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Posts from the ‘Food for Thought’ Category

Mixed Bag – Dr. Jekyl…

The Pharisee and the Tax CollectorKey Bible Verse:  If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth.  – 1 John 1:8

Bonus Reading:  Luke 18:9-14

Do you ever feel like a pretty good person? I do sometimes.  I’m usually nice to my students, treat my colleagues fairly, deeply love my family, pay my taxes, provide psychological help to pastors in crisis, go to church and tithe.  I don’t steal, commit adultery, use illegal drugs, or swear.  And I floss regularly.

Then I remember the religious leader in the temple (see Luke 18:9-14).  He had the same list.  His prayer is the formula for self-absorbed disappointment and disillusionment. When we see ourselves as “pretty good,” we misunderstand the gravity of sin and our desperate need for grace. We place ourselves above others, become their judges, and give them the power to disappoint us.

A physicist friend uses this analogy: Each of us is like a light bulb. One shines with 50 watts of holiness, another has only 25 watts. Maybe the most stellar Christians are 200 watts. But these comparisons become trite in the presence of the sun. In the face of God, our different levels of piety are puny and meaningless. It makes no sense to compare ourselves with one another because we are all much more alike than we are different.

—Mark McMinn in Why Sin Matters

My Response:  Do I rate myself more like the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) or the tax collector?

Thought to Apply: One of the first things for which we have to pray is a true insight into our condition.—Olive Wyon (writer)

Adapted from Why Sin Matters (Tyndale, 2004)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, help me to stop kidding myself about what I’m really like. Thank You for loving me even though You know the worst.


Mixed Bag – Light and Shadow

School After EarthquakeWho Said It…Donald McCullough

Two earthquakes mark Donald’s life.  As San Francisco Theological Seminary’s president, he led a successful capital campaign to repair the school’s buildings, damaged by the 1989 quake.

Then in 2000 he experienced a personal quake when earlier marital infidelity was uncovered by his presbytery.  His ordination was suspended, and he resigned his post.

Donald’s book, The Consolations of Imperfection (Brazos, 2004), shares hard lessons he’s learned about himself.

What He Said…Light and Shadow

We’re a confusing mixture: loving and selfish, generous and stingy, encouraging and envious, hardworking and lazy, angelic and devilish; we’re both light and shadow.

Who can see into the depths of the shadows?  Who can name all the cantankerous, aggressive troublemakers out of sight and out of mind in the cellar?

This is more a wading through sorrow than a wallowing in it.  Admission of wrongdoing should have a matter–of–fact quality to it.  It says, “Yes, this is who I am.  It’s not all I am, for I’ve written some good parts to my story, too.  Yet I can’t deny my failure (and my propensity to further failure) any more than I can deny my blue eyes.”

As someone who’s had to do more than his share of this confession, I can testify that it’s liberating.  As we pray for courage to see ourselves as we really are, we find ourselves—somehow, surprisingly—lifted above it.  We’re actually being raised by the updraft of grace.

Adapted from The Consolations of Imperfection (Brazos, 2004)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, help me to stop kidding myself about what I’m really like.  Thank You for loving me even though You know the worst.

Be a Builder-Upper – Paul in Thessolonica

Paul in ThessolonicaChapters 2 and 3 of 1 Thessalonians form a unique section of Scripture.

Paul is inviting the believers in Thessalonika to reminisce with him about his initial visit to them (recorded in Acts 17:1-10a) and their subsequent contacts.

This “rememberfest” affords us our best window into how Paul went about putting a young congregation on its feet.

Interact with God’s Word

1 Thessalonians 2:7-12

  1. Why isn’t gentleness a valued trait among guys today?
  2. How can we relate gently to our children? … to other men?
  3. What kept Paul from making demands of the Thessalonians?
  4. How good are people at sensing if our love is for real?
  5. What personal characteristics (v. 10) are prerequisite to a ministry of building others up?
  6. What kinds of fatherly treatment (v. 11) do you think Paul had in mind?
  7. How could you put the kinds of interaction recorded in verse 12 to work in your discipling?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God to make you a father who gently challenges not only his own children, but other believers as well.

1 Thessalonians 2:7-12

7 As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but we were as gentle among you as a mother feeding and caring for her own children. 8 We loved you so much that we gave you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. 9 Don’t you remember, dear brothers and sisters, how hard we worked among you? Night and day we toiled to earn a living so that our expenses would not be a burden to anyone there as we preached God’s Good News among you.

10 You yourselves are our witnesses—and so is God—that we were pure and honest and faultless toward all of you believers. 11 And you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children. 12 We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. For he called you into his Kingdom to share his glory.

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, please help me become a motivator of others by the way I affirm, patiently challenge, and encourage them.

Be a Builder-Upper – Chewed Out?

Employee ReviewKey Bible Verse:  And you know we treated each of you as a father treats his own children.  – 1 Thessalonians 2:11

Bonus Reading:  1 Thessalonians 2:7-12

For six summers Jim Slevcove was my supervisor at Forest Home, a Christian conference center in California.  I held a responsible position over junior high and high school kids, but couldn’t pass up a chance to play a prank.  Like the time I passed off a laxative gum as chewing gum to some coworkers.  Word of the rigorous purgative’s effects got back to Jim.

He asked me to come to his office the next day for “a little chat.”  I was still a little defiant when Jim called me in.  There was a long, awkward silence as he leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling.

Were those tears in his eyes?  Then he whispered “Benny” with tender affection.  “Benny,” he repeated twice while he got control of his emotions.

My arguments disappeared like the vapor they were.  I’d gone way over the line of propriety, not to mention compassion.  I owed and paid Jim and my victims an apology.  We talked about my impulsiveness and vindictiveness, the meaning of Christian community, and the responsibilities that go with leadership.  Even in saying the hard thing to me, Jim was always gracious.  His goal was not to tear down but to build up.

—Ben Patterson in He Has Made Me Glad

My Response:  A person who needs affirmation and grace from me today is …

Thought to Apply:  Correction does much, but encouragement does more. Encouragement after censure is as the sun after a shower.—Johann Von Goethe (German poet)

Adapted from He Has Made Me Glad (InterVarsity, 2005)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, please help me become a motivator of others by the way I affirm, patiently challenge, and encourage them.

Be a Builder-Upper – Puzzling Patron

Diner WaitressKey Bible Verse:  Timothy, I thank God for you. … Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 2 Timothy 1:3

Bonus Reading:  Hebrews 10:24

As a teen, I waitressed at a Coco’s restaurant.  Around 9 o’clock one February night, I started feeling sorry for myself.  My friends were at the movies, but I had to work until closing.

That’s when the hostess grabbed my arm. “This is really creepy,” she whispered, “but there’s a man over there who said he wouldn’t eat here unless you were his waitress.”

I swallowed hard.  “Is he a weirdo?”

“See for yourself,” she said.  We peered through the decorative foliage at the mysterious man in the corner.  Slowly he lowered his menu, revealing thick, white hair, silver-blue eyes, and a wide grin beneath his white moustache.  He lifted his hand and waved.

“That’s no weirdo,” I said. “That’s my dad!”

“Coming to see you at work?” the hostess balked.  “Pretty strange, if you ask me.”

I thought it was cool.  But to Dad I acted nonchalant, rattling off the soup of the day and scribbling down his order before anyone could see him squeeze my elbow and say, “Thanks, Honey.”

As he watched me clear tables and refill coffee cups, his unspoken words bounced off the wall: “I’m here.  I support you.  I’m proud of you.  Keep up the good work.  You’re my girl.  I love you.”  It was my best valentine that year.

—Alice Gray in Stories for a Teen’s Heart

My Response:  I’ll plan an “un-card” valentine for a loved one.

Thought to Apply:  Encouragement is oxygen to the soul.—George Adams (Newspaper columnist)

Adapted from Stories for a Teen’s Heart (Multnomah, 1999)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, please help me become a motivator of others by the way I affirm, patiently challenge, and encourage them.

Be a Builder-Upper – Natural Wonder

Father-Son Grand CanyonKey Bible Verse:   How we thank God for you!  Because of you we have great joy in the presence of God.  – 1 Thessalonians 3:9

Bonus Reading:  Titus 2:6-8

When my son Joel was 12 years old, we hiked into the Grand Canyon with a close friend.  On our last evening we sat on the edge of the canyon munching on summer sausage, cheese, and crackers, and watching the majestic play of changing colors as the sun sank.

Our conversation turned from the arduous hike earlier that day to deeper things—God and creation and the kind of girl Joel ought to marry someday.  I was intensely aware of how much I loved this wonder of a son whose profile was outlined against the glories of canyon and sunset.

Pointing toward the canyon, Joel turned and said, “There’s no place on earth that shows more of God’s glory than this place!”

Ah!  The perfect moment to say what was welling up in my breast.  “There is, Joel,” I said, “something that shows God’s glory even better.”

His eyes flashed, ready to debate the point. “Where, Dad?”

“Right here, buddy,” I said, pointing at him.  “This whole canyon doesn’t add up to you.  There’s no canyon, river, mountain, or ocean that better shows the majesty of God than you, or any other human being.”

—Ben Patterson in He Has Made Me Glad

My Response:  This week I’ll watch for an occasion to affirm my son or daughter.

Thought to Apply:  There is no such whetstone to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning as is praise —Roger Ascham (English scholar)

Adapted from He Has Made Me Glad (InterVarsity, 2005)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, please help me become a motivator of others by the way I affirm, patiently challenge, and encourage them.

Be a Builder-Upper – Moving Moment

Father-Son HugKey Bible Verse:  I have the highest confidence in you, and my pride in you is great.  – 2 Corinthians 7:4

Bonus Reading:  Colossians 2:1-5

When my oldest son was 11, we built a 3′ x 4′ bookcase to put his stereo and junk on.  I’m a doofus at woodworking, but we measured, drew up plans, bought the wood, pulled out the tools, and got busy.

The result sat next to his bed for six years.  Unbeknownst to him, I’d written on the bottom: “Troy: You and I built this together on August 11, 1996.  This note is to remind you that I’ll always love you more than my life and be your biggest fan.  Never forget that. Love, Dad.”

In 2002, Troy moved into his own place, taking everything that’s his.  He hadn’t noticed anything as he wedged the bookcase into his Subaru Outback for the one-hour drive to Denver.  When we arrived at his place, we began unloading.  His roommate noticed the writing on the bottom of the bookcase as he carried it into the house. “What’s this?” he asked.

Troy came over. “What’s what?”

“This writing.”  He began to read it out loud.  I stopped in the hallway and watched Troy as he read it silently.  The roommate filled the silence.  “Uh-oh, Father-son hug moment.”  Troy smiled sheepishly as I walked over.  His hug and that look were worth the wait.

—Greg Johnson in Dad’s Everything Book for Sons

My Response:  Something tangible from me to a child of mine could be …

Thought to Apply:  I don’t care how great, how famous or successful a man or woman may be, each hungers for applause. —George Adams (Newspaper columnist)

Adapted from Dad’s Everything Book for Sons (Zondervan, 2003)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, please help me become a motivator of others by the way I affirm, patiently challenge, and encourage them.

Be a Builder-Upper – Boos or Bouquets?

Happy BirthdayKey Bible Verse:  Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement. Ephesians 4:29

Bonus Reading:  Proverbs 15:23; 16:24

When Jacques Plante, the great National Hockey League goalie, retired, someone asked him how he had liked being a goalie.  He quipped, “How would you like a job where if you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?”

Families, and churches, can be like that.

We have a family birthday tradition I really love—a kind of “rite of affirmation.”  The way it works is simple.  We bombard the birthday person with compliments.

If it’s my daughter, Mary, being celebrated, I tell her I love the way she laughs so hard that tears squirt out her eyes like little saline projectiles. I let her know what a thoughtful, interesting person she is, how I love her kindness, and what a pleasure it is to take a walk with her.

Her mother, brothers, and friends also speak their appreciation. She grows quiet and warm and even more beautiful. And her eyes show how hungrily her heart drinks it in.

She’s enlarged in her soul, made deeper and stronger. Although she and her brothers are now young adults, they still respond the same way. So does my wife. So do I. This kind of grace evokes joyful gratitude in all who hear.

—Ben Patterson in He Has Made Me Glad

My Response:  I’ll tell one family member what I admire and love about him or her.

Adapted from He Has Made Me Glad (InterVarsity, 2005)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, please help me become a motivator of others by the way I affirm, patiently challenge, and encourage them.

Be a Builder-Upper – Call Forth the Best

Professor in ClassWho Said It…Ben Patterson

Ben used to be an avid wrestler and weightlifter.  Now he focuses on a different kind of building up.  He disciples students. He is currently the campus pastor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.

He previously served in the same role at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Ben has written a number of books.  He’s also pastored churches on the east and west coasts.

What He Said…Call Forth the Best

Gracious words build up and strengthen others, calling forth their best.

I read of a professor at a small New England college who year after year was voted by his colleagues and students as the school’s outstanding instructor.  When he retired, the college held a banquet in his honor and asked him to give a speech explaining the secret of his success as a teacher.

The professor blushed as he began and said, “Well, I guess I can say it now that I’m leaving.  At the beginning of every semester, in every class I taught, I would identify the student who seemed most likely to fail.  On the first exam, I gave this person a far better grade than he or she deserved.

And then I somehow made it known to the rest of the class, in the student’s hearing, how well the student had done.  In 40 years of teaching, it never failed to produce the desired result. Every student rose to a higher level.”

Adapted from He Has Made Me Glad (InterVarsity, 2005)

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, please help me become a motivator of others by the way I affirm, patiently challenge, and encourage them.

Unboxing God – Feeling Like Job

Job and His FriendsAfter Eliphaz, one of the suffering Job’s critical “comforters,” has lectured him to stop quarreling with God and clean up his life (Job chapter 22), Job makes his rebuttal (chapter 23).

He puts into words the frustration that you—and a host of other believers—have felt at one time or another in seeking to relate to the Almighty.  But it’s a frustration that avoids despair by hanging on to faith.

Interact with God’s Word

Job 23:1-10

  1. What does Job feel about the “sentence” he’s been served (v. 2)?
  2. What qualities of his divine Judge does he remain confident about (vv. 6-7)?
  3. What frustrates Job about God’s immaterial nature (vv. 3, 8-9)?
  4. But does God have any trouble locating him (v. 10)?
  5. Have you felt God to be elusive when you’ve attempted contact?
  6. What does Job feel about communicating with God (vv.3-5)?
  7. How can you listen for God’s voice and understand what it’s conveying to you?

Spend Time in Prayer: Ask God to overwhelm you with His greatness. And ask Him to make His spirit—presence as real to you as the flesh-and-blood world you touch and hear.

Job 23:1-10

1Then Job spoke again:

2 “My complaint today is still a bitter one, and I try hard not to groan aloud.

3 If only I knew where to find God, I would go to his throne and talk with him there.

4 I would lay out my case and present my arguments.

5 Then I would listen to his reply and understand what he says to me.

6 Would he merely argue with me in his greatness? No, he would give me a fair hearing.

7 Fair and honest people can reason with him, so I would be acquitted by my Judge.

8 “I go east, but he is not there. I go west, but I cannot find him.

9 I do not see him in the north, for he is hidden. I turn to the south, but I cannot find him.

10 But he knows where I am going. And when he has tested me like gold in a fire, he will pronounce me innocent.

Prayer for the Week:   Although You are beyond my comprehension, Lord, I long to know You better.  Give me a closer glimpse of Your glory.

Unboxing God – Speechless

SilenceKey Bible Verses:  O God, don’t sit idly by, silent and inactive!  – Psalm 83:1

Bonus Reading:  Isaiah 64:1-12

Chess master and mentor Bruce Pandolfini discussed, in a Fast Company magazine article, how he works with his students.  “My lessons consist of a lot of silence.  I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking. … I let my students think.

If I do ask a question and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question—and wait.  I never give the answer.  Most of us really don’t appreciate the power of silence.  Some of the most effective communication—between student and teacher, between master players—takes place during silent periods.”

Could this be how God mentors us?  Is God’s apparent silence the method of a Master Teacher?

When I go through seasons when God’s answers don’t come quickly or on the surface of things—but the way God interacts with my prayers draws me into deeper trust, dependence, and obedience—the answers I find radically transcend what I initially sought to find.

  1. I get introduced to sin that I need to confront.
  2. I recognize patterns of behavior I need to break.
  3. I gain insights into who I am that I didn’t have before.
  4. I discover a depth of relationship with God that I’ve never before experienced.

—James Emery White in Embracing the Mysterious God

My Response:  Which numbered sentence fits where God’s silence is pointing me now?

Thought to Apply:  Sometimes Thou dost withdraw Thyself from us that we might know the sweetness of Thy presence.—Thomas À Kempis (Dutch monastic)

Adapted from Embracing the Mysterious God (InterVarsity, 2003)

Prayer for the Week:  Although You are beyond my comprehension, Lord, I long to know You better.  Give me a closer glimpse of Your glory.

Unboxing God – Hide-and-Seek

Hide and SeekKey Bible Verse:  Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.  Isaiah 45:15

Bonus Reading:  Job 19:7-12, 23-27; 23:1-10

When my children were small, I’d come home from work, kiss my wife and children hello, and, when their backs were turned, quickly hide in our linen closet. 

Why would I do such a thing?  The kids swiftly discerned that Dad was initiating a game of hide-and-seek.

They’d look everywhere for me, except that linen closet.  After a little while, when the kids were searching some other part of the house, I’d slip out and sit at the table, drinking coffee with my wife.  The kids would see me, do a double take and say, “Where were you?”  I wouldn’t tell them my secret hiding place.

One day I kissed my family hello, vanished into my linen closet and heard the kids scampering around trying to find me.  After a few minutes, the house became silent. When I came out of hiding, I found them downstairs playing with Legos.  They’d lost interest in finding Dad!

Does God ever hide from us?  Yes.  Sometimes God hides Himself from us because of our sin.  Perhaps at other times He hides Himself so that His people might seek Him on a deeper and more intimate level.

Don’t assume that because God knows all things He has no desire to be known Himself.

—Larry Dixon in DocDevos

My Response:  Am I willing to keep looking when God “hides”?

Thought to Apply:  Ever since the days of Adam, man has been hiding from God and saying, “God is hard to find.” —Fulton Sheen (Roman Catholic bishop, broadcaster)

Adapted from DocDevos (Christian Publications, 2002)

Prayer for the Week:  Although You are beyond my comprehension, Lord, I long to know You better.  Give me a closer glimpse of Your glory.

18 ways to be more United Methodist in 2018

When making New Year’s resolutions for 2018, we hope you will consider joining us in participating in several of these very United Methodist activities in the months ahead.

1. Visit historic sites

As you plan the route of your spring break and summer road trips, include visits to historic United Methodist sites. We’ve compiled a couple of lists of some of our favorites (one | two), and United Methodist Archives and History has a comprehensive list. In certain areas, you may be able to plan a vacation that includes a visit to a historic United Methodist site every day.

2. Read

John Wesley may have considered himself “a person of one book,” but he was also a prolific writer and voracious reader. Grow your faith by reading good books, Wesley’s sermons, classics, histories, theologies, or whatever feeds your spirit. (You could also subscribe to an awesome podcast!)

3. Ride a horse

John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and every circuit-riding preacher in the early days of Methodism, traveled thousands of miles by horseback. Many were skilled enough to read and write while riding. Don’t emulate them while driving your car! Wesley even had a chamber horse—a riding simulator—in his London home to use when the weather was bad.

4. Serve somebody

Wesley encouraged Methodists to practice acts of compassion by serving someone. Go on a mission trip, volunteer at the local food bank, meet the needs of your neighbor, and reach out to someone you pass on the street. Serve Jesus by serving your neighbor (see Matthew 25).

5. Join a small group

Small groups are at the heart of United Methodism. The Methodist movement began not as a church, but as a collection of connected societies, classes, and bands (oh my!). These gatherings were places where Christians would “watch over one another in love.”

6. Enjoy a shared meal

Few things are more United Methodist than a shared meal, sometimes called a potluck supper or covered dish dinner. If you grew up in the church, you know the joy of sampling from a table filled with Crock-Pots and casserole dishes, then enjoying these favorite family recipes with your church friends. Consider hosting a shared meal in your home!

7. Stick to a budget

John Wesley gave some amazing advice for how we should handle our money: (1) make all you can, (2) save all you can, (3) give all you can. Make this the year you take control of your money, simplify, and live generously.

8. Stand up for another

Loving our neighbors includes working to right social wrongs that oppress them. Go to a rally. Write your government officials. Attend school board and town council meetings. Get involved in working for justice in your community, region, nation, and world.

9. Hold family devotions

John and Charles Wesley’s mom Susanna made special time for her children each week to mentor them spiritually. Some of John Wesley’s very first class meetings met on Thursday evenings, which was his time with Susanna as a child. Coincidence?

10. Join a committee

As United Methodists, we’re addicted to committees. Our congregations even have committees to form committees. While we joke about it, these are some of the best ways to get involved in your congregation, district, annual conference, and beyond. Serve your church by joining a committee.

11. Give to UMCOR

The United Methodist Church offers great opportunities to participate in ministries that serve people around the corner and around the world. Give to the United Methodist Committee on Relief on UMCOR Sunday (March 11, 2018) or anytime to help with their relief work.

12. Deepen your devotional life

Wesley said that two means of grace every Methodist should practice are “searching the Scriptures” and prayer. Find some helps from the Upper Room, Cokesbury, or elsewhere, to assist you as you listen for the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the Scriptures, and in prayer.

13. Eat spicy food

We cannot force an experience like the one John Wesley had near Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738. The best we can do is simulate it with a good, spicy meal that will give us a different kind of heartwarming sensation.

14. Tell your mom you love her

Although his dad was the pastor, John Wesley’s mom was probably the biggest influence in his life. Her spiritual leadership taught him to encourage women and men to lead in the Methodist movement. John often sought his mother’s advice. Other times, it was unsolicited—like her encouragement to use lay preachers—and her son followed anyway.

15. Write a hymn

Charles Wesley, John’s brother, wrote over 6,000 hymns in his lifetime! Surely, you and I can write one. Change the words to favorite tune to reflect a spiritual truth. It may not be publishable, but it can be something just between you and God.

16. Follow the rules

Following in the footsteps of John Wesley, we United Methodist like to follow rules. The very first societies were given three simple rules that we sometimes summarize as (1) do good, (2) do no harm, and (3) stay in love with God. It seems best if rules come in threes (see “Stick to a budget” above).

17. Attend worship every Sunday

Hearing the Bible read, joining our voice in song, hearing a sermon, receiving communion, and praying with others, are important ways we grow individually and together. Never miss an opportunity to worship.

18. Enjoy some coffee

Although John Wesley might disagree—he knew water was the healthiest drink—we United Methodists are known for our coffee consumption. Use the Sunday morning fellowship time before and after worship (even if you’re not a fan of coffee) to greet your neighbors and connect with your church family.

And if you are searching for a group of United Methodists to join you in trying these tips, you can always try the Find-A-Church tool. Have a terrific new year!

*Joe Iovino works for at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email or at 615-312-3733.

Unboxing God – Security Check

Line at Immigration CheckpointKey Bible Verse:   How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his methods! Romans 11:33

Bonus Reading:  Isaiah 40:13-14; 27-29

God isn’t limited by us, nor our predicaments.

I met a Hong Kong resident who’d arranged to take some Scriptures—contraband at the time—into China.  They were for pastors in a northern province who’d arranged to meet him in the southern city of Guangzhou.  He discreetly packed just over 100 Bibles into his suitcases.

But at the border, customs officials searched his bags.  They discovered and confiscated the Bibles but allowed him to proceed.  He checked into his Guangzhou hotel, discouraged at the prospect of the next day having to face pastors who’d traveled for several days to obtain these Scriptures.

That evening there was a knock on his door.  He opened to a European couple who told him they were Christians who’d been behind him at the customs checkpoint.  It so happened that they’d filled their bags with Bibles too, but the officials hadn’t searched them. 

Checking into their hotel, they received a message that the person for whom their Bibles were intended was unable to come.  While having dinner in the hotel restaurant, they’d spotted my Hong Kong acquaintance and followed him to his room. 

Could he use the 200 Bibles in their suitcases?

—Paul-Gordon Chandler in God’s Global Mosaic

My Response:  A time when God brought deliverance out of an apparent disaster was …

Thought to Apply:  God often takes a course for accomplishing His purposes directly contrary to what our narrow views would prescribe. —John Newton (slave trader, pastor)

Adapted from God’s Global Mosaic (InterVarsity, 1997)

Prayer for the Week:  Although You are beyond my comprehension, Lord, I long to know You better.  Give me a closer glimpse of Your glory.

New Year Prayer

Unboxing God – Beyond Me

Child Praying to GodKey Bible Verse:  “My thoughts are completely different from yours,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” Isaiah 55:8

Bonus Reading:  Isaiah 55:9-11

Psychiatrist Robert Coles asked a girl if she thought much about God.  It turned out Meaghan did. 

She reflected on a friend of her father, hospitalized with lung cancer.  She wondered aloud how a “God in heaven” can find the time to take note of each and every “Mr. Boyle” in this world of billions and billions of people.  “How can it be?” she asked Coles.  He admitted that he’d never been able to answer that question.

Well, she reflected, “I guess He’s not one of us!  He was, but then He went back to being God.  I guess if you’re God you know everything, but the way you know everything—it’s different.

In church they say we should pray a lot, and I try to remember … I think of Him, and I try to talk to Him.  I ask Him the same questions, like how He remembers everything.  You know what He says: ‘I just do!'”

Coles concludes, “At only 12 years of age she’d learned of His inscrutability; she’d also learned that ‘His ways are not ours’ …  He lives beyond the eyes and the ears, she told me, beyond the human mind—and she struggled to bridge that infinite distance with her imagined scenes of God in heaven, her provocative questions.”

—Timothy Jones in Nurturing a Child’s Soul

My Response:  Is my inability to fully comprehend God frustrating or reassuring?  Why?

Thought to Apply:  Dear God: Are you really invisible or is that just a trick? —Lucy (in Children’s Letters to God)

Adapted from Nurturing a Child’s Soul (Word, 2000)

Prayer for the Week:  Although You are beyond my comprehension, Lord, I long to know You better.  Give me a closer glimpse of Your glory.

Unboxing God – Sum and Substance

Church OrganistKey Bible Verse:  He lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him.  No one has ever seen him, nor ever will. 1 Timothy 6:16

Bonus Reading:  Acts 17:22-31

How could anyone possibly know the One who animates galaxies and energizes each atom?  Who are we to think we can comprehend a trillionth of this incredible power?  God is, in Anselm’s words, “That than which no greater can be conceived.”

As a youngster, I attended Bethel Congregational Church, where in every worship service, Mr. Blakeslee, the organist, sat front and center behind a soft burgundy curtain. I could glimpse only the back of his bald head. Somehow with my small eyes and ears watching and listening each week, I came to connect Mr. Blakeslee with God.  God played unseen music with hidden hands and a mysterious face.  Was he smiling or scowling?  I had no clue.  If I had chanced a guess based on the music, he’d be minor-chord prone, majestic, gloomy, and loud.

For many of us who’ve carried similar images into adulthood, God remains inscrutable and distant.  Is a grin playing on the lips, a tear moving, a glint of anger flashing?  We try to discern the face of the player by the music, but all we know is the back of a bald head.  We’re also curious: What is this musician like away from the instrument and the score?  Gentle?  Petty?  Vindictive?  Fun-loving?

—Chris Blake in Searching for a God to Love

My Response:  The mental picture I have of God is …

Adapted from Searching for a God to Love (Word, 2000)

Prayer for the Week: Although You are beyond my comprehension, Lord, I long to know You better.  Give me a closer glimpse of Your glory.

Unboxing God – This Is Dumb!

In‌vocation by PastorWho Said It…Steve Brown

Steve Brown is a broadcaster whose rich bass voice is a familiar sound to radio listeners on his Key Life Network.

He is also a seminary professor, teaching preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

Steve writes books, too. His latest is A Scandalous Freedom (Howard, 2004).  Prior to these pursuits, Steve served as a pastor for more than 25 years.

What They Said…Little Things

Many Christians know a lot about God but don’t know Him or how to apply their faith to their everyday situations.  Conversely, other Christians don’t know anything about God but have experienced Him and, like Apollos (Acts 18:24-28), need to know more accurately how and why God works.

When I was a pastor, I was offering an invocation at the beginning of the worship service.  For those liturgically uninformed, an invocation is where the pastor invites or “invokes” God to come to the worship service.  In the middle of the prayer, I realized that it was silly to invite God to come to a worship service.  He’s God and was already there.

So I stopped mid-prayer and told the congregation that praying for God’s presence was really dumb and that, from then on, I wasn’t going to do it.  I then started the prayer over and thanked God for being present in our service of worship and asked that we would realize and know His presence.

Adapted from Follow the Wind (Baker, 1999)

Prayer for the Week:  Although You are beyond my comprehension, Lord, I long to know You better.  Give me a closer glimpse of Your glory.

God’s Purpose Made Personal – Obeying Like Abraham

Abraham and the Stars of HeavenUr (near Nasiriya in modern Iraq) was the center of a flourishing pagan civilization in Abram’s day. Leaving its sophisticated commerce and culture for a nomadic existence made little sense.

But because Abram and his father, Terah, were unusually open to God’s revelation, God by stages revealed how they should respond to Him in true worship, and through them established a people of His own.

Interact with God’s Word

Genesis 11:27-12:8

  1. When God called Abram to move to a new land (12:1), do you think this was an abrupt summons or the transfer of direct guidance from father to son (11:31)?
  2. How had Abram positioned himself to receive God’s instructions?
  3. Do you agree with the portrayal in Monday’s reading of Abram as clueless about the direction in which he was being asked to move out?
  4. Did following God’s directions make life easier or more difficult for Abram?
  5. Could the comfort and security of your current situation make it difficult to respond to God’s plan for your life?
  6. How did God affirm Abram’s obedient steps of faith (12:7)?
  7. How did Abram create tangible reminders of God’s intervention in his life?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God to help you obey the guidance you already have received from Him, and make you responsive to further guidance as He reveals it to you.

Genesis 11:27-12:8

27 This is the history of Terah’s family. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran had a son named Lot.28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth.29 Meanwhile, Abram married Sarai, and his brother Nahor married Milcah, the daughter of their brother Haran. (Milcah had a sister named Iscah.) 30 Now Sarai was not able to have any children.31 Terah took his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarai, and his grandson Lot (his son Haran’s child) and left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. But they stopped instead at the village of Haran and settled there.32 Terah lived for 205 years[e] and died while still at Haran.

1 Then the LORD told Abram, “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.2I will cause you to become the father of a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others.3I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”4 So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

5 He took his wife, Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all his wealth—his livestock and all the people who had joined his household at Haran—and finally arrived in Canaan.6 Traveling through Canaan, they came to a place near Shechem and set up camp beside the oak at Moreh. At that time, the area was inhabited by Canaanites.7 then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “I am going to give this land to your offspring.[a]” And Abram built an altar there to commemorate the LORD’s visit.8 After that, Abram traveled southward and set up camp in the hill country between Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar and worshiped the LORD.

Prayer for the Week:  I want my life to count for you, Lord. Help me to discover and follow your best purpose for my life.

God’s Purpose Made Personal – Dinner Decisions

Adam and EveKey Bible Verses:  “You may freely eat any fruit in the garden except fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”  – Genesis 2:16-17

Bonus Reading:  Galatians 5:16-25

In the Garden of Eden, God was very clear to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:16-17 about His moral will.  But He also gave freedom of choice.

Imagine that Adam said to Eve, “I’m hungry.”

She responded, “Go get some fruit, and I’ll fix it up.”  So Adam picked some fruit and brought it back.

Eve said, “Which of these do you want me to fix?  I want to follow God’s will.  Would you go ask Him what I should do for supper?” So Adam goes out to talk to God and comes back.  Eve asks, “What does God want us to do?”

“He didn’t really say,” Adam answers.  “He just repeated what He told us before.”

Eve asks, “Did any of this fruit come from that tree?”


“So what should I make?”

“Well, let’s start off with cherries.”

“How should I fix them?  Should I slice them, dice them, mash them, bake them in a pie, make them into a cobbler, or just pull together a fruit salad?  I don’t want to do anything displeasing to God.  Be a sweetheart. Go back one more time to ask Him.”  So Adam goes back and returns. Eve asks, “What did He say?”

“Same thing.”

—James Emery White in You Can Experience … a Purposeful Life

My Response:  One decision I expect God will leave to my discretion is …

Thought to Apply:  There’s wide latitude within the limits of God’s will. We won’t feel cramped.—Vance Havner

Adapted from You Can Experience … a Purposeful Life (Word, 2000)

Prayer for the Week:  I want my life to count for you, Lord. Help me to discover and follow your best purpose for my life.


God’s Purpose Made Personal – Religious Roulette

LightKey Bible Verse:  Give me understanding and I will obey your law; I will put it into practice with all my heart. Psalm 119:34

Bonus ReadingJames 1:21-25

My friend and mentor Howard Hendricks often comments, “God didn’t give us the Bible to make us smarter sinners!”

The only reason God speaks to us is so that we might obey His voice.  We can expect to hear the Master’s voice only when we approach the Bible with a submissive mind.

John Ortberg illustrates the relationship between obedience and understanding with a story from his past.  “Guidance only makes sense for people who are resolved to respond.  Responding begins, of course, with obedience to God’s clear guidance from Scripture.  One of my college friends had been sexually involved with his girlfriend for two years.  As we neared graduation, he wondered about marriage.  ‘Is it God’s will for me to marry this girl?’ he asked.  My friend didn’t really want guidance.  He already had clear scriptural guidance about sexual behavior that he wasn’t the least bit interested in.  He just wanted to know if this girl was the Big Deal of the Day or if he should wait to see what’s behind Door No. 2.”

God only speaks to those who have a submissive mind.  As the saying goes, “Light obeyed brings light; light rejected brings night.”

—Robert Jeffress in Hearing the Master’s Voice

My Response:  What part of God’s known will do I need to respond to now?

Thought to Apply:  The plain fact is that not everyone who professes to seek guidance honestly desires to be guided into God’s will.—J. Oswald Sanders

Adapted from Hearing the Master’s Voice (WaterBrook, 2001)

Prayer for the Week:  I want my life to count for you, Lord. Help me to discover and follow your best purpose for my life.

God’s Purpose Made Personal – The Next Step

ProcrastinationKey Bible Verse:  How can we understand the road we travel?  It is the Lord who directs our steps. Proverbs 20:24

Bonus Reading:  Psalm 143:8-10

Worn out by a spell of sleepless nights, I sat down to figure out what was bothering me.  I jotted down four problems and realized I’d been paralyzed by procrastination.

None of my dilemmas had simple solutions, so I kept putting off dealing with them.  After writing them down, I asked a simple question about each one: “What little step can I take right now toward addressing this?”

One required a phone call.  With another I had to make a tentative decision.  The third problem needed a conversation.  The fourth was a matter of sitting down with my calendar.  I wasn’t able to tackle the whole of each problem at once, but I got off dead center by figuring out the next step.

My daughter and son-in-law are doing the same with their finances.  They started marriage with too much debt.  Now they’ve cut up their credit cards, reduced their spending, and started paying off their bills-beginning with the smallest.  Step-by-step they’re gaining ground.

We’re never sure what will happen a year from now.  But the next step is often more or less obvious.  So in facing any vexing problem, make up your mind to prayerfully take the next logical step by faith.

—Robert Morgan in The Red Sea Rules

My Response:  A next step I need to take now is…

Thought to Apply:  I have found that if we go as far as we can, God often opens up the rest of the way. —Isobel Kuhn (missionary to China)

Adapted from The Red Sea Rules (Nelson, 2001)

Prayer for the Week:  I want my life to count for you, Lord. Help me to discover and follow your best purpose for my life.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve Luminaries at Central Church

Merry Christmas to everyone from the kind folks of Central Church!

May knowing JESUS bring you

PEACE to bless each day,

HOPE for each tomorrow,

and JOY for every season.

Central Church’s doors decorated for Christmas

Our doors are open for you

Why not make a New Year’s Resolution to join us each Sunday for worship? 

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  – Luke 2:14


Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Central Church!


God’s Purpose Made Personal – Onboard Navigation

Abraham's FamilyKey Bible Verse:  “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you”   – Genesis 12:1

Bonus Reading:  Genesis 11:27-12:8

God made His will known to Abram in Genesis 12:1.

But did you notice what God left out? Where he was to go!  You can just imagine Abram saying, “So God, let me get this right. You want me to go?”

“Right,” God answers.

“Just go?  That’s it?  Not even a north, south, east, or west—just … go?   God says, “Yep, you go, and I’ll show the way.”

We don’t often think of God’s will coming that way.  But more often than not, that’s exactly the way He’ll operate. God’s will seldom comes in a final, finished package with everything from start to finish laid out for you.

What usually happens is that God’s will for your life will come bit by bit, step by step, unfolding as you follow Him in obedience and trust.

But that’s not all.  God also has a tendency to reveal His will to us to the degree that we have followed His will up to that point.

When Abram followed what he knew of God’s will, God gave him more knowledge.  God reveals Himself to those who not only want to know His will, but who’ll act on it.  The more we obey, the more He reveals!

—James Emery White in You Can Experience … a Purposeful Life

My Response:  If my long-term destination is unclear, how can I focus on my next step instead?

Adapted from You Can Experience … a Purposeful Life (Word, 2000)

Prayer for the Week:  I want my life to count for you, Lord. Help me to discover and follow your best purpose for my life.

12 Christmas Prayers

God’s Purpose Made Personal – Go with Which Flow?

Icebergs are classified by size and shape. Sizes can range from small bergy bits to large bergs with lengths of tens of kilometers. While Arctic icebergs do not reach the size of their AntArctic cousins, they can still present a formidable hazard.

Icebergs are classified by size and shape.  Sizes can range from small bergy bits to large bergs with lengths of tens of kilometers.  While Arctic icebergs do not reach the size of their Antarctic cousins, they can still present a formidable hazard.

Who Said It…Skip Heitzig

After troubled years as a young musician involved in the drug culture, Skip received Christ while watching a Billy Graham TV crusade.

After studying about his new faith, he began a home Bible study in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that grew into the 12,000-strong Calvary of Albuquerque!

After 23 years there, Skip last year moved to Ocean Hills Church in San Juan Capistrano, California.  Skip has visited world trouble spots with friend Franklin Graham.

What He Said…Go with Which Flow?

In the icy waters off the coast of Greenland are innumerable icebergs of varying size.  Even casual observation reveals that the small ice floes move in one direction while the massive ones flow in another.

The reason is simple.  Surface winds drive the little bergs while deep ocean currents move the larger ice masses along their routes.

Likewise, people carried by an awareness of God’s will for their lives are pulled by a deeper current than the surface winds of trends or societal pressures.

In what direction are you traveling?  What’s the purpose of your life?

If you’re like most people, you long to know that your life counts for something, that you have a purpose for being on earth. Everyone whom God calls has a purpose.  There’s a part of His program on earth that only you can fulfill.

One of life’s greatest pursuits is to discover what that purpose is and to live within its flow, even though you may feel as if you’re going against the cultural flow.

Adapted from Jesus Up Close (Tyndale, 2001)

Prayer for the Week:  I want my life to count for you, Lord. Help me to discover and follow your best purpose for my life.

Advent Devotional – Monday, December 25, 2017 – Three Christmas Presents

1 John 3:7–8Little 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



My favorite Christmas text puts humility at the heart of Christmas. So this Christmas I am marveling at Jesus’s humility and wanting more of it myself. I’ll quote the text in a moment. But first there are two problems. Tim Keller helps us to see one of them when he says,

“Humility is so shy. If you begin talking about it, it leaves.”

So a meditation on humility (like this one) is self-defeating, it seems. But even shy people peek out sometimes if they are treated well. The other problem is that Jesus wasn’t humble for the same reasons we are (or should be). So how can looking at Jesus’s Christmas humility help us? Our humility, if there is any at all, is based on our finiteness, our fallibility, and our sinfulness. But the eternal Son of God was not finite. He was not fallible. And he was not sinful. So, unlike our humility, Jesus’ humility originated some other way. Here is my favorite Christmas text. Look for Jesus’s humility.

Conclusion:  Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8)

What defines Jesus’s humility is the fact that it is mainly a conscious act of putting himself in a lowly, servant role for the good of others. His humility is defined by phrases like, “he emptied himself [of his divine rights to be free from abuse and suffering]”, “he took the form of a servant”, “He became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

So Jesus’s humility was not a heart disposition of being finite or fallible or sinful. It was a heart of infinite perfection and infallible truthfulness and freedom from all sin, which for that very reason did not need to be served. He was free and full to overflow in serving.

Another Christmas text that says this would be Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus’s humility was not a sense of defect in himself, but a sense of fullness in himself put at the disposal of others for their good. It was a voluntary lowering of himself to make the height of his glory available for sinners to enjoy. Jesus makes the connection between his Christmas lowliness and the good news for us: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

His lowliness makes our relief from burdens possible. If he were not lowly, he would not have been “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And if he had not been obedient to die for us, we would be crushed under the weight of our sins. He lowers himself to take our condemnation (Romans 8:3).

Now we have more reason to be humble than before. We are finite, fallible, sinful, and therefore have no ground for boasting at all. But now we see other humbling things: Our salvation is not owing to our work, but his grace. So boasting is excluded (Ephesians 2:8–9). And the way he accomplished that gracious salvation was through voluntary, conscious self-lowering in servant-like obedience to the point of death. So in addition to finiteness, fallibility, and sinfulness, we now have two other huge impulses at work to humble us: free and undeserved grace underneath all our blessings and a model of self-denying, sacrificial, servanthood that willingly takes the form of a servant. So we are called to join Jesus in this conscious self-humbling and servanthood.

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:5). Let’s pray that this “shy virtue”—this massive ground of our salvation and our servanthood—would peek out from her quiet place and grant us the garments of lowliness this Advent. “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5).


One of the main points of the book of Hebrews is that the Old Covenant system of worship is a shadow replaced by Christ. So Christmas is the replacement of shadows with reality. (You can see this in Hebrews 8:5 where it says that the priests “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.”)

Consider six such shadows that the coming of Christ replaces with reality:

1.   The shadow of the Old Covenant priesthood. “And the former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers, because they were prevented by death from continuing, but he, on the other hand, because he abides forever, holds his priesthood permanently” (Hebrews 7:23–24).

2.   The shadow of the Passover sacrifice. “Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

3.   The shadow of the tabernacle and temple. “Now 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). “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews therefore said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2:19–21).

4.   The shadow of circumcision. “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God”  (1 Corinthians 7:19).

5.   The shadow of dietary laws. “And he said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach and is eliminated?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18–19).

6.   The shadow of feast days. “Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17).


The meaning of Christmas is that the substance belongs to Christ. That is, religious ritual is like a shadow of a great and glorious Person. Let us turn from the shadow and look the Person in the face (2 Corinthians 4:6). My little children, keep yourselves from (religious) idols (1 John 5:21).

Thank you for sharing this Advent Journey with us. May God richly bless you and yours as you travel into 2018. Our prayer is that God would use these readings to deepen and sweeten your adoration of Jesus this December and keep him as the center and greatest treasure of your Christmas season. The candles and candies have their place, but we want to make sure that in all the Christmas rush and hubbub we adore Jesus above all. May God be the source of great joy.

A special Thank You to Christine Aley for putting this devotional together without her this devotional would not be possible.

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A Christmas Prayer

Advent Devotional – Sunday, December 24, 2017 – The Son of God Appeared

1 John 3:7–8Little 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.

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.


Advent Devotional – Saturday, December 23, 2017 – The Birth of the Ancient of Days

John 18:37Then 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.”

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.”


Advent Devotional – Friday, December 22, 2017 – Christmas Solidarity

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

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 bargaining. 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.


Advent Devotional – Thursday, December 21, 2017 – Christmas for Freedom

Hebrews 2:14–15Since 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.

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, fearless. 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 bondage to anxiety. If the Son has set you free, you shall be free, indeed!



Advent Devotional – Wednesday, December 20, 2017 – The Christmas Model for Missions

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

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.


Advent Devotional – Tuesday, December 19, 2017 – The Greatest Salvation Imaginable

Jeremiah 31:31 “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…”

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.


Advent Devotional – Monday, December 18, 2017 – God’s Most Successful Setback

Philippians 2:9–11“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.”

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.


Advent Devotional – Sunday, December 17, 2017 – Life and Death @ Christmas

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

As I was about to begin this devotional, I received word that a dear friends Mom had just died. She and her husband have been part of my life since I was a little kid. My friends Mom was 87. They had been married 64 years. When I spoke to my friends Dad 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.”

At Christmas time for some we have a deep feeling of loss of a loved one who has went on to be with the Lord. We miss them. 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 Homecoming.

All other homecomings are foretastes. And foretastes are good. Unless they become substitutes. Oh, 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 longing after heaven. Christmas. What is it but this:  I came that they might have life. Our loved ones who went before us, 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.


Advent Devotional – Saturday, December 16, 2017 – Making It Real for His People

Hebrews 8:6Christ 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.

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 glorious 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.


Advent Devotional – Friday, December 15, 2017 – The Final Reality Is Here

Hebrews 8:1–2Now 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.

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.


Advent Devotional – Thursday, December 14, 2017 – Replacing the Shadows

Hebrews 8:1–2Now 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.

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.


How long is the Christmas season?

Central Church’s Sanctuary Decorated for Christmas

Christmas is not just one day, but a season of twelve days from sunset Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) through Epiphany (Jan. 6).

The twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany, an even more ancient Christian celebration than Christmas, originally focused on the nativity, God’s incarnation (God made flesh) in the birth of Jesus Christ and Christ’s baptism.

Today, it commemorates the visiting of the Christ Child by the Magi (Wise Men) with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gift giving in some cultures extends throughout the 12 days of Christmas; elsewhere, gift giving is limited to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or Jan. 5 or 6.

See 12 creative, simple ideas to help celebrate the season.

Have questions? Ask the UMC. And check out other recent Q&As.

Advent Devotional – Wednesday, December 13, 2017 – Why Jesus Came

Hebrews 2:14–15Since 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 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!


Advent Devotional – Tuesday, December 12, 2017 – Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

Matthew 2:10–11When 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.

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.”



Advent Devotional – Monday, December 11, 2017 – Two Kinds of Opposition to Jesus

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

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 Gleaders 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 Devotional – Sunday, December 10, 2017 – Bethlehem’s Supernatural Star

Matthew 2:2 “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.”

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.



Advent Devotional – Saturday, December 9, 2017 – Messiah for the Magi

Matthew 2:1–2Now 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?”

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.


Advent Devotional – Friday, December 8, 2017 – Peace to Those With Whom He’s Pleased

Luke 2:12–14“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!”

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). O, 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.



Advent Devotional – Thursday, December 7, 2017 – No Detour from Calvary

Luke 2:6–7And 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.

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.



Preparing for Christmas: Tips for keeping the holiday season holy

“Are you ready for Christmas?” Whenever someone asks that question, my heartrate accelerates as I remember all the things yet to do. However, if we thought about Advent a little differently, our “getting ready” could be more of a holy time.

Most of us strive to “keep Christ in Christmas,” but the busyness has a way of encroaching upon our joy and worship. We might benefit from deciding to make time for some important activities as we get ready for Christmas.

Click on the image for some tips for keeping the holiday season holy:

Advent Devotional – Wednesday, December 6, 2017 – For God’s Little People

Luke 2:1–5In 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.

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.


Methodist History: The Salvation Army

The red kettles and ringing bells of The Salvation Army are a familiar part of the Christmas season.

Less familiar is the story of how this 165-year-old organization traces its roots to a British Methodist preacher who found his calling serving the poor.

Check out the video!