Tuesday, December 24, 2013

His CHRISTmas gift

As my read through the Bible in a year comes to a close again, I’ve been reflecting more and more about how no matter how many times I read all the way through God’s Word, there is always SO MUCH MORE that I learn.  This is probably my seventh time reading from start to finish, and I think I’ll wind up doing it again in 2014, though I’m thinking about just reading through the Old Testament in 2014 and through the New Testament in 2015 (this mirrors what our pastor is planning to cover in the next couple years so there’s an ulterior motive to it).  Part of my thinking is that even though I love reading cover-to-cover there can tend to be a rote aspect to it.  That is, I read to make sure I read, rather than to read with a deeper sense of purpose.  Maybe slowing down a little will give me a chance to appreciate what I read a little more.  We’ll see.

With my reading last week, I covered Philippians 1 – 4, 1 Timothy 1 – 6, Titus 1 – 3, 1 Peter 1 – 5, and Hebrews 1 – 13.  Given we celebrate CHRISTmas tomorrow, I wanted to camp out on one of Paul’s most significant statements in his letters.  It’s Philippians 3:12 – 15 …

I have not yet reached my goal, and I am not perfect.  But Christ has taken hold of me.  So I keep on running and struggling to take hold of the prize.  My friends, I don’t feel that I have already arrived.  But I forget what is behind, and I struggle for what is ahead.  I run toward the goal, so that I can win the prize of being called to heaven.  This is the prize that God offers because of what Christ Jesus has done.  All of us who are mature should think in this same way.  And if any of you think differently, God will make it clear to you.

We all realize, albeit today to varying degrees, that CHRISTmas is a celebration of Jesus’s birth.  We put out manger scenes, sing songs, and give gifts to one another.  Too often, what we do in this annual recognition comes from tradition rather than a true appreciation for the magnitude of what really happened over 2,000 years ago (though remember that while we celebrate Jesus’s birthday on December 25, His actual birthdate would be pretty different … some calculate in September, some as late as November).

We must first realize that Jesus was FULLY God.  In John’s Gospel, he writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  The way the Greek is written, it is clear that what we translate as “the Word was God,” is referring to Jesus’s nature and His essence as God.  In other words, He was in all ways, always God.  We also know from further reading in John’s Gospel that Jesus was the person of the Godhead responsible for creation … something only God could do.  Hence, He was not just present at creation, He did it.  He was there, then, in the garden as Adam and Eve chose to disregard God’s instruction, in their pride, and listen to Satan’s temptation and bring sin into the world, revolting and perverting God’s intention for our world and existence.  He was also present before then at Satan’s prideful betrayal and treason. 

What did Jesus, God, do in response?  He took on human flesh to serve as not just an example of the perfect life, but to go WAY beyond that and to sacrifice that flesh for us.  But think more about the manner in which He took on the flesh.  Let’s face it, He could have come back as an adult, as a King, as whatever He wanted.  He chose to be born as a baby.  The most helpless form of human there is.  He chose to be born in the lowliest, dirtiest location in a fully insignificant, virtually nameless part of Israel, after no one would take His parents in.  Huh?   Only God would do this.  But WHY on earth would God do this?  I think it’s because of a very underused word during CHRISTmas … LOVE.  As one of my favorite unknown country CHRISTmas songs says, “He had the birthday, we got the gift.”  That gift is love.

So, what in the world does all this have to do with Philippians 3:12 – 15?  Glad you asked!

That gift that God gave us is what Paul’s referring to in this famous passage.  It’s when he says, “I run toward the goal, so that I can win the prize of being called to heaven.  This is the prize that God offers because of what Christ Jesus has done.”  Because of what Christ Jesus has done.  This is what we celebrate on CHRISTmas … yes it also has all to do with His sacrificial death and conquering of that death in Easter, but we’ll deal with that in a few months.  8-)

Paul reminds us of the enormity of Jesus’s love by His birth and life.  Without Jesus’s birth those 2,000-plus years ago in Bethlehem, Paul points out that we’d have NO hope of the prize of heaven.   Not only that, but he reminds us that we would lack the motivation and propulsion to go through the hazards of life that we all experience.  Paul went through prison, stoning, near-death multiple times … certainly worse than many of us go through … but similar to what some of us have to endure in life.  Without Jesus’s love expressed in His incarnation, the realities and inevitabilities of life would have ZERO meaning, purpose or reward.  WITH it … it has all meaning, purpose, and reward.

Our lives have context because of Jesus’s birth.  I’ve said it before, I don’t know how people who don’t know Him make it through life.  The pain, struggles, disappointments, etc., would seem overbearing but for the promise of heaven that Jesus availed to us.  I think that’s what Paul is saying.

So this is my overly-simplistic way of reminding us that CHRISTmas is way more than what we typically make of it.  Even when we think we realize what it means, I still have to wonder if we really, really do, me included.  CHRISTmas is everything.  It’s the ONLY reason we have hope.  It’s the ONLY reason life makes sense.  It’s the ONLY reason we can celebrate anything in life.

And probably the most amazing thing … to me … is that it’s the ONLY thing that a fully loving creator could have done in response to an unloving, unlovable creation.  Man, is that ever a head-scratcher.

So, tomorrow, let’s ALL try to take into full account the meaning and implication of what our loving God did.  The more we think we understand it, the more we’ll realize it defies understanding.

Thank you JESUS!  Happy birthday!

In His powerful, loving, eternal Name,


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Be a sponge

This week I moved further into and through Paul’s epistles, as well as finishing Acts.   Specifically I read through Acts 20 – 28, Romans 11 – 16, Colossians 1 – 4, Philemon, and Ephesians 1 – 6.  Something interesting struck me as I was reading through Colossians chapter 3.  The specific passages were in Colossians 3:8 – 11 … during a section in which Paul is talking to the church at Colossi (and us) about, now that we are followers of Christ, how we should act and how we should be different.  The passage says,

But now you must stop doing such things.  You must quit being angry, hateful, and evil.  You must no longer say insulting or cruel things about others.  And stop lying to each other.  You have given up your old way of life with its habits.  Each of you is now a new person.  You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better.  It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not.  You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

So you’ll have to bear with me as I unpack the relatively unconventional allegory that came to mind about the topics in this passage as they relate to us.  Simply put, what this passage is telling us is to change the way we live, the behaviors and attitudes that seep out of us.  In a way, I sort of visualized this like a sponge (and no, not because of the incessant episodes of SpongeBob Square Pants that the kids watch … though the concept is pretty funny).

Think about a sponge … let’s say your general household sponge.  A sponge on its own, with no liquid (water, cleanser, etc.) is pretty unusable.  They can contain a multitude of liquids, those that are harmful and those that are beneficial.   They can soak up quite a significant bit more than their own mass.  When squeezed, what’s actually in them leaks out.  If no liquid is put in them, over time they dry up and become brittle and useless.  If liquid is put in them and left inside them without being put to use, they can become quite nasty, smelly and dirty, hardly useable at all.

Turning the analogy around a little to make it remotely applicable to the passage at hand, in order for us to be the new people under Christ that we should be, we have to think of ourselves as sponges.  That is, just as a sponge with no liquid in it is pretty useless, so are we if we haven’t allowed God to fill us with His Holy Spirit when we come to faith in Jesus.  That’s the first step.  However, we can also allow a multitude of liquids to take on absorption in us … many of the traits Paul mentions in the Colossians passage … anger, hatred, cruelty, lying, bitterness, pride, etc.  Those are harmful.  There are other “liquids” we can fill up with … such as those referred to as the fruit of the spirit – love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, etc. (which Paul writes about in Galatians 5).  Those are the beneficial ones.

Just as sponges, we have an incredible capacity to soak up these liquids, both good and bad.   And just like our household sponges, we rarely fill ourselves to the fullest capacity possible.  But no matter what, when we’re pressured, stressed or squeezed, we find out what is truly in us … because what’s actually in us is what leaks out under distress.

If we put no liquid (via the Holy Spirit, the fruit of the spirit) in us, we eventually dry up, become brittle and good for nothing.  We can also fill ourselves up, even with the beneficial stuff, but leave it inside too long and get moldy, stinky and nasty.  Either way, anything but useable.

To summarize my harebrained example, in order for us to live in the manner worthy of our new identities in Christ, we have to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can be useful.  By allowing Him to absorb into us, we can then exude the benevolent traits we’re called to … serving as a blessing to others as God works through us, putting us to use in a world-cleansing way.  We can ask Him to keep the harmful substances away from us so that we don’t apply damaging substances to those around us, and in the process spoiling the character God calls us to have.  Finally, we need to remain filled but only insofar as it relates to us using the good liquid in us and filling up with more good liquid … continuing to put it to use rather than keeping it in and letting it spoil.

Okay.  Enough strange illustrations.  I hope you catch my drift.

This week, let’s ask God to fill us more … now that we already have His Holy Spirit within our hearts … with desires to serve Him, to love others and to shine His light so that others will want to know what it’s about.  Let’s ask Him to make us good, clean, useful sponges.  Haha.

Praising the Lord for you,


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Letter of "recommendation" and "commendation"

Reading through Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians is always amazing.  Romans is far and away one of my favorite books in all the Bible.  At the end of the day, though, it’s always amazing to note Paul’s conversion and turnaround from being chief persecutor of the church, to the most powerful example of God’s grace and love, and a crucial instrument to write about those from the deepest personal experience there may be of such matters.

This week’s reading took me through 1 Corinthians 15 – 16, 2 Corinthians 1 – 13, and Romans 1 – 10.  One section I highlighted but really didn’t think twice about until just now is in 2 Corinthians 3, particularly verses 1 – 3 …

Are we once again bragging about ourselves?  Do we need letters to you or from you to tell others about us?  Some people do need letters that tell about them.  But you are our letter, and you are in our hearts for everyone to read and understand.  You are like a letter written by Christ and delivered by us.  But you are not written with pen and ink or on tablets made of stone.  You are written in our hearts by the Spirit of the living God.

Leading up to this passage exiting chapter 2, Paul is noting to the church at Corinth the reward of relying on God to help him deliver God’s message … that God leads the way for Paul’s ministry to succeed in reaching the recipients of Paul’s message for Christ.  He talks about how some preachers use their ministry to gain personal wealth.  Paul’s point here is that he didn’t need accolades, rewards, wealth or anything to demonstrate the fruit of his labor.  The church was his proof, his reward, his badge of honor, his accomplishment.

How does this relate to us?   The “letter” Paul refers to could be considered like something of a letter of recommendation or a letter or commendation … both concepts with which we today are familiar.  While each differs somewhat in terms of its intent and its content, both have similarities and cool applicability for us.

Consider a letter of recommendation … according to a definition on Wikipedia, it “is one in which the writer assesses the qualities, characteristics, and capabilities of the person being recommended in terms of that individual’s ability to perform a particular task or function.”  So, a letter of recommendation provides validation of someone’s fit for a purpose based on historical direct observation and experience.

A letter of commendation deals with “presenting, mentioning, or praising as worthy of confidence, notice, kindness, etc.,” and “to cite or name with approval or special praise.”  In a similar way, commendation has to do with recognition of exemplary achievement.

In either case, personal experience and observation corroborates the distinction.

Paul seems to be admonishing us through his reflection that our motives in relationship and ministry must not be external in orientation.  In other words, our goal in these respects shouldn’t be focused on recognition, notoriety, financial reward, status, wealth or fame.  The “letter” he refers to is essentially the acknowledgement of their success … that “letter” is the church to which he was ministering, with whom he’d had fellowship and relationship.  Same with us … the people we serve, minister to, relate with, do life with, they are the reward for our labor and devotion in sharing God’s love.  They are the embodiment of an eternal orientation … a storing up treasures in heaven, as it were.

Thus we have our marching orders so to speak.  God made us relational beings and for reasons only He knows has entrusted to us the ability to pass along his message of mercy, forgiveness and grace.  He expects us to be His hands and feet in serving His people and His creation.  When He looks at the collective body of evidence that accounts for our impact in this world, I suspect He is going to look at the people we’ve blessed, touched, helped, loved, and reached for Him.  Hence … as Paul talked about … our “letter.”

Let’s devote ourselves in prayer this week to aligning our hearts to the heart of Jesus … to looking out for His people in the way He would want us to.  Not because of outward recognition or reward, but for the intrinsic compensation that comes from the effect on the people we touch.  Let their faith, their love, their longevity and effectiveness in ministry be our report card.  Let’s ask God to constantly check us by His Holy Spirit, and to adjust our attitudes and motives to heavenly-minded ones rather than earthly-minded.

In the strong love of JESUS CHRIST, Savior of the world,


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Joyfulness, prayer and thankfulness regardless of circumstances

This week took me deeper into the ministry journeys of Paul … specifically through Acts 17 – 19, 1 Thessalonians 1 – 5, 2 Thessalonians 1 – 3, 1 Corinthians 1 – 14.  Among my favorite passages in all the Bible is encapsulated within these sections of scripture.  It’s in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 – 18 … a relatively short portion that packs a huge punch.

Always be joyful and never stop praying.  Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ.  This is what God wants you to do.

Let’s take this piece-by-piece as a bit of a personal attitude inventory.

Always be joyful.  Okay, I confess I could stop there and know that I’m a far cry from “always.”  Think about what joyful means … admittedly, I’m not attempting to translate the Greek, this is just plain old contemporary English.  There were definitions that included “emotion,” “expression,” and “feeling.”  But the one that I think hit the nail on the head, from the point of view of this passage, was “a state of happiness or felicity.”  The word “state” as emphasized, I think, is the key.  A state of being suggests a constant, normal, true existence.  How is this possible?  Let’s look at the next passages …

Never stop praying.  Praying puts us not just in communication with God, but in communion with Him.  It allows us to acknowledge His Lordship and to express adoration He is rightly due.  We can also expose our hearts to Him (which of course He already knows) and confess the ways we’ve deviated from His desired behaviors.  In essence, this allows us to realign ourselves to Him, which in an nutshell is the way we can achieve real joy.  This joy can only come from a life devoted to God in the day-to-day realities we face, when we surrender to His perfect, loving, holy plan for our lives.  When we know God is truly the Lord of our life, how can we NOT have joy?  I think this is why Paul says “never stop praying.”  NEVER STOP PRAYING.  How crazy hard is that?  Although, I think the point is a lifestyle of constant prayerfulness … not necessarily devoting 24 / 7 to being at home in prayer all the time.  We can be praying nonstop as a matter of lifestyle and acknowledgement and intercession.  Remember, God doesn’t need us to utter long, detailed sentences with big King James Version words to know what’s on our hearts from a prayer perspective. 

Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ.  Whatever happens.  Whatever happens?  Whatever happens!  Another place where I have to confess I struggle.  My thankfulness is all too often tied to the condition of my existence … little stuff, in fact, can pull me out of this orbit.  It’s a frustration that I know is not something I alone battle with, but it’s my responsibility (and your responsibility) to adjust our perspective to a thankful one.  Why should we?  How could we?  It says in the passage … “because of Jesus Christ.”  Enough said.  When we really get right down to it, that’s all it should really take.  When we really pay close, detailed attention to what Jesus did for us by serving as the propitiation for our sin … there’s no reasonable way to NOT be constantly thanking God … whatever happens.  Besides … “this is what God wants you to do.”  I’ll say it again … enough said.

Far too often I lack a joyful state of existence.  I don’t sufficiently carry a “never stop praying” lifestyle.  “Whatever happens” more often than I’d like can take me to places where thankfulness is not chiefly my attitude.  Let’s ask God this week … especially given whatever dicey circumstances might be going on … to remind us what real joy is, how to get it through a prayerful lifestyle, and in so doing to restore our thankfulness … no matter what.

Thanking the Lord for you!