A Christmas Reflection

I recently read an article that claimed there are 948 names, or titles, for God throughout the Bible. As we enter into the Christmas season, one name of Jesus that is often emphasized is Immanuel, a Hebrew word that is literally translated, “God with Us”. 

Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold the birth of Jesus, using the name Immanuel: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).  

In the Old Testament there was detailed protocol and stringent requirements on how to approach God. The Holy Spirit would come upon people for temporary assignments, but would not permanently rest upon God’s children. Yes, there was a basic level of prayer and communion with God, but only the High Priest, once a year, could go into the Holy of Holies and enter into the manifest presence of Jehovah God while repenting for the sins of the nation of Israel.

Then Jesus stepped into time and space and everything changed. The Messiah who will one day rule the nations was born in a vilest of conditions and laid in a manger used to feed livestock for His bassinet. The One who created the universe and everything in it became a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34) and made Himself available and approachable to the world.

The omniscience of Jesus is simply mind-blowing to me.  Our closest family members aren’t always accessible or available when we need them.  The best of friends often can’t drop anything and everything and show up at a moment’s notice.  My wife Danielle, my best friend and partner, can’t answer the phone every time I call.  But the Christ of Christmas, Immanuel, is “God With Us”.  Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Jesus is as close as my next breath!

When Jesus was preparing to leave earth to go back to Heaven, He told His disciples (who were mourning the fact that He was about to depart),  “It is better for you that I go away: for if I go not away the Comforter will not come” (John 16:7). That’s such an odd thing for Jesus to say.  If I had a choice between Jesus and the Comforter (the invisible Holy Spirit), I would choose Jesus!  Jesus in the flesh. The Jesus you could see and touch and hear and smell. But Jesus knew that even when He was on earth, He could not always be in the physical presence of His disciples. There were times that Jesus withdrew by Himself to go pray or sent the disciples away on missions without Him. The Holy Spirit, however—the Spirit of Jesus—indwells God’s children permanently! There is never a moment when I’m alone and there’s never a time or a place where I can’t call on Him.

For the last few months I haven’t been able to listen to music in my car. Long story about how a body shop inadvertently damaged my back speakers while reassembling the bumper after my car got rear-ended.. and is now giving me the runaround about fixing them. Bottom line: I’ve been without the ability to listen to any music or talk radio in my car for the last three months or so. To help remedy this, I usually try to see who’s available to talk on the phone. If Danielle’s not available I might try a few friends. Many times, I find, there’s no one to talk to and I end up driving in silence.  Every once and a while, the reality will hit me that Jesus is in the car with me!  I can talk to Him and I can hear His voice anytime I choose to enter that realm of prayer and communion with Him. I’ve had some precious prayer times, praying out loud in the car, and I’m a little disappointed in myself that I’m not aware of His permanent indwelling more than I am.

My prayer over this Christmas season is that I would draw closer to Immanuel, God With Us, than I ever have before. I pray the same for you. Let’s remember that this season—and life, in general—isn’t about the presents but the Presence.  

I'm Getting Married on Friday!

It’s hard to believe that my wedding day is this coming Friday. In many ways I don’t think reality will set in for me until Danielle and I exchange vows later this week; the whole thing still seems like a dream!

As discombobulated as my thoughts are, I’m attempting to write a few words about this season in my life for a couple of reasons. First, to publically give God all the glory and praise that He is due for His love, mercy, and grace in bringing us together as husband and wife. Secondly, to encourage anyone who might be reading this—especially someone who might be going through a difficult season in life—that God is a God who gives us rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:19).

All of this is a total God thing and we realize and recognize that only He could have orchestrated this. Although He used a precious, mutual friend of ours to introduce us, He was the matchmaker. Danielle and I met one Sunday in church after I preached the morning message. While preaching, I remember seeing her beautiful, smiling face for the first time. Looking back, I am blown away at the significance of meeting her in God’s house—His Word and His presence being the foundation of this whole journey.

When we met, neither one of us had the prospect of dating on our radars. We’d both been in a season of healing from the collapse of our previous marriages and were both perfectly content being single parents for the next decade or two! The unfortunate circumstances of our divorces, we found, were strikingly similar. After several months of spending time together as friends, it became clearly evident that God was at work in a deeper way and I actually proposed to Danielle one year from the day that I met her.

There are so many unique fingerprints of Providence all over our story—way too many to mention. One that comes to mind is that from the time Danielle was a little girl she envisioned having four children. Specifically she dreamed of three boys and one girl and that two would be biological and two adopted. With the upcoming blending of our family, that’s exactly what God will be giving her!

Our four children are thrilled about Mommy and Daddy getting married. Our eight year old son Levi (the one we thought might struggle the most with the marriage only because he’s a little older) is the most excited of any of them!

Danielle, simply put, is extraordinary. It’s so cliché in Christian circles that I hate to use the term, but she really is a “Proverbs 31 woman”. Line by line, the verses in Proverbs 31 describe Danielle. She loves God more than she loves me. She’s a hard worker and she’s thrifty.  She’s my biggest cheerleader and encourager. She’s a phenomenal mother and she fiercely defends her family.

I’m very much aware that God hasn’t done all of this because I deserve it, or because I’ve been full of faith. In fact, during the rocking and reeling after the dissolve of my first marriage, I did less praying and Bible reading than I’ve done in years. It was the toughest season of my life and I didn’t know if the boys and I would make it.  In that dark, desert place when my world turned upside down, I engaged in very little spiritual activity or personal devotional time with Jesus. But thankfully I had an army of people praying for me when I couldn’t pray for myself. And I had the Holy Spirit praying through me when I couldn’t find the words to pray in English.

All of this is from God and is simply a direct result of His unmerited grace, mercy and love.

God says to His chosen people, Israel, “Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth: shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).  Maybe you’re in a desert place right now, but God is about to send a river of refreshing your way. I’m not sure what it will look like for you, or when it will happen for you, but God—in His sovereign way and His own time—will send His provision in the midst of your pain!

And they overcame… by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony – Revelation 12:11

Jesus' Last Words

The Bible tells us that Jesus didn’t immediately go to heaven after He rose from the dead. For forty days, Jesus spent time on earth in his resurrected, glorified body. During this time period, we see Jesus throughout the gospels appearing to the disciples to encourage and teach them.

Even after spending three years with Jesus, these disciples were thinking, hoping and wishing that Jesus would physically establish His kingdom then and there. He told them in Acts 1:7, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” He wanted them to focus on being His witnesses.

The very next thing He said to them Acts 1:8 would be His very last words on earth: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

If all God wanted from you was just to have a relationship with you, don’t you think He would have taken you to heaven immediately after you accepted Christ? We’ll be developing our intimate relationship with Christ throughout the endless age. The reason He left us here is because there is a Gospel to preach, a Jesus to proclaim, and Good News to tell to the world.

Jesus has called us in our personal lives to be faithful witnesses. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

When I was a college freshman, I had the opportunity to share Christ with a guy named Eric in my dorm who was an atheist. I truly sensed the Holy Spirit softening his heart. I explained to him that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian. Either creation came from nothing, or it came from something.

He began to follow that train of thought. I shared Gospel with him, and told him he could pray to receive Christ right there and then, and know he would be in presence of God for eternity, should he die in his sleep that night.

Tears welled up in his eyes, and I thought for sure this was the moment he was going to become a Christian. But he said, “Josh, I’m just not ready now.” I prayed with him anyway, and he went back to his dorm room.

I lay in bed for several hours beating myself up because he didn’t respond. I soon lost touch with him because I transferred schools at the end of the semester.

Sometime later, I was talking to a friend of mine involved in campus ministry, who mentioned that Eric was at a retreat that weekend.

Stunned, I asked my friend if this is the same Eric who lived on our hall as a freshman. He confirmed it, and told me that Eric had been given life to Christ, and was involved in campus ministry leadership.

It was through that phone conversation that God taught me that we’re not responsible for the harvest. Rather, we’re responsible for sowing a seed and being faithful to tell others.

We’ve all got one purpose and it’s to fulfill those last words of Jesus. Heed them as never before. They are vital.

The Greatest of These Is Love

Over the past number of years I’ve officiated quite a few weddings. In many of these ceremonies I’ve chosen—and been requested—to read from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter” in the New Testament. Love is patient, love is kind…

It really is a great passage of Scripture to read during a marriage celebration.  But the application of this text goes way beyond matrimony. The overarching message of the Bible and the central theme of the Gospel message is the incomprehensible love of God. And the identifying mark of believers should be that we, too, demonstrate this type of love to the world.

1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love is greater than hope. And it’s greater than faith. It tells us that love is greater than prophecy, or generosity, or speaking in tongues, or even martyrdom.

Galatians 5 says that the fruit of the Spirit is love. I read a theologian explain that since the Bible doesn’t say the “fruits” (plural) of the Spirit, but the “fruit” (singular) of the Spirit, that love is actually the only fruit of the Spirit.  The other eight attributes, (joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance) actually describe genuine love.

Jesus says that the entire law and the prophets can be summed up like this, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, soul and strength and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:38-40). Think about that!  Jesus is saying that the entire Old Testament can be paraphrased, “Love God and love people.”

I personally know people who can quote great portions and passages of the Bible but are mean as rattlesnakes. I know people who keep all kinds of rules and regulations in an attempt to be “holy” but they’re judgmental and legalistic.

Truthfully, it would behoove me to look in the mirror more regularly to see how I miss the mark and fail—so often—to love people like Jesus loves.

Join me this week in taking a hard look at how we’re doing in this area. The Bible says, “if you say ‘I love God’ but hate your brother or sister, you’re a liar” (1 John 4:20).  It’s so easy to say we love God, but the truth is we don’t love God any more than we love people. How we love people is how we love God. The ultimate way we express our love to God is by loving people. Co-workers. Neighbors. Family members. Friends. Strangers. And I’ve learned that sometimes it’s actually easier to demonstrate kindness, love and respect to strangers than it is to our closest family members or friends whom we tend to take for granted.

“It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.” – Billy Graham

Giving on Empty

In Matthew 14:13-14 we see that Jesus, having just heard that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded in prison, gets into a boat to set out for a “deserted place.” The crowd, however, figures out where he’s heading and actually beats him to the other side of the lake on foot. Instead of getting the space that He needs to mourn, grieve and reflect, He finds Himself thrust into a long day of ministry which culminates with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Jesus, in His humanity, was running on empty. He desperately needed quiet time alone. And yet the Bible says when He saw the crowd waiting for Him, He was “moved with compassion and He healed their sick.”  It’s hard to have compassion on other people, it’s hard to go out of our way to help other people, when we are running on empty. And yet I’m convinced that when we give out of our emptiness, God positions us for an overflow.

Check out this short message below that I preached a few weeks ago on this subject:

Despairing of Life Itself

The inimitable Apostle Paul is arguably the most fruitful minister of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to have ever lived. He was the greatest missionary the world has known. The most accomplished church planter in Christendom. He, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned two-thirds of the New Testament. This man, previously one of the greatest persecutors of the early church, became its greatest champion. It’s impossible to plumb the depths of Paul’s influence for the cause of Christ.

Many would be surprised to discover that this great man of faith battled depression…

In Second Corinthians 1:8 Paul says, “For we would not, brothers, have you ignorant of our troubles which came to us in Asia. We were pressured beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life.” The Apostle wants to make sure that he sets the record straight, just in case anyone happens to think that he is super-spiritual and never has a bad day; he says that there have been times when he has been so low he has despaired of life itself.

Other great men of God in the Bible identify with the Apostle Paul.  Job, a righteous man who“feared God and shunned evil” , exclaimed, one day, while in an indescribable season of pain, “cursed is the day I was born” (Job 3:1). The prophet Jeremiah said the same thing (Jer. 20:14).  The great prophet Elijah, who called fire down from heaven and performed all kinds of miracles, said to God one day,  “take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died” (1 Kings 19:4).  Some of these comments, from such spiritual giants, seem almost sound suicidal!

It’s noteworthy to see in Scripture that great, faith-filled people can still go through very dark, depressing times. And it doesn’t make them unspiritual.

I’ve walked through dark times and I’ve been through some valleys that seemed would go on forever. When I think about the valleys of life, the times when I’ve “despaired of life itself”, I’ve sometimes wondered why my loving Heavenly Father—who could stop the pain in a moment—allows it to go on. The Apostle Paul answers that question in the very next verse, “We had the sentence of death in ourselves, so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”

God knows that in order for us to experience the resurrection power of Jesus in our lives, we have to first identify in His death. In the same way that we die to ourselves and are raised to life in Christ when we experience salvation, He also allows us to experience this feeling of “despairing of life” so that we can fully identify with His suffering and also fully experience His resurrection power!

If you’re discouraged today, remember the words of Jesus, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Your comfort is proportional to your mourning!  If you’ve mourned a lot, your comfort—that beautiful, heavenly, supernatural comfort—will be that much greater than if you would have never been through those difficult times.

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4).

Questioning God

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated, Spirit-filled Christian than John the Baptist. He was a tough, rugged prophet whose sole mission and purpose was to point people to his cousin, Jesus, the Messiah. People flocked out into the desert to hear John the Baptist preach a gospel of repentance and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.

In light of John’s spirituality, it’s fascinating to hear him ask Jesus this question one day,  “Are you the one that should come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). 

John the Baptist, sitting in a prison cell, wrongfully accused, is having a crisis of faith. Have you ever been in a prison like that?  Maybe not physically, but in your mind?  Have you questioned God about why you find yourself in the place where you’re currently at?

Below is a short message on this topic from Matthew 11:4-6 that I preached last week.

My Roots and God's River

I’ve always loved weeping willow trees, especially ones right beside a body of water. Their sprawling branches with drooping clusters of green leaves rustling in a gentle breeze yields a serene type of scenery that I find breathtaking. Actually, I love pretty much any type of tree by a river bank! There’s just something calming about the combination of a tree and a river.

I came across a wonderful passage of Scripture recently that speaks to this very theme: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is in the LORD. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but it’s leaf will be green, and it will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).

The Bible says that trusting and hoping in God is kind of like a tree that’s planted by the waters. The root system beneath the tree is underground, invisible to the naked eye; but is drawing water, nutrients and sustenance from the river. In the same way, our “faith and trust” in the Lord is an internal, supernatural work of God’s Spirit that is often invisible externally. And yet faith and trust in God is like a root system that connects us with the River of Life.

Although a tree by the water is “separate” from the river itself, the root system underneath the ground connects the tree with the soil that’s being watered by the river. During a drought, when everything else in the vicinity is dry and brown, a tree planted by a body of water will continue to flourish and blossom. Likewise, there are times in life where it may look like and feel like we are far from God—separate—from Him; but the root system of faith and trust keeps us connected to the Living Water.

This passage says, “it will not be anxious in the year of drought.” Spiritually dry times are inevitable. Seasons in life when the bottom drops out and we don’t sense God’s presence are going to take place. But when we trust in God’s sovereignty (even when we don’t understand His ways), that root system of faith will bring us a peace that passes understanding.

I’m trying to envision myself as a tree beside a river this week! As I trust God and stand on His Word, I’m inviting my “roots” to suck in that Living Water. Whether I feel disconnected or not, the fact of the matter is that the Holy Spirit, the River that Jesus spoke of (John 7:38), eternally connects me with God’s heaven’s supernatural strength and sustaining power.

A Clean Conscience

A few weeks ago, my seven year old son Levi timidly walked into the living room several minutes after I tucked him in bed. His countenance was sullen and his head was down. When I asked him what was wrong, his lip started to tremble and his eyes got watery. It turned out that the previous day at school he received a not-so-great color on his behavioral chart. The problem is, he told me that his color for the day was green—satisfactory—when it was actually light green, which isn’t so great. Basically, he lied to me and was now coming clean.

My heart broke for him as he stood there, fearing the consequences. Instinctively, I gave Levi a big hug and let him know how proud of him I was for telling me the truth. Although I could have—maybe should have—scolded him for lying, I didn’t. Instead, I explained that what he felt was the Holy Spirit convicting him and moving upon his conscience to make things right and do the right thing.

In kids, the conscience is such a sensitive thing. Even young children, made in the image of God, know right from wrong and painstakingly feel the unsettling of the conscience when doing the wrong thing. Over time, however, the conscience can grow calloused by disobedience. Things that used to make us feel guilty no longer bother us. Sins that the Bible clearly warn against can be justified once, then twice, and before long, they don’t even bother us anymore. The word of God speaks of people “whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2).

The conscience is a precious gift from God. Paul pleads with his young son in the faith Timothy to keep a clear conscience, “Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked” (1 Timothy 1:19). Although our eternal salvation is secure in Christ, because of the finished work of Christ alone, our faith –our walk of faith on this earth—can be shipwrecked by repeatedly violating our God-given conscience.

I don’t want my faith walk to be shipwrecked—immobilized—by slowly allowing and accepting things into my life that violate God’s standards. I realize how easy this is to happen. Let’s take inventory of what we are allowing into our spirits. What are we giving permission to stay that needs to go?  Like Levi, who couldn’t go to sleep because of lying to me, I want to be clean before my Father in heaven. Amid the challenges of life that are beyond our control, there is nothing more peaceful than laying our heads on the pillow at night with a pure conscience before our Heavenly Father.

Easter Earthquakes

Probably five years ago, a small earthquake shook my house in Charlotte, NC. It was only a slight tremor that lasted a couple of seconds—no damage was done—but since these things don’t typically happen in North Carolina, it was a bit unnerving. Obviously, earthquakes can be catastrophic. The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, where I serve, had teams of chaplains in Haiti ministering for several years after the horrific earthquake of 2010. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives and the already poverty stricken country has yet to recover.

Earthquakes are usually very troubling occurrences; devastating natural disasters.

In Matthew 27, we see that there were actually two supernatural earthquakes that took place during Holy Week. One earthquake took place when Jesus died on the cross. After he gasped for His last breath on Good Friday, the Bible says there was a great earthquake and many tombs were opened (verse 52). Then, early on Easter Sunday morning, there was another earthquake when Jesus rose from the dead.  During this earthquake, many saints—believers—also rose from the same graves that had been opened on Good Friday!  They then went throughout Jerusalem testifying about the resurrection of Jesus.

There were two earthquakes during Holy Week and there were two resurrections: the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the saints. We focus on the resurrection of Christ during the Easter season, and rightfully so, but it’s important to remember that the only reason Jesus was raised from the dead (and died on the cross) is so that we could be raised from the dead! Because of what Jesus did through His death, burial, and resurrection, we have the assurance we will live for eternity with Him in Heaven. Hallelujah!

Matthew 27:52 says, “many godly people were resurrected.” Another translation says, “many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” Even after we become a part of God’s family by grace through faith, we can I’m realizing that we can “fall asleep” spiritually. It’s so easy to just go through the motions, subtly succumbing to the illusion that this present life is our top priority. It’s so easy to forget to “set our affection on things above not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1).

I pray that each of us as followers of Jesus would take a spiritual inventory this week. Do we need a personal earthquake that will shatter the chains of complacency that so easily bind us? Do we need a resurrection of our passion to share the good news of Jesus with those that don’t know Him personally? Let’s invite the Risen Christ to do a deep, abiding work in each of us during this Holy Week.

The Wilderness

I’m currently in the process of planning an outdoor trip with a couple of my old college roommates later this spring. The idea is to take a long weekend in the mountains of Western North Carolina, kayak down the French Broad River, and stop along the way overnight to camp. I’m pretty excited about it but I also know that at the end of the weekend I’ll be ready for a hot shower and my own bed. Three days in the wilderness will be plenty for me.

The Bible says that Jesus spent forty days out in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil before beginning His earthly ministry. Luke 4:1 puts it this way,  “Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”  Wow!  Usually when we hear of someone being filled with the Holy Spirit in the Bible we then read that they went on to do some great exploit for God. Like Peter, on the day of Pentecost; he was filled with the Spirit and then preached a sermon where three thousand people were converted. But here, Jesus was filled with the Spirit, and was then led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

The wilderness (spiritually speaking) isn’t a fun place to be. It’s dry, barren and lonely. It’s often hard to hear the voice of God in the wilderness and it usually feels like you’re walking in circles—moving, but not really going anywhere. And yet throughout the Bible we see a continual theme of God sending His choicest servants into the wilderness:

Abraham was told to leave everything familiar to him and go to a land that God “would” show him.

Jacob was out in the wilderness, on the run from his brother who was trying to kill him, when God showed up in a visions of the night.

Moses had to spend forty years in the desert, tending sheep for his father-in-law, before he was ready to go back to Egypt to emancipate the Israelites.

David spent the prime years of his life out in the wilderness, fleeing from King Saul, before he ever obtained the throne.

Elijah, a prophet whose life was characterized by miracles, signs and wonders, spent time out in the wilderness, drinking from a brook that God provided and was fed by ravens that God.

Paul the Apostle, after his conversion, spent an extended amount of time in the desert of Arabia before embarking on his evangelistic ministry.

If you feel like you’re in the wilderness today—if you can’t feel God’s presence and you feel like you’re walking in circles—be encouraged! You’re in good company.  You’re not in the wilderness because you’re outside of God’s will; you’re in the wilderness because you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit! Luke 4:14 says that after Jesus left the wilderness, He “returned in the power of the Spirit.” This wilderness experience will equip you and empower you for a more effective and prosperous future and ministry than you would have ever experienced apart from it.

“Behold I do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”  Isaiah 43:19

The Gospel

The only reason for my existence is to have a personal relationship with God. Many of us who grew up in the church have heard this statement, crafted a thousand different ways, and are quite numb to it. But it’s the bottom line of why we are on earth. God desires to have a deep, intimate relationship with each member of the human race.

Before anything was, there was God. Before angels had been created to sing His praise or a universe was formed to display His power, there was just God. Only God. He was solitary and self-sufficient within Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And although there was perfect, harmonious fellowship within this Triune God, a decision was made to form the earth and to create the human race: men and women made in His image. God didn’t need to create humanity because He was lonely; He created us because it pleased Him to do it. He deeply desired for us to experience a personal relationship with Him for eternity.

The human race chose to rebel—sin—against God. Sin is such a horrible offense in the sight of this Holy God that the only way it can be judged is by death. And because God is holy and cannot tolerate sin in His presence, the only way for it to be judged is by eternal death—separation—from Him in a place called hell. Although God would have been perfectly justified in His holiness to allow the entire human race to be sentenced to eternal death, He loved the world so much that He sent Jesus Christ to die for the sins that we deserved to die for. Now, through what Jesus did on the cross, God redeems His children back to Himself by grace through faith.

A number of years ago I stumbled across a headline about a middle-aged lady who went skydiving for a milestone birthday. As she and her instructor jumped tandem out of the airplane, there was a major malfunction in the parachute. The first chute didn’t deploy and then the reserve got tangled up with the first one. At around 500 feet before impact, the instructor heroically rotated the control toggles to position himself underneath the woman so he was the one who crashed into the ground at around 60 miles per hour. He survived, but was severely injured in the process. Afterwards, in total shock, the lady made a profound statement over and over, “he broke my fall.”

That’s exactly what Jesus has done for each of us. We were like that lady: spiraling downwards towards our death and destruction. But since God loved each of us too much to leave us in that condition, He sent Jesus, from heaven, to “break our fall” on the cross. Whereas we deserved to die, He died in our place. And three days later God raised Him from the dead. By turning from our sins, and believing the Gospel, we are given the assurance that we will spend eternity with God in heaven.

The word Gospel means “good news.” The best news you’ll ever hear today is “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In the midst of the ups and downs of life, the reality of the Gospel message reminds us that this world is not our home! 

God and Money

During my first year as a church planter and pastor I didn’t preach on financial giving very often and on the few occasions I did, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. For one thing, I felt like preaching about money was a turn-off to non-believers, visitors, or people that might be new in the faith. I get borderline nauseous when I hear televangelists begging for money while promising health and wealth for all who give; I can only imagine what non-Christians think of such things. Furthermore, I was concerned that it might sound self-serving if I, as the pastor, pounded the pulpit about the importance of giving to the church since, after all, part of the money in the offering plate went towards my salary.

But then I remembered that Jesus Himself talked about money and possessions more than He did about heaven and hell combined. So I started teaching on it more. Jesus actually taught that how we manage our money is the ultimate indicator of priorities and spirituality. It’s the litmus test that reveals who you really trust—God, or yourself. I realized the tremendous disservice I was doing by neglecting to teach and preach on this subject. And I realized that I was actually robbing people of the blessing of God by not teaching on the principle of tithing.  

I believe that tithing (giving 10% of our income back to the Lord) is a part of God’s covenant relationship with His children. Certainly, tithing isn’t required for salvation—we are saved only by grace and through faith. But after we come into relationship with God through Christ, it’s assumed that we will tithe in order to walk fully in God’s blessing and favor. It’s for our benefit!

Some argue that tithing was only part of the Old Testament law and that now, as new covenant believers, we are no longer expected to tithe. The problem with this logic is that tithing actually predates the Mosaic law by some 400 years. Abraham tithed. Jacob tithed. Jesus, in the New Testament, says we should tithe (Luke 11:42).

In fact, the only time God ever says “put me to the test” is in reference to this thing called tithing!  God owns the whole world and everything in it. But as we, His children, have the privilege to manage what He has given us, He says that the first tenth, the “first fruits”, should go back to Him. He emphatically promises, “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in My house, and prove Me now herewith, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such a blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it” (Mal 3:10).

The thought of giving ten percent of your income back to God might put a knot in your stomach. That’s understandable. But if you’re not giving back to God financially, I encourage you to start somewhere. Not because God needs it (He owns it all) but for your benefit! Designate a percentage of your income to give back to God and make it your goal to incrementally work up to ten percent—and then maybe even exceed ten percent!  God will be honored. You’ll be happier. And you’ll embark on an adventure of faith and trust with Him that will never cease to amaze you.

Are you feeling a bit disconnected spiritually today? Try giving! Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” The more of our treasure we send up to heaven, the more heaven’s presence will overflow in our hearts!  It truly is more blessed to give than receive. I’ve seen it over and over again in my own life: you can’t out-give God!

Talk To Yourself

I work with an awesome lady who happens to talk to herself quite often. She used to sit in the cubicle right beside mine. Until I got used to it, I’d hear her say something and find myself regularly responding, “Excuse me, Martha?” before I realized that she wasn’t talking to me, she was talking to herself!  Martha is well aware of this practice and freely laughs about it.

The truth is we all talk to ourselves. I often catch myself talking audibly in the car on my way home from work. Even for those of us who may not talk to ourselves out loud, there’s that inner self-talk that we engage in on a daily basis.

In Psalms 42-43, David goes a step beyond typical self-talk and actually speaks directly to his soul. Three times in these two chapters we read the same words,  “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”  It’s one thing to mutter a few words to yourself, in frustration, or to help you remember something. It’s quite another to take a time out and specifically have a conversation with your own soul to get to the bottom of what’s going on with your perspective in life.

David finds himself in a terrible predicament as he writes these words. Many scholars believe that David wrote these words after his beloved son Absalom had turned on him and usurped the throne, which forced David to flee the palace and dwell in the wilderness while trying to sort things out. He had every reason to be discouraged and depressed. But in the middle of this funk, he made a decision to start talking to himself!

Are you down in the dumps today?  Maybe it’s a health challenge, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, a financial crisis. We’ve all had challenges that have left us in a deep, dark pit. We all have days where we wake up depressed because of a current struggle. I’m so grateful that we have the example of David in Scripture: a man who refused to stay there. A man who talked to himself and encouraged himself in the Lord.

In the same way that the worlds were framed by the word of God (Hebrews 11:3), our own world is often framed—built upon—what we talk about. Although it may seem silly or even insignificant to talk out loud to your soul, God’s word always builds our faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). If you’re discouraged today, I challenge you to talk to your soul like David did! It certainly can’t hurt and it might just transform the way you go through this day.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21)

Sorrow is Better Than Laughter

Throughout the Bible, there’s a continuous exhortation to be joyful and there’s also an assumption that the child of God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, should be the happiest of all people on earth.

The Bible has a great deal to say about laughter and joy. Scripture teaches that the “joy of the Lord is our strength” (Neh. 8:10), that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Prov 17:22), and that “a glad heart makes a cheerful face” (Proverbs 15:13).  Jesus said that He came to give us “life more abundantly” (John 10:10).

I was honestly surprised to stumble across Ecclesiastes 7:3 a few months ago. On the surface, it seems like a downright contradiction to the overall the witness of Scripture pertaining to the preimminence of joy, laughter and happiness:

“Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better.”

Wait, what? When I first read this I did a double-take! I thought I’d read it incorrectly. How can sorrow be better than laughter? How can a sad face make the heart better? And yet the truth of God’s Word is very plain: short term sorrow can produce long term joy. The Apostle Paul says, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight in glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

When my own personal world turned upside down some time back, well-meaning friends encouraged me to “just move on and be happy.”  Understandably, it’s not healthy to wallow in grief indefinitely. And yet I learned in the valley of affliction that there’s actually healing in the process of grieving. Jesus says, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In other words, if you don’t mourn and grieve properly, you won’t be healed.

If you feel unspiritual because you’re in a season of grief, take heart. Allow yourself to grieve. Don’t rush the process of God at work in your life. Your season of sadness will yield a greater season of joy than you could have ever experienced without the pain!

“The suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us..” – Rom 8:18

The Fear of the Lord

Last week I wrote a blog post focused on the promise of Psalm 33:18: “Behold the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him.” While the message last week centered on the concept of “God’s eye”, I want to focus today on the notion of the fear of the Lord. What does it really mean to fear God?

Proverbs 14:26 declares, “In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence.” At first glance, this is appears to be an oxymoron, a paradox. Since fear and confidence are opposites, it just doesn’t seem logical that fear can actually produce confidence. Or does it?

When I used to travel frequently for work, I spent a good bit of time on airplanes and in airports. I did my fair share of people watching and regularly observed people who were anxious in airports. Anxious as they tried to get upgraded to first class and got placed on the waiting list. Annoyed that their oversized bags (that they thought were approved carry-on size) had to be checked, and anxious that they’d lose their luggage in the process. Anxiously waiting in the slow-moving security line, fearing they’d miss their flight. Anxious about seat assignments, the temperature on the plane, babies crying in the row behind them. Anxiety in airports and airplanes is rampant!

But for the person who fears flying—the person with a true phobia of air travel—all of the aforementioned “problems” are not even on the radar!  The person with flight-phobia is only thinking one thing: somebody get me off this plane because we are about the crash and I’m gonna die! The primary fear of flight itself replaces any secondary fear or anxiety associated with air travel that might surface.

When God’s Word says that “In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence”, it means that when we fear God, nothing else or no one else can intimidate us! The primary fear (the fear of the Lord) has replaced secondary fears (our circumstances). 

To fear God doesn’t necessarily mean to be afraid of Him, either. A few years ago I got my motorcycle endorsement so I could ride my dad’s Harley. I’m not scared of motorcycles. If I was, I wouldn’t even get on one. But I do fear them. I have a healthy respect, fear, for the bike; I realize and respect the power it holds and the danger that is possible every time I mount it. And it’s the same way with the fear of the Lord. We reverence Him and respect Him as the all-powerful God in whom we live and move and have our being. When we recognize that we can’t take another breath without God and that we can’t take another step without His help, and that He alone is in charge of it all, then we can confidently face any trial that comes our way!

God's Eye

Theology—the study of God—is nothing more than man’s feeble attempt to wrap his mind around the infinite God of the universe. Two doctrinal concepts about God that continue to stump me are His omniscience and His omnipresence. The omniscience of God means that He is all-seeing; His omnipresence speaks to the fact that He is everywhere-present. There’s nowhere that God isn’t and there’s nothing that He doesn’t see.

Here’s a bewildering thought: multiplied thousands, maybe millions, of His children are calling out to Him in prayer at this very moment and God listens to and engages with each one like they have a private audience with Him! God is not limited to time or space; He exists apart from and outside of them.

The Psalmist says in Psalm 33:13, “the Lord looks from heaven; he sees all the sons of men.” God is aware of and attentive to every single person under the sun: what they’re wearing, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, planning, dreaming. A few verses later, in the same psalm, David goes on to say, “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him” (33:18).

Something to think about: there’s a difference between merely seeing something and having your eye on something.  In high school, you saw everyone in the classroom, but your eye was on—stayed on— the person you had a crush on.

I was at Chick-fil-A a few weeks ago with my boys and we ate outside in the playground area. After the same old constant threatening that they won’t be able to play on the slides unless they eat their lunch first, they finally finished enough food for me to grant them access to the playground equipment. The place was packed with young children and parents; it seemed everyone was taking advantage of the unusually warm winter weather. 

While sitting at the picnic table that day, I physically saw all of the children. I heard all of them laughing and squealing and I was aware of their presence. But I had my eye on only two. Mine.  I had my ears perked for their voices alone. I wanted to make sure they were safe, secure, accounted for. Of course, if one of the other children had a crisis on the playground, I would do anything I could to help. But my primary focus was Levi and Jed.

I think that’s the message here in Psalm 33. God made all of humanity in His image. He’s aware and concerned about every living soul on earth. He loves each and every one of us so much that He sent Jesus to die for us so that we would have the opportunity to be with Him forever in heaven, adopted into His family. But His eye is on His children that fear Him. His special gaze rests on those that respect and revere Him and aim to please Him above all. His affection and attention is locked in on those who realize their utter helplessness without Him.

Our salvation isn’t tied to anything we do; it’s all in what Jesus has done for us. But the blessing and favor of God—the eye of the Lord resting on us—is inextricably linked to our fear of the Lord.  I don’t know about you but I don’t want God to just see me, I want His eye on me today.

 

Don't Talk About It

No matter how dramatic your own personal faith story may be, it’s probably not as impressive as the Apostle Paul’s. A Pharisee, on his way to persecute Christians, knocked off his horse, blinded by a light from heaven, the Lord Jesus physically appearing to him, scales falling off of his eyes three days later, a mandate to be the pioneer apostle to the Gentiles…. Pretty hard to top! 


In the first chapter of Galatians, Paul says something pretty interesting about what he did right after this larger-than-life conversion experience and calling to the ministry:  “Immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood” (Gal 1:16). The New Living Translation puts it this way, “Immediately I didn’t consult with any human being.” 


Many Christians would actually look at this decision as downright irresponsible! Many “mature, seasoned believers” would caution someone with such a sensational testimony and spiritual experience to “run it by some people”. Or to get some “godly counsel”. Or to get some balanced advice from trusted spiritual leaders. But Paul knew that his mandate from God was so real and so personal, that he just couldn’t risk telling anyone else right away. 


I wonder how many God-given dreams and visions have died because we were so quick to rush out and get other people’s opinions about them.  I wonder how many God-anointed ambitions were squelched because we listened to faithless, pessimistic input from others. God’s Word indeed says, “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14), but before we run to others for suggestions or advice, we’d be so much better to run to God for confirmation, first. 


Our natural tendency is to seek out our friends and family members for suggestions when we find ourselves in a dilemma. Before we know it, we’ve asked ten different people and we’ve gotten ten different answers and we’re more confused than we were before we asked anyone’s opinion! Why not, instead, go to the only One who can do anything about it? The only One who knows all about it? 


Years ago my pastor said something that’s stuck with me ever since,  “when trouble strikes, instead of running to the phone, run to the throne.” 


Paul eventually went up to Jerusalem to get counsel from Peter and the other Apostles (1:18), but not before first going to the Arabian desert to get alone with God. Let’s never forget the importance of making time each day to get alone with God. Praise God for spiritual friends and wise counsel. But let’s not start there. Instead of “conferring with flesh and blood”, let’s make prayer our first option rather than our last resort!


“I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27).
 

Unplugged


Sometime within the past year or so (I can’t even remember when or where) I saw an object from antiquity: a pay phone! My son Levi who was with me at the time had never seen anything like it and looked perplexed as I tried to explain to him that this gargantuan device in a glass booth was actually a phone. In his short seven years on earth he’s never seen a phone other than an iphone or android; possibly an old flip phone when he was a toddler. 


Smart phones are an unbelievable blessing. They’re such an incredible tool and resource. In our pockets and purses we carry around compact, handheld devices that can connect us to anyone or anything on the planet in a moment. Anyone can reach us at any time. Any information we need can be accessed in a matter of seconds through the internet on our phones. Long gone are the days when we were billed by the minute and cell phones were used for emergencies—ten minutes rarely go by when we’re not emailing or texting or scrolling facebook.


Modern technology is a wonderful instrument; but it can also be a ball-and-chain that shackles you to the illusion that “staying connected” is obligatory or even necessary. 


Jesus says to His disciples in Mark 6:31, “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest’”(NIV). 


Jesus and the disciples, constantly in the spotlight and consistently being approached for healing and help and handouts, found themselves on many occasions not even having a chance to enjoy something as basic as having a quiet meal. Although Jesus and the twelve disciples inexhaustibly poured themselves into the lives of others, the Lord knows that—for our sanity—there is a time when we have to unplug from the clamor of the crowd.


How much greater the noise of “the crowd” in 2017?  The crowd on our social media pages? Or round- the- clock emails from work? Or texts that expect an immediate response? How much more do we need to hear those words of Jesus, “come away by yourself to a quiet place and rest for a while.” 


I’m learning that it’s not a sin to not return a text message right away. I’m learning that I’m more addicted to social media scrolling than I want to admit. I’m learning that it’s OK to let the phone go to voicemail. And I’m learning that it’s entirely up to me whether my iphone is a blessing or a curse.


I’m also realizing that when I live with the self-imposed pressure to stay connected to other people, I, by default, disconnect with God. God designed us to be in relationships, yes. But He also wired us for rest and for solitude. When we don’t regularly step back from the noise, our spiritual equilibrium gets thrown off.


As counter-cultural as it is and as much as it goes against our natural proclivity, let’s try to unplug every now and then. If it means scheduling days away from social media or setting boundaries and times when we’re unavailable to pick up the phone, let’s do whatever it takes to prioritize seasons of silence and solace! 


There remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God..” (Hebrews 4:9) 

 

Whatever Seems Good and Convenient

Often God calls us to tasks that are challenging and leads us in directions that are painstakingly difficult. Jesus doesn’t guarantee His children a life of convenience and ease—He actually promises us that we will have trouble in this life (John 16:33). God consistently drives us to do things that are beyond our ability to do, so that when the victory comes we will know that it was only because of His power at work in us and not due to anything that we could have achieved on our own.


A few months ago I was really struggling with a decision I needed to make. I was having a hard time getting any direction from God and so out of exasperation I opened up my Bible and muttered a prayer under my breath, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to me through whatever verse I landed on (not always a great idea, I’ve learned).  The verse I “randomly” turned to was Jeremiah 40:4, “See, all the land is before you; wherever it seems good and convenient for you to go, go there.” 


I think I sometimes assume that if I’m given two options, God would have me choose the one that will require the most faith—the hardest, most challenging. After all, God never promises me that life will be convenient or easy. The convenient choice can’t possibly be spiritual, right? It’s almost like I’ve equated convenience with compromise. 


But, shockingly (to me), here in Jeremiah 40, the prophet was told explicitly to do whatever seemed good and convenient! 


A bit of context: it wasn’t the Lord Himself who spoke these words to Jeremiah, it was actually the captain of the Babylonian guard, serving King Nebuchadnezzar. And yet the Babylonian king freed Jeremiah from captivity and God prophetically spoke through his unbelieving military leader about the options that Jeremiah now had at this point. He could go on to Babylon or he could remain in Israel. He could choose to do whatever seemed good and convenient to do. And that’s exactly what Jeremiah did.


Yes, this life of faith is all about risks and challenges. It has its fair share of valleys and trials and tribulations. But every once in a while you will find yourself at a crossroads where the Holy Spirit says, in essence, “don’t make this too spiritual. Don’t overly think it. Don’t stress and fret and worry you’re going to make the wrong move. The whole land is before you. Move in any direction you want to.”


If your back is up against the wall today…


If you feel pressured to make a choice and you don’t know which one to choose..


If you don’t know which way to turn.


Maybe God is saying to you right now that you just need to do whatever seems good and convenient. Just keep moving forward. Even if it turns out to be the wrong choice we serve a God who can—and will—turn it around for His glory and our good!