors we are

His Word shall not fail you He promised
Believe Him and all will be well
Then go to a world that is dying
His perfect salvation to tell

Helen H. Lemmel © Words: Public Domain

So done, over it all?

Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War, has an interesting history. He enjoyed great success and failure more than once. The man whose gravelly voice kept England’s morale up through the war, was turned out of office the year the war ended. Amazingly, he recovered his political strength and returned to the office of the PM six years later in 1951.  On Oct. 29, 1941, he visited Harrow School, his alma mater, to speak, at a time when the possibility that the Nazis would win the war was very real. His words reflect the spirit of the man: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense?”   

When London was in flames from Nazi bombs and England’s armies were in retreat he called on the British to stand firm. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.”  History regards Churchill as a great leader in spite of the failures in his life. Why?  Because he stayed consistent, doing his best even through the worst of times.

So many people these days are tired – weary of the endless political bickering, tired of COVID briefings and contradictory advice, exhausted by the cultural shifts that are redefining our nation so quickly. Depression has grown more common in the last year. Abuse of alcohol has increased, too. A majority of Americans report that they have put on some noticeable weight!  All indicators point to one fact – we are stressed.  If you are feeling this way, remember everybody gets discouraged sometime. We get worn down by fatigue, battered by criticism, disillusioned by failure- our own and of those around us, and disheartened.  “Never give in!”

Christian, have you lapsed in faith, setting aside worship, daily meditation, and intake of Scripture?  Are your prayers cold and lifeless, perhaps even non-existent?

Here is the promise of God’s faithfulness and a call to renewal of hope. “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Hebrews 10:35-36, NIV)  The same writer, inspired by the Spirit, tells us to “Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God.” Hebrews 12:2 (The Message)

How can we go steady on, doing the right things, keeping faith?

Take a strategic break. Maybe it is just an hour of diversion, maybe it is a day off, maybe it is a change in routine. On Tuesday, I took the afternoon off and dug in the dirt, sat in the sun, and rested my soul. The ‘break’ was refreshing.

Strengthen your network.  Keep your friendships intact, your family ties strong. Few things do more for the health of our soul and emotions than having people with whom we share life.

Lengthen your perspective.  Look past the problems of the moment, with hope for tomorrow, with faith that includes God’s eternity.  When I was in the depths of grief five years ago following the death of my wife, it seemed that each day would never end, that the wound would never heal.  But, time has healed my heart. Yes, the scar remains, with tenderness, but God has given new life, new challenges, new hope.  

Here is a word from the Word. It is from St. Paul, a man who endured much difficulty and deprivation in his lifetime of ministry. His words have the ring of authenticity.

“I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing:
Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead,
I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven…
we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.
And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.

He will take these weak mortal bodies of ours and change them into glorious bodies like his own,
using the same mighty power that he will use to conquer everything, everywhere.
Dear brothers and sisters, I love you and long to see you, for you are my joy and the reward for my work.

So please stay true to the Lord, my dear friends.” (Philippians 3: 13-14; 20-4:1, NLT)

Never give up!
_____________

Graves Into Gardens

I searched the world but it couldn’t fill me
Man’s empty praise and treasures that fade
Are never enough
Then You came along and put me back together
And every desire is now satisfied here in Your love

Oh there’s nothing better than You
There’s nothing better than You
Lord there’s nothing
Nothing is better than You

I’m not afraid to show You my weakness
My failures and flaws
Lord You’ve seen them all
And You still call me friend

‘Cause the God of the mountain
Is the God of the valley
And there’s not a place
Your mercy and grace won’t find me again

You turn mourning to dancing
You give beauty for ashes
You turn shame into glory
You’re the only one who can

You turn graves into gardens
You turn bones into armies
You turn seas into highways
You’re the only one who can

Brandon Lake | Chris Brown | Steven Furtick | Tiffany Hudson © 2019 Music by Elevation Worship Publishing (Admin. by Essential Music Publishing LLC)

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Dad, I need some advice.

On Tuesday, my youngest daughter called.  “Dad, if you have time, I’d like to email you our home inspection report. Would you be able to look it over?”  Christine is a bright woman, well-educated, uber-responsible, and very competent. But, she still reached out to get some of Dad’s experience and wisdom for their pending home purchase. It makes my old heart glad to be included in her life.  Though my Dad has been gone from this earth for 12 years, I still miss the opportunity to talk over life with him.  As a whole new stage of my life approaches, I’d love to ask him what he would do again, what he might do differently.

There is a Father to Whom I do turn.  My prayers, my time in His Presence, often includes a listening for the whisper of His wisdom as I ponder life.  I love that older worship chorus that says, “Draw me to my knees, so we can talk… let me know You’re here with me.”  We live in an unsettled time, one of rapid cultural shifts.

Oh, how we need to be Fathered, steadied, given guidance.  I can identify with David’s emotions when he prays, “For troubles surround me— too many to count! They pile up so high I can’t see my way out. They are more numerous than the hairs on my head. I have lost all my courage.” (Psalm 40:12, NLT)  “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord is thinking about me right now. You are my helper and my savior. Do not delay, O my God.” (Psalm 40:17, NLT)

Are you needing counsel? 
God reaches out to us with an invitation: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5, NIV) And what does my Abba say? 

He counsels patience, steady faith! “Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world.” (Psalm 46:8, NLT)  

He reminds us of the eternal! “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:1-2, NIV)

He invites us to a purposeful life! “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:10-11, NIV)

His wisdom may arrive as an inspired thought, a flash of insight.
It may be in some article you just ‘happen’ to read or in a podcast recommended by a friend
It may come as your pastor speaks on Sunday.
It may be a passage from the Word that takes new light.
Perhaps a friend will sense your need and be moved by the Spirit to come alongside and help.
God will guide if we turn to Him.

The Proverb reminds us to “Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track. ” (Proverbs 3:5-6, The Message)  When we ask, we must listen. Listening prayer can be the most difficult kind. But, we must discipline our minds to stop talking, to stop rehearsing our fear or uncertainty so can we can hear the ‘still, small voice’ that whispers God’s assurance to us.

Jesus spoke of turbulent times that would come upon the earth and gave this counsel to His disciples. “In your patience possess ye your souls.” (Luke 21:19, KJV) Memorize those 7 words and when you’re filled with questions, repeat them. What do they mean? “Patience” is a translation of the NT Greek word that asks a person to  ‘stand firm.’  Jesus is asking you and me to take charge of our impulses and to choose to be faithful, to ‘stand up under pressure.‘  God counsels us to renew our resolve. So, square your shoulders. Show some grit! Finish well!

My Dad’s counsel, offered to me many times in the past, is found in one of his favorite Psalms. It is a word  from the Word for us today. Receive it, live it.

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires.
Commit everything you do to the Lord.
Trust him, and he will help you. He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn, and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.
Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act.” (Psalm 37:2-7, NLT)

_____________

Open My Eyes That I May See

Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free

Silently now I wait for Thee
Ready my God Thy will to see
Open my eyes illumine me
Spirit divine

Open my ears that I may hear
Voices of truth Thou sendest clear
And while the wave notes fall on my ear
Everything false will disappear

Open my mouth and let me bear
Gladly the warm truth everywhere
Open my heart and let me prepare
Love with Thy children thus to share

Clara H. Fiske Scott © Words: Public Domain

Aching with sorrow

Yesterday’s news of the shooting rampage in Boulder, Colorado that caused the deaths of 10, coming just days after another in Atlanta in which 8 died, makes my soul ache. I am confounded by the hatred in twisted minds that brings such mayhem on the world.  I should not be, given the sorry record of humanity, but I am! 

I watched a TV drama last night that included a story about a boss who had dismissed a young worker because he thought he was lazy. He  found out, too late, that the man was not ‘work shy,’ but was actually weakened by an undiagnosed cancer. The man came to the widow to apologize for his misjudgment and to leave a large donation for her children.  I thought – “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world really worked that way?”  I suppose it does, somewhere, sometime.   I  have such a deep longing in me for a world where right prevails, where love flourishes.

In spite of the pain, the questions, I hope. The wisdom of the Word tells me that the world is groaning, with me, waiting for a new day. “Against its will, everything on earth was subjected to God’s curse. All creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And even we Christians, although we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, also groan to be released from pain and suffering. We, too, wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children, including the new bodies he has promised us.” (Romans 8:20-23, NLT)

The Genesis story teaches us the power of our choices, showing us that the rejection of the will of God will bring hardship and death. The seduction of the serpent invited Adam and Eve to reject the Lord’s directive. Their choice subjected the world to evil.

The awful sentence of judgment that God pronounced was the consequence of their willful sin.  “And to Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate the fruit I told you not to eat, I have placed a curse on the ground. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. All your life you will sweat to produce food, until your dying day. Then you will return to the ground from which you came. For you were made from dust, and to the dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19, NLT) Beyond the temporal suffering, Genesis tells us of the broken relationship with the Creator. In their guilt, they hid from the Lord.

We are quick to note the terrible evils of mass shootings, of horrific crimes, of dictators and despots. But, we all, apart from God, contribute to the pain of the world. The damning indictment is stark in its simplicity – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23, NIV)  As much as we want to think that the problems belong to another, we cannot.  As hard as it may be to admit – to myself, to others, to God – I must acknowledge that when I am selfish, when I judge another, when I reject the two-fold law of love for God and others – I increase the groaning of a world in pain!  I cannot, nor can you, exempt myself from what He says – “the wages of sin is death!” 

What then? Only despair, only regret, only shame and guilt? 

No, thankfully, there is a glorious conjunction at that point in the Word –  “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, NIV)  This is our hope, my friend.  God saves! Redemption is ours through Christ Jesus. Transformed lives are possible. Love will win, in the end. We need not wait for Heaven or the Second Coming of our King to enter into His peace and reign. “We Christians …  have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory!”  Oh may God help us to be those who, through the Spirit, make a measurable difference in our world.  May God fill us with love, give us patient hope, shining brightly through us into a world that has turned so dark.

Each day we have a choice! Will we increase the pain of a suffering world, or will we live in the healing and hope that God makes possible?

The word from the Word speaks of the anticipation of the final victory over suffering.  If you, like I, are aching with sorrow for the world today, remember the promise.  Let the Spirit rise in you, renewing hope.

“For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight.”
(2 Corinthians 5:4-7, NIV)
__________

O God Our Help In Ages Past

O God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure
Sufficient is Thine arm alone
And our defense is sure

Before the hills in order stood
Or earth received her frame
From everlasting Thou art God
To endless years the same

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun

Our God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Be Thou our guard while troubles last
And our eternal home

Isaac Watts © Public Domain

In Jesus’ Name, We Press On

Walking into a local diner yesterday, I heard a voice – “Hey, Jerry, you gonna eat by yourself?”  It took a second to register the greeting of my old friend, Jack, who have known for almost 50 years. He was the best man at my wedding. We spend the next hour ‘catching up’ on life, talking about our families, sharing our faith walk, being friends. It was sweet to remember.

Nostalgia is dangerous as the old song says – “Once upon a time the world was sweeter than we knew, Everything was ours, how happy we were then!”  It is good to remember the blessings of the past, times of fruitful ministry, people still loved – but, we can’t live there.

The opportunities that exist today can be hidden by the haze of past glories or the darkness of regret. We rewrite history, perhaps not on purpose, but we do. The ‘ordinary’ is lost to us and the moments we remember are the big ones – those that stand out. We may well remember those ‘good old days, forgetting most of the hardships that are eclipsed by the shining moments of joy.  

Conversely, the failures that cause us pain may hide a hundred lesser victories, long forgotten. With age, I know that living in the past is a major temptation, one that will hinder my relationship with the Lord.  Even if you are not that old, our quickly changing world can bring on longing for another era, one that we remember as being so much better!  Are you bemoaning life?  “It’s not the way it used to be.”   Life is not static, never has been, never will be.

Christian, we must keeping growing and learning. If we starting living only in yesterday, we will die – spiritually.   I hear your objection – “But, Jerry, Christianity is ancient. Traditions are important.”   Yes, it is true. The Bible assures us that “Jesus Christ is the same; yesterday, today, and forever.” The grace gifts of Communion, baptism, and holy days in our calendar are valuable experiences that preserve continuity in the Christian community, that take us ‘back to the foundations.’ 

And, this too, I do not suggest that all change is good or that we should seek change out of boredom. We change for the good when we invite God, the Spirit, speak to us in our place, our time, with a word for this day that brings the unchanging Christ into this world.  While the Gospel of Christ, the grace that reconciles us to our Creator God, never changes, how it is communicated; the ways that we worship, the methods we use to observe the traditions and rites of our faith – will all change over time.

Songs that moved us, that shaped our expressions, will be replaced by the songs of new artists who are expressing their love for Christ with new rhythms and melodies. Preachers whose methods were inspired by the Spirit for a generation will pass on to their reward.  Today will bring innovative ways to share the authentic Message of Christ.

Let’s make it personal before closing this thought today.
I want to encourage you to enjoy what the Lord wants to do in your life TODAY!

Do you fondly remember a decade when God seemed so close to you? Rejoice in that!  
Do you feel deep regret for some choices you made in past?  Remember the great grace of God that forgives our sins –completely.

Great memories strengthen bonds bringing families, churches, and even nations together.  We learn from the terrible memories of poor choices, sinful decisions, or simple folly!   But, we must not sing ‘once upon a time,’ too fondly, so as to miss God’s work, right here, right now!  Pray that the Spirit will renew your vision.  Give thanks for the possibilities that exist in this day. If you think the Church has gone a little ‘off the rails,’ pray for those who lead, asking the Spirit to make His Presence known.  

Be ready, whether you have walked with God for 4 months or 40 years to see God to do a new thing – in you, in your church, in this world! Consider Jesus’ parable – “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be torn, and the patch wouldn’t even match the old garment. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. The new wine would burst the old skins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins.” (Luke 5:36-37, NLT)

Here’s a word from the Word. Paul writing about the path of his life speaks of a forward looking faith. “I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.” (Philippians 3:12-14, NLT)

Press on to the prize!

_____________

Press On

(a song I love for the hope it inspires)

When the valley is deep
When the mountain is steep
When the body is weary
When we stumble and fall

When the choices are hard
When we’re battered and scarred
When we’ve spent our resources
When we’ve given our all

In Jesus’ name we press on
In Jesus’ name we press on
Dear Lord with the prize
Clear before our eyes
We find the strength to press on

Dan Burgess © 1983 Good Life Publications, Inc. (Admin. by Jubilate Music Group, LLC)

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Better today, growing into tomorrow

Are you sometimes surprised at what comes out of your mouth, or by a thought that enters your conscious mind, or the realization of some part of you kept hidden from view?  There are shadows in us all, some that make us shudder, some that fill us regret, some that create real stress. Paul reminds us  not to be “naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.”  (1 Corinthians 10:12, The Message)

Christians are not exempt from temptation or too good to sin. Yes, the Spirit of God lives in us.  He makes change possible but we must be wary of the pursuit of perfectionism. If we imagine that we can somehow reach a place of spiritual maturity when we become too strong to fail, too mature to act foolishly, too ‘spiritual’ to sin, we are living in deception.  The pressure of perfection is a sure way to destroy the joy of the Lord, to turn into a miserable religionist.

Paul teaches us that though we are filled with Christ, secured by His grace gift, we continue to deal with the sinful nature. “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Romans 7:22-24 NIV  There we find a glimpse of the reason why Christians still can be cruel, selfish, materialistic – a saint and a sinner in the same body!

It is not my intent in this reflection to suggest that we wave the white flag of surrender to our darker side or that we make peace with those ways in us that are less than Jesus desires for us. We can grow in grace, the life and love of Jesus more evident in us with time’s passing.  Basic to this growth is faith in the truth that our salvation and holiness cannot come from ourselves.

The life God desires us to live is a work of the Spirit. Paul, seeing the struggle of the Galatians to perfect themselves challenges them (and us) to understand God’s work on our behalf “Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the law? Of course not, for the Holy Spirit came upon you only after you believed the message you heard about Christ. Have you lost your senses? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:2-3, NLT) ” So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:16-17, NIV)

Having received Christ by faith, we can let His Light shine into every corner of our lives! A quote from Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, who served from 1916 to 1939, is not about spiritual matters but it certainly applies! “Sunlight is the best disinfectant!” He referred to the corruption  that goes on when government operates in secrecy, without accountability. His observation has an application to each of our lives.

IF we hide the truth from others or even ourselves, too ashamed to live honesty, we give the sinful nature the opportunity to pull us away from God’s purposes.  Compromises that seem to be insignificant, that are excused as just ‘going along to get along,’ open us to temptations for greater sins over time. Refusal hear the truth about what we have done or even who we are deepens our deceptions.

John was inspired by the Spirit to write “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”  (1 John 1:6-10, NIV)

Is your heart open to the Spirit?  Do you listen to His call to God’s way?  Sometimes it is enough to confess our ‘darkness’ to God alone. There are parts of us that are transformed by owning our sinfulness before the Lord (confession) and sincerely asking for His forgiveness, His strength to overcome.

Some dark places are too engrained for us to deal with alone. In those struggles we need an ally, sometimes several allies. That is why the Christian life is not to be lived in isolation.  Oh that God would help His Church to become a healing community, not a judging one, a place where people find grace that leads them to experience Grace Incarnate. Together, we can pull open those doors that shut out the Light.  Holiness is found in community, not because we can create our own perfection, but because as we open up to one another with acceptance, the Light of Christ shines as we give and receive grace.

Let’s aspire to be like Jesus Christ who always accepted people as they were without necessarily affirming what they did!  Accept people, challenge behavior!  You may help someone find their way out of the darkness by becoming “Jesus with skin on” to them!  We may never know what demons torment another person in the dark corners of his mind if we are quick to judge, heavy on condemnation.  Love! Listen! Lift the heavy burden of guilt and shame by taking them to the Cross where all our sins are forgiven.

Our word from the Word is full of hope for imperfect people, turning our attention to our Perfect Savior and complete salvation.  So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses could not save us, because of our sinful nature. But God put into effect a different plan to save us. He sent his own Son in a human body like ours, except that ours are sinful. God destroyed sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the requirement of the law would be fully accomplished for us who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-4, NLT)

Ah, by His grace I am better today, growing into tomorrow!

___________

God Only Knows

(a hopeful song from King and Country)

Wide awake while the world is sound asleep and
Too afraid of what might show up
While you’re dreamin’
Nobody nobody nobody sees you
Nobody nobody will believe you

Every day you try to pick up all the pieces
All the memories they somehow never leave ya
Nobody nobody nobody sees you
Nobody nobody will believe you

God only knows what you been through
God only knows what they say about you
God only knows how it’s killing you
But there’s a kind of a love that God only knows

God only knows what you been through
God only knows what they say about you
God only knows the real you
There’s a kind of a love that God only knows

There’s a kind of love that
There’s a kind of love

You keep a cover over every single secret
So afraid if someone saw them they would leave
But somebody somebody somebody sees you
Somebody somebody will never leave you

For the lonely for the ashamed
The misunderstood and the ones to blame
What if we can start over
We could start over we could start over

‘Cause there’s a kinda love that God only knows
God only knows where to find you
God only knows how to break through
God only knows the real you
There’s a kind of love that God only knows

Joel Smallbone | Jordan Reynolds | Josh Kerr | Luke Smallbone | Tedd Tjornhom
© 2018 Kilns Music (Admin. by CURB | Word Music Publishing)
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Worn out?

The lawn tractor did the mowing of the church lawn for at least 25 years. It is a quality machine but it’s just worn out. Last week, we purchased a shiny new replacement.  Do you ever feel like that old machine, doing your best day after day, but tired and worn, too?  Our human experience brings one challenge upon another. We complete a task only to have two more pop up on the to-do list. I enjoy a good life but still, even with all the blessings and joys, there are moments when I am just plain tired, feeling worn out.

One of Job’s friends (Remember Job’s troubles?) wryly observed, “People are born for trouble as readily as sparks fly up from a fire.” (Job 5:7, NLT) No matter how well you think you have prepared for tomorrow, how faithfully you take your vitamins, exercise your body, try to choose wise investments, practice the spiritual disciplines –  there will be something – from some unexpected corner, at some unexpected moment, that will bring yet another challenge to the doorstep of your life.  That is why we need renewal, a place of rest.

Here is the good news about our life in Christ! He is our High Priest who is always praying for us!  I am encouraged when someone takes the time to send me a text, an email, or even one of those old-fashioned note the mail to say, “Just wanted you to know that I was praying for you today.” The prayers we offer to God on another’s behalf are a true gift, but even better is the knowledge that Jesus Christ is at the Father’s right hand interceding for me, asking for mercy on my behalf, praying for me to stay on my feet when life is coming at me hard and fast.

I am touched and inspired by Jesus’ promise to Peter. The big fisherman over-estimated his strength, sure he was able to withstand any pressure or problem that was coming his way. The Lord knew his true weakness, that very night he would deny he knew Jesus. Yet, Jesus promised renewal. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32, NIV)  “I have prayed for you.”

That promise is for you, for me, today. The Bible says, “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” (Hebrews 7:25-26, NIV)

In John’s Gospel, chapter 17, we read a wonderful prayer that gives encouragement. Jesus says, “I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.” (John 17:14-17, NLT)  He does not ask God to make life easy or to provide us some quick escape from this world!

We pray that way sometimes, don’t we? “God, let me outta here! Change this situation. Just let me have an easy time of it today.” Yes, I pray that childish prayer sometimes. Jesus prays that we will be preserved from spiritual destruction, that we will be full of the Spirit’s life and distinct as the people of God in a dark world, and that we will understand God’s word and will.

If you are feeling worn out by endless trials, and there are plenty of troubles and trials to go around these days, let faith rise and look to your Great High Priest.

He is praying for you! You are not forgotten or forsaken.
He asks the best for you, not the easy!
Pray like He prays; not for release, but for courage; not for an easier place, but for His glory shine through you as remain faithful to Him in your present situation.

Hebrews assures us that our High Priest is compassionate because He understands our needs.  He was tested in all the ways we are. When you’re wrestling with life and the will of God, remember He did, too. As He prayed in Gethsemane, under terrible pressure and in great anguish, He pleaded for another way, but eventually came to surrender, “Not my will, Father, but Yours, be done!” So He understands when you’re pressured, squeezed, stressed, broken, disappointed, distraught, confused, or afraid! He is praying for you.

Here is a word from the Word. Spend some time meditating and thanking God for His encouragement. “All praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the source of every mercy and the God who comforts us. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When others are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. You can be sure that the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, NLT)

So … “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV)

Tired? Yes.
Worn out and worthless? No!
_______________

Evidence
(a beautiful affirmation of faith and renewal)

All throughout my history
Your faithfulness has walked beside me
The winter storms made way for spring
In every season from where I’m standing

I see the evidence of Your goodness
All over my life
All over my life
I see Your promises in fulfillment
All over my life
All over my life (yeah)

Help me remember when I’m weak
Fear may come but fear will leave
You lead my heart to victory
You are my strength and You always will be

See the cross the empty grave
The evidence is endless
All my sin rolled away
Because of You oh Jesus (oh)
Why should I fear

(Oh) The evidence is here

Ed Cash | Ethan Hulse | Josh Baldwin
© 2020 Capitol CMG Paragon (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)
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Burrs or Blessings?

In 1948, George DeMestral was out hunting in the mountains in France with his long-haired Irish Pointer. The dog disappeared into the brush and came out with burrs from the burdock plant tangled in her coast. He noted that they were covering his wool pants, too. 99.9 % of us would have been aggravated by the work required to pick those burrs out of the dog’s coat and from our clothing. George was fascinated.

He took some of the burrs to his microscope and examined them carefully, amazed by the tiny ‘hooks’ that attached the seed to any fiber surface. His observation led him to invent “locking tape.”  We call it Velcro™.   A weed seed, that was an annoyance, inspired the quick fasteners we use in so many applications. George DeMestral was always curious, an inventor/engineer who ‘saw’ beyond the obvious because he looked.

We are dealing with ongoing disruptions to life caused by COVID: illness, government policies, death, and economic impact are having a real effect on the lives and emotional health of people around the world.

Christian, what do you see in all of this? 
Aggravation or opportunity?  

I do not intend to suggest that God is the author the mess we’re in.  With time we may be able to sort out causes. But for now, we are invited to be people of vision inspired by faith, who bring the Spirit’s resources into this world. Instead of complaining and whining, we can pray earnestly. Instead of waiting for someone to ride to our rescue, we can become people who care and serve. Instead of attacking those with whom we differ on restrictions, vaccines, and personal choices, we can become people who seek truth and build hope! This is possible IF we are willing to set aside the aggravation we feel (and that is a real thing for many of us) and look for the best ways to  turn a difficulty into an opportunity.

Faith is {Hebrews 11:1 ASV} “the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.”    Genuine faith does not demand that we pretend all is well nor does it require a denial of reality. Faith will give us wisdom and the desire to pray  this – “Lord, do not let me only see the obvious;   let me see the possible; the potential; so that I will allow You to work in circumstances of my life.”  

Some people look for evidence of God’s absence. 
I want to that person who looks for evidence of His Presence.  
Some people complain about what God does not do.
I want to be one who remembers to thank Him for the myriad blessings:  seen and unseen, that  He pours on me day to day.

God promises that if we seek Him, we WILL find Him!

The exiles of Judah, far from home in Babylon, were in a mess. Some concluded there was no future, no hope. They were ready to simply survive. But, God spoke through the ‘Weeping Prophet’ – Jeremiah. “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14, NLT)  The faithless probably said, “Nonsense, empty words. Shut up!” No nation that the Assyrians had overrun and destroyed had ever been restored or rebuilt. But, God, declared there was an opportunity to be found in the mess! And, two generations later, we read the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah leading the restoration of Jerusalem, God’s Temple, and the renewal of Judaism.

Have you concluded that your problem has no solution or that God has forgotten your name?  Take a second look. Your impossibility is God’s opportunity. Today, dry the tears. Stop the complaint. Look up, asking for faith to believe, courage to hold onto His hand, a new desire to walk in the Spirit’s life and power. Instead of telling God to get rid of the burrs ask Him to help you to see the answers that are hiding in them. Instead of  looking for a new job, a new church, a new place   . . . ask God to make a new YOU!  Let’s “Be wise … making the most of every opportunity.” (Colossians 4:5, NIV)

Here is a word from the Word. I hope this truth inspires us, sparking faith. 
“Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf! … 
Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me.
I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.”
(Psalm 66:5, 16-19, NIV)
____________

Good God Almighty
(sing along, find joy in this happy praise)

I can’t count the times
I’ve called Your name some broken night
And You showed up and patched me up
Like You do every time
I get amnesia I forget that You keep coming around
Yeah ain’t no way You’ll ever let me down

Good God Almighty
I hope You’ll find me
Praising Your Name no matter what comes
‘Cause I know where I’d be
Without Your mercy
So I keep praising Your name at the top of my lungs

Tell me is He good (He’s good)
Tell me is He God (He’s God)
He is Good God Almighty

You say Your love goes on forever
That Your mercy never stops
So why would I assume
You’d be somebody that You’re not
Like sun in the morning
I know You’re gonna be there every day
So what on earth could make me be afraid

Praise Him in the morning
Praise Him in the noon time
Praise Him when the sun goes down
Love Him in the morning
Love Him in the noon time
Love Him when the sun goes down

Jesus in the morning
Jesus in the noon time
Jesus when the sun goes down
Jesus in the morning
Jesus in the noon time
Jesus when the sun goes down

Ben Glover | David Crowder | Jeff Sojka
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