The Ones Jesus Didn’t “Save”

“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 (KJV)
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This is probably the most well-known verse in the Christian Bible. It has given hope to millions, as it explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ allows anyone to find forgiveness, faith, and new/eternal life. But what about those who don’t believe; those loved ones (and others) who die without the hope of salvation? Doesn’t God care about them? Why does he let them die without hope? Why do they go to eternal suffering, instead of being forgiven?

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I can’t give a complete answer to those questions…I don’t comprehend the entirety of God’s plan or His mind. But I do know this– God understands our heartbreak and our grief over our unsaved loved ones. After all, Jesus spent three years preaching and announcing the Gospel, yet He was betrayed by one of His closest friends. Jesus– God in the Flesh; Emmanuel; the Perfect Son of God–didn’t “save” everyone He knew. We have the wonderful story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus– what about others who didn’t “see the light?” There may have been hundreds, even thousands who heard Jesus preach; who watched Him hanging on the Cross; who heard the rumors that He had risen, only to reject His message–what about them? Jesus had met them. Maybe He had healed them, or eaten at their house, or studied with them at the Temple when they were younger. Some may have been His brothers, or cousins, or mentors and teachers.

On the night before He was crucified, Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish about what He would have to face, but some of His anguish and grief had to be in knowing that, while His death and resurrection would save so many, there were still others who would choose to turn away and reject the Life and Hope and Peace that He suffered to bring.

Even during His ministry, Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was diseased or lame or blind. He even made reference at one point to the kinds of disasters that often leave us questioning God’s mercy:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

Jesus could have “saved” those Galileans from having their sacrifices desecrated; He could have provided a miracle to save those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam. And just as we grieve today for the senseless loss of life in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, or New York City on 9/11/2001, Jesus felt the loss of innocent strangers. Just as we plead with friends and loved ones to repent and seek God’s face, Jesus preached the need for all people to confess and seek forgiveness.

Jesus could have forced Judas to turn from his plan to betray the Master. He had the authority to cast out demons and demand that angels come to honor, protect, or comfort Him. He has the authority to make every knee bow down and every tongue confess that He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. And someday, He will! But Jesus won’t save people against their will– even those close to him. He doesn’t compel grudging obedience, or demand abject servitude. There are some who choose to serve Him in that way, but that is not His desire. Instead, He compels us with His mercy. We choose to love Him because He first Loved us– sacrificially, unreservedly, without limits or conditions. (See 1 John 4:19)

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Jesus patiently spoke to Nicodemus in the dead of night. He chased Saul down on the road to Damascus and gave him three days of blindness to reconsider the direction of his life. He called His disciples and asked them to Follow Him– even Judas. He invited Himself to the house of Zacchaeus. He spoke with compassion to those who were broken, and outcast, and lost. And just like Judas, they had to make choices– some of His friends and followers abandoned Him when He needed them most. Some of them stumbled. But they HAD followed Jesus. They had learned from Him, and they came back and persevered.

Being loved by God comes without conditions and without reservations. Being “saved” by Christ’s atoning blood comes with a price–not just the price He paid on the cross, but the price of our repentance and acceptance of His Lordship, and yes, even the mysteries of His Grace.

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As Jesus hung on the Cross, He was positioned between two convicts who were justly condemned. Both were sinners; both were paying the penalty for their crimes. One cried out to a dying Savior, and was saved. The other mocked and cursed. Jesus had the power to save him. He did not desire that the other man should suffer. But the other man chose to reject who Jesus was, and so rejected all the mercy and power He could have shown.

Jesus died to save “whosoever” would believe. He did not die to save “howsoever.” We may not fully understand why He chose to offer Salvation in this way, but we believe it to our everlasting joy, or reject it to our everlasting anguish.

No Greater Love…

This coming Monday we will be celebrating Memorial Day in the U.S. It is a day to remember those who gave their lives in battle, defending our nation, our people, and our way of life over the course of almost 250 years. We decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags and plaques honoring their sacrifices. It is a strange sort of “holiday.” We don’t like to think of wars and battles– we ache for those who are terrorized by wars in the current days. We don’t celebrate war and violence– our highest goal is to achieve and preserve peace and safety. And it can seem somewhat morbid to “celebrate” the fallen soldiers of bygone days.

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But we are not celebrating their deaths. We are celebrating the causes for which they fought and died. We celebrate freedom, and justice; the rights of individuals to pursue liberty and fulfill their dreams. These are causes worth fighting for, and yes, even dying for. We mourn the loss of life, and we grieve the necessity of fighting and struggling to preserve basic rights. But we are grateful for and humbled by the examples of those who have shown the courage and strength to give their all. We honor these sacrifices when we decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, or hold services and memorials at cemeteries. It is not meant to be a time of joyful celebration, but a time of solemn reflection and humble gratitude.

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But Memorial Day can also be a time of reflecting on an empty grave– that of Jesus Christ, who gave His all for a cause even greater than liberty and justice in a particular nation or time or for a particular group of people. Jesus gave His life to reconcile an unholy human race with a Holy and Righteous God. He fought against Sin and Death, and conquered them both. And we cannot decorate a grave to honor His sacrifice, because, unlike all the soldiers we honor next week, Jesus did not just preserve a cause or a way of life– He became Life for us. His grave is empty as a symbol of Death’s defeat!

It was Jesus Himself who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NASB) Soldiers who lay down their lives often do so to save the lives of their comrades at arms– their friends and fellow warriors– as well as their countrymen and women, their neighbors, and their families. And it isn’t just soldiers who give their lives. Recent news stories tell of teachers, police officers, and other individuals who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of innocent shoppers, students, and neighbors. Such sacrifices are tragic, but they are also heroic, and deserving of our acknowledgement.

We take time to honor those who died for a cause. How much more should we honor the One who died to bring eternal freedom and life to each one of us! And how much more should we be willing to give our lives for the sake His Kingdom! There is no greater love that we can show.

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For Righteousness’ Sake

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:10 (NKJV)
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Yesterday was Easter (in parts of the world)–the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and victory over Sin and Death. We have much to celebrate. But we also have a mission. We have the assurance of eternity in Heaven, but in THIS world, Jesus warned us, “you will have trouble.” (John 16:33). We will be misunderstood, mocked, and persecuted. We will have to face the temporary consequences of living in a fallen world– anger, greed, abuse, violence, betrayal–even bad weather and natural disasters!

In giving the Beatitudes, Jesus turned common expectations upside-down. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… We don’t consider poverty, powerlessness, suffering and persecution blessings to be desired. Yet Jesus, the One we follow, gladly endured all of these for our sake! Notice that the “blessing” is the same here as in the first of the Beatitudes– “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is not reserved for those who are victorious in their own power or through force of will or extraordinary effort. But it is reserved for those who persevere in the face of evil–those who lean, and those who rest, and those who stand IN THE POWER of God.

Notice, too, that we are blessed if we are persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.” There is no blessing for suffering due to our own stubbornness or foolishness. There is no blessing for those who are persecuted for their own pride and judgmental nature and unforgiveness toward themselves or others. (see 1 Peter 3) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+3%3A8-17&version=CEV

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We live in a culture that celebrates “victimhood.” Those who suffer injustice– even perceived of implied injustice–are considered to have a special status. Those who claim to have been offended or hurt by individuals or groups often demand recognition for their “bravery” or retribution for their suffering. This happens even among certain Christians, who claim to be “persecuted,” when they are merely suffering the consequences of their own hubris and self-righteous posturing. This is a monstrous injustice to fellow Christians who are truly suffering persecution “for righteousness’ sake.”

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My prayer today is that I will emulate the example of Christ– that I will serve, humbly, willingly, sacrificially, enduring any persecution that comes as a result, and lifting up fellow Christians who are suffering, as well as their persecutors! For righteousness’ sake– for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Do You Love Me?

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” 
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

John 21:15-19 (NIV)
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Today is Valentine’s Day, and many people will be saying, “I love you,” or asking, “Do you love me?” And many others will reply, “Yes, I love you,” or “I love you, too!” Cards and gifts may be exchanged; some couples will dine out or have romantic candlelit dinners at home. It is a day to celebrate love. There are thousands of poems and songs about love– ooey, gooey, gushy love; unrequited love; first love; true and lasting love; even “puppy” love.

But Valentine’s Day can also be a painful reminder– of lost love, betrayal, and loneliness. The story of Peter’s betrayal and reinstatement is not a “Valentine” story of romantic love, but it carries some lessons for today about love in general, and the Love of Christ in particular.

  • Love is a choice– freely given and freely accepted (apologies to Elvis Presley and others who have sung about not being able to help falling in love…) When Jesus first called Peter (and in the above passage as well) He simply asked Peter to “Follow me.” He made no demands, offered no bribes, used no intimidation. There is no long list of requirements or expectations; no bargaining; no “quid pro quo.” That said, Love is not a light-hearted or whimsical thing. Peter’s choice to love Christ, and to follow him cost him his life. Christ’s choice to love us led Him to humble Himself to death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). Jesus could have escaped this fate several times over– He CHOSE to die for each of us!
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  • Love is more than just a feeling. “Follow me” demands an action and a commitment. There are many today who “love” the idea of Jesus; they love the parables, or the gospel story; they are in love with “love.” But the idea that “Love” is all you need (apologies to the Beatles) misses the mark. Feelings change; feelings are transitory and often dependent on circumstances. Love chooses to follow– even when the going gets rough; even when it is not convenient, even when it involves sacrifice.
  • Loving someone involves taking the risk of being hurt, denied, or betrayed. There is no Biblical passage describing the amount of hurt Jesus must have felt when Peter denied Him three times, or when Judas betrayed Him. The Biblical account tells us that Jesus already knew and predicted these two events, but how agonizing–every bit as painful as the nails in His hands and feet! Jesus loved those who spit at Him, abandoned Him, condemned Him, and persecuted Him. And we also see Peter in this passage being hurt at Jesus’ questioning him a third time; Peter was shocked and hurt when Jesus predicted his denial, and when Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.”(Matthew 16:23) Love is never free from risk– especially the imperfect love we have as humans.
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  • Love leads to restoration and forgiveness. Peter’s denial of Christ could have haunted him for the rest of his life. Had Jesus said nothing; done nothing to address this hurt, it would not have changed the fact that Peter was forgiven. But in publicly restoring Peter, Jesus made it clear that it was “all good” between them– Peter wasn’t just conditionally forgiven, he was completely restored!
  • Love is stronger than death! It is stronger than sin, or betrayal, denial, or hurt. Love is eternal and limitless, everlasting, and enduring. God IS Love and to know God is to know love. To speak to God and to hear His voice and read His Word is to converse with Love. Whether in the presence of saints on a mountaintop, in the midst of a raging storm, or on a quiet beach– Love is closer than our next breath, and more powerful than our deepest fear. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13: 8)

And that’s a love worth endless celebration!

The Measure of Success

My senior year of high school, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’m not sure what that meant to most of my classmates, but it was both an honor and a burden to carry. While I was honored by my classmates’ faith in my ability to become some sort of “success,” I was also daunted by the mantle I felt I had to bear. Would I become famous? Wealthy? Important in public affairs or business? My immediate and modest goal was to become a teacher. But I had visions of becoming a well-known author. I also dreamed of becoming a wife and mother; of having a loving, happy family, and a nice home.

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God’s plans are not our plans. God has placed many opportunities in my path– opportunities to serve myself and “get ahead,” and opportunities to serve others. I can say from experience that serving others brings more satisfaction in the long run, but it doesn’t feel like “success” as defined by most of our society. I’ve never achieved what most would consider “success.”

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Some days, I feel wistful and even a bit resentful about some of life’s circumstances– children I was never able to have, or jobs I might have pursued with more ambition. But then, I think of all I might have missed– friendships, victories over certain struggles, lessons learned. My life isn’t finished– God may yet give me the opportunity to do “great things.” But already, He has given me the privilege of doing small things for Him over the course of many years. And it is more than enough.

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One of the greatest measures of true success is to look at the life of Christ. After all, His life, death, and resurrection changed the entire course of history! Time is measured by His arrival on this planet– everything happened either before or after His birth. Billions of people have called themselves “Christians” after Him, and lived their lives in His service. But what did He actually accomplish in human terms? He was not a ruler or political powerhouse. He never owned a house, let alone villas and mansions. He never wrote a book (even though thousands of books have been written about Him). He didn’t invent anything, or found a corporation, or make a monumental scientific discovery. He never led an army. He healed several people, but He didn’t cure cancer or wipe out leprosy, or put an end to blindness. He didn’t rid the world of poverty, hatred, greed, or injustice. At the time of His death, He owned only the clothes on His back– and they were taken from Him! His friends deserted Him as hundreds shouted for Him to be crucified. He was nailed to a cross between two nameless malefactors, and died. He was placed in a borrowed grave. People who had expected great things of this Messiah ended up turning on Him and thinking Him a failure and a blasphemer.

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Jesus did not pursue worldly success. He told parables. He dined with sinners and saints alike. He laughed. He cried. He prayed. Jesus served others, and yet He challenged authorities. He drew crowds, and performed miracles, but He died alone. Jesus did not come to show us how to “get ahead.” He came to show us how to live more abundantly, not more successfully. (See John 10:10)

 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by 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. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2: 1-11
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God can use our worldly success, if we achieve any. But He delights in our humble prayers, our small acts of service, and our obedience. Jesus lived a humble life. He could have done anything He wanted, fulfilled the loftiest of ambitions, and crowned Himself King of the universe. But His success came from the unlikeliest of lives, and the most humiliating death. He lived the perfect and abundant life He offers us.

I don’t live a perfectly humble life. I chafe at my own weakness, sometimes. Yet it is when I stop chasing “success” and perfection that I find it –in Christ.

My prayer today is that someone reading this will be encouraged. If life feels like a series of missed opportunities to find success and fulfillment; if you feel like your life has let you down, and that God cannot use you for some great purpose– take heart! He loves to pour His love and holiness into broken vessels and exalt those who are humble and weary and “not enough.”

Got Jesus?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5; 10-14 (ESV)
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I memorized this passage as a child. And one part of this passage stands out to me today, because the wording of the verse has not changed, but our cultural reading of it has changed a bit. I remember churches, and evangelists, using the phrases like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior (or Lord, or Lord and Savior)?” “Are you ‘born again?'” “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?”

I know in certain circles these phrases are considered “old fashioned”, “evangelical”, and even offensive. Some of us don’t identify as Christians anymore– many of us prefer the term, “Christ-followers.” “Born-again” Christians are seen as hypocritical, overbearing, judgmental, and intolerant– even violent! And there are individuals and groups who give evangelical Christianity a “bad name” by their behavior.

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Evangelicals have a reputation for putting people’s backs up, and putting people “on the spot.” They want to know, “have you GOT Jesus?” As though Jesus is a product and you either own Him or you’re missing Him. Can you get Jesus at the corner store? Do you “get” Him the same way someone “gets” a virus? Is He infectious? Can you sell Him? Lose Him? Trade Him away?

The Apostle and Gospel writer, John, was an evangelical. He was keenly concerned that His readers, friends, listeners– basically everyone he met, GOT Jesus. He wasn’t trying to sell a product, force a certain doctrine down others’ throats at the end of a sword, or offend those he met. But he DID want to make sure that people didn’t miss out on the GLORY, the incredible WONDER, the eternal GIFT of LIFE that had lived and walked and dwelt among us.

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Today, there are many who claim to “follow” Christ– they have great respect for His teachings; they want to live a “good” and even “righteous” life just as Jesus did; they believe He was a great role model. But they haven’t “received” Him. They believe what they have heard about Him; they believe “in” Him, but they don’t believe “in His Name.” Truly becoming a “follower” of Christ is to become a “Christian”– willing to be called by His name and identified with Him. Not just as a wise teacher or a gentle soul, but as a sacrifice–despised and rejected, misunderstood– and obedient even unto death. Not just the physical death of a martyr, but the social death of an outcast, the death of selfish dreams and worldly success through compromise, the loss of relationships, property, status, freedom… John knew all of this first-hand. He was standing by during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He watched as his brother and friends were beheaded, tortured, crucified upside-down, and driven into hiding. He spent the end of his life in exile for the privilege of being a “Christian.”

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Calling oneself a Christian, or a Christ-follower, or “born again,” doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. I can call myself a doctor, or an artist, or a prophet. I may have studied medicine, or created a painting, or made a prediction and be completely hypocritical. I may end up giving a bad name to myself, and causing people to be cautious about other doctors, artists, or prophets. That doesn’t make THEM hypocritical, and it shouldn’t cause them to stop doing what they do well. What matters is not what I say I am, or even what others say about me, but what and who I demonstrate that I am. I want to let my words and actions declare my relationship to Christ. At times, I would like to avoid the ridicule and misunderstandings. I’d like to be able to distance myself from the “bad examples,” but, like John, I long to testify to the GLORY of the one I follow and trust, more than I want to justify my own self at the expense of others. Yes, there are some “fake” Christians, and some who are sincerely wrong in how they attempt to live– and if someone were to catch me in a bad moment on a bad day, and show only that moment to the world, I would be counted among them– but my goal is not to ask if others have a perfect track record, or if they know all the right Bible verses or even if they have the “right” answers. My goal is to ask, ” Have you GOT Jesus?” “Do you KNOW Him– not just about Him?” When you pray, are you praying to an aloof idea or to a personal Savior? If He called you, would you answer, or let it go to voice mail? Would you scroll through and “like” His social media posts, or would you actually DO what He said?

Jesus came. He walked among ordinary people. Crowds “followed” Him, hanging on His parables, excited about His healings, and impressed by His miracles. But very few of them actually became His disciples and “received” Him. But to those who did, like John, He gave them the privilege to be called Children of God– not because they were smarter or wiser or more righteous in their own knowledge or efforts, but because they were made new, “born” again, and transformed by their relationship with Him. May that be so for all of us!

Finished!

God always finishes what He starts. He always completes His tasks, fulfills His promises, and wraps up the loose ends.

As I look back over the past year, I see many tasks that I wish were “finished.” I would like to know that my days of washing dishes, sweeping floors, folding laundry, returning phone messages, etc., were done! Of course, that would mean that my daily life was also finished here on earth! Some tasks here just don’t “end.” I also see many tasks which should be completed, but aren’t–projects started and abandoned, tasks on pause until I can get the right supplies, or tasks left behind because something unexpected and more urgent came along.

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God is faithful in all things. So it is possible for Jesus to say, “It is finished,” as He breathed His last on the cross– even though we still experience life in a fallen world. His word is trustworthy and true, so we know that the work is/will be accomplished and completed. But God is also faithful in the daily tasks that He does– sunrises, seasons, Mercies that are “new every morning.” He does not abandon the work of forgiving, redeeming, sustaining, or transforming lives.

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We are NOT God, but we should strive to finish what we start. Part of that is recognizing our human limitations. We may not finish everything we dream of doing today. But we can work to finish each task, and take each step in faith and dependence on the One who does all things well. And we can purpose to run our race with courage and confidence, knowing that God will give us what we need to keep moving ahead.

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“Father, today I pray that You would help me to finish those tasks that are necessary– both the daily tasks, and the long-term projects You have for me to do. Help me to be diligent in the things I can do, and to trust You in the things I cannot do on my own. As I look forward to another year, help me to learn from Your example, and to seek Your wisdom each day, from start to “finish!”

Peace on Earth

Christmas is a joyful season– for most people. And it is a giving season; a busy season; a bright and noisy season. But for most of us, it is NOT a peaceful season. Our small city had a lighted parade the other night. It was festive and bright; there were a lot of happy people cheering on marching bands, floats, dancers, decorated fire engines and tractors, horse-drawn carriages, and other entries. People were eating, drinking hot cocoa, enjoying the entertainment, and even singing carols. The whole downtown was decorated with brilliant lights and banners and festive plants. But before the parade started, and after it ended, there were angry drivers trying to find (or leave) parking spots, bawling toddlers, rowdy people who had more to drink than just the cocoa, and several others who were just tired, and cold, and overstimulated.

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While parades and festivities, parties and pageants have become part of the seasonal celebrations in many parts of the world, they are not what Christmas is really about. Jesus did not come to the world to bring “fun.” He did not come to bring toys or games, parties or feasts. He did not come to bring cheerful songs and fragrant holiday decorations, or hot cocoa and cookies. The angels who announced His arrival did not bring good tidings of candy canes, flying reindeer, or twinkle lights.

We sing about “Peace on Earth.” We talk about it, send greeting cards about it, and pray for it. But what do we MEAN when we talk about Peace on Earth, Good will to Men (Humankind)? For many, it is a wish or a prayer that wars would end, or that the petty differences between rival political factions or even rival churches would end. We speak of global peace or universal peace– peace between men (and women). And it is good that we should want such peace. But is that really the kind of peace Jesus brought with Him? He didn’t put an end to wars and disagreements during His ministry here. He didn’t “settle the score” for those who experienced oppression– the Roman Empire remained; the tax collectors still took more than their fair share; there was still slavery and abuse; greed and adultery and murder did not cease. And the world has been noisy, and messy, and angry and depressed in the two millennia since. And yet…

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There IS peace on earth–it is the profound peace that comes with “Good will to Men.” God’s good will found its ultimate expression in the gift of the Savior. There may still be wars and pestilence, angry drivers, bad hair days, injustice, confusion, grief, and pain among people. But there is power to be at peace in the midst of it all– the power of a Peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7); the power of Peace with God (Romans 5:1).

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Jesus came to a world that knew only the rumor of such peace. Even King David– a “man after God’s own heart,” a man who wrote songs about peace and safety and joy in God’s presence–knew this kind of peace as something that had been promised. David could know the immediate peace of God’s forgiveness; he could know the blessings of obedience and the restoration of the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the everlasting Peace that has been accomplished by the Advent of the Christ– David, Moses, Abraham, and all the prophets had longed to know it; to experience it from within.

And THIS Peace we can experience– not just during the Advent and Christmas Season, but throughout our lives. Chaos, loneliness, grief, separation, injustice– it HAS BEEN defeated. It has no power to separate us from God’s Good Will or from His Loving embrace! The noise and anger and clutter and abuse is still real. We should not ignore it, and we certainly must not contribute to it or sanction it. But we no longer have to live without hope; we no longer have to fret and live in constant fear or defeat.

There is no parade tonight as I write this– there are still lights and occasional noises downtown– a door closing, a dog barking, a car passing. But there is Peace within– no matter how loud or bright, how festive or even forlorn things seem.

The Righteous Will Live By Faith

“Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked, but the righteous will live by their faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4

Is it rational to believe in God? About three and a half centuries ago, the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, drew up what is now known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In it, he gives a “rational” justification for belief in God (theism). In it, he posits that if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that He does. But if God is real, the consequences of our belief or denial are crucial. If the God of the Bible exists (along with heaven and hell, sin and salvation), the failure to believe will lead us to lose everything; the decision to believe will lead us to gain everything…there is no in between.

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I’m not a big fan of Pascal’s Wager. Not because it’s bad logic, per se, but because it depends on belief, but not faith.

What’s the difference? Belief says that God exists–that He is supreme, that He controls our destiny, and that He must be obeyed. It will produce a life of theistic obedience to God’s Law, including a life of “good” works, moral conduct, and “right” thinking. But it will not produce a Godly character. It will not be a life of righteousness.

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Faith, on the other hand, believes that God not only exists, but that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) and that He so loved the world, that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) to save us from Sin and Death (1 Corinthians 15:56-7). It is not our belief in God’s existence that saves us and gives us life; rather it is Faith by His Grace! (Ephesians 2:8-9) in the nature and character of God– in the atoning work of Jesus as revelation and proof of His character– that saves us from Sin and Death.

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Pascal’s Wager is a way of thinking about God. It can lead someone to believe, which can produce a life of Faith. But it can also produce a kind of life that is ruled by grudging obedience, resentment, and pride in one’s own powers of self-control and understanding. Faith lives in dependence and humility, and joyous gratitude for God’s gifts.

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The prophet Habakkuk, who first wrote the phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” learned this lesson in dramatic fashion. He “believed” in God– in His righteousness and justice. He spoke to God about the wickedness he saw all around him, among his own people. God gave him a difficult answer: Justice was coming in the form of an invasion by the Babylonians– a group known for their wickedness and cruelty and lack of justice! God’s answer was shocking and counter-intuitive. But Habakkuk chose to believe in God’s Eternal Character, as God revealed the “rest of the story.” Israel would suffer; justice would be cruel–but God’s glory and His salvation would triumph. Habakkuk’s response was a song of praise and faith. Regardless of his circumstances, Habakkuk would wait and rejoice, knowing that God’s ways are perfect.

It’s not difficult to say we believe in God. But are we living in Faith? I find it easy to let circumstances–especially injustice and wickedness–overwhelm me and rob me of peace and joy. But I find it comforting to know that my momentary doubts cannot stop God’s promises, His Mercy, or His power to help me live by Faith. That’s due to His righteousness, not mine, but through Christ, I can trust in it, walk in it, and live in it!

Lord, Lord!

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Matthew 7:21-23
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In just the past three weeks, three of my family members and one of my friends have made the decision to be baptized as a public declaration of their decision to live for Christ. All of them (and the others who were baptized at the same times) were baptized by immersion, signifying that they have, spiritually, died to self, been buried, and are raised with Christ to eternal life. This is not a step to be taken lightly, and I have confidence that all four (and more) of those I know are serious in their passion to follow the Lord.

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When I write about prayer as a pursuit, I hope to convey that prayer is part of a larger pursuit of seeking God. And seeking God must include acknowledging Him as Lord above all– especially self. Jesus warned about people who claim to follow Him in word, but do not obey Him. It is, unfortunately, very easy to “speak Christian-ese”: to sound righteous and reverent when we are around others who claim to believe, but justify behaviors that may or may not stem from selfish motives.

There are obvious examples of hypocrisy in our world, but in His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus warns that many who seem to be doing good deeds, and “talking the talk” will not be part of God’s eternal kingdom. We are not to be seduced into thinking that God will be impressed by charitable giving, memorizing Scripture, or working on the Mission field if we are not willing to repent of our “secret” sins and false attitudes. And it is not for us to point fingers at “other” hypocrites– it is for us to humbly assess whether or not we are truly acting in obedience and submission to our Lord, or satisfying our own selfish desires and hoping for God’s stamp of approval.

Prayer should be a two-way communication. We pray to God, but we also listen for God’s guidance, wisdom, conviction, and encouragement. And we must act in obedience, and confess our disobedience if we want to “keep the slate clean” and keep a close relationship. When we refuse, we are just giving God lip service, and using His name to impress others and deceive ourselves. Others may judge us on appearances, but God sees what is in our heart. And “in that day” (v. 22), He will not let imposters through the gates of Heaven.

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The Good News is that Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in verse 23. He goes on to say, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock..” (Matthew 7:24) Jesus is our Lord, but also our Savior and our Advocate. When we call on Him AS our true Lord, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9), and His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3a)

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The act of Baptism alone does not have the power to save us. The practice of prayer alone has no saving power. But the pursuit of a relationship with Christ depends on such acts of obedience, humility, and trust. And the other good deeds that come from that relationship will not only help others, but will please God and strengthen that relationship. Instead of hearing, “I never knew you,” we can hear, “well done!” Not because of what we’ve done, but because of the partnership we’ve developed in God’s work.

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May God bless all those who have recently taken the step of Baptism. And may we all continue to pursue that relationship of dying to self, being buried with Him, and rising to new life in Christ!

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