Are You Ready?

Someone asked me yesterday if I was “ready for Christmas.” They wanted to know if I had prepared for the holiday– had I bought and wrapped presents for the family, sent out Christmas cards, decorated the house, baked cookies, etc.? I had to admit that I was not ready in that sense. I don’t generally do much in the way of decorating, and I’ve cut back on the cookie baking, too. I’m not sending greeting cards this year, and I don’t have all the presents purchased or wrapped.

But I AM ready for Christmas– I’m ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus to Earth; His life, death, and resurrection; the new life and hope that resulted from God’s boundless love. I’m ready to sing carols and light candles and rejoice! I’m ready to be awestruck again by the ancient story of shepherds and angels and wise men from the East; of the little town of Bethlehem and the manger stall and a bright star; of a newborn child; the Lord of all Creation wrapped in rags; the Word of God willingly limited to unintelligible cooing and soft cries, to nakedness and infant human weakness.

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Being “ready for Christmas” means different things to different people. To many, it means surviving the stress of shopping, going to rounds of holiday parties, and trying to remember that it is supposed to be a season of “peace on Earth.” For others, it means watching the celebration from the outside looking in; facing loneliness, grief, regret, and envying or resenting those who have found joy when all they see is darkness. For some of us, it means reflecting on the amazing transformation we experience because of the coming of this single baby. We remember that there was a time when there was no Christmas– only a dim hope that God would someday send a Savior. Once the prophets could only speak of what had been promised, but not yet seen– could only remind people to “get ready” for something they had never known.

The world was waiting for the Messiah’s coming, yet it was unprepared for His actual arrival.

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But the story of Jesus Christ didn’t end with Christmas. It didn’t even end at Easter, with the glorious resurrection. We await the triumphant return of the risen Christ. He is Coming! He will return in an instant…no long period of Advent; no countdown calendars or lists of things to get ready; no angels or stars to announce His arrival; no Christmas pageant or Easter sunrise service–just a trumpet blast and an explosion of Glory. He will not arrive as a helpless babe, or a suffering servant, but as a conquering King. There will be no carols about little towns and sleeping cattle; no time to “let every heart prepare Him room.”

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Today, we prepare to celebrate Messiah’s coming. We spend time and money and energy getting “ready” to recreate the Advent of Jesus Christ. How much time have we spent getting ready for His return? I pray that this Christmas season will mean more than just a happy celebration of one event– even one as joyful as the Birth of Christ. Let us prepare our hearts to live out the joy of His Salvation, and prepare to receive our King in triumph.

This Little Light of Mine…

John 1:4-5 American Standard Version (ASV)
 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness [a]apprehended it not.

Footnotes:John 1:5 Or, overcame.

via http://www.biblegateway.com
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I love words. But sometimes, it can be frustrating to find just the right word to express a complex idea. I’m sure the Apostle John felt the struggle as he began writing his Gospel account of the life of Christ. How can mere words describe the arrival of GOD– creator and ruler of the universe– into a darkened and sin-filled world, come to live among and serve the very lost souls He would die to save? John, of all the Gospel writers, uses the most visual metaphors to describe the Advent of Jesus (many of which he heard from the lips of Christ Himself)– He was the “Light of the World”, the “Bread of Life”, the “Living Water,” the “Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the “Good Shepherd.”

But right away, the phrase John uses to talk about the “Light of the Life” causes modern English scholars confusion. John says that the light “shineth”, or “shines” in the darkness and the darkness “comprehended” (or apprehended, or understood, or overcame) it not. The phrase is simply too big for one word, or idea. The Greek word comes closer to expressing a dual idea, but even it can’t wrap up the totality of such an event.

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Consider–This Jesus, one with God from the beginning, and the “Word” of creation, spoke light into existence. Where there was darkness, He exploded– light upon light– stars and galaxies of light! Even on the darkest night we will ever know, there are millions of lights spread out across the vastness of space, including our own sun, even unseen on the other side of the planet. Darkness can never “comprehend”, let alone “overcome” the existence of light in our world.

Moreover, when we see physical light piercing the darkness, we are aware of it, but we rarely comprehend, or understand it. Whether we are blinded by a flash of light, or compelled to seek out a single hint of light in a darkened tunnel, it is not obvious at first glance (and sometimes even after diligent study) the source or scope of the light. It may be a candle, or a set of glaring headlights, or the glint of reflected light in a mirror. It could be a distant star, a satellite, or a street light shrouded in fog.

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But in a spiritual sense, it is even more true that “Light has come into the world” (John 3:19), and it “shines” in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood, or apprehended, or overcome it. Jesus came as an infant to His own chosen people, people who were longing for the advent of their Messiah. But few of them recognized Him. They didn’t understand– even Jesus’ closest friends didn’t “get it” at first. And some of them tried their best to “overcome” and “apprehend” the Gospel message– zealous religious leaders like Saul tried to stop the “light” of Jesus’ message and all those who trusted in it. Saul had to be “blinded” by a light on his way to Damascus, so that he could finally “see” Christ (Acts 9).

And the light is still shining in the darkness– as followers of Christ, we are to reflect God’s love and grace to those around us. Many of them will not comprehend; many will try to overcome or even destroy the message we bring. Our light may seem small and insignificant. It may seem like we are surrounded by the vast darkness of space, or shrouded in fog. But the light of Christ cannot be extinguished, or rationalized out of existence, or contained. All the words ever spoken, written, or thought throughout all the ages of mankind cannot compare to the power of God’s “Word”, who spoke worlds into being in an instant, and yet entered His own creation with a soft cry of an infant in the middle of a dark night so long ago.

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This is the “little light of mine”, and of yours if you are a follower of Christ. It pierces through the darkness of despair, hatred, addiction, injustice, greed, oppression, malice, rebellion, war, grief, loss, disease, and sin.

This season, as we anticipate the Advent, let us remember the greatness of the tiniest of lights, and the triumph of that light over the vast darkness. It is easy to get distracted by the twinkling of a thousand artificial and commercial lights this season, or blinded by the soot and smog and clouds of gloom and pain that surrounds us. It’s so important that we keep shining; continue reflecting the true light that only comes from the “Light of the World”

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“This little Light of mine–I’m gonna let it shine!
This little Light of mine– I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, Let it shine!”

Great Things He Hath Done

2 Corinthians 9:15 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

via biblegateway.com
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I love this season of the year–as we approach Thanksgiving and prepare for Advent and Christmas, it is a good time to reflect and celebrate all the wonderful things God has done, and all the ways He has blessed us. But there is also a danger in this season. We are tempted to look around and compare our blessings (and our struggles) with others around us. We are tempted to be envious, depressed, and stressed about our circumstances. Or we look at our blessings and feel smug and self-satisfied, instead of grateful and humble.

What “Great” things am I thankful for? Sometimes I make a list of all “my” blessings–my health, my family, my home or car, my freedom (as though I had done anything to earn such blessings)–and I stop. Sometimes I make another list of all the “Great” things God has done in nature–beautiful sunsets and majestic forests, glistening snowflakes and spring blossoms–and I stop. Sometimes, I even thank Him for the trials and struggles and difficult relationships that He has allowed to refine me and build my character to be more like His– and I stop. Sometimes, I thank Him for the great things he has done for others–miracles of provision, safety, or healing.

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But there is a deeper level of thankfulness– one that takes my breath away and causes me to fall to my knees– one that thanks God for WHO HE IS– truth, righteousness, salvation, mercy, wisdom, power, and boundless, unconditional love. Every great work of God has its origin in God’s Character. Every sunrise shows His faithfulness, every snowflake His infinite creativity. Even tragedy can reveal His tenderness and healing and precious promise that NOTHING can separate us from His love. In giving His greatest gift, God spared no expense; he held nothing back. Jesus defeated sin and death by becoming sin and experiencing death–FOR YOU and for ME! For anyone, for everyone, who will accept His gift and trust in His character. How often do I list all the great things God has done and stop before I let the amazement of the Great I AM to overwhelm me? How often to I celebrate Thanksgiving without ever reaching this level of true Thanks-giving?

Whether we celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie, or with beans and wienies; whether we celebrate with family, friends, strangers or alone; even if we celebrate on a different day, or in a different way, may we always find ourselves amazed by the Greatness of God. May we truly give God more than just thanksgiving this year. May we give Him all the Glory–Great things He hath done!

There my Burdened Soul Found Liberty

Prayer is often about burdens– the burden of need; the burden of sin and guilt; the burden of worry and distress. We bring our burdens to God, to the “throne of Grace;” we bring them “in Jesus’ Name,”, and we bring them to “Our Father.” But how often do we bring them to “Calvary?”

Not the victorious empty cross on the hillside with a beautiful sunset in the background, but the bloody, hot, dry and dreadful Calvary of the crucifixion? How often do we make the pilgrimage to that rocky outcropping with the smell of blood and sweat and death and agony? How often do we cry out to the one who was lifted up, struggling to breathe, pierced, wounded, broken and humiliated? When do we reach out to touch the scars and bruises he received in our place?

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It is at Calvary that we get the real story of Grace, Mercy, and forgiveness–the real cost of victory and peace. It is at Calvary that we see the full extent of God’s Holiness married to the full extent of His Love. Holiness demands justice; Love demands intimacy– together, they require sacrifice.

And it is at Calvary that we find, in the darkest and most hopeless of moments– God forsaking Himself, giving all He IS to bring justice and reconciliation for all we’ve done–that we trade our burdened souls, our worries, our despair for God’s embrace. Arms stretched so wide they are pulled from their sockets; blood spilled from head to toe; breathless and exposed in His passion for your soul and mine–that’s what God offers at Calvary.

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Why do I pray? I am ambushed and overwhelmed and enraptured by such a love. God had no need to suffer even a moment’s discomfort. He owed nothing to His rebellious creation; no mercy, no explanation, no hints as to His character (or ours). The creator of galaxies had no need to lift a finger to save one puny planet or any of its inhabitants from His own right to un-create them and blot out even their memory. Instead, He showed the greatest act of Love across all of space and time–to me!– At Calvary!

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Jesus Calls Us

I was at worship yesterday. We sang some wonderful hymns and songs of worship. Still, I miss some of the “old” hymns we used to sing in the small country church of my youth. This was one of them:

In case the video does not show up, here are the words:
Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea,
Day by day His sweet voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow Me.”
Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store,
From each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love Me more.”
In our joys and in our sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease,
Still He calls, in cares and pleasures, “Christian, love Me more than these.”
Jesus calls us: by Thy mercies, Saviour, may we hear Thy call,
Give our hearts to Thine obedience, serve and love Thee best of all. Amen.

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Prayer is never just a one-way communication. We may not “hear” from God in an audible voice, but He calls us into communion with Him daily. He wants to hear from us; He wants to speak to us–through His word, through our experiences, through friends and neighbors and even chance encounters. We may not have a deep spiritual burden to bring before the throne of grace– does that keep us from needing to share a quiet moment with the lover of our soul?

Suppose the only time you ever spoke to your spouse was when you desperately needed her/his help? What would that say about your relationship? The same holds with our spiritual walk. God wants to speak to us; to have us notice the beauty of the sunrise, or the grace of moonlight in the mist. He wants to bring us hope and comfort in the stories and psalms of scripture. He wants us to share our nagging worries and our minor triumphs– not because He doesn’t know or cannot see–because He wants to share in our struggles and our joys, our deep grieving and our small amusements.

He wants all of this because of His great love for each of us. If we could just see His eyes light up with love when we walk into a room…and if we could hear the love in His voice– we would be undone. Someday, we will be– undone, and remade, and able to catch His eye without shattering in the light of that love.

But for now– He is calling…

Bringing in the Sheaves

It is harvest time where I live. It is especially fraught with significance this year, as we have had a bad growing season– heavy rains in the spring and low temperatures meant that much of the planting was delayed or cancelled. Fields that normally produce excellent crops of corn or wheat or soybeans look stunted and sickly, or they lie barren. Recent rains and threats of early snow mean that crops must be harvested now or lost, even if the yields are low or the crops not fully mature. While there will be a lot of grief and exasperation among farmers this year, there will also be relief and rejoicing in certain quarters.

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The Bible uses farming and harvest imagery to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told the parable of the sower and seed in Matthew 13 (also in Mark and Luke– see here:https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/parable-of-the-sower.html), and He spoke of fields being ripe for harvest (John 4:34-38/www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+4%3A34-38&version=NIV)

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As followers of Christ, we are both harvest and harvesters. Like seed, we “die” to our nature, and grow and mature in newness of life by the Holy Spirit. And like farmers and harvest workers, we are called to plant seeds, to “sow” the Gospel of Christ, to tend to one another’s growth and nurture, and to “harvest” a crop– bringing others toward repentance and faith.

Another song from my childhood impressed itself upon me during my worship time today– a simple chorus, but filled with joy. Our mornings, evenings, sunny days and wintry nights may be filled with sowing seeds and tending crops; the work may seem tedious or even thankless. But we can take joy in knowing that there is a joyful and glorious Harvest ahead. Some day, we will be gathered together– not a puny harvest hastily gathered to avoid spoiling, but an abundant, fruitful harvest of God’s love lavished, nourished, and brought to perfection.

Lord, thank you for the reminder that all of this life –even the trials and frustrations–will produce a harvest of praise and worship. Give me the strength and wisdom to work joyfully for Your glory today. Help me to sow the seeds of Grace and Truth that come from your word, and to help others grow. Help me to respond with eagerness to the Holy Spirit’s prompting and counsel, and be a blessing to those around me. Amen.

Love Lifted Me

I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me
.

Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
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I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.

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Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.

This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus.
“Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”

As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!

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“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.

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Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.

Come Home

It’s Football season again here in the U.S. (American Football, that is). High Schools and colleges across the country are having “homecoming” festivities, as their teams return “home” after playing games on the road. Elaborate floats, dress-up days, pep rallies, parades, ceremonies, homecoming princes and princesses, dances, tailgate parties..homecoming is a big deal. There is something about the idea of returning home that captures our emotions and brings out joy and excitement.

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One of the most famous of Jesus’ parables involved a son who comes home after living a life of dissipation, folly, and dishonor. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+15%3A11-32&version=NIV. As he is making his way home, but is still “a long way off,” his father sees, him, has compassion on him, and runs to meet him and welcome him. He then commands that clothes should be brought, and a feast prepared to welcome his son back home.

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What a beautiful picture of God’s love for us–it overcomes shame and disgrace, dishonor, and ruin. God watches for us to change directions and seek His face. But He doesn’t demand that we crawl home in defeat and beg Him to take us back. He runs to meet us with joy and excitement even greater than all the parades and floats and dances of any homecoming celebration. All of Heaven rejoices over every one who comes to repentance!

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But there are two sons in this story. The “other” son does not want to join in the celebration– he is resentful and bitter over his brother’s behavior and his father’s willingness to celebrate. We do not get to know all the reasons why he might be resentful, but his father gently reminds him that he is loved and secure, and still has his inheritance. The return of the brother doesn’t change any of that.

In prayer, we should remember this parable and some of the lessons it can teach. Let’s ask ourselves:

  • Am I making some of the same mistakes as the “prodigal son?” Am I running away from “home” and God in selfish pursuits? Am I asking God for an “advance” on my inheritance–wanting blessings and rewards before God’s time or outside of God’s will? Am I wasting time or resources or talents that God has given me? Am I stubbornly refusing to return home, even when it’s obvious that “my” way isn’t working? Do I think I need to work my way back to God by bargaining my good works?
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  • Am I making some of the mistakes of the “other” brother? Do I resent God’s mercy toward people I think of as “unworthy?” Do I refuse to celebrate and welcome my brothers or sisters who have come “home?” Do I blame God for “withholding” blessings, even though I never sought them? Do I doubt God’s love for me because my life story isn’t dramatic or filled with miraculous demonstrations of grace (apart from the ultimate miracle of the Crucifixion and Resurrection!!!)
  • Am I watching and running with the Father to welcome others “home?” Am I joining in the Homecoming festivities for those who are being rescued from ruin and death? Am I filled with joy and excitement about the Gospel?
  • Am I anticipating the ultimate “Homecoming” –the indescribable joy of spending eternity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all the saints in Glory?

Lord, help me to see the faces of my neighbors and friends, and enemies, and even strangers, as you do–help me to delight in their redemption, ready to celebrate and share in the joy; help me to search for them, run to them, and lead them to You! And help me to never take for granted the amazing love you have for me–even me!

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  1. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
    Calling for you and for me;
    See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
    Watching for you and for me.
    • Refrain:
      Come home, come home,
      You who are weary, come home;
      Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
      Calling, O sinner, come home!
  2. Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,
    Pleading for you and for me?
    Why should we linger and heed not His mercies,
    Mercies for you and for me?
  3. Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing,
    Passing from you and from me;
    Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming,
    Coming for you and for me.
  4. Oh, for the wonderful love He has promised,
    Promised for you and for me!
    Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon,
    Pardon for you and for me.

P.S. I Love You

There are at least two great songs and one movie with the title, “P.S. I Love You.” The idea comes from a letter– one in which the writer wants to make sure that “I Love You” are the last three words on the page– the lasting impression for the letter’s recipient.

The Bible is many things– a history, a book of laws, a narrative of God’s dealings with humankind–but it is also a love letter. Scattered throughout the lists of generations, the poetry, the prophecies, the gospels, and yes, the letters to churches, are expressions of love. God begins by creating a beautiful garden, creating Adam in his own likeness, and creating a suitable helper from Adam’s side. He gives them everything they need to live and enjoy everything around them–He even comes to walk and talk with them!

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God rescues the nation of Israel from slavery and cruelty in Egypt, and guides them in the wilderness for 40 years–providing food and water, even preserving their clothing and shoes, so they have no lack!

God punishes the rebellious nation, sending them into exile– but He gives them promises, and even in the worst of their punishment, He speaks words of love and healing and reconciliation.

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God sends the ultimate Word of Love in His Son– who loves, heals, forgives, and serves, even to the point of dying! And in the death and resurrection of Jesus, this love is extended to everyone who will accept Him.

Finally, God promises an end to death and rebellion–eternal reconciliation and life with Him who loves us best. His love letter ends with a glorious P.S.:

22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever… 16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” 17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life… 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
(Revelation 22:1-5; 16-17; 20-21.)

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+22&version=NIV
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Even when God sends punishment, or stays silent in the face of our immediate questions, He never stops saying “I Love You.” I. LOVE. YOU!

Lord, may I take time today to read your love letter. May I savor Your words and may I take the time to read Your Post Script– and respond to Your Eternal and Fathomless Love! Amen!

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