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Thoughts for the New Year – From the Handbook

New Year's 2015-2016Key Bible Verse: Love never fails.  1 Corinthians 13:8, NIV

Dig Deeper:   1 Corinthians 13:1-8

Basing the leadership behavior of an organization on the definition of agape love may strike you as a new or even revolutionary idea—and in the context of modern American organization practices, it is. But the inspiration for using agape love as a leadership principle actually comes from one of the oldest and most respected authorities on human behavior in the world: the Bible.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is known as the “love chapter” because there the apostle Paul wrote: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:4-7, NIV).

This is agape—and these are principles that will transform your organization, from the bottom line to the bottom of your employees’ hearts. Love is patient, kind, trusting, unselfish, truthful, forgiving, and dedicated. How these words get worked out in the context of a successful organization may surprise you, but remember, they are never an excuse to ignore poor performance or neglect the bottom line.

—Joel Manby in Love Works

My Response: Which characteristics of love do I most need to work on?

Thought to Apply: Joy is love exalted; peace is love in repose; long-suffering is love enduring; gentleness is love in society; goodness is love in action; faith is love on the battlefield; meekness is love in school; and temperance is love in training.—D. L. Moody (minister, evangelist)

Adapted from Love Works (Zondervan, 2012)

Prayer:  Lord, in the situations where I am a leader, help me to submit my pride and ambition to you and lead with love for those who follow.

 

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Thoughts for the New Year – Make a Difference in 2016

New Year's 2015-2016Key Bible Verse: “My life is worth nothing unless I use it for doing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus.” Acts 20:24

During World War II, it wasn’t just the military that made sacrifices. The whole country changed its priorities, just like the whole church could today.

In Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley writes, “The entire nation seemed overnight to have snapped out of its Depression-era lethargy. Everyone scrambled to be of help. Rubber was needed for the war effort, and gasoline, and metal. A women’s basketball game at Northwestern University was stopped so that the referee and all ten players could scour the floor for a lost bobby pin!

“Americans pitched in to support strict rationing programs and their boys turned out as volunteers in various collection ‘drives.’ Soon butter and milk were restricted along with canned goods and meat. Shoes became scarce, and paper, and silk. People grew ‘victory gardens’ and drove at the gas-saving ‘victory speed’ of 35 miles an hour. ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without’ became a popular slogan. Air raid sirens and blackouts were scrupulously obeyed. America sacrificed.”

Such images are for me very powerful. Secondarily, they make me appreciate the benefits of freedom and prosperity. But primarily they rebuke me for my frivolous living and inspire me to make my life count for something more than comfort and worldly success—something God-exalting and eternal.

—John Piper in Don’t Waste Your Life

Adapted from Don’t Waste Your Life (Crossway, 2003)

Prayer for the Week: When I face serious setbacks or prolonged waiting, arm me with full confidence, Lord, that you are with me.

 

Thoughts for the New Year – Serving Creatively

New Year's 2015-2016Key Bible Verses: Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused! Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need.  – Isaiah 58:6-7, CEV

Dig Deeper: Deuteronomy 15:10-11

Last week I saw a German shepherd running down a street near my house. Because it was windy, and my neighbor’s gate often blows open, I was sure it was my neighbor’s dog. I went over to his house to check on the gate. He saw me through the living room window and came out. I asked if his dog was home—and he was—all was good. As I turned to walk down his driveway, he said, “I can’t believe you would care about my dog.” Then he asked, “When are you guys going to have another tamale party? I like being at your house.”

For years my wife has had tamale-making parties during the New Year’s holiday. We invite friends and neighbors and teach them how to make tamales out of cornmeal paste, various spiced meats, cheese, cornhusks, and so on. We not only eat them but everyone gets to take a bunch home.

I keep my eyes open for creative ways to notice and serve others.

Looking after a neighbor’s dog and making tamales don’t quite get to the level of Isaiah’s vision [in today’s Key Bible Verses], but through these small practices I hope I can get there some day.

—Todd Hunter in Christianity Beyond Belief

My Response: Over the next several days, I will intentionally look for “creative ways to notice and serve others.”

Adapted from Christianity Beyond Belief (IVP, 2009)

Prayer for the Week: Heavenly Father, open my heart to the needs around me, open my eyes to ways I can serve, open my hands so that I might reach out and demonstrate your love.

 

Thoughts for the New Year – We Can Start Over

New Year's 2015-2016Key Bible Verse: Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.  – Psalm 143:8, NIV

Dig Deeper: Colossians 2:13-15

Our God is the God of hope, and he offers us the message that we can start all over. That’s the essence of the gospel. The grace that God showed us on the cross is the grace that allows us to start over. The cross has the power to help us not only leave the past behind but transcend it and march forward into the future.

God often provides us with new beginnings after the sorrow of a difficult farewell. But in order to restart, we must be good at closing the door on the past. That means acknowledging our failures and losses. Closing the door might also mean repenting of sin or forgiving those who have hurt us. Only then will new encounters begin.

At the end of every year, we celebrate New Year’s Eve. We say goodbye even as we say hello to another year. It is God’s grace that we can welcome a new year. Every turn of the calendar page (years, months, weeks, days) provides us with a new beginning. When God gives us a new year, a new month, or a new day, it means that God wants us to end the past properly and start over. The most beautiful day is the day to come.

—Joshua Choonmin Kang in Spirituality of Gratitude

My Response: I will take time to thank God for the new beginnings he has given me.

Thought to Apply: Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.—Desmond Tutu (South African Anglican bishop, social activist)

Adapted from Spirituality of Gratitude by Joshua Choonmin Kang.

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help me to approach every circumstance in life with thankfulness so that I don’t miss the subtle ways you are at work in every situation.

 

Christ and the Earliest Christian Hymn

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  Philippians 2:7

How should the Incarnation impact our behavior in the Christian community? What does the fact that the divine Son became human tell us about how we should live? We find answers to these questions in what might be one of the very oldest Christian hymns: Philippians 2:1-11.

For the most part, the Philippian church was a healthy one, a strong partner in Paul’s ministry. But some of their leaders were not getting along well (4:2-3). No doubt it was easy for others to get caught up in divisive and hurtful arguments. So in the first verses of Philippians 2, Paul calls his flock to get along with each other, loving one another and working together in the Gospel (2:2). He urges them not to be “selfish,” but rather to be “humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (2:3). In sum, the Philippians “must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (2:5, literally, they are to have the thinking of Christ).

And how are we to know the attitude of Christ? Paul answers this question by including what most biblical scholars believe to be an early Christian hymn. Some think Paul wrote it. Others believe he borrowed a piece of early Christian worship. Either way, this hymn focuses on the self-giving sacrifice and humility of Christ. “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appears in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (2:6-8). Christ was humbled twice: first in becoming human, second in being crucified. Notice that this hymn begins by underscoring the humility of the Incarnation. For one who was fully God to become human was, indeed, a demonstration of stunning humility.

Thus, the Incarnation becomes a model for us. Even as Christ chose the way of humility, so should we. Even as he opted for the path of self-sacrifice, so should we in our relationships. When we begin to think too much of ourselves, when we value our opinions so much that we don’t care what others think, we need to remember and model our lives upon the Incarnation.

Keeping Christmas well means letting the Incarnation of Christ teach us how to live together as the people of God. It means choosing the way of humility and servanthood, knowing that our imitation of Christ honors him even as it strengthens the church, which is the body of Christ.

Mark Roberts is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He writes digital daily devotions at Life for Leaders. This article is adapted from his original article “Keeping Christmas Well: Imitate the Humility and Sacrifice of Jesus” at TheHighCalling.org.

Merry Christmas! Let the Disco Ball Shine!

Merry Christmas 2For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.  Ephesians 5:8

During my 16-year tenure as senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I preached at over 50 Christmas Eve services. The first two services of the evening were designed for families with young children. For those services, I tried to find compelling illustrations or demonstrations that would engage everyone in the sanctuary, even the little ones, and help them grasp the wonder of Christmas.

One year, my own children joined me. Nathan read the Scripture, which happened to be Ephesians 5:8: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” Then, he and my daughter Kara assisted me as I shone a brilliant spotlight on a large, vibrantly wrapped Christmas present in the center of the stage. I talked about how Jesus was the light of the world. Even as the spotlight made the present look especially bright and colorful, so Jesus shines into the world, revealing the true beauty and wonder of life.

“But there is more here—a big surprise,” I said. “Jesus doesn’t just shine on us. He also wants us to reflect his light into the world. He shines in the world through us.” At this moment, my kids lifted up the wrapped part of the large present, exposing a mirror-covered disco ball that was spinning as if by magic. (In fact, it was battery powered.) The light from the spotlight reflected off the hundreds of small mirrors, filling the whole sanctuary with dazzling, swirling spots of light. I heard gasps of wonder as worshipers young and old were inspired by the spectacle before them.

This was one of my all-time favorite moments of Christmas Eve worship. It’s not just that people were impressed by the illustration. I felt as if they were really getting the underlying point. Jesus is the true light. We are the light insofar as we reflect him into the world. But, and this is key, we are not individual mirrors, but rather partners in a heavenly disco ball. One of those little mirrors all by itself would be relatively unimpressive. The collection of mirrors was stunning.

When Ephesians 5:8 says “now you are light in the Lord,” it is not speaking to us just as individuals, but also as members of Christ’s body. Individually and together, we are light in the Lord. Individually and together, we are to live as children of light. Individually and together, we will shine the light of Christ throughout the darkness of the world. You are a mirror and so am I. We will fulfill our reflective calling only when we join together in common work and witness.

Mark D. Roberts is the author of several books including Can We Trust the Gospels? His article is adapted from the original article “The Christmas Eve Disco Ball” at TheHighCalling.org.

December 25 – Three Christmas Presents

Advent DevotionalLittle children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 1 John 3:7–8

Ponder this remarkable situation with me. If the Son of God came to help you stop sinning—to destroy the works of the devil—and if he also came to die so that, when you do sin, there is a propitiation, a removal of God’s wrath, then what does this imply for living your life?

Three things.  And they are wonderful to have.  I give them to you briefly as Christmas presents.

1. A Clear Purpose for Living

It implies that you have a clear purpose for living. Negatively, it is simply this: don’t sin. “I write these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). “The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

If you ask, “Can you give us that positively, instead of negatively?” the answer is: Yes, it’s all summed up in 1 John 3:23.  It’s a great summary of what John’s whole letter requires. Notice the singular “commandment”—“This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.”

These two things are so closely connected for John he calls them one commandment: believe Jesus and love others. That is your purpose. That is the sum of the Christian life. Trusting Jesus, loving people. Trust Jesus, love people. There’s the first gift: a purpose to live.

2. Hope That Our Failures Will Be Forgiven

Now consider the second implication of the twofold truth that Christ came to destroy our sinning and to forgive our sins. It’s this: We make progress in overcoming our sin when we have hope that our failures will be forgiven. If you don’t have hope that God will forgive your failures, when you start fighting sin, you give up.

Many of you are pondering some changes in the new year, because you have fallen into sinful patterns and want out. You want some new patterns of eating. New patterns for entertainment. New patterns of giving. New patterns of relating to your spouse. New patterns of family devotions.  New patterns of sleep and exercise. New patterns of courage in witness. But you are struggling, wondering whether it’s any use. Well here’s your second Christmas present: Christ not only came to destroy the works of the devil—our sinning— he also came to be an advocate for us when we fail in our fight.

So I plead with you, let the freedom to fail give you the hope to fight.  But beware!  If you turn the grace of God into license, and say, “Well, if I can fail, and it doesn’t matter, then why bother fighting?”—if you say that, and mean it, and go on acting on it, you are probably not born again and should tremble.

But that is not where most of you are.  Most of you want to fight sinful patterns in your life.  And what God is saying to you is this: Let the freedom to fail give you hope to fight. I write this to you that you might not sin, but if you sin you have an advocate, Jesus Christ.

3. Christ Will Help Us

Finally, the third implication of the double truth that Christ came to destroy our sinning and to forgive our sins, is this: Christ will really help us in our fight. He really will help you. He is on your side. He didn’t come to destroy sin because sin is fun. He came to destroy sin because it is fatal. It is a deceptive work of the devil and will destroy us if we don’t fight it. He came to help us, not hurt us.

So here’s your third Christmas gift: Christ will help overcome sin in you. 1 John 4:4 says, “He who is in you is greater than he that is in the world.” Jesus is alive, Jesus is almighty, Jesus lives in us by faith.  And Jesus is for us, not against us.  He will help you.  Trust him.

 

Christmas Day

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December 24 – The Son of God Appeared

Advent DevotionalLittle children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 1 John 3:7–8

When verse 8 says, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil,” what are the “works of the devil” that he has in mind?  The answer is clear from the context.

First, verse 5 is a clear parallel: “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins.” The phrase “he appeared to…” occurs in verse 5 and verse 8. So probably the “works of the devil” that Jesus came to destroy are sins. The first part of verse 8 makes this virtually certain:

“The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning.”

The issue in this context is sinning, not sickness or broken cars or messed up schedules. Jesus came into the world to help us stop sinning.

Let me put it alongside the truth of 1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” In other words, I am promoting the purpose of Christmas (3:8), the purpose of the incarnation. Then he adds (2:2), “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”

But now look what this means: It means that Jesus appeared in the world for two reasons. He came that we might not go on sinning; and he came to die so that there would be a propitiation—a substitutionary sacrifice that takes away the wrath of God—for our sins, if we do sin.

 

Christmas Eve

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December 23 – God’s Indescribable Gift

Advent DevotionalIf while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.Romans 5:10–11

How do we practically receive reconciliation and exult in God? One answer is: do it through Jesus Christ. Which means, at least in part, make the portrait of Jesus in the Bible—the work and the words of Jesus portrayed in the New Testament—the essential content of your exultation over God.  Exultation without the content of Christ does not honor Christ.

In 2 Corinthians 4:4–6, Paul describes conversion two ways. In verse 4, he says it is seeing “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And in verse 6, he says it is seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In either case you see the point. We have Christ, the image of God, and we have God in the face of Christ.

Practically, to exult in God, you exult in what you see and know of God in the portrait of Jesus Christ. And this comes to its fullest experience when the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as Romans 5:5 says.

So here’s the Christmas point. Not only did God purchase our reconciliation through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 10), and not only did God enable us to receive that reconciliation through the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 11), but even now, verse 11 says, we exult in God himself through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus purchased our reconciliation. Jesus enabled us to receive the reconciliation and open the gift. And Jesus himself shines forth from the wrapping—the indescribable gift—as God in the flesh, and stirs up all our exultation in God.

Look to Jesus this Christmas. Receive the reconciliation that he bought. Don’t put it on the  shelf unopened. And don’t open it and then make it a means to all your other pleasures.

Open it and enjoy the gift.  Exult in him.  Make him your pleasure.  Make him your treasure.

December 22 – That You May Believe

Advent DevotionalNow Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30–31

I feel so strongly that among those of us who have grown up in church and who can recite the great doctrines of our faith in our sleep and who yawn through the Apostles Creed—that among us something must be done to help us once more feel the awe, the fear, the astonishment, the wonder of the Son of God, begotten by the Father from all eternity, reflecting all the glory of God, being the very image of his person, through whom all things were created, upholding the universe by the word of his power.

You can read every fairy tale that was ever written, every mystery thriller, every ghost story, and you will never find anything so shocking, so strange, so weird and so spellbinding as the story of the incarnation of the Son of God.

How dead we are! How callous and unfeeling to his glory and his story! How often have I had to repent and say, “God, I am sorry that the stories men have made up stir my emotions, my awe and wonder and admiration and joy, more than your own true story.”

The space thrillers of our day, like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, can do this great good for us: they can humble us and bring us to repentance, by showing us that we really are capable of some of the wonder and awe and amazement that we so seldom feel when we contemplate the eternal God and the cosmic Christ and a real living contact between them and us in Jesus of Nazareth.

When Jesus said, “For this I have come into the world,” he said something as crazy and weird and strange and eerie as any statement in science fiction that you have ever read (John 18:37).

O, how I pray for a breaking forth of the Spirit of God upon me and upon you. I pray for the Holy Spirit to break into my experience in a frightening way, to wake me up to the unimaginable reality of God.

One of these days lightning is going to fill the sky from the rising of the sun to its setting, and there is going to appear in the clouds one like a son of man with his mighty angels in flaming fire. And we will see him clearly. And whether from terror or sheer excitement, we will tremble
and we will wonder how, how we ever lived so long with such a domesticated, harmless Christ.

These things are written that you might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came into the world.  Really believe.

December 21 – The Birth of the Ancient of Days

Advent DevotionalThen Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”   —John 18:37

This is a great Christmas text even though it comes from the end of Jesus’s life on earth, not the beginning.

The uniqueness of his birth is that he did not originate at his birth. He existed before he was born in a manger. The personhood, the character, the personality of Jesus of Nazareth existed before the man Jesus of Nazareth was born.

The theological word to describe this mystery is not creation, but incarnation. The person—not the body, but the essential personhood of Jesus—existed before he was born as man. His birth was not a coming into being of a new person, but a coming into the world of an infinitely old person.

Micah 5:2 puts it like this, 700 years before Jesus was born:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall
come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient
days.

The mystery of the birth of Jesus is not merely that he was born of a virgin. That miracle was intended by God to witness to an even greater one—namely, that the child born at Christmas was a person who existed “from of old, from ancient days.”

 

 

December 20 – Christmas Solidarity

Advent DevotionalThe reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.1 John 3:8

The assembly line of Satan turns out millions of sins every day. He packs them into huge cargo planes and flies them to heaven and spreads them out before God and laughs and laughs and laughs.

Some people work full-time on the assembly line. Others have quit their jobs there and only now and then return.

Every minute of work on the assembly line makes God the laughing stock of Satan. Sin is Satan’s business because he hates the light and beauty and purity and glory of God. Nothing pleases him more than when creatures distrust and disobey their Maker.

Therefore, Christmas is good news for man and good news for God.

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s good news for us.

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). That’s good news for God.

Christmas is good news for God because Jesus has come to lead a strike at Satan’s assembly plant.  He has walked right into the plant, called for the Solidarity of the faithful, and begun a massive walk-out.

Christmas is a call to go on strike at the assembly plant of sin. No negotiations with the management. No bar- gaining. Just single-minded, unswerving opposition to the product.

Christmas Solidarity aims to ground the cargo planes. It will not use force or violence, but with relentless devotion to Truth it will expose the life-destroying conditions of the devil’s industry.

Christmas Solidarity will not give up until a complete shutdown has been achieved.

When sin has been destroyed, God’s name will be wholly exonerated. No one will be laughing at him anymore.

If you want to give a gift to God this Christmas, walk off the assembly line and never go back.  Take up your place in the picket line of love. Join Christmas Solidarity until the majestic name of God is cleared and he stands glorious amid the accolades of the righteous.

 

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Advent - Week 4b

December 19 – Christmas is for Freedom

Advent DevotionalSince therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.Hebrews 2:14–15

Jesus became man because what was needed was the death of a man who was more than man. The incarnation was God’s locking himself into death row.

Christ did not risk death. He embraced it. That is precisely why he came: not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

No wonder Satan tried to turn Jesus from the cross! The cross was Satan’s destruction. How did Jesus destroy him?

The “power of death” is the ability to make death fearful.  The “power of death” is the power that holds men in bondage through fear of death. It is the power to keep men in sin, so that death comes as a horrid thing.

But Jesus stripped Satan of this power. He disarmed him. He molded a breastplate of righteousness for us that makes us immune to the devil’s condemnation.

By his death, Jesus wiped away all our sins. And a person without sin puts Satan out of business.  His treason is aborted. His cosmic treachery is foiled. “His rage we can endure, for, lo, his doom is sure.” The cross has run him through. And he will gasp his last before long.

Christmas is for freedom. Freedom from the fear of death.  Jesus took our nature in Bethlehem, to die our death in Jerusalem, that we might be fearless in our city. Yes, fear- less. Because if the biggest threat to my joy is gone, then why should I fret over the little ones? How can you say, “Well, I’m not afraid to die but I’m afraid to lose my job”? No.  No. Think!

If death (I said, death—no pulse, cold, gone!)—if death is no longer a fear, we’re free, really free. Free to take any risk under the sun for Christ and for love. No more bond- age to anxiety.

If the Son has set you free, you shall be free, indeed!

 

 

December 18 – The Christmas Model for Missions

Advent Devotional“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”John 17:18

Christmas is a model for missions.  Missions is a mirror of Christmas.  As I, so you.

For example, danger. Christ came to his own and his own received him not. So you. They plotted  against him. So you. He had no permanent home. So you. They trumped up false charges against him. So you. They whipped and mocked him. So you. He died after three years of ministry. So you.But there is a worse danger than any of these which Jesus escaped. So you!

In the mid-16th century Francis Xavier (1506–1552), a Catholic missionary, wrote to Father Perez of Malacca (today part of Indonesia) about the perils of his mission to China. He said,

The danger of all dangers would be to lose trust and confidence in the mercy of God… To distrust him would be a far more terrible thing than any physical evil which all the enemies of God put together could inflict on us, for without God’s permission neither the devils nor their human ministers could hinder us in the slightest degree.

The greatest danger a missionary faces is to distrust the mercy of God. If that danger is avoided, then all other dangers lose their sting.
God makes every dagger a scepter in our hand. As J.W. Alexander says, “Each instant of present labor is to be graciously repaid with a million ages of glory.”

Christ escaped the danger of distrust. Therefore God has highly exalted him!  Remember this Advent that Christmas is a model for missions. As I, so you. And that mission means danger. And that the greatest danger is distrusting God’s mercy. Succumb to this, and all is lost.  Conquer here, and nothing can harm you for a million ages.

December 17 – The Greatest Salvation Imaginable

Advent Devotional“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…”  —Jeremiah 31:31

God is just and holy and separated from sinners like us. This is our main problem at Christmas and every other season. How shall we get right with a just and holy God?

Nevertheless, God is merciful and has promised in Jeremiah 31 (five hundred years before Christ) that someday he would do something new. He would replace shadows with the Reality of the Messiah.  And he would powerfully move into our lives and write his will on our hearts so that we are not constrained from outside but are willing from inside to love him and trust him and follow him.

That would be the greatest salvation imaginable—if God should offer us the greatest Reality in the universe to enjoy and then move in us to see to it that we could enjoy it with the greatest freedom and joy possible. That would be a Christmas gift worth singing about.  That is, in fact, what he promised. But there was a huge obstacle. Our sin. Our separation from God because of our unrighteousness.

How shall a holy and just God treat us sinners with so much kindness as to give us the greatest Reality in the universe (his Son) to enjoy with the greatest joy possible?

The answer is that God put our sins on his Son, and judged them there, so that he could put them out of his mind, and deal with us mercifully and remain just and holy at the same time. Hebrews 9:28 says, “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.”  Christ bore our sins in his own body when he died. He took our judgment. He canceled our guilt. And that means the sins are gone. They do not remain in God’s mind as a basis for condemnation. In that sense, he “forgets” them. They are consumed in the death of Christ.

Which means that God is now free, in his justice, to lavish us with the new covenant. He gives us Christ, the greatest Reality in the universe, for our enjoyment. And he writes his own will—his own heart—on our hearts so that we can love Christ and trust Christ and follow Christ from the inside out, with freedom and joy.

December 16 – God’s Most Successful Setback

Advent Devotional“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”Philippians 2:9–11

Christmas was God’s most successful setback. He has always delighted to show his power through apparent defeat. He makes tactical retreats in order to win strategic victories.  Joseph was promised glory and power in his dream (Genesis 37:5–11). But to achieve that victory he had to become a slave in Egypt. And as if that were not enough, when his conditions improved because of his integrity, he was made worse than a slave — a prisoner.

But it was all planned. For there in prison he met Pharaoh’s butler, who eventually brought him to Pharaoh who put him over Egypt. What an unlikely route to glory!

But that is God’s way — even for his Son. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Worse than a slave — a prisoner — and was executed. But like Joseph, he kept his integrity. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians 2:9–10).

And this is God’s way for us too. We are promised glory — if we will suffer with him (Romans 8:17). The way up is down. The way forward is backward. The way to success is through divinely appointed setbacks. They will always look and feel like failure.  But if Joseph and Jesus teach us anything this Christmas it is this: “God meant it for good!”  (Genesis 50:20).

You fearful saints fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head.

 

 

5 Reasons to Keep the Pipe Organ in Worship

Organs and Choirs in Worship - 2015In the December 2, 2015 article, “Researchers Reveal Recent Shifts Among American Megachurches” by Christianity Today, provided the following statistics concerning the falling popularity of the use of organs and choirs in worship:

That article reminded me of an interesting article from April 13, 2015 entitled, “5 Reasons to Keep the Organ in Worship” written by for Ponder Anew (See at:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2015/04/13/5-reasons-to-keep-the-organ-in-worship/) that reads as follows:        

Abandoned ChurchWhen I was growing up in a Baptist church, pipe organs were on their way out. In fact, the church I attended never even had one, and they unceremoniously trashed their weak electronic number over 25 years ago in favor of a succession of latest and greatest synthesizers.

These days, their numbers have dwindled among Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations, and are close to extinction in evangelical circles. In more than a few cases, they sit decaying like the one in the photo to the left: sad, uncomfortable reminders of the church’s former place in American society.

You can imagine my surprise to see this recent post shared several times in my Facebook feed. Written by a Baptist, the director of LifeWay Worship, no less.

While I’m sure the two of us are quite different both in theology and approach to corporate worship, I was more than a bit intrigued. I don’t know when the last time I heard clear support for the pipe organ coming from the SBC.

That led me to think a bit about why the organ is so important to me personally, and more importantly, why it was unchallenged for centuries as the best accompanying instrument for corporate worship. Here are a few reasons I came up with.

1. It sustains. When it comes to singing, this is the most unique and important aspect of the pipe organ. Think of any other instrument commonly used in worship. Guitars, piano, percussion, or anything else. Once you play a sound on any of these instruments, what happens?

FinlandiaIt immediately begins to decay, necessitating more fills on the piano and more chords on the guitar. But singing doesn’t work this way, and the continuity of the sung line is often disrupted, sometimes violently so, by the constant reiteration of pitch required by the limitations of other instruments. But the organ’s sound lifts and sustains the voice of the congregation through each phrase.

Click on the choir photo for a great example of how sensitive organ accompaniment can sustain a congregation’s voice.

2. It fills a room naturally. Speaking of limitations, without amplification, it’s impossible for any other instrument to fill any but the smallest of spaces. The organ thrives in an open room, and consequently allows for a more organic accompanying sound.

There is a reason organ accompaniment in church endured for centuries. It wasn’t because it was current. It wasn’t because it was cool. It wasn’t that it helped people feel “connected.” It was because the organ is uniquely able to support sustained, hearty congregational singing.

As it fills the room almost like sunlight through open windows, the organ warmly invites even hesitant and untrained singers to join in. I have nothing against the piano or guitar. I’m even an enthusiastic (though terrible) pianist myself. I listen to guitar driven music all the time. But those instruments were simply never meant to accompany congregational singing, and even with amplification, they are not well-suited to the task.

3. Its range is massive. The organ can play from the quietest piano to the broadest forte, and can do so with a countless number of sound combinations. It’s palate of textures and colors is seemingly unending, and when played artistically and sensitively, it can breathe musical life into any part of the Gospel story.

4. It facilitates a wide range of musical styles. As I talked about in another recent post, there are many styles of music that reside under the umbrella of traditional worship, and the organ can quite competently accompany almost any of these.

5. Organs are relatively inexpensive. Now hold on a minute, you mean all those good folks who have commented that organs are too expensive for most congregations are wrong? Well, not exactly. They do require a substantial investment.

But there are alternatives to building a brand new organ. You can buy an older, restored instrument that will more than adequately meet your needs. But even a new organ would likely require a lower overall investment than a state-of-the-art audio system. With routine maintenance, your organ could last for centuries, while the new audio technology, also requiring a substantial initial investment, would need to be replaced many times over.

Is an organ absolutely necessary for corporate worship? Absolutely not. In fact, I’ve known many people from acappella traditions, and I heartily affirm the way they keep and maintain the human voice as the primary instrument in Christian worship.

But the reality is that most congregations need accompanying instruments. If your church is thinking about getting rid of the organ, don’t. Just don’t.

And if your church is one of the many that houses an unused pipe organ, thinking it’s inferior, uncool, or passé, call someone who knows what they’re doing at the AGO, another church, or a nearby university to help you uncover the endless possibilities that sit ignored while the band strums on. It could completely change the way your congregation singing and bring a new dimension to your sacred storytelling.

 

The World’s Most Popular Bible Verses, According to 200 Million YouVersion Users

Map of YouVersion users worldwide.

Map of YouVersion users worldwide.

According to an article by Christianity Today, every second, the world conducts more than 40,000 Google searches, creates 5 new Facebook profiles, and opens YouVersion’s Bible App 112 times.  In the app, three bookmarks are created, four verses are shared, and 18 verses are highlighted.  More than 50 Bible chapters are listened to, and 342 chapters are read.

YouVersion, launched by Life.Church in 2008, announced today that the Bible app has topped 200 million installs.  The app now offers the Bible in more than 1,200 versions and 900 languages.  As part of its annual review of user activity, YouVersion highlighted the most popular Bible verses in the 10 countries where it has been installed the most.

Top Verses by Country

Top Bible Verses by Country - 2015

The verse that was bookmarked, shared, and highlighted more than any other in the app’s history was also the top verse for the US and Brazil in 2015.  That verse was Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

Other top verses were also favorites in more than one country (and proved popular last year as well).

Mexico, the United Kingdom, and South Korea engaged the most with Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Likewise, Nigeria, South Africa, and the Philippines all engaged the most with Jeremiah 29:11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”

Canadians engaged most with Ephesians 1:23: “[And the church] is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

Meanwhile, Chinese engaged most with 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

The overall most shared, highlighted, and bookmarked verse of 2015 was Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

The Top Shared Verses of 2015

Top Shared Bible Verses - 2015YouVersion also broke out which verses were shared the most over email, text, and social media.

The top five:

Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

 

December 15 – Life and Death at Christmas

Advent Devotional“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”John 10:10

As I was about to begin this devotional, I received word that Marion Newstrum had just died.  She and her hus- band Elmer have been part of Bethlehem longer than most of our members have been alive. Marion was 87. They had been married 64 years.

When I spoke to Elmer and told him I wanted him to be strong in the Lord and not give up on life, he said, “He has been a true friend.” I pray that all Christians will be able to say at the end of  life, “Christ has been a true friend.”

Each Advent I mark the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was cut off in her 56th year in a bus accident in Israel. It was December 16, 1974. Those events are incredibly real to me even today. If I allow myself, I can easily come to tears—for example, thinking that my sons never
knew her. We buried her the day after Christmas. What a precious Christmas it was!

Many of you will feel your loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections— both in life and death?  But, O, do not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter.

Jesus came at Christmas that we might have eternal life. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” ( John 10:10).  Elmer and Marion had discussed where they would spend their final years. Elmer said, “Marion and I agreed that our final home would be with the Lord.”

Do you feel restless for home?  I have family coming home for the holidays.  It feels good.  I think the bottom line reason for why it feels good is that they and I are destined in the depths of our being for an ultimate Home- coming. All other homecomings are foretastes. And foretastes are good.

Unless they become substitutes. O, don’t let all the sweet things of this season become substitutes of the final great, all-satisfying Sweetness. Let every loss and every delight send your hearts a-homing after heaven.

Christmas.  What is it but this: I came that they might have life. Marion Newstrum, Ruth Piper, and you and I— that we might have Life, now and forever.  Make your Now the richer and deeper this Christmas by drinking at the fountain of Forever. It is so near.

 

 

December 14 – Making It Real for His People

Advent DevotionalChrist has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.  —Hebrews 8:6

Christ is the Mediator of a new covenant, according to Hebrews 8:6. What does that mean? It means that his blood—the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 13:20)—purchased the fulfillment of God’s promises for us.

It means that God brings about our inner transformation by the Spirit of Christ.  And it means that God works all his transformation in us through faith in all that God is for us in Christ.  The new covenant is purchased by the blood of Christ, effected by the Spirit of Christ, and appropriated by faith in Christ.

The best place to see Christ working as the Mediator of the new covenant is in Hebrews 13:20–21:

Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the
blood of the eternal covenant [this is the purchase of the new covenant], even Jesus our Lord,
equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight,
through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The words “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in the new covenant. And the words “through Jesus Christ” describe Jesus as  the Mediator of this glori- ous work of sovereign grace.

So the meaning of Christmas is not only that God replaces shadows with Reality, but also that he takes the reality and makes it real to his people. He writes it on our hearts. He does not lay his Christmas gift of salvation and transformation down for you to pick up in your own strength. He picks it up and puts in your heart and in your mind, and seals to you that you are a child of God.

The Third Sunday of Advent

Advent - Week 3b

December 13 – The Final Reality Is Here

Advent DevotionalNow the main point in what has been said is this:  we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.  —Hebrews 8:1–2

Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the real thing.

Hebrews 8:1–2 is a kind of summary statement. The point is that the one priest who goes between us and God, and makes us right with God, and prays for us to God, is not an ordinary, weak, sinful, dying, priest like in the Old Testament days. He is the Son of God—strong, sinless, with an indestructible life.

Not only that, he is not ministering in an earthly tabernacle with all its limitations of place and size and wearing out and being moth-eaten and being soaked and burned and torn and stolen.

No, verse 2 says that Christ is ministering for us in a “true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.” This is the real thing in heaven. This is what cast on Mount Sinai a shadow that Moses copied.  According to verse 1, another great thing about the reality which is greater than the shadow is that our High Priest is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. No Old Testament priest could ever say that.

Jesus deals directly with God the Father. He has a place of honor beside God. He is loved and respected infinitely by God. He is constantly with God. This is not shadow reality like curtains and bowls and tables and candles and robes and tassels and sheep and goats and pigeons. This is final, ultimate reality: God and his Son interacting in love and holiness for our eternal salvation.

Ultimate reality is the persons of the Godhead in relationship, dealing with each other concerning how their majesty and holiness and love and justice and goodness and truth shall be manifest in a redeemed people.

December 12 – Replacing the Shadows

Advent DevotionalNow the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. —Hebrews 8:1–2

The point of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has not just come to fit into the earthly system of priestly ministry as the best and final human priest, but he has come to fulfill and put an end to that system and to orient all our attention on himself ministering for us in heaven.  The Old Testament tabernacle and priests and sacrifices were shadows. Now the reality has come, and the shadows pass away.

Here’s an Advent illustration for kids (and for those of us who used to be kids and remember what it was like).  Suppose you and your mom get separated in the grocery store, and you start to get scared and panic and don’t know which way to go, and you run to the end of an aisle, and just before you start to cry, you see a shadow on the floor at the end of the aisle that looks just like your mom. It makes you really happy and you feel hope.

But which is better? The happiness of seeing the shadow, or having your mom step around the corner and seeing that it’s really her?

That’s the way it is when Jesus comes to be our High Priest. That’s what Christmas is. Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the real thing.

 

 

December 11 – Why Jesus Came

Advent DevotionalSince therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.Hebrews 2:14–15

Hebrews 2:14–15 is worth more than two minutes in an Advent devotional. These verses connect the beginning and the end of Jesus’s earthly life. They make clear why he came. They would be great to use with an unbelieving friend or family member to take them step by step through your Christian view of Christmas. It might go something like this…

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood…”

The term “children” is taken from the previous verse and refers to the spiritual offspring of Christ, the Messiah (see Isaiah 8:18; 53:10).  These are also the “children of God.” In other words, in sending Christ, God has the salvation of his “children” specially in view.  It is true that “God so loved the world, that he sent [ Jesus] ( John 3:16).”

But it is also true that God was especially “gathering the children of God who are scattered abroad” ( John 11:52).  God’s design was to offer Christ to the world, and to effect the salvation of his “children” (see 1 Timothy 4:10).  You may experience adoption by receiving Christ ( John
1:12).

“ …he himself likewise partook of the same things [ flesh and blood]…”

Christ existed before the incarnation. He was spirit. He was the eternal Word. He was with God and was God ( John 1:1; Colossians 2:9). But he took on flesh and blood and clothed his deity with humanity. He became fully man and remained fully God. It is a great mystery in many ways. But it is at the heart of our faith and is what the Bible teaches.

“ …that through death…”

The reason Jesus became man was to die. As God, he could not die for sinners. But as man he could. His aim was to die. Therefore he had to be born human. He was born to die. Good Friday is the reason for Christmas. This is what needs to be said today about the meaning of Christmas.

“ …he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil…”

In dying, Christ de-fanged the devil. How? By covering all our sin. This means that Satan has no legitimate grounds to accuse us before God. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33). On what grounds does he justify? Through the blood of Jesus (Romans 5:9).

Satan’s ultimate weapon against us is our own sin. If the death of Jesus takes it away, the chief weapon of the devil is taken out of his hand. He cannot make a case for our death penalty, because the Judge has acquitted us by the death of his Son!

“ …and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

So we are free from the fear of death. God has justified us. Satan cannot overturn that decree. And God means for our ultimate safety to have an immediate effect on our lives. He means for the happy ending to take away the slavery and fear of the now.

If we do not need to fear our last and greatest enemy, death, then we do not need to fear anything.

We can be free: free for joy, free for others. What a great Christmas present from God to us! And from us to the world!

December 10 – Gold Frankincense, and Myrrh

Advent DevotionalWhen they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:10–11

God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything (Acts 17:25).  The gifts of the magi are not given by way of assistance or need-meeting.  It would dishonor a monarch if foreign visitors came with royal care-packages.

Nor are these gifts meant to be bribes. Deuteronomy 10:17 says that God takes no bribe.  Well, what then do they mean?  How are they worship?

The gifts are intensifiers of desire for Christ himself in much the same way that fasting is.  When you give a gift to Christ like this, it’s a way of saying, “The joy that I pursue (verse 10) is not the hope of getting rich with things from you.  I have not come to you for your things, but for yourself.

And this desire I now intensify and demonstrate by giving up things, in the hope of enjoying you more, not things.  By giving to you what you do not need, and what I might enjoy, I am saying more earnestly and more authentically, ‘You are my treasure, not these things.’”   I think that’s what it means to worship God with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

May God take the truth of this text and waken in us a desire for Christ himself. May we say from the heart, “Lord Jesus, you are the Messiah, the King of Israel.  All nations will come and bow down before you. God wields the world to see that you are worshiped. Therefore, whatever
opposition I may find, I joyfully ascribe authority and dignity to you, and bring my gifts to say that you alone can satisfy my heart, not these.”

 

December 9 – Two Kinds of Opposition to Jesus

Advent DevotionalWhen Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.Matthew 2:3

Jesus is troubling to people who do not want to worship him, and he brings out opposition for those who do. This is probably not a main point in the mind of Matthew, but it is inescapable as the story goes on.

In this story, there are two kinds of people who do not want to worship Jesus, the Messiah.

  • The first kind is the people who simply do nothing about Jesus. He is a nonentity in their lives. This group is represented by the chief priests and scribes.  Verse 4:  “Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Messiah was
    to be born.” 

Well, they told him, and that was that: back to business as usual. The sheer silence and inactivity of the leaders is overwhelming in view of the magnitude of what was happening.  And notice, verse 3 says, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

In other words, the rumor was going around that someone thought the Messiah was born. The inactivity on the part of chief priests is staggering—why not go with the magi?  They are not interested. They do not want to worship the true God.

  • The second kind of people who do not want to worship Jesus is the kind who is deeply threatened by him. That is Herod in this story. He is really afraid. So much so that he schemes and lies and then commits mass murder just to get rid of Jesus.

So today these two kinds of opposition will come against Christ and his worshipers: indifference and hostility.

Are you in one of those groups?

Let this Christmas be the time when you reconsider the Messiah and ponder what it is to worship him.

 

 

Advent

Candles2 Corinthians 9:15:  “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”

As we are now in the season of Advent, we give thanks to God for the indescribable gift he gave us in Jesus.  And, we know that during this time of year, Advent sometimes “gets lost”.

Many refer to this as the Christmas season, but in actuality, Advent is the season before Christmas, a season of anticipation for the celebration of Christ’s birth and a spiritual time of preparation for Christ’s coming.

The frenzy of the weeks leading to Christmas can distract us from having an Advent season that prepares us for the celebration of Christmas; it’s meaning to us and the world.  Take time to enjoy this season.  We hope you delight in the rituals of preparation and the traditions of the Advent season.

And, so, our message to you this week is simple – may the Advent season be for all of us a time of Peace, Joy, Hope, and Love, preparing our hearts and minds to behold the miracle of Christmas!

 

 

December 8 – Bethlehem’s Supernatural Star

Advent Devotional“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”Matthew 2:2

Over and over the Bible baffles our curiosity about just how certain things happened. How did this “star” get the magi from the east to Jerusalem?  It does not say that it led them or went before them.  It only says they saw a star in the east (verse 2), and came to Jerusalem. And how did that star go before them in the little five-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as verse 9 says it did? And how did a star stand “over the place where the Child was”?

The answer is: We do not know. There are numerous efforts to explain it in terms of conjunctions of planets or comets or supernovas or miraculous lights. We just don’t know. And I want to exhort you not to become preoccupied with developing theories that are only tentative
in the end and have very little spiritual significance.

I risk a generalization to warn you: People who are exercised and preoccupied with such things as how the star worked and how the Red Sea split and how the manna fell and how Jonah survived the fish and how the moon turns to blood are generally people who have what I call a mentality for the marginal. You do not see in them a deep cherishing of the great central things of the gospel—the holiness of God, the ugliness of sin, the helplessness of man, the death of Christ, justification by faith alone, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the glory of Christ’s return and the final judgment.

They always seem to be taking you down a sidetrack with a new article or book. There is little centered rejoicing. But what is plain concerning this matter of the star is that it is doing something that it cannot do on its own: it is guiding magi to the Son of God to worship him.  There is only one Person in biblical thinking that can be behind that intentionality in the stars—God himself.

So the lesson is plain: God is guiding foreigners to Christ to worship him. And he is doing it by exerting global—probably even universal—influence and power to get it done.

Luke shows God influencing the entire Roman Empire so that the census comes at the exact time to get a virgin to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy with her delivery. Matthew shows God influencing the stars in the sky to get foreign magi to Bethlehem so that they can worship him.

This is God’s design. He did it then. He is still doing it now. His aim is that the nations—all the nations (Matthew 24:14)—worship his Son.  This is God’s will for everybody in your office at work, and in your neighborhood and in your home. As John 4:23 says, “Such the Father seeks to worship him.”

At the beginning of Matthew we still have a “come-see” pattern. But at the end the pattern is “go-tell.” The magi came and saw. We are to go and tell.  What is not different is that the purpose of God is the ingathering of the nations to worship his Son. The magnifying of Christ in the white-hot worship of all nations is the reason the world exists.

December 7 – Messiah for the Magi

Advent DevotionalNow after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”Matthew 2:1–2

Unlike Luke, Matthew does not tell us about the shepherds coming to visit Jesus in the stable. His focus is immediately on foreigners coming from the east to worship Jesus.  So Matthew portrays Jesus at the beginning and ending of his Gospel as a universal Messiah for the nations, not just for Jews.

Here the first worshipers are court magicians or astrologers or wise men not from Israel but from the East—perhaps from Babylon. They were Gentiles. Unclean.  And at the end of Matthew, the last words of Jesus are, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.”

This not only opened the door for the Gentiles to rejoice in the Messiah, it added proof that he was the Messiah.  Because one of the repeated prophecies was that the nations and kings would, in fact, come to him as the ruler of the world.  For example, Isaiah 60:3, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

So Matthew adds proof to the messiahship of Jesus and shows that he is Messiah—a King, and Promise-Fulfiller—for all the nations, not just Israel.

December 6 – Peace to Those with Whom He’s Pleased

Advent Devotional“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”Luke 2:12–14

Peace for whom? There is a somber note sounded in the angels’ praise. Peace among men on whom his favor rests.  Peace among men with whom he is pleased. Without faith it is impossible to please God. So Christmas does not bring peace to all.

“This is the judgment,” Jesus said, “that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). Or as the aged Simeon said when he saw the child Jesus, “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel
and for a sign that is spoken against… that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).

Oh, how many there are who look out on a bleak and chilly Christmas day and see no more than that. “He came to his own and his own received him not, but to as many as received him to them gave he power to become the sons of God, to as many as believed on his name.”

It was only to his disciples that Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”  The people who enjoy the peace of God that surpasses all understanding are those who in everything by prayer and supplication let their requests be made known to God.

The key that unlocks the treasure chest of God’s peace is faith in the promises of God. So Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Romans 15:13).

And when we do trust the promises of God and have joy and peace and love, then God is glorified. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men with whom he is pleased—men who would believe.

 

 

December 5 – No Detour from Calvary

Advent DevotionalAnd while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.Luke 2:6–7

Now you would think that if God so rules the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, he surely could have seen to it that a room was available in the inn.  Yes, he could have.

And Jesus could have been born into a wealthy family. He could have turned stone into bread in the wilderness. He could have called 10,000 angels to his aid in Gethsemane. He could have come down from the cross and saved himself. The question is not what God could do, but what he willed to do.

God’s will was that though Christ was rich, yet for your sake he became poor. The “No Vacancy” signs over all the motels in Bethlehem were for your sake. “For your sake he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

God rules all things—even motel capacities—for the sake of his children. The Calvary road begins with a “No Vacancy” sign in Bethlehem and ends with the spitting and scoffing of the cross in Jerusalem.

And we must not forget that he said, “He who would come after me must deny himself and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24).

We join him on the Calvary road and hear him say, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).

To the one who calls out enthusiastically, “I will follow you wherever you go!” (Matthew 8:19). Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Yes, God could have seen to it that Jesus have a room at his birth.  But that would have been a detour off the Calvary road.

 

 

December 4 – For God’s Little People

Advent DevotionalIn those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  —Luke 2:1–5

Have you ever thought what an amazing thing it is that God ordained beforehand that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem (as the prophecy in Micah 5 shows); and that he so ordained things that when the time came, the Messiah’s mother and legal father were living in Nazareth; and
that in order to fulfill his word and bring two little people to Bethlehem that first Christmas, God put it in the heart of Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world should be enrolled each in his own town?

Have you ever felt, like me, little and insignificant in a world of seven billion people, where all the news is of big political and economic and social movements and of outstanding people with lots of power and prestige?

If you have, don’t let that make you disheartened or unhappy. For it is implicit in Scripture that all the mammoth political forces and all the giant industrial complexes, without their even knowing it, are being guided by God, not for their own sake but for the sake of God’s
little people—the little Mary and the little Joseph who have to be got from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God wields an empire to bless his children.

Do not think, because you experience adversity, that the hand of the Lord is shortened. It is not our prosperity but our holiness that he seeks with all his heart. And to that end, he rules the whole world. As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the
Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”

He is a big God for little people, and we have great cause to rejoice that, unbeknownst to them, all the kings and presidents and premiers and chancellors of the world follow the sovereign decrees of our Father in heaven, that we, the children, might be conformed to the image of his
Son, Jesus Christ.

 

December 3 – The Long-Awaited Visitation

Advent Devotional“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…”Luke 1:68–71

Notice two remarkable things from these words of Zechariah in Luke 1.
  • First, nine months earlier, Zechariah could not believe his wife would have a child. Now, filled with the Holy Spirit, he is so confident of God’s redeeming work in the coming Messiah that he puts it in the past tense. For the mind of faith, a promised act of God is as good as done. Zechariah has learned to take God at his word and so has a remarkable assurance: “God has visited and redeemed!”
  • Second, the coming of Jesus the Messiah is a visitation of God to our world: “The God of Israel has visited and redeemed.” For centuries, the Jewish people had languished under the conviction that God had withdrawn: the spirit of prophecy had ceased, Israel had fallen into the hands of Rome. And all the godly in Israel were awaiting the visitation of God. Luke tells us in 2:25 that the devout Simeon was “looking for the consolation of Israel.” And in Luke 2:38 the prayerful Anna was “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
These were days of great expectation. Now the long awaited visitation of God was about to happen—indeed, he was about to come in a way no one expected.

December 2 – Mary’s Magnificent God

Advent Devotional“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.  For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”Luke 1:46–55

Mary sees clearly a most remarkable thing about God: He is about to change the course of all human history. The most important three decades in all of time are about to begin.  And where is God?  Occupying himself with two obscure, humble women—one old and barren (Elizabeth), one young and virginal (Mary). And Mary is so moved by this vision of God, the lover of the lowly, that she breaks out in song — a song that has come to be known as “the Magnificat” (Luke 1:46–55).

Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful heroines in Luke’s account. He loves the faith of these women. The thing that impresses him most, it appears, and the thing he wants to impress on Theophilus, his noble reader, is the lowliness and cheerful humility of Elizabeth and Mary.

Elizabeth says,“Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me?” (Luke 1:43).  And  Mary says, “He has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:48).

The only people whose soul can truly magnify the Lord are people like Elizabeth and Mary—people who acknowledge their lowly estate and are overwhelmed by the condescension of the magnificent God.

Give a Dinner This Christmas Season

Our Church ladies serving a free, hot lunch to the community on "Soup Tuesdays"

Our Church ladies serving a free, hot lunch to the community on “Soup Tuesdays”

Holidays are lonely for the hungry men, women, and children in the Beaver Falls area.

And with the increasing numbers of hungry people in our area, the need for help is greater than ever.

With your support this Christmas season, we’ll be prepared to meet the needs of all of our hungry neighbors who will come to us for help.  They’ll find hearty, life-changing meals as the temperature drops, and all of the comforts of “home” here at Central Church.Central Church

As the demand for our services increases, your gifts are critical.  We’re expecting to provide over 10,000 hearty meals to hungry, hurting people by the end of the year.

Any gift you send today will be a blessing!  Please join your friends and neighbors who support this life-changing work.  Just click on the “Donate” button on any page of Central Church’s website (www.centralumchurch.org) to make your gift today.

Merry Christmas, and may God bless you for caring.

 

December 1 – Prepare the Way

Advent Devotional“He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”Luke 1:16–17

What John the Baptist did for Israel, Advent can do for us.  Don’t let Christmas find you unprepared. I mean spiritually unprepared. Its joy and impact will be so much greater if you are ready!  That you might be prepared…

  • First, meditate on the fact that we need a Savior. Christmas is an indictment before it becomes a delight. It will not have its intended effect until we feel desperately the need for a Savior.  Let these short Advent meditations help awaken in you a bittersweet sense of need for the Savior.

 

  • Second, engage in sober self-examination. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!  And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23–24) Let every heart prepare him room… by cleaning house.

 

  • Third, build God-centered anticipation and expectancy and excitement into your home—especially for the children. If you are excited about Christ, they will be too.  If you can only make Christmas exciting with material things, how will the children get a thirst for God? Bend the efforts of your imagination to make the wonder of the King’s arrival visible for the children.

 

  • Fourth, be much in the Scriptures, and memorize the great passages! “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord!” (Jeremiah 23:29)

Gather ‘round that fire this Advent season.  It is warm. It is sparkling with colors of grace. It is healing for a thousand hurts. It is light for dark nights.