Good News For The Year Ahead

Doing Life Well:
Romans 8:31-32

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

One of my favorite hymnsyeah, I still love themwas written by the German composer, Joachim Neander in the 1600’s. It still resonates with worshipers of all ages some 400 years later. I particularly relish this line in the fourth verse,

 Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, if with His love He befriends thee.

Think about that for a momentit will change your day, not to mention the New Year ahead. As a matter of fact, it will change the trajectory of the rest of your life. The only thing I would change in this otherwise magnificent hymn is the one little word in the second line, “if”. For me, and anyone else who has been redeemed God’s marvelous grace, that word rather should be, “since”! “If” speaks of possibility, “since” reflects reality!

God has indeed befriended us, amazing as that sounds.  If you are having trouble grasping that, go back and read the entirety of Romans 8. What you will find there are some jaw-dropping realities of what God has already done for you through Christ Jesus. Not the least of which is simply yet powerfully this: God has clearly and deliberately stated that he is for you! And, as Paul logically concludes, since that is true, nothing and no one can be against you.

God Is For MeDoes that sound like someone has over promised you something? If it were simply another human being making that claim, I would be suspicious of their ability to deliver on that pledge. But keep in mind the One declaring this vow to you is God himself! And here is the Almighty’s certification: He offered Jesus, literally, through his virgin birth, sinless life and sacrificial death, as the guarantee that his promise is 100% good.

Now since it is firmly established that you and I are friends of the Almighty, the realities of blessing, protection, provision, success and satisfaction in the days, months and year to come, along with eternity for that matter, are unlimitedlimited only by our unbelief.

So, indeed, take a moment to ponder anew what it means to walk in moment-by-moment friendship with your Almighty Father. I guarantee this: it will make all your moments to come a whole lot brighter. 

Praise to the Lord,
The Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him,
For He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear,
Now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.
Praise to the Lord,
Who over all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings,
Yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen
How all your longings have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord,
Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness
And mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew
What the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

Praise to the Lord,
O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath,
Come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen
Sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

Yes, for gladly we adore Him. How could we not!

____________________________

“How great peace and quietness would he possess who should cut off all vain anxiety and place all his confidence in God.” (Thomas à Kempis)

Doing Life Well: As you celebrate New Year’s Day—and the new opportunities lie ahead—take a moment to envision what it means to have God as your friend. Since he has graciously befriended you, what difference does that—should that—make in how you approach your work, how you make your plans, how you handle your fears, how you manage your emotions and in an all-inclusive sense, how you do life? Obviously, it should make all the difference! As a reminder, write on a 3×5 card: God is my friend! Now for the next week, tape that card to your mirror so that you see every morning before you leave for the day and every evening before you go to sleep that God is for you.

Water-Walking Faith

Reflect:
Matthew 14:22-36

“So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus.” ~Matthew 14:29

No matter where you go in the Bible, you’ll find that memorable stories of faith always involved risky steps of daring obedience. So it is in this story where Peter leaves the other disciples sitting in the relative safety and comfort of their boat, takes a few steps of faith on the water in the middle of a storm, and walks out to meet Jesus, becoming the first person—and only human being that I know of—to literally walk on the water. Peter, a mere mortal, just a common Galilean fisherman, joined Jesus in a very elite club of which there were only two members: The Water Walker Club.

Now this is more than just another one of those incredible Bible stories we read as kids about the superheroes of the faith. This is a story meant to inspire water-walking faith in common, ordinary, garden-variety believers. And within this particular story are several important lessons that Peter’s adventure can teach other mere mortals like you and me that we will need to keep in mind when we finally get up the courage to step out of our boat of comfort to take those bold and daring steps of faith to obey God:

First, the wind won’t stop blowing just because you take a step of faith. In fact, the storm may pick up a little. The truth is, faith needs a storm to be faith, or it is not faith. But the great thing about storms is that although Jesus doesn’t promise to keep you from them, he does promise to be with you in them. And in fact, it is the very resistance of the wind in those storms that provides the lift needed for faith to soar. So take that step of faith into the storm and watch what happens.

Second, when you take your step of faith into the raging storm, you will need to remember the one command that God most often gives his people: “Fear not!” Did you know that there are 366 “fear not’s” in the Bible? That is one for every day of the year (including an extra one for leap year). I don’t think that number is by mistake—I think God knew that you and I would need to be reminded every single day not to give into fear. Every single day, including today, God is reminding you to choose faith instead, because fear and faith cannot coexist in those who would be water walkers.

Three, when the storm is raging, your assignment is simply to keep your eyes on Jesus—and just keep walking toward him. “Don’t give up” is another repeated command in the Bible. To join Peter in the water walker club, you will have to make the determination to stay focused on the One who is the Master over the storm—because it is Jesus alone who will see us through.

Is there an area of faith where you are being tempted to give up because you have come into some unexpected and impossible circumstances? That is the perfect condition, my friend, to exercise water walking faith. So don’t give into fear and keep your focus on Jesus, because yet another heroic faith story is about to be written!

In the 1950’s, the name Florence Chadwick was synonymous with women’s championship swimming. She was the first woman to swim the English Channel–both ways. In fact, she did it three times, each time going against the tide.

But one of her distance swims was not so successful. She failed to reach her goal, all because she lost sight of it. Florence had set out on July 4, 1952 to swim the 21 miles from Santa Catalina Island to the California mainland. But on this particular morning, the 34-year-old found the water to be numbingly cold, and the fog was so thick she could hardly see the boats in her envoy, which were along side her to scare away the sharks.

As the hours ticked off, she swam on. Fatigue was never a serious problem…it was the bone-chilling coldness of the icy waters that threatened her. Finally, more than fifteen hours after she started, numbed by the cold, Florence asked to be taken out of the water, unable to go on.

Her mother, in a boat beside her, urged her to go on, as did her trainer. They both knew that the mainland had to be close, very close. Yet Florence quit. She got into the boat and fell short of her goal. The boat traveled just a short distance until the coastline could be seen. Florence had stopped only a half-mile short of the finish. Upon realizing how close she had come, she dejectedly cried, “If I could have seen the shore I would have made it.”

If you are going to be a faith walker…or a water walker…

…Get ready for the storm

…Choose faith over fear

…Keep your eyes on Jesus

…And above all, never give up!

“Let us not get tired of doing what is right, for after a while we will reap a harvest of blessings if we don’t get discouraged and give up.” ~Galatians 6:9 (Living Bible)

Reflect and Apply: Pray this prayer today: “Lord, bless me with water-walking faith. Enlarge my capacity to trust you, even in the storms. And let me be used of you in ways I never though possible. In Jesus name, amen.”

Weeding

Reflect:strong>
Matthew 13:1-58

“The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” ~Matthew 13:22

Nothing is more damaging to your relationship with God and the spiritual fruitfulness he longs to give you than the “worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth” that continually and loudly demand your attention. Jesus called them “thorns”, warning that they will grow up and choke out the fruit-producing seed of God’s Word.

What are the worries of life for you? Making the mortgage payment on a home you can barely afford—or can’t really afford. Paying for a high-end car or two, that, in all honesty, inhabit your garage simply to massage your ego. Keeping your kids in that prestigious university, making sure your retirement account is getting fatter, staying awake at night worrying about the stock market, plotting the next move to outpace the “Joneses” …

Be honest—you’ve got worries, so do I. You’re caught up in the wealth trap; I am, too. You’re in the rat race—I can feel it even as you read this line. So am I! I fight the same addiction to money, things, pleasure and power that you do.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the “thorns” that Jesus warned about are competing for our soil with the values of God’s Kingdom. And guess what, you and I are the only ones who can weed them out.

Oh, God will strengthen you and give you discernment to deal with them, but you are the one who will have to do a little self-weeding.

Listen—it is time to quit talking about this and start weeding. You know intuitively that I am spot on about this. The growth and fruitfulness of the Kingdom of God in your life, and in your family, is riding on you being bold enough and wise enough to start pulling and chucking the weeds right out of your life.

I will pray for you, and I hope you will pray for me. I won’t kid you—it won’t be easy. In fact, it will be the toughest thing you have ever done. Furthermore, those thorny thistles love to sprout back—even after you have ripped them out by the roots. So what you have to do is watch out for them every day. No, spiritual weeding is not easy, but it is worth the fruit! So get after it; I will, too!

Happy gardening!

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” ~C.S. Lewis

Reflect and Apply: Thankfully, we are never left to go it alone in the things authentic Christianity requires of us—even in spiritual weeding. God is ready to help—to strengthen and encourage you. Try offering this prayer to God for his assistance: Father, I desire your Kingdom to fully come in my life. Yet I must confess that the desire for the things of this world have a strong pull on me. Strengthen me with boldness and wisdom for the self-weeding that must be done in me.”

Fruit Inspectors

Reflect:
Matthew 6:5-7:29

“You will know them by their fruits.” ~Matthew 7:16

My father used to say, “The Bible says we’re not supposed to judge, but it doesn’t say we shouldn’t be inspecting the fruit.” That’s pretty sage advice in light of what Jesus taught.

The world likes to quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” That verse has been used like a sledgehammer against Christians who take a moral stand on just about any issue in our culture today. But Jesus never intended his words to intimidate believers into moral silence. We have been called to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), compelling people to a higher way while avoiding the sin of self-righteousness and judgmentalism that truly is a turn off to everyone—sinners, saints and even God himself.

When Jesus spoke against judging in Matthew 7:1-8, he was specifically taking a stand against what had become the national pastime in Israel—evaluating people’s spirituality by their outward observance of the minutiae of the law and their acts of religious piety. That’s why Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23 that there will be those who stand before God claiming good deeds as their meal ticket to eternal life, but will be refused entrance. Good deeds won’t get you to God—only grace will.

So how do we know who is good with God and who is not? How do we know we are secure in our salvation? Easy! Just inspect the fruit being produced from one’s life:

  • Is there the fruit of repentance? John the Baptist called attention to that in Matthew 3:8. This is the first fruit of a God-honoring life.
  • Is there the fruit that comes from abiding in Christ? Jesus addressed this in John 15, saying that when a believer is fundamentally connected to him, the True Vine, there will be much fruit.
  • Is there the fruit of souls that a believer has led to Jesus? Paul speaks of this in Romans 15:14-29.
  • Is there the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—that Galatians 5:22-23 says should characterize every believer?
  • Is there the fruit of the light that consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth? Paul addressed this in Ephesians 5:9?
  • Is there the fruit of praise that glorifies God through Jesus Christ to which we are called in Hebrews 13:14-16?

For sure we must avoid the spiritual pitfall of becoming judgmental. Nothing destroys Kingdom life and hinders Kingdom influence quite like that. But we can inspect the fruit…and we should.

And a good place to start is by looking at your own!

“Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.” ~Martin Luther

Reflect and Apply: When you are tempted to judge others, here is a simple prayer that you would do well to first offer up: “O Holy Spirit, I offer my life to you today. Work the work of God in me so that I will bear much of your fruit!”

Exceeding Expectations

Reflect:
Matthew 5:1-6:4

“Therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” ~Matthew 5:48

Perfection, according to Jesus, is at the top of the list of kingdom requirements for you and me. That is what he said at the end of Matthew 5: Be perfect, just like God.

You really need to spend more than one sitting to absorb all that Jesus said here in this chapter. This has been called the “Sermon on the Mount”, and it extends clear through chapter 7. Truly, it is the greatest sermon ever preached. Rather than speaking to massive throngs of seekers, Jesus huddled with his disciples and began to explain for them what life in the kingdom of God was to be about.

As you read through Christ’s teachings, you begin to realize that rather than backing down from the rigid, legalistic, impossible, burdensome demands of Jewish law, Jesus was actually calling his followers to a much higher standard. He wasn’t asking for less, he was asking for more. He was revealing what God really required for anyone who wanted to be one of his true children.

Over time, the religious leaders of the Jewish people had boiled down the law of God to a long list of do’s and don’ts. Eventually, the spirit of the law had been lost and rigid, loveless, legal applications had taken its place. The result was that along the way, the people of God, the Jews, wandered from what was meant to produce an intimate love relationship with their God and had settled instead for a religious system that measured spirituality through outward acts of piety.

But, as Jesus taught, the Jews had missed the point. Which, by the way, is just as easy for us to do in our walk with God. The spiritual drift is always away from loving intimacy with the Father toward measurable acts of religiosity: Church attendance, tithing, serving in a ministry, not doing this, doing that…

Jesus’ bottom line in all of these teachings in Matthew 5 (as well as in chapters 6 and 7) is that God wants not your outward acts of piety and prideful obedience to the minutiae of some religious legal system—he wants your heart. He wants a heart that is fully engaged, fully devoted, and fully in love with him.

If you will offer God that kind of heart, then your obedience will go way beyond what the law requires, and you will experience the blessed life of belonging to the Real Kingdom, not just a religious kingdom.

And you will be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is.

“The law works fear and wrath; grace works hope and mercy.” ~Martin Luther

Reflect and Apply: Has the Heavenly Father arrested you heart? Have you invited him to create a new heart in you—one that longs for him and his rule more than even life itself? That is the heart that is perfect before him!

Tempted

Reflect:
Matthew 3:13-17, 4:1-17

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If You are the Son of God…’” ~Matthew 4:1-3

Isn’t it interesting—profound, really—that Satan knew who Jesus was, that he was God the Son, yet tempted him anyway?

Satan once resided as Lucifer, chief of all the angels, in the presence of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. So when Jesus became the incarnate Son of God, Satan knew perfectly well of his divine nature. Rather than backing off, however, Satan unleashed a torrent of enticements designed to derail the plan of God and get Jesus off his game. And if the very Son of God would have to endure an onslaught of Satanic temptations, so will you.

It is also of interest that Satan didn’t tempt Jesus with obvious evil. Three times he attempted to entice Jesus to sin with subtle, sane, and spiritual sounding goodies. The devil is the master of subtlety. He didn’t come to Jesus dressed in a red suit and pointed tail, pitchfork in hand, luring Jesus to commit murder or to steal a bag full of money. No, this temptation was to gain what seemed good by sacrificing what was best.

It is highly likely that the temptations you will face today will be subtle as well. Satan’s stock-in-trade is deception, which is what makes temptation so effective. Jesus called him “the father of lies”, and he’s gotten pretty good at it over the millennia. So in particular, watch out for the enticements that will be just slightly off center from God’s will. Don’t accept good at the expense of God’s best.

In one sense, the temptations that will hit you today will be perfectly sane. Jesus had fasted for forty days and was at the limit of what a human body could endure. He was hungry, and Satan simply suggested that Jesus use his God-prerogatives to satisfy a physical necessity.

Jesus was called to be the Messiah of the Jews. What better way to jumpstart his ministry than by hang-gliding from the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem—without a hang-glider. What a great way to show off his God-powers and impress the people he was called to lead.

Ultimately, Jesus was called to be the Lord and Savior of the world. Why not fast-track that plan by allowing Satan to hand deliver all the nations of the world to him in an instant. No fuss, no muss.

The problem was, each of these temptations called for Jesus to depend on himself to get his needs met rather than trusting in God’s provision, timing and plan. That is perhaps the most foundational and most common sin of all—to trust in anything or anyone other than God to get your needs and wants met.

It is likely that you will be hit with temptation in the same way today. It will be subtle. It will seem sane. And probably, it will sound pretty spiritual as well—remember, each temptation Satan dangled before Jesus was prefaced with Scripture.

So be on guard today—sin is crouching at your door. But it is not inevitable that you will succumb to it. Jesus didn’t—which means that you don’t have to either. Jesus knew the Word and will of God better than Satan, and so do you. That’s one of the blessings of reading and praying the Scripture each day, as you are doing.

Likewise, since Jesus overcame his battle with temptation, he stands at the ready to help you in your battle. So just ask him for his help—he is more than willing to come alongside you. Hebrews 2:17-18 teaches us,

“For this reason Jesus had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

So when sin comes knocking at your door today, just send Jesus to answer it!

“My temptations have been my Masters in Divinity.” ~Martin Luther

Reflect and Apply: John Quincy Adams said, “Every temptation is an opportunity of our getting nearer to God.” If you are facing a strong temptation, leverage it to draw near to God. Here is a prayer you might consider offering: “Father in heaven, your name is holy. May your kingdom come and your will be done in my life today, just as it is in heaven. Provide what I need. Forgive all my sins—and strengthen me with your grace to forgive those who disappoint me. And steer me away from temptation, and from the Evil One, so that at the end of this day, through my life, all of the glory will be turned back to you.”

The Cost Of Discipleship

Reflect:
Matthew 16:24

“Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Salvation is free…but discipleship will cost you your life.”  I’m pretty sure he was quoting Jesus on that one.

Does Christ’s call to self-denying, cross-bearing discipleship seem a little extreme in comparison to the “easy believism” that passes for some brands of discipleship today? You will likely hear a lot more about a life of comfort, security and success these days from spiritual leaders than the straight talk Jesus laid on his would-be followers.

Jesus made no promises of an easy, breezy, carefree Christianity. Rather, he demanded complete obedience, costly sacrifice, and selfless servanthood from those who wanted to be on his team. He told them that they would have to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” if they wanted a part in him. (John 6:53) He said people would hate them, misunderstand them, reject them, persecute them, and put them out of the synagogues.  And he even promised that people would kill them, believing that in so doing they were helping God out. (John 16:2)

Yet the eleven disciples (one of them, Judas, got cold feet) fully bought into Christ’s call to costly discipleship. They gave up everything they had and left everything they knew for a life that promised nothing except a chance to advance God’s kingdom in a resistant, hostile world. They fully understood that the overwhelming bulk of their rewards would come only afterwards, in the afterlife.

Despite Christ’s less than appealing recruitment campaign, however, these first disciples, followed in the years to come by countless thousands of other hungry seekers, flocked to this self-denying, cross-bearing brand of Christianity. Jesus was a tough act to follow, to say the least, but these disciples eagerly signed up—and they changed the world.

How? Simply by doing what Jesus had asked: They denied themselves, took up their crosses, followed his way daily and laid down their lives for his sake— literally in many cases. Without a political voice, financial resources, social standing, and military might, this unlikely ragtag band of followers conquered the Roman Empire in less than three hundred years.

Such was the radical power of this brand of fully committed discipleship.

Do you worry, as I do, that Christ’s call to costly discipleship would empty most churches of its people in our day? Though most believers give mental assent to cross-bearing and self-denial, in reality there is very little evidence of it in their lives, or in their churches.

A.W. Tozer commented that “it has become popular to preach a painless Christianity and automatic saintliness. It has become part of our ‘instant’ culture. ‘Just pour a little water on it, stir mildly, pick up a gospel tract, and you are on your Christian way.’”

If Jesus rebuked Peter (Matthew 16:23) — “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” — for suggesting Christianity without a cross, what do you suppose he would say to us who have suggested Christian discipleship without cross-bearing?

If Jesus rebuked Peter — “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23) — for suggesting Christianity without a cross, what do you suppose he would say to those today who have suggested Christian discipleship without cross-bearing? Jesus made no promises of an easy, breezy, carefree Christianity. Rather, he demanded complete obedience, costly sacrifice, and selfless servanthood from those who wanted to be on his team—and with that, a chance to change the world now and unending, indescribably joy in the world to come.

We must aggressively and boldly reject that brand of faith, because that is not the discipleship to which Jesus has called us. And that is not the discipleship that I want for my life.

How about you?

 “The first mark of a disciple is not a profession of faith, but an act of obedience.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Reflect & Apply: Bonhoeffer once remarked, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” No matter how long you have been a Christian, Jesus is calling you to a more ruthless brand of discipleship.  Are you ready to follow?