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!

Debt Free!

7“Blessed are those

    whose transgressions are forgiven,

    whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

    whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”

Romans 4:7-8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com (See also Psalm 32:1-2)

Ask me about my most embarrassing moment, or my greatest failure..better yet, ask one of my friends or relatives! We tend to hang on to our past, especially our mistakes, our hurts, our missed opportunities, and our shortcomings. When I taught public speaking in a local high school, I heard horror stories about why “I can’t get in front of people and talk.” The fear of public speaking rates higher in some studies than the fear of Death! And often, the fear is based on an incident from early childhood of people laughing at a small, but very public mistake. Such moments haunt us.

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As we grow older, we let our regrets live large– those things we “would have, should have, could have” done, or the things we shouldn’t have said, but can never un-say. And even if we try to move on or forget the past, there always seems to be someone who cannot let go, cannot forgive, or cannot forgive. Lives have been stunted and ruined by the ghosts of “what happened” when…

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God is all-knowing. There is nothing we’ve ever done, said, or even thought, that He “missed,” ignored, or “lost track of.” God has total recall over all the centuries and eons of time– past, present, and even future! And yet, God offers to forgive ALL our sins, and to “remember them no more.” God will never bring up “that time when you disappointed me…” God will never look at you with condemnation over anything you have confessed and repented over. It’s not that God will never be able to recall what happened; but He will no longer “charge it to your account.” He has chosen to pay the consequences in His own Blood, so that you can be debt free.

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Imagine if you had no bills. If all your mortgages, utility payments, credit card debt, medical bills–everything that you were responsible to pay– all were stamped “Paid in full.” You never had to worry about interest payments, late fees, repossession, evening phone calls from bill collectors, credit scores, etc. What a weight off your shoulders! Imagine if you had no reason to fear getting in front of a room full of people to speak or sing or give a presentation– no fear that others would judge your every hesitation, or whether your tie was straight, or your hair was mussed, or you stumbled over a word or phrase or tripped on the steps leading up to the podium. Imagine being accepted and embraced by the very one who, by rights, should be your most severe critic.

Sometimes, when we see God as our critic, our judge, or our opponent, we’re not seeing God as He really is– we’re seeing a reflection of ourselves– harsh, judgmental, unwilling to forgive others; unwilling to forgive ourselves. The very first deception of the Enemy was to distort God’s image from Creator and Sustainer to Judge and Tyrant. Yet Satan is called “The Accuser,” not God. God’s Holy Spirit may convict us of Sin– causing us to see that we have done wrong– but His purpose is always to correct and restore us, not to haunt and condemn us. Even the “worst” sins are not beyond God’s ability or willingness to forgive. Jesus forgave His accusers, His betrayers, and His executioners from the Cross!

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Forgiveness is not easy. Sin is real; it has real and terrible consequences. Sin hurts, humiliates, victimizes, and traumatizes. And its effects do not simply vanish if we say, “I forgive.” But hanging on to the pain and anger keeps us from finding and experiencing the healing and wholeness that Jesus offers. Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, or the pain, never happened– God will not “forget” injustice just because we forgive the unjust. Forgiveness means that we no longer need to try to collect the debt from someone else– because God has already promised to pay it back with interest! And forgiving yourself doesn’t mean that your past actions didn’t happen or didn’t cause pain. In fact, whenever there are opportunities to atone for past actions, or ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, we should take them. But where such opportunities are impossible for us, even when we cannot see how such pain could be redeemed or relationships restored, God has promised that we can move beyond our past mistakes and live a new , blessed, and debt-free life.

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When we approach God in prayer, we come as we are– people with past mistakes, very human emotions, including doubt and fear, and unworthy to stand on our own before a perfect God. But it is God who invites us to come to Him– debt free and embraced by His limitless Grace!

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“I Have Seen the Lord!”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:18 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
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Over the past few weeks, there have been images of Jesus Christ all over– Jesus looking very gentle and passive as He rides a donkey into Jerusalem; Jesus teaching vast crowds and looking wise and unflappable. Thousands of images of Jesus the Suffering Servant– bruised, bloodied, yet meek and forgiving–carrying a Cross through the streets, or hanging between the two thieves. And the images of a risen Christ–glowing and serene and unearthly.

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When Jesus makes His return to Earth, He will come as LORD– victorious ruler of His creation–judge and final authority. We make a grave error if we only see Jesus as the Lamb of God, and not also the Lion of Judah. Jesus was meek and humble as a man, but He was always fully GOD as well. When Mary Magdalene finally recognized the Risen Jesus, she recognized Him as “the Lord.” All those who saw the Risen Christ recognized Him, not just as their friend or even as their teacher, but as their Lord. No earthly authority dared approach Him, question Him, try to re-capture Him, or hold Him. He appeared at will to those who were waiting for Him. He stopped telling parables, and started commissioning His disciples to spread the Gospel. Even those who knew Him had trouble at first recognizing this “Risen” Christ. Do we?

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When we look at images of Jesus Christ, — when we pray “in Jesus’ name”–do we see a kind teacher? A humble servant? A “Good” example to follow? Someone willing to lay down His life for us? Those are all accurate descriptions– but do we recognize Him as The Lord? He is the King of Kings and the Ruler of All Creation. Do we speak to Him as we would to an earthly King or Ruler? Do we give Him the Honor we would give an earthly celebrity or hero? Do we seek to know everything about Him? Do we seek to please Him? Obey Him? Magnify Him?

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It is easy to get caught up in a “Jesus and Me” theology that celebrates the intimate and close relationship that Jesus offers to us, until we lose some of the awe and majesty of who we are really following. Was this what happened to Mary and the others after Jesus’ death on Good Friday? When they went to the tomb on Easter morning, they expected to see the dead body of their friend, not the glorified body of their Creator!

When we seek Jesus today, are we looking for a friend and counselor? Are we looking for someone to meet our needs or fulfill our longings? Or are we looking for our Lord in all of HIS Glory? Do we come away feeling better about ourselves, or are we “bowled over” by spending time with the Alpha and Omega? What a different testimony we might have if we could say, every day, “I have seen The Lord!”

The Sound of Silence

The events of Good Friday are well recorded in all four of the gospels, (see Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=JOhn%2019&version=NIV ) but it is still difficult to imagine exactly what it must have been like that day. The first crow of the rooster came as Jesus was still on trial before the Sanhedrin, hours of questioning and betrayal that would continue as the sun rose and Jesus as passed on up the chain of power to Pontius Pilate for more questioning. The sun was still climbing as Jesus was beaten and paraded before the crowds. The swell of voices shouting for His execution would have echoed through the public square–“Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” “We have no king but Caesar!” The same taunting would continue as Jesus walked the long Via Dolorosa and came to Golgotha.

By nine that morning, Jesus, bloodied, whipped, exhausted, humiliated, betrayed, and struggling for every breath, was nailed to the cross. He was fully exposed to the bright morning sun, the heat, and all the stares of the angry mob who came to revel in His anguish. He was unable to wipe the blood or salty sweat that trickled from His brow and ran into His eyes; unable to swat away flies who buzzed around His face, elbows, or cheeks. He was unable to block out the noise–curses, curious questions, His Mother’s agonized cries, and, in the lull, the ordinary noises of a crowded city preparing for a celebration.

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As noon approached, there would be the aromas of roasted lamb, market fish, baking bread. The crowds were quieter now, some may have left to seek out lunch or relief from the heat. But the heat and the sun disappeared as darkness rolled in. The angry energy gave way to fear and dread. The earlier shouting was now a an ominous rumbling among the remaining spectators. It was quiet enough to hear Jesus address His Mother and His disciple, John, and answer the thief on the neighboring cross, promising to see him in Paradise. It was possible to hear Jesus cry out later, His voice raspy and broken, but clearly in anguish, “Eloi, Elioi, lama sabachthani!?”

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Perhaps it even got so quiet, as it sometimes does in darkness, that you could hear the three men on the crosses struggling to take each breath–their tortured muscled straining to lift their weight enough to get air past their parched lips and tongues–in and out, as distended muscles demanded more oxygen than their bodies could provide. Did the members of the crowd listen to their own heartbeats in those moments?

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The unnatural darkness would have magnified the moment when Jesus, the Light of the World, breathed His last breath. And I imagine in the moment after that a silence so deafening, so complete, as the Word of God, the Creator of Life and Giver of Breath departed the Earth– as though all light and sound imploded at the loss. A split second only, but one so intensely silent that it must have taken the breath of every onlooker.

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And then, the sound returned full-force– the Earth quaking, the skies crashing, Creation gasping, the Temple Veil ripping, and terrified people rediscovering their ability to cry out. Noise–piercing, and violent and sudden, bringing with it a return of the angry energy of before. But the energy is different now. Subdued. Nervous. Desperate. Empty…

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Insult to Injury

Have you had “one of those” days lately? Nothing seems to go according to plan, and as the day goes on, it just seems to go from bad to worse. Something (or someone) comes along and adds insult to injury.

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Next week, the Church will be remembering what seemed like the last week in the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth. First comes “Palm” Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Shouts of “Hosanna!” and crowds of people cheering and waving palm branches–it was as though Jesus was a rock star or a prince of Israel. But just a few short days later, he was arrested, and convicted in a corrupt “trial” by the religious officials. The same crowds who cheered him on were screaming for his death, waving fists instead of palm branches. Pilate, to please the crowd, sentenced an innocent Messiah to one of the most brutal deaths imaginable– public, excruciating, humiliating, torturous crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t just suffer death. He was mocked, insulted, deserted by his friends, lied about and lied to by those he should have been able to trust, stripped naked and whipped, and branded as a criminal as his “fate.” In such a short time, to be so crushed and betrayed, brutalized and humiliated–none of my “bad days” can compare to what Jesus went through. His injuries were horrific; the insults and betrayals were worse. Yet He bore them all. He died in anguish; broken, bruised, beaten, and abandoned.

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And He could have chosen differently. He was perfectly innocent, perfectly authorized to defend Himself, capable of calling all the Hosts of Heaven to testify on His behalf, and perfectly powerful enough to come down off the cross at any time and send all of His accusers and tormenters to oblivion! That Friday wasn’t just “one of those” days. It was not something that took Him by surprise, nor was it something He “deserved.” He chose to go through that day…it was part of His perfect plan. That day. That death. That stunning humiliation and “defeat.”

But Holy Week doesn’t end in insult, injury, defeat, or despair–because God’s ways are perfect, Jesus turned everything to Glory! We will celebrate next Friday– “Good” Friday– because only God can triumph over death, and transform horror into hope, despair into deliverance, and shame into salvation.

Even on “one of those” days, we can find peace and practice praise as we pray to the one who took “one of those” days and turned it into the greatest miracle!

Take My Life..

We have entered the Lenten season, and many of us have made plans to “give up” something for the 40 days leading up to Easter–chocolate, or certain meats, or a certain habit. It is traditional to use this time leading up to Holy Week to focus on preparing our hearts to receive the Gift of salvation that comes from Christ’s resurrection on Easter.

But, in a larger sense, there is nothing we can do to prepare for Grace– it is completely unmerited favor. My willingness to deny my sweet tooth for six weeks cannot make me ready for God to allow His wrath to fall on His Holy Son, so that I can be declared righteous for all eternity. It is no more than a gesture.

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God is not impressed by our Lenten traditions. This doesn’t mean that we should not make the gesture; it doesn’t mean that we cannot grow closer to God by such observances. But we must not place too much reliance on them. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He gave up far more than we can imagine in order to rescue us from all that we deserve. Jesus not only gave up His human life on the Cross, He gave up His throne, His status, His omnipresence, and His omnipotence. He allowed Himself to be subject to human authorities, and He served those He had created.

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Jesus didn’t just “give up” something on His way to the Cross. He offered everything He was! May we seek to do the same. May we pray, along with Jesus in the Garden, “..not my will, but Yours be done..” (Luke 22:42)

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Have you ever doubted? Wondered, “Where is God?” Maybe even wondered if He exists at all? And then someone came along and made you feel wicked and small for having such a thought…”How could you!?”

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I know there are people who believe that faith is not really faith if you can have moments of doubt– that true faith never wavers, stumbles, or has tough questions. I don’t think this is Biblical, nor do I think this reflects God’s relationship with us. The Bible is full of “faithful” people who had moments of doubt.

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Abraham, when told that he would become the father of many nations, believed, and it was counted as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Hebrews 11:11, Romans 4:3, etc.) Abraham’s faith was so solid, that he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, the son of God’s Promise! Yet Abraham and Sarah acted outside of absolute faith when they brought in Hagar and tried to start a family on their own. God still blessed Hagar and Ishmael, but they were not part of the fulfillment of God’s plan. And over four thousand years of bad blood between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are a sad reminder that Abraham did not trust God absolutely and completely.

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King David was a “man after God’s own heart.” Yet David wrote often about his feelings of being abandoned or forsaken by God. (See Psalm 10, Psalm 13, and Psalm 22 among others.) Elijah, within hours of a great victory over hundreds of angry priests of Baal, after a miraculous demonstration of God’s power and faithfulness, hid in despair and asked to die, sure that God had abandoned him to his enemies (1 Kings 19).

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Most telling is the statement from Jesus Himself on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-34) Although He was quoting one of King David’s psalms (22:1), the words still ask a very harsh question. Did Jesus Himself doubt God’s presence or His boundless love? (I don’t think so, but it is this kind of statement that often invites condemnation from those who cannot allow for any momentary doubt of any kind.)

I don’t believe any of these moments in the Bible are accidental. I believe God wants us to know that His presence and His faithfulness do not depend on the absolute strength of our faith. I believe it is one of the reasons that Jesus spoke of faith “as small as a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20). It is not the size or the strength of our faith that determines what God can or will do. It is the size and strength of our faith that causes US to understand what God is doing and to participate more fully with Him. And taking our momentary doubts and questions to God shows a different kind of faith– one that is strong enough to BE tested and triumph. God rewards those who SEEK Him. If we never need to seek, or ask, or knock (See Matthew 7:7), could it be that we are not trusting in Him, but in our own wisdom?

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Take heart! Have faith! But don’t be afraid to go through valleys of doubt, or wrestle with difficult questions. And if someone else is struggling–be willing to listen to their doubts and questions, rather than just dismissing them. God does…

Out of Time

We’ve said Goodbye to 2020–in another 365 days we will have finished the year 2021. At some point, it will “run out” of its designated time. We live in a world limited by time and space.

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But God lives outside of time and space– He rules them, bends them, and contains them in His sovereignty. I often write about the omnipresence of God– that He is everywhere. In fact, the only place He is NOT is Hell; and He’s even visited there, once… But God is also omnipresent in time. He IS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– always, and all at once, along with being the God of everyone who has ever called and will ever call upon His name to put their trust in Him. God IS in the past; He is ever present, and He is already in the future, acting and overseeing His plans and purposes.

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With the birth of Jesus Christ, God did not step out of time– instead, He inserted Himself into time and space and obeyed the limits He Himself had placed. He came exactly when He had determined, exactly where, and exactly how He had planned. And the same is true of His death and resurrection. His death on the cross was not a moment too soon, and not a single second overdue. Yet, Jesus was at the mercy of the very time and space He had created. Just like us, He was limited to being in one place at a time, and limited to the circumstances around Him.

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Nothing shows this better than the story of Lazarus (John 11). A close friend of Jesus, Lazarus became mortally ill. Word was sent to Jesus so He could come immediately and heal Lazarus, but He delayed in coming. He delayed for two days, continuing to work where He was before going to help friend. He knew that Lazarus would not survive. By the time He arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had not only died, but had been buried. Both of Lazarus’s sisters greeted Jesus with the same rebuke–” If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” The God who is everywhere, always, was limited by His physical form, and had to walk to Bethany. He could not continue to work in one area, and be in Bethany at the same time. Nor could He stop time and space so the Lazarus’s sickness could “wait” for Jesus’s arrival days later. But the Sovereign, Omnipresent God had not “run out of time” to save His friend. Even in His human form, in His “inability” to get to Bethany “in time,” Jesus was acting according to His Sovereign plan. He brought Lazarus out of the grave! He was “there” in all of His power and mercy. And He was precisely where and when He needed to be!

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As we enter a new year, it comes with limitations–12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, and so on–we can’t see what will happen, or where we will be in March or September. It may seem that God is “late,” or “absent” in our circumstances. We may be tempted to stop praying when we don’t see immediate answers. We may, like Mary and Martha, be tempted to scold the very author of Life when we don’t get the answer we want when we want it.

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This year, let us remember that God is beyond time and space. This allows us to trust that He can and will do what is best, when it is best. It also allows us to trust that God can make the most of OUR time as we trust it to Him. We may be limited to 24 hours a day, but we serve a God who can stretch and bend time, and supplement even our smallest efforts and resources with the endless riches of His Grace!

When Christmas Wasn’t Merry

I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.

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But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.

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Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.

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There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “His divine power has given us EVERYTHING we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)

And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)

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Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!

God and Sinners, Reconciled!

Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.

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But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.

And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.

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This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.

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Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!

Joy! Peace! Reconciliation! Eternity! Emmanuel!

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