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!

Hallelujah!

Christmas Eve–people around the world will be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Some will meet for evening and midnight candlelight services tonight. Others will begin celebrating tomorrow morning. Some will celebrate with great solemnity; others with great festivity; some, like the monks chorus above, with laughter and frivolity. Even amid continuing pandemic travel and gathering restrictions, families and individuals will celebrate with music, gift-giving, phone calls, small gatherings, reading Bible passages about Jesus’ birth, feasting, sharing memories, and praying.
There are only a few occasions throughout the year that can be said to be nearly universal, but Christmas comes close. Even where it is not celebrated as a cultural phenomenon, complete with tinsel and trees, lights and decorations, it is celebrated by the faithful who thrill with joy at the reminder that God Himself chose to come live with people He created– that He came to share in their day-to-day triumphs and struggles; so much so that He chose to share in our fate: Death. GOD cried out in hunger. GOD shivered with cold, and felt exhaustion. GOD suffered shame and misunderstanding and abandonment. GOD felt agony and struggled to breathe as blood and sweat ran down His brow and into His eyes. And by His coming, and suffering, and dying, HE brought us life and hope, eternal joy and peace! It is the very greatest reason to celebrate– bigger than national holidays or seasonal festivals; bigger than cultural differences and vast distances; bigger than mere tradition or historical remembrance.

Hallelujah!

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For many, this Christmas will be bittersweet– we have suffered greatly; some of us are still reeling from loss and grief. Others are living with fear and confusion about the future. In many ways, our situation is not so different from that first Christmas in Bethlehem. We feel “taxed” by events and circumstances. The world seems dark and dreary and cold. More than ever, we need to listen for the song of the Angels– for “good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

And, maybe more than ever in our lifetime, we need to be like the shepherds–eager to seek out the gift of the newborn Savior; Eager to embrace the wonder of Emmanuel; eager to share the hope we find at the manger. Hallelujah! Unto US a child is given; unto US a son is born! (Isaiah 9:6)

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I’ve been writing a lot about Advent and Christmas lately, rather than focusing on Pursuing Prayer. But they are part of the same whole. I pursue a life of prayer precisely because Jesus came in the flesh and lived and died and rose again. I believe in the power of prayer because Jesus modeled how to pray– even as He faced betrayal and death. I believe in the gift of prayer because Jesus prayed for me long before I was ever born (see John 17). I pursue prayer with confidence because Jesus keeps His promises.

Hallelujah!

I Wonder…

Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of wonder. But it is also a time to wonder–to ponder and reflect on the meaning of Jesus Christ. Why did He come? Why did He choose to be born where and when and how He did? The Bible gives us some of the “big” answers– He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45); He came to “bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37); He came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17); He came to give salvation and everlasting life (John 3:16)–and more. But there are still many things to ponder.

I wonder why Jesus came as a helpless infant. He could have taken on flesh and appeared as a full-grown man, and a king at that. He chose to come in weakness and in need– the Lord of all Creation needing to be fed and clothed and carried from place to place.

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I wonder about His early life. Jesus had to learn how to crawl, to walk, to talk, to run, to write. Imagine, the eternal Word of God having to learn to speak! The One who would one day walk on water had to learn to take His first steps on land. He was once toothless! Did He lisp when He was first learning to talk? Did He fall down as He learned to walk? Did He run too fast, and skin His knees? Were there foods He didn’t like, or others He preferred? Did the other kids tease Him and hurt His feelings? Did He suffer from headaches or toothaches or upset stomach (or even diarrhea)? Did He get splinters working with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop? Did He have a favorite teacher? When did Joseph die, and how did this change Jesus’s family situation?

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Jesus was fully human, and He lived as a baby, and a child, and as a man. His ministry spanned only a short three years– less than a tenth of His earthly life. What did He see in those years? What did He learn? What did He “wonder?”

I wonder.

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What if part of the process of Jesus’s earthly life was to remind us that God is with us from our earliest, neediest, and most vulnerable moments to our last breath? What if it was to remind us that even Jesus had “bad hair days” and skinned knees? That He came to experience ALL that is part of being human, including the long wait to grow to maturity and to fulfill His mission, and the hundred little obstacles of everyday life? Or maybe it was to remind us that there is awesome wonder in the ordinary–that even God found it worth marveling over those little moments with family or friends, or watching a glorious sunset, or catching a firefly.

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It’s so easy for us to lose the wonder of the Christmas season. But it’s also easy to lose the wonder of those ordinary moments–a shared smile or tear, the excitement of someone else’s birthday, the taste of fresh-baked bread, the way the sun sparkles on the lake. Jesus came to redeem us. And in the process, He came to redeem our sense of Wonder, too.

The Work is “Donne”

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do them still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Sun
Shall sine as it shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I have no more.

A Hymn to God the Father John Donne, 1623
John Donne

I enjoy studying the poetry of John Donne. https://www.biography.com/writer/john-donne Even though he lived 400 years ago, he wrote about very timeless and personal topics. Donne lived during a time of religious tumult and persecution. Born into a Catholic family, he later converted to Anglicanism and became a powerful preacher, as well as a poet, and lawyer. Throughout his life, he wrestled with deep theological questions of sin, guilt, redemption, and death. Yet he did so with wit, humor, and passion. The poem above, written during a long illness and near the end of his life, is filled with puns on his last name, Donne. Would God’s redemptive work ever be “done” in “Donne?” He struggles with the knowledge that his sins, having been forgiven, must be forgiven again and again. Does God never say, “Enough! I am done!?” What about stubborn sinful habits? What about sins that have led others to sin? What about last-minute, unconfessed sins?

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The real question is, “How sufficient is God’s Grace?” Does God sprinkle out Grace sparingly on each sinful act, or does Christ’s blood cover All? Do our stubborn, habitual acts of rebellion pile up to a point where God cannot forgive? Having forgiven us once, twice, seventy times seven– is there a limit to His willingness to pour out Mercy? Theologically, the Bible is clear. The answer is a resounding, “NO.” God will not withhold His Grace from those who have sought it. God will never be “Done” with “Donne.” Nor will He be “done” with any of us who have chosen to follow Him. But in his all-too-human logic, Donne jokingly suggests that though God “hast” done/Donne, He “hast not” done/Donne. In other words, while Donne “belongs” to God– he has confessed his sins, and eagerly seeks to follow Christ, he still wrestles with fears that his small sinful acts prove that God does not fully “have” him– that He still lives separated from God.

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But the final sin of the poem is fear– fear that somehow, at the last, Death will prevail, and Donne will “perish on the shore,” rather than be taken into Heaven. He pleads that Christ’s blood (“Thy Sun/Son”) will be sufficient; that God’s promise of eternal life will indeed hold true, and that the work of salvation is indeed “done.” In the end, the poet hopes that “Thou hast Donne.” And he must trust that God’s promises will hold, for “I have no more.” Donne cannot stop death, he cannot do anything to save himself from sin, but he can be “done” with worry and trust in “Thy Sun/Son.”

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I am strangely encouraged by Donne’s poem. We all have moments of questioning and niggling doubts. And even though we “Know” the truth, our fears and emotions can play tricks on our mind. But Donne, even while putting such doubts and fears on paper, takes them to the Source of Hope. This is not a poem of accusation or despair. It is an honest and passionate desire to hear God’s calm assurance. And it is part of a long tradition that runs through the Bible. Jacob literally wrestled with an angel of the Lord (Gensis 32), Moses argued with God about going back to Egypt (Exodus 4), David questioned God (Psalm 10); even Jesus asked God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27). But in our doubts and questions, God’s still, small voice echoes, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).

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God’s work is ongoing, but it is also “done”– it is complete, whole, sufficient, and eternal. And even if we occasionally wonder and even question, we can choose to rest in His promises. Just as the poet concluded, if God “hast” done/Donne, “I have no more”– he needed to have no other fear of sin or sin of fear. And through Donne’s poetry, God’s assurance is being passed on– the work continues to be “Donne!”

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Cleanliness or Brokenness?

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” If you grew up hearing this old maxim (as I did), it may seem like something very wise–even Biblical. After all, so many of the chapters in Leviticus talk about ritual washing and being clean (or unclean). God’s people should be clean and tidy, organized and pure. But if you continue reading through the Old Testament, God becomes very angry with His people. Sure, they are following the letter of His law. They are bringing sacrifices, making sure that they wash everything properly and measure out the right amounts of incense. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees even tithed their spices! Yet, Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” (Matthew 12:34) and “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27b NIV)

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We spend so much time worrying about appearances. But just because our lives look “clean” and “tidy” doesn’t mean that we are close to God. God isn’t impressed by our outward observance of His laws or by our neat appearance. Jesus did not reach out to the clean and tidy Pharisees; He went out of His way to speak to lepers and tax collectors and others who were considered “dirty” and tainted.

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That doesn’t give us a pass to be slovenly or careless about hygiene! But it does mean that we should care less about what others see, and more about what God sees–on the inside. God wants to see hearts that are humble and willing to serve. He doesn’t want clean hands that are unwilling to reach out in love; He doesn’t want spotless houses or cars filled with complaining, gossip, and anger. God hasn’t asked us to “tidy up” our lives or “get our act together” to impress our neighbors. He asks us to repent of our uncleanness; to be broken in spirit, so that we will submit to His yoke and follow Him. HE will provide the cleaning we need, through the power of His “once-for-all” sacrifice!

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In other words, “Brokenness is next to Godliness; and Godliness leads to Perfect cleanliness.” Our sins cannot be covered up or cleaned up by our efforts; they can only be washed away by the Blood of the Lamb. Only through Him can we become truly clean.

When we come before God in prayer, let us come, not just with clean hands, but with hearts that are open and tender, willing to listen to His words of wisdom, and follow in His footsteps.

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!

Abide With Me

Often, when I pray for those who are in pain or grief, I will ask, “God, BE WITH…” This is a natural desire, but in one sense, it is also superfluous. God is always with us; always present, no matter our circumstances.

So when I ask God to “be with” someone, I am not really asking that He stop whatever else He is doing and go to that person. He is already there. I’m not asking Him to become aware of their heartache or suffering; He already knows. I’m not asking that He do something new or different from His will or His plan. What I am asking is that His presence would be revealed in and through the situation– that my friend or loved one (or stranger whose needs have been brought to my attention) would have a supernatural sense of God’s abiding, powerful, compassion and grace.

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Intellectually, I can know that God is omnipresent and omniscient. I “know” that God is always with me. The Bible is filled with God’s promises to “be with” His people. (See https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/beautiful-verses-to-remind-you-that-god-is-with-us.html) But I also know, emotionally and experientially, that I don’t always feel His presence. I have moments of doubt and despair– I think all of us do. That’s part of the curse of Sin–being separated from the awareness of God’s continual presence. Even Jesus, as He was dying, felt the awful anguish of being separated from the Father, crying out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

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God promises each believer that He (through His Holy Spirit) will dwell with us. He will “abide” with us. But just like living with a spouse and other members of a family, there are times when His presence seems to be in another room; and we feel alone. There may be many reasons for this– sometimes, it is because we have walked away, or turned our face away. But at other times, we long for that closeness, that awareness that God is right beside us, only to feel that He is far away. As strong as that feeling may be, we need to remember that it is NOT the reality. God still abides with us. He is still present, even if He is silent.

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So, when I know that feeling, or when I know someone else is going through that feeling, I pray, not that God will come to us, or come back from being away, but that our awareness of God’s presence and closeness will be deepened or reignited.

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Someday, I won’t have to pray that prayer. Someday, and for all eternity, we will be surrounded by God’s Glorious Presence. But in this fallen world, what a privilege and hope to be able to pray to a God that abides with us!

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.

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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