Favor With God

Background Passages: Luke 1:26-38; James 4:6; John 3:16

The young woman bent low in the knees and ducked through the doorway of her father’s home a tall jar of water upon her shoulder. As she turned to place the vessel on the table she stared in fear at the angel standing near the fireplace.

“Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.”

As the jar of water crashed to the floor, Mary back away toward the door in fear and confusion. Quickly, the angel spoke, his voice comforting and concerned, “Do not be afraid. Mary, you have found favor with God.”

As the angel laid out God’s plan for Mary’s life, I cannot fathom the whirlwind of emotions she experienced. Her world turned upside down.

Through God’s great gift of Christmas, the final piece of creation’s puzzle fell in place, planned before time…perfected through the life, death and resurrection to come. Mary heard the words of the angel and struggled to understand the heady revelation that she, an ordinary young woman from an inconsequential village in Galilee, would be the vessel through whom God chose to present himself to the world.

As profound as those words might have been, had I been Mary, I might have wrestled as much with the beginning of the angel’s message…

“You have found favor with God.”

In the world’s language, to show favoritism is to show exceptional kindness to someone, especially in comparison to the treatment of others. Preferential treatment. In the first century, people believed that wealth, health and blessing were signs of God’s favor upon you. That you had done something to earn his favor.

Consider Mary’s life following the angel’s announcement. It hardly speaks to preferential treatment. Her life spun out of control almost immediately.

Joseph had every right to disown her and discredit her publicly. Though he embraced a similar angelic message, others would be less understanding. A few months later, she faced an arduous and uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem in her last trimester. Upon their arrival, the only place available to them was an unholy stable among the animals. She gave birth far from family and friends who might celebrate with her.

A short time later, she fled to a foreign land ahead of a king’s murderous soldiers who were intent upon killing her son. She later watched in dread as her son’s message of God’s forgiveness was met with scorn and hatred by the religious leaders of the day. She heard a bloodthirsty crowd call for his crucifixion. She watched from a distance and felt the echo of each hammer driving nails through the hands and feet of her beloved son. She wept at his feet as blood and life drained from his body.

If she thought at all of the angel’s announcement as she stood near the cross, I doubt she felt favored. This was hardly a life of preferential treatment. What, then, did it mean for Mary to find favor with God?

Nothing in scripture indicates that God’s favor falls upon people simply for their own enjoyment. We find those on whom God’s favor rests given great responsibility so the lives of others may be changed. So God might be glorified. Moses. Abraham. Job. These were men who found God’s favor. Nothing about their lives was easy. All carried the burden of life heavily on their shoulders.

You see, I often thought God chose Mary because of something uniquely righteous within her. That her faith was deeper and her life purer than any other…by extension, deeper and purer than my own life. Seeing Mary in those terms diminishes God’s work of grace. In many ways it cheapens the miracle of Christmas.

Bible scholars tell us that the word in Luke 1:30 which most Bible’s translate as “favor” is the same Greek word from which we get our word for “grace.”

“Mary, you have found God’s grace.”

Mary wasn’t chosen to be the mother of Jesus because her goodness outshone any other. Rather, God extended an offer of grace to Mary to be used by God for something which carried enormous responsibility. The angel’s declaration came, not because she deserved it. It came as a gift. Undeserved. Unmerited.

Mary could have rejected God’s offer. She could have said, “Not me. Find someone else.” Yet, she considered all the angel said and declared, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

With those words, Mary, as a young teenage girl, accepted God’s grace gift and all that it would entail without fully understanding the implications for her own life.

James 4:6 proclaims that “God opposes the proud, but shows favor (grace) to the humble.” It is this thought I had not considered in the Christmas story. That Mary found favor with God had little to do with her goodness and everything to do with her humble spirit. Her desire to be open to the possibilities God presented to her. That idea has implications for my life I had not considered.

I stand today a recipient of God’s favor, his unmerited grace. The offer to accept Jesus Christ as savior came through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, not because I deserved it, but as a gift undeserved. It came as an offer I could have refused. Yet, I considered all the spirit said to me and said in essence, “I am your servant.” With those words, as a nine-year-old boy, I accepted God’s grace gift and all it would entail without fully understanding the implications for my own life.

For any of us to embrace God’s gift of his son, there comes a point when we must humble ourselves before him, recognizing that it is not our goodness that merits his favor. It is through his unfailing love for us that his grace flows.

For those of us who have placed our faith and trust in Jesus, Christmas is a joyous reminder that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to be to be his grace gift to the world.

Mary humbly embraced the role God asked her to play and bore the burden of responsibility it carried with it. Like Mary, in response to God’s grace, may we, in all humility, be open to the possibilities God presents to us.

 

Peace on Earth

Background Passages: Luke 2:1-14; John 14:27

The young man leaned against a boulder, resting his head upon his arms as his calloused hands gripped the shepherd’s staff held in front of him. The quiet of the night interrupted by the soft bleating of a ewe calling for his lamb. The nearby campfires set around the hillside illuminated the measured steps of his friends standing watch around the flock. He found comfort in their presence.

Without warning, an angel in radiant garments, appeared among them, night’s shadows chased away by the brilliance of God’s glory. Stricken with fear, the shepherds dropped to the ground. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said with a voice calm and clear. “I bring you tidings of great joy for all the people. Today, in the city of David, a Savior is born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord.”

As soon as he made his announcement, a great host of angels surrounded them, singing praises to God of his unsurpassed greatness and declaring “peace to all on earth on whom God’s favor rests.”

From the moment the angel declared the birth of God’s own Son, we have longed for the promised peace. When we look past the tinsel and trappings of the season into the world around us, the angel’s words of good cheer and peace seem elusive at best. The fault lies not with the angel’s pronouncement, nor with God’s promise. Rather, the failure lies in our definition of peace.

Jesus’ birth did not usher in a time of peace. The savior was born in a region consumed by strife for hundreds of years. The Roman conquerors, just the latest in a long line of foreign rulers, kept a heavy hand upon Judea. Herod, the appointed king of Judea, feared any and every rival, eventually calling for the death of every child under the age of two. Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt. No, Jesus’ world was hardly a place of peace.

Throughout his life and ministry Jesus encountered suspicion and hatred, ultimately leading to his death on a cross and the persecution of his followers. Upon hearing of the declaration to the shepherds, the casual observer might ask, “Where is the promised peace?”

Nineteen centuries later, the world watched as the United States of America tore itself apart in a ugly Civil War, fought to end the enslavement of one people by another. During this brutal time, the eldest son of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famed American poet, enlisted in the Union army without his father’s permission. Young Wadsworth suffered a severe wound at a battle in Virginia.

As a result, our poet wrote Christmas Bells, a poem later put to music and renamed, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It begins with a declaration of the popular seasonal sentiment of peace on earth before decrying the reality of war and violence. The sullen lyrics proclaim, “And in despair, I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’” The casual reader might hear the song and ask, “Where is the promised peace?”

Understand clearly, Jesus’ birth remains one of earth’s most amazing events and marks the beginning of the final expression of God’s plan for bringing salvation to the world. It did not then, and does not now, end the disharmony among men. Turn on the television and listen to the divisive conversations. See the reports of warfare and violence across the globe. The casual observer might ask, “Where is the promised peace?”

God calls us to live in harmony today with one another, to love our neighbors and our enemies, but this is not the peace of Christmas. God’s promised peace is not found in our external relationships. God’s perfect peace is internal…in the heart of every believer…and it is eternal…in the life everlasting he promised through his son, Jesus Christ.

As he prepared for his death on the cross, Jesus comforted his disciples. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Then, he echoed the words of the angels to the shepherds, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

While the world’s discord ought to concern us and our lives ought to be about bridging those damaged and fragile relationships, we tend to live in fear of the anger that exists among us. God reminds us often in scripture, “Do not be afraid.” Fear is overcome by living as God desires us to live.

God loves it when we live obedient to his will. It pleases him. We find the peace and contentment he promised while here on earth only when living in the light of his will for our lives. It is not the absence of conflict as the best peace given by the world. It is the peace he gives us as his spirit lives within our hearts in the here and now.

The baby God sent to lie in the manger in Bethlehem, the one the angels proclaimed as the Messiah, brought God’s gift of grace and salvation to a hateful world so that those who would place faith and trust in him would find true peace…not just in the present day, but for all eternity.

In the end, Wordsworth’s expressed pessimism yielded to the promise of the baby in the manger. His last stanza declares our greatest hope. Where is the peace? It is found in these words.

Then rang the bells more loud and deep.
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.

Then ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day.
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Listen to my favorite rendition of this Christmas classic by Casting Crowns.

God is still in control and his victory over all that is wrong is assured. In Christmas we catch a glimpse of what we can be. In Christmas we bury that which divides us to find a brief respite from the rancor that rules the year. In Christmas we find peace that only a life committed to Christ can find. Because of Christmas we rest in God’s promise of eternal peace.

This is my prayer for you this Christmas.

Standing on the Wall

Background Passages: Nehemiah 4:1-14; John 15:13

He walked his horse carefully through the rubble of the fortifications that surrounded his city, out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Wall. As he neared the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, the walls that once towered above lay now in ruins strewn across the path, forcing the rider to dismount and pick his way through the debris blocking the road.

The scrap of his sandaled feet against the stone echoed in the darkness…an bitter reminder of the complete destruction caused by his enemies and the utter defeat his nation suffered years before. He crawled up the mound of burned and broken rock, ripping the hem of his robe on a sharp shard of stone. Breathing heavily after his arduous climb, he stood in stunned silence staring at the charred remains of the gate and the broken fortress it once guarded. The city…his home…stood defenseless against any and all enemies.

Nehemiah looked over the shattered and shadowed walls of Jerusalem, his sorrow giving way to new resolve.

The next day Nehemiah called together the leaders of Jerusalem, extending to them God’s invitation and his personal challenge. “Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and we will no longer be in disgrace.”

Nehemiah offered a new beginning to a once proud people. To their credit, the people of Jerusalem jumped at the chance to resurrect their city and their nation out of the rubble that represented their bitter defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and their long exile from the land of their fathers.

Not everyone in the region took kindly to the restoration project. Judah’s old enemies grumbled among themselves, mocking the people for trying to regain their greatness, and accusing them of rebelling against the new king. They feared Judah’s resurgence and saw it as a threat to their regional power.

These enemy nations allied with one another, determined to attack Jerusalem before its people could repair the walls. “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to their work.”

Nehemiah discovered their plan and responded to the outside threat by standing men on the wall at the “exposed places,” posting them with their swords, spears and bows. “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

On a weekend in which we honor America’s veterans, Nehemiah reminds us that our nation needs men and women who are willing to stand the wall in defense of home and all it represents.

On a hillside overlooking the Potomac River in Arlington Cemetery, rests the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On that spot on November 11, 1921, the United States Army interred the remains of a soldier who died in World War I, a man whose name was lost to history. The first unofficial Armistice Day ceremony came about as an international recognition of the end of the great war just three years prior.

Years later in 1956, after two more major conflicts made it clear that the “war to end all wars” failed to keep its promise, President Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday to Veteran’s Day to honor all men and women who serve our nation in times of peace or war.

I not sure our nation ever does enough to adequately thank the men and women who serve or have served in our armed forces. Their sacrifice on behalf of our nation is unequaled. They simply go where they are sent and stand between our nation and those who wish to harm us and our way of life.

Most veterans I know speak rarely of their experiences. My father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Three of my uncles served in our nation’s military. One in the Marines in Korea. Two in the United States Army, serving in Vietnam and in Europe during the Cold War. A nephew, a U.S. Marine, served two tours of duty in Iraq. None of them talk much of their experiences unless it is to speak of the close friendships they developed during those difficult times.

Most veterans I know seem truly humbled by their service, deferring their honor for those whose sacrifice they believe to be greater than their own. They find themselves choked with emotion for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice at the call of their country.

John Quincy Adams, the fifth president of the United States, echoed the sentiments of many veterans as they reflect on their years of service. Adams said, “You will never know how much it cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you make good use of it.”

It is quite possible that each generation of Americans shares John Quincy Adams feeling that the succeeding generations will never understand the true cost of freedom. Whether it was the baggage of Vietnam or the social upheaval of the day, my generation, as a whole, failed at the time to offer the respect to our nation’s Vietnam veterans. I’m grateful that sentiment has changed in recent years.

Despite today’s anthem protests that have been blown out of proportion, I am strongly encouraged by the patriotism displayed by the younger generation of Americans. Though more culturally diverse, most seem more keenly aware of the cost of freedom and more deeply respectful of the veterans who ensure its future with their service. Each of us bears the responsibility and obligation to, as Adams said, “make good use” of the freedoms they defended through sacrifice and death.

Yet one only needs to spend a few minutes talking to a veteran to know that in the heat of combat, the lofty ideals of freedom give way to the brotherhood of service. Nehemiah understood it clearly when he placed the men on the wall. He did not ask them to fight for Jerusalem or Judah. There was no rally cry of freedom. He asked only that they trust in the power of the Lord and “fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

Jesus, who himself offered the ultimate sacrifice for all of us, told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” It is this attitude of self-sacrifice that lies in the heart of every veteran I have ever known.

A simple “thank you” to our nation’s veterans seems grossly inadequate for the years of service and sacrifice, so I couple my gratitude with my deepest respect and honor. I offer my personal thanks to my family, Gene Lewis, Bill Mills, Leslie Lewis, Ovid Lewis and Erich Schoeffler, and a host of friends who served faithfully and without fanfare.

For all those men and women who stood on the wall for our sake, and all those currently serving around the world, may God bless you and keep you. For the rest of us, let’s make good use of the freedom they helped secure.

*****

Looking for gifts for Christmas. Consider the books written by Dr. Kirk Lewis. Dr. Grear Howard of Truett Seminary said, “Lewis brings genuine humanity to historical Bible stories. To borrow a phrase, his devotional stories ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ He sketches out God’s power in these stories, but perhaps more importantly, Lewis shouts to the reader God’s presence in all these interactions.”

Order “Put Away Childish Things” and “The Chase: Our Passionate Pursuit of Life Worth Living” from Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.

Prayer Warriors

Background Passages: Colossians 1:7-8; 4:12-13; Philemon 23; James 2:14-16

The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther learned the need for deep spiritual concentration in prayer from his dog, Klutz. Luther said, “If I could only pray the way this dog watches meat …(beyond that one thing) he has no thought, wish or hope.” Effective prayer requires a singular focus.

One such prayer warrior, casually mentioned in scripture, poured his every thought, wish and hope into his passionate prayers for the believers in Colossae. Consider the example of Epaphras.

I suspect the long journey to Rome gave him time to reflect on the troubles plaguing the Colossian church as it resisted the heretical attacks of those who misunderstood and misapplied the gospel of Christ. After his conversion experience in Ephesus experienced at the feet of Paul, Epaphras took his missionary zeal 100 miles west to the cities of Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis.

As it was in other areas, the spread of Christianity faced a host of problems caused by those who wished to assimilate Christ’s teachings into the prevailing religions or philosophies of the day. Some Jewish leaders embraced the teachings of Christ to a point, but insisted that Jewish laws, rituals and traditions be embraced as a condition of salvation. Some Gentiles attempted to blend Greco/Roman philosophies with Christian teaching, but proclaiming a “secret knowledge” that made them more in tune with God. Other philosophers tried to meld Christian humility and servanthood with the joyless stoicism of self-denial.

Faced with all of these pressures upon the churches he served, Epaphras boarded a boat to Rome intent upon sharing his concerns with Paul, his spiritual mentor and guide. When Paul heard of the difficulties in the church, he penned a letter addressed to the churches providing instruction from the apostle to the believers. In the book of Colossians, Paul encouraging them to set aside the false teachings and focus instead on the teachings of Christ.

As he closed his letter to the Colossian church, Paul spoke highly of Epaphras, one of only three times this dedicated pastor was mentioned in the Bible. In the brief biblical references to Epaphras, he is called “servant of Christ Jesus,” “our beloved fellow servant,” “faithful minister” and “my fellow prisoner.”

Paul held this man of faith in high esteem, considering him a valuable member of the ministry team and a personal encouragement in his life. However, Paul’s reference to his friend reveals a great deal about Epaphras that I find instructive. He wrote,

“Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis.”

Epaphras understood what we tend to forget. Our prayers tend to be incident specific, offered during times of personal need or want. Our prayers tend to be generic as we intercede for “them,” those whose struggles we see, but never really touch. Epaphras prayed differently.

Paul said, “He is always wrestling in prayer for you…” He offered prayers of intercession, lifting his congregation to the throne of God, laying their needs at the feet of Christ. Knowing what they faced…knowing that great was their need for the Spirit’s presence at a time when false teachers were pulling them in all directions…Epaphras prayed.

I suspect he did more than pray for the generic spiritual health of his church. He knew his people, his friends. He knew the unique struggles each individual faced. He knew their personal hurts, their unique desires, their individual weakness. He knew their joy, their devotion, their strengths. He prayed for each member of his congregation that God’s presence might be felt. God’s voice heard. God’s will obeyed.

How much more effective would our prayer life be if our first thought was not for our own needs or for a faceless crowd, but for the specific needs of the one? Praying not just for the universal needs of the Christian community, but for specific friends and family we know caught between the loving arms of God and the selfish pull of the world. Praying for friends and family that God’s joy might be made complete in them.

We learn another truth from this passage. “He is always wrestling in prayer for you,” Paul wrote. Epaphras prayed persistently and continuously for his people, lifting them up constantly to the Father. So great was his love for his congregation, their situation remained at the forefront of his heart. Though miles separated Rome from Colossae, Epaphras could not take his mind off their struggles. When you know those you care for are under spiritual attack and you cannot stand physically by their side, prayer provides a connection one to the other, linking your heart to theirs.

Thessalonians reminds us to “pray without ceasing,” not so a forgetful God will be reminded of our requests, but that we remain connected to those we love through a spiritual life line. Persistent and continuous prayer for another never allows the needs of another to get buried beneath the bustle of daily life.

Epaphras knew that effective prayer is labor intensive. Paul said, “He is always wrestling in prayer for you.” This servant of Jesus Christ agonized over the souls of those for whom he was responsible. They were that important to him. He carried their burdens as his own and that heavy responsibility left him seeking answers day in and day out, desperate to discover what he could say or do to bolster their faith and give them strength.

The word “wrestle” found in this text comes from a Greek word meaning “to agonize.” In a real sense, it paints a picture of competing for a prize. Figuratively, it suggests fighting an adversary. Both concepts ring true. The false teachers threatened the work of God’s grace, eternity’s highest prize, in the daily life of the Colossians. Those Epaphras opposed stood as enemies of the faith. True adversaries. He would fight them with every spiritual weapon at his disposal. Praying for the Colossians brought heartbreak and pain. The danger to their faith was never more real.

Epaphras labored in prayer over Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Stretching his mind, his heart, his spirit and his soul, Epaphras’ prayers consumed his time, drew upon his strength and challenged his commitment.

Prayer that fails to burden the soul echoes as a hollow sound. Epaphras teaches us that prayer should compel us to go to the mat for those in need and should define who we are and that for which we stand.

Epaphras prayed specifically and intelligently for the people. He prayed that in the face of all that opposed them, they might “stand firm” in the will of God. That their faith might be “mature” and “fully assured” as they withstand the assault on their beliefs. We might have prayed for God’s blessing upon them, or God’s peace and presence… and God would hear that prayer. However, Epaphras prayed for specific manifestations of their faith in a troubled time. His prayer came with a stated purpose for personal spiritual growth and confidence that they did not walk alone.

The most effective prayers we utter are those that are backed by our own hard work. Paul reminded the Colossians of their pastor’s tireless effort on their behalf. “I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and those in Laodicea and Hierapolis.” It wasn’t enough to lay his concerns before God, Epaphras set out to make those prayers a reality in the lives of those he loved. He worked. He worked hard as God’s hands and feet to make his prayers a reality.

James tells us of the link between faith and works. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”

I suspect the same is true of our prayers. Casual prayers of blessing for those we know who are struggling sound like we simply wish them well. We need to back our prayers with our actions. In this way we serve as God’s conduit for the answers he provides.

Every day we encounter someone who lives life in turmoil. Will we wrestle constantly in prayer for the heart that is broken? Will we put ourselves to work to ensure that our prayers actually touch a life of another? Can we go to God with such fervor and focus there exists no greater thought, wish or hope beyond that for which we pray?

The lesson taught by this obscure Christian giant is a good one. Whose Epaphras will you be?

*****

Author’s Note: This devotional thought is the third in a series of posts about some of the unsung heroes of the New Testament. These men and women, in many ways, carried the responsibility of the spread of the gospel in first 50 years after the ministry of Christ. By putting together the limited biblical references to their work and filling in the gaps with a little imagination, we find ways in which we, as ordinary Christians, can find in the examples they set our own heart for ministry.

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Fearless Love

Background Passages: Romans 12:13; I Peter 4:8-10; I John 4:18-20 and III John

“What should we do if we see one of you doing something wrong?” The question from my oldest son came out of the blue at the dinner table when he was about eight years old. My wife and I looked at each other in stunned silence as my mind raced through all the things I might have said or done since I got home that night.

My wife, unfazed by the question and probably with a cleaner conscious than mine, responded first. “You should tell us.” My son turned to me with a stern look on his face, “She talks to strangers all the time.” It seems our talks about “stranger danger” took hold. All I could do was shake my head and say, “I know. I know.”

What Adam observed is true. Robin will strike up a conversation with the woman she’s never met in the grocery line or the man at the doctor’s office…any time, any place, any one. She is outgoing and friendly to all she encounters. My son was right about her actions, but wrong in his interpretation. To my wife, no one is a stranger and all a potential friend.

I believe her ability to notice people, to make them feel special, is a God-given gift. In biblical terms, she has the gift of hospitality. Christian hospitality isn’t about fancy table settings or sumptuous banquets, it’s about servanthood. It conveys the idea of loving others in the name of Christ. While the Bible teaches all of us to love one another and to practice hospitality (Rom. 12:13), there are those whose spirit captures it in abundance.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one of you should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” I Peter 4:8-10

At its core, hospitality frames the loving outreach of the Christian faith…with hands, hearts and doors open to the world. It’s more than just unlocking your home to those in need of a place to stay. It speaks more to making connections with those we encounter…even if the connection is brief.

You’ll find the gift present in the families that welcomed into their homes victims of flood, fire and storm. You’ll find it in the woman who gave up a successful career to open a shelter for abused women and children. You’ll find the gift in the foster parent who loves so unconditionally for an uncertain time.

You’ll find the gift among those men and women who meet the needs of the hurting. End the isolation of the lonely, Embrace the rejected. The gift flows naturally because they love…and they love fearlessly.

John reminds us in his first letter, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” I John 4:18-19

That leads me back to the first century to a man referenced just once in the Bible. A minor player with a major role to play. John wrote his third letter not to a church nor to a pastor. Rather, III John is the ancient equivalent to a quick text or email from the apostle to a dear friend named Gaius whose fearless love served as evidence of his gift of hospitality.

Let me give you the setting. During the first century the apostles journeyed through the biblical world planting new churches. As they moved on under the leadership of the spirit, they left those fledgling congregations in the hands of local pastoral leaders. To ensure these new believers stayed true to the teachings of Christ, the apostles would periodically send their personal assistants, itinerant pastors, to continue teaching the deeper truths of the gospel, helping them grow toward a more mature faith.

Inevitably, some of these local leaders felt they no longer needed the help of “outsiders.” John tells us of one such man. Diotrephes, a strong-willed man who enjoyed at little too much his prominent position in the church, constantly belittled the apostles and sent away unceremoniously the itinerant preachers sent by John to minster to the people. Diotrephes so loved “being first” he abused his authority, convincing the congregation to kick out of the church any who opposed him in this matter.

Gaius stood in the gap on behalf of these visiting pastors, defying Diotrephes and undoubtedly incurring his wrath. Yet, John encouraged Gaius to continue “walking in truth” (vs. 3) and praised him for his “faithfulness” (vs. 5).

You see, Gaius had the gift. He could make anyone feel welcomed. With Gaius, conversation flowed easily. There was something in his demeanor that instantly turned the stranger he met in the grocery store, the doctor’s office or the steps of his church into a friend. He was the kind of person who drew the lonely from their solitude.

Gaius saw the good in others and cast aside the arrogance of Diotrephes to embrace the teaching of those visiting preachers. To welcome them into his home. To share his food and provision. To invite others to hear their words of encouragement and hope. If that meant loving those he barely knew when other friends and neighbors called him a fool, that’s what he would do.

You see, like my wife, Gaius never met a stranger. He met everyone he encountered with fearless love and the open arms of Christ. Gaius had the gift of hospitality and he used it to God’s glory.

In the words of Jesus, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Most of us love fearfully, afraid to welcome the strangers we encounter. Always careful to approach only those who look and act like us. Afraid that opening our lives to others make us vulnerable to heartbreak and hurt.

We need to see that John commends Gaius for using his gift of hospitality. Gaius’ heart and home extended comfort and provision to the traveling ministers sent by John to preach and teach in his absence, despite the fact that they were strangers to Gaius. Despite the fact that others turned them away. By opening his home to these brothers, John’s beloved friend became a partner with them for the sake of “the Name” and for “the truth.” Gaius made a difference in sharing the name of Christ and his gospel of truth.

Gaius’ actions thrilled John. He wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”

We’ve each been called to love because God first loved us. Those he gifted with the spirit of hospitality take love to a new level and it is fearless. What a changed world it would be if we all put it into practice.

*****

Author’s Note: This devotional thought is the second in a series of posts about some of the unsung heroes of the New Testament. These men and women, in many ways, carried the responsibility of the spread of the gospel in first 50 years after the ministry of Christ. By putting together the limited biblical references to their work and filling in the gaps with a little imagination, we find ways in which we, as ordinary Christians, can a heart for ministry in the examples they set.

 

In The Shadow of Saints

Background Passages: Acts 20:4; Romans 15:25-26; Ephesians 6:21-22; Colossians 4:7-8; Philemon 1; Titus 3:12; 2 Timothy 4:12

Hero worship is not the term I want to use. There is a connotation to the phrase that rankles and suggests blind admiration, unbridled trust and unthinking obedience. Susane Curchod Necker, an 18th century French writer, wrote that we should “worship your heroes from afar for contact withers them.” Though we all have heroes in our lives, blind adoration leads inevitably to disappointment. I’m not much for hero worship.

That being said, there are men and women throughout history whose influence changed the world for the better. These folks merit our respect. They have earned a measure of respect and admiration, from whom we can learn much. I suspect if I asked you to create a list of the five most influential people in history, there would be great commonality in our lists.

A social website called Ranker.com, recently published an article as a follow up to a survey they conducting asking people to rank in order history’s most influential people. In order among the top five selected were such notables as Jesus Christ, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Leonardo di Vinci and Aristotle. Though you might include others, it would be hard to argue that assessment.

Look at it from your eyes of faith. If I asked you to list five men and women of faith who changed the world for Christ, I wonder who might fall on your list other than Jesus Christ himself? Whom would you peg as the most influential men and women of faith? Peter? Paul? James? John? As we read through the Bible, we find countless men and women whose acts of faith and witness stand worthy of our respect and admiration. Worthy of matching our actions to theirs. They are men and women from whom we can learn much about a life of service and commitment to the cause of Christ.

I can certainly create a list of godly men and women, but I find myself drawn to those who walk in the shadow of the saints. Outside the limelight, these men and women worked tirelessly to further the kingdom of God. I am convinced that the work of Peter, Paul, James and John would have struggled to find a solid foothold during that first century were it not for a faithful supporting cast.

He’s mentioned five times. Eight verses devoted to his life. Less than 100 words describe him and define his contribution to the spread of the gospel. I ask you to consider the influence of a man who Paul described as a “dear brother” and a “faithful servant.” Consider Tychicus.

From the province of Asia (modern day Turkey), Tychicus is first mentioned in Acts as a companion to Paul on his way back through Macedonia after the near riot in Ephesus caused by the shop owners who felt threatened by Paul and his teaching. Though scripture does not reveal it, I suspect Tychicus and others were equally targeted for sharing the gospel to the residents of Ephesus. Yet, such threats did little to deter his commitment to Christ and his willingness to follow Paul wherever he went.

Putting two and two together, given Tychicus’ service with Paul in Rome, allows us to assume he also accompanied Paul to Jerusalem to deliver the offering gathered among the Macedonian churches for the persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. Given what we learn later about Tychicus, I suspect his presence encouraged the Jerusalem believers in their dark hours. He seemed to have that gift.

This “faithful servant” stayed with Paul during his imprisonment in Rome, continuing to minister to the apostle, meeting his personal, physical and spiritual needs. His day to day encouragement blessed Paul deeply. So much so that he regarded Tychicus with deep affection as a brother. Through the difficult days, Paul developed an abiding trust in Tychicus and his ability to do the hard work that needed to be done. His ability to handle the more sensitive assignments in leading and correcting a troubled church. Tychicus’ unassuming nature made him Paul’s perfect representative to the churches Paul established prior to his time in prison.

Two additional references to Tychicus find that Paul, desiring time with two young pastors while in Rome, sends his brother to Ephesus and Crete to relieve Timothy and Titus of their pastoral duties so they could visit the apostle in Rome. Paul trusted Tychicus to step in and serve as an interim pastor among two important congregations.

At one point, Tychicus left Rome at Paul’s request to deliver three important letters, two to the churches in Colossae and Ephesus. These early churches struggled in certain aspects of their faith and worried that the spread of the gospel would suffer as Paul languished in jail. Paul closes his letters in Colossians and Ephesians with subtle praise of Tychicus and his honesty and his ability to encourage those whose hearts were troubled.

“Tychicus, our dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so you also may now how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage you.”

The final mention of Tychicus may be his most difficult assignment. He did not make the journey to Corinth and Ephesus by himself. His companion along the way was a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus stole money from his master and ran away to Rome where he had a chance encountered Paul. The former slave heard the gospel proclaimed and received Christ as his savior. His love for Paul and his devotion to learning all he could learn about the teachings of Christ, endeared him to the apostle. I also suspect Tychicus served as a mentor to the young man.

Determine to set things right, Onesimus decided to return to his master knowing that his crime merited a death sentence. This was the third letter Tychicus carried in his pouch. Paul wrote the letter to the slave’s former owner, a Christian brother named Philemon, entrusting the inevitable conversation to Tychicus. One can read between the lines and see the encouragement and influence of Tychicus in turning a broken relationship between slave and master into a restored relationship in which the former slave could be regarded as someone who is “very dear to me (Paul) but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”

Few of us will measure our influence on the faith to the level of Billy Sunday or Billy Graham. Few of us will pastor or serve in the country’s largest churches. That we demonstrate our faith in the shadows of faithful giants, or the shadow of a beloved pastor, is a marvelous tribute to the work of Christ in our lives. For if we left the spread of the gospel and the ministry of Christ to the mega-revivalists and the mega-churches, God’s word would fade into the annals of history.

Consider those like Tychicus who see the hungry and give them food; who see the thirsty and give them something to drink; who see the stranger and invite them in; who see the naked and find them clothes; who see the sick and care for them; who see those in prison and visit them; these are the day to day heroes that find a way to encourage those whom Jesus loves. Consider living a life like Tychicus.

In response Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Tychicus sought no praise, no glory and I suspect would be just as happy if the Bible never mentioned his name. Yet, for me, he is a man who influenced the world one person at a time. That, my friends, is my definition of hero.

Author’s Note: This devotional thought is the first in a series of posts about some of the unsung heroes of the New Testament. These men and women, in many ways, carried the responsibility of the spread of the gospel in first 50 years after the ministry of Christ. By studying the words of Paul, we learn about these courageous men and women of faith. By putting together the limited biblical references to their work and filling in the gaps with a little imagination, we find ways in which we, as ordinary Christians, can a heart for ministry in the examples they set. Not all of us are called to the spotlight like Peter or Paul, but all of us can labor for the love of Christ in the shadow of those saints.

 

Faith Amid the Sorrow

Background Passages: Job 3:24-26; Romans 12:9-13

He sat on the ground covered in the dust, overwhelmed by all that occurred to him. He lost everything and faced rebuilding what remained of a shattered life. Shaken to the core by circumstances beyond his control, Job revealed the anguish in his heart.

“For sighing has become my daily food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared most has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

When I offered my last devotional post two weeks ago, my family and my community braced for what our weather forecasters called a “major flood event.” I know enough to know that forecasting remains ever an inexact science with constantly changing variables and frequently reflects the worst case scenario. Their suggestion that rains brought by Tropical Storm Harvey might exceed 50 inches seemed outlandish. This time they pegged it. My neighborhood received in excess of 51 inches. Other areas of Houston experienced more.

My family and I remain thankful our homes did not flood, but many across our area and all of southeast Texas were not as fortunate. During the storm it seemed it would never stop raining. The waters rose and fell in the streets and yards, depending on the strength of the rain at that moment, until the rivers, creeks, bayous and drainage ditches spilled over their banks. Then, the waters just rose.

Some people faced imminent threat to the lives of their families. First responders and complete strangers went out in waves of high water vehicles and small boats to bring thousands trapped in their homes to the relative safety of hastily improvised shelters. Many more thousands huddled on furniture or upstairs as the waters climbed inside their homes. By the time the rains stopped, thousands of homes were flooded.

Those who experienced the flooding stand in a mess not of their making and face rebuilding what remains of their storm-shattered lives. You can read Job’s words etched in their bewildered faces, “For sighing has become my daily food.”

Surveying the damage, many of them feel uncertain as to where to begin the process of cleaning up. What items must be discarded? What can be saved? For those on fixed retirement incomes or those without flood insurance, they wonder how they will find the funds to rebuild what was destroyed or replace what was lost? In the midst of such uncertainty, they find no peace. No quietness. No rest. Only turmoil.

Two things impressed me in Harvey’s aftermath. First, the victims of the flood who I knew to be followers of Christ, though obviously struggling at times to hold it together, remained steadfast in their faith. You see, sorrow and faith are not mutually exclusive. Job’s distress ran deep, but so did his faith. His heart bore the burden of his grief at the same time it welcomed the hope borne of his faith. Our friends and neighbors showed the same faithful resolve while grieving over all that was lost. I found their strength inspiring.

My church, like so many other churches and organizations, like so many individuals, jumped in to provide resources and labor to help victims of the storm begin walking down the road to recovery. Many of our people worked the shelter and processed thousands of requests for supplies of clothing and food donated from across the country. Our “mud out” teams gathered each morning and went to homes in our community to help friends and neighbors clean up from the storm.

God taught another lesson in the two weeks since the storm. Christians do not hold a monopoly on caring. Across the area, there were people of every background helping others in need. Basic humanity compels us to reach out to those who hurt. The world responds to dramatic need out of a sense of community service and charity. However, for followers of Christ, the motivation to help ought to exceed obligations of social concern and benevolence.

The Christian response ought to be grounded in love. The Greek language of the New Testament used four unique words for “love.” There is God’s love (agape) for his creation and his children. There is a romantic or sexual love (eros) and the love for a friend (philia).

Paul offered another word used only this time in the New Testament. It is the word storge. It is a love derived from natural attachment. The love a mother feels the moment she sees her newborn baby for the first time. The love flows automatically because of the natural connection between them.

Paul, in writing to the church in Rome, said the Christian response of human need must surpass social concern or civic duty. When facing human need, followers of Christ ought to demonstrate God’s love to everyone for no other reason than he created them in his image just as he created those of us who call him Savior. It is not a love that can be faked.

Look at what Paul said in Romans 12:9-13.

“Love (storge) must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

Throughout the week as teams went into homes to jump start the process of recovery from the storm, this passage manifested itself in the lives of the volunteers time and time again. Not just in the things that were being done, but through whispered words of encouragement. The hug or the arm around a sagging shoulder. The expressions of hope. The prayers voiced aloud and uttered in silence. The sharing of resources.

The countless acts of love demonstrated over the past two weeks did not end the anguish for those who suffered so much. It is my hope that each piece of sheetrock and insulation removed made recovery come a little quicker; a little easier.

As I spent my time at work, I could not help but see God’s love at work as his people put their love and faith in action. Amid the ugly devastation of the past two weeks, I find that beautiful.

*****

Our prayers go out today for all of those in the Caribbean whose lives were forever changed by the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Irma. We pray for safety and comfort for the people of Florida who face the strength of the storm and the inevitable struggle for recovery in the coming days.

‘Little Faith’

Background Passages: Matthew 14:22-36; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:15-21

As I write today from the safety of my home in Pasadena, Texas, Hurricane Harvey slammed into the central Texas coast as a Category 4 storm. Our prayers go out to those most impacted by the storm. Here, the heavy rains began to fall last night and continue off and on this morning.

I’m reminded of friends who have children serving in the United States Coast Guard. Their search and rescue teams prepare themselves for moments like this. As the storm rages, there is all too often a boat unable to outrun the storm, putting lives of those aboard in jeopardy.

I’m amazed at the men and women who fly out in helicopters or battle the breaking waves in Coast Guard vessels to put their lives on the line for those trapped in the storm. I can’t begin to imagine the bravery required to drop into those rough waters to rescue a stranger in despair. Those heroes will tell you that their work is less a matter of bravery as it is focus and training.

The Bible tells us a story of a raging storm that threatened a small boat and its crew of 12 men. I heard it first as a child and it remains one of my favorite Bible stories today. It happened at a time when there was no Coast Guard to offer assistance. The full account of the dramatic event can be found in three of the four gospels.

Hours before this story actually began, Jesus fed more than five thousand people with a prayer and a small basket of bread and fish. The crowd saw his miracles, but missed the meaning of his message. John tells us they wanted to make him king on the spot. Jesus considered such talk a distraction and determined to avoid the temptation to abandon his Father’s purpose. Dismissing the multitude, Jesus sent his disciples across the Sea of Galilee while he went up on the mountain to get away from the distraction and pray. To focus again on what God called him to do.

That night as the disciples headed toward Capernaum on the northwest shore of the sea, a strong wind blew, turning the placid water into an untamed tempest. For hours the 12 disciples fought the storm, water-soaked and weary. They made little headway. Still miles from the safety of the shore, battered by wave and water, tired to the bone, a ghostly apparition approached their vessel. The disciples cried out in terror, certain the figure was an omen of doom.

Above the roar of the storm, they heard a voice, “Take courage! It is I. Do not fear.”

Peter, recognizing the voice of Jesus, asked his master’s permission to join him on the water. Jesus called out to him, “Come.” I cannot imagine the thoughts running through his head as he threw himself overboard into the teeth of the storm. With a hand on the wale of the boat, Peter leaped into the roiling sea at the invitation of Jesus and began to walk on the waves.

Peter sloshed through the waves toward Jesus. Waves crashed around his ankles with every step. The warning cries of his friends turned into stunned silence as Peter walked determinedly through the storm. In one devastating moment, a breaking wave splashed across his face or a flash of lightning and a cascade of thunder drew his attention to the storm swirling around him. Peter took his eyes off his Lord. As he sank into the sea, sputtering in fear as each wave crashed over his head, Peter called out for Jesus to save him.

Matthew says that no sooner had Peter voiced his plea, Jesus stretched out his hand, raising Peter once again to the surface of the waves. Peter clung to Jesus’ arm. He coughed and sputtered, spewing salty seawater from his lungs. Jesus’ words as he lifted Peter into the safety of his arms seemed to condemn the disciple. “You of little faith.” A reprimand. A put down.

According to one commentary, those four little words that seem to convey disappointment in English, are rendered in two words in the original Greek. “Little Faith.” Almost a term of endearment. A lighthearted teasing among great friends. “Why do you doubt?”

Then, Peter, arm and arm with Christ, walked again on water as Jesus took him back to the boat…while the waves continued to crash and the wind continued to blow. It wasn’t until they climbed back aboard that the storm ceased.

This wonderful story reminds me of three things.

Think about it. At that stormy moment when Jesus said, “Come,” the water, to Peter, seemed a safer place to be than the boat. With his eyes locked on Jesus, the wind and waves were less daunting. In fact, with his eyes on Jesus, Peter no longer noticed the storm raging around him.

As Peter jumped from the boat and began walking toward Jesus, the storm kept blowing. The tempest didn’t stop when his feet touched the sea. Rather, Peter quit looking at the obvious and turned his eyes on Jesus. For those few seconds, his faith blocked out the howling wind and the crashing waves.

Following Christ requires a measure of courage. A leap of faith if you will. Heller Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.” Born without sight, hearing or speech, Keller overcame every obstacle to inspire millions to live a courageous life.

Peter, like the rest of the disciple band, feared for his life in the worst of the storm. Yet, when his eyes locked on Jesus and he heard his call to “Come,” Peter’s fear evaporated and he threw himself upon the waves without hesitation, another step in a daring adventure. The rest of the disciples continued to cling to the boat under a cloud of dread and despair. Peter’s first step was a courageous act of faith.

Life is a risky endeavor. God calls us to act on faith. Taking steps into the dark waters. Not settling for less. Not accepting the status quo. When we hear the spirit’s call to “Come,” we must jump out of the boat. If God calls, the boat is no longer the safest place for us to be. Those of us who are unwilling to take risks, will never discover the exhilaration of walking on water…of discovering what living in faith is all about. We will never have all the answers before we make our decisions. Faith remains a mystery if we wait until we have all the answers. There is power for us in that first lesson.

There is more this story can teach us.

Whether the water splashed against his cheek or the wind picked up its intensity, Peter lost his focus. When he looked away from Jesus and into the teeth of the storm, he lost his courage. He feared for his life. He sank into the sea. How easy it is to become distracted, especially when the storm around us is raging. Our concentration on Christ breaks. We focus instead on the problems we face.

Life is filled with turmoil. Issues that distract us from that which God wants us to do. In those times, our natural impulse is to allow our fear to trump our faith. We must resist those distractions. If the Coast Guardsman focused on the strength of the waves, he might never jump into the water.

Jesus and Peter provide two ways of dealing with distractions. When, the multitude wished to make Jesus their king, Jesus sent them away. He removed himself from that which might distract him and went up to the mountain to pray. There are certainly times when we can leave the distraction behind and spend time in prayer to the Father.

Like Peter, however, there are times when the distractions press so hard on our hearts that we begin to falter in our faith. The problems are beyond our control and tend to overwhelm our senses. Peter made it through the storm as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. When the storm intruded into the peace in his heart, Peter lost it. Lost his focus. Lost his connection to Christ. As hard as it may be at times, we must always keep our eyes on our Lord, especially when we’re in the middle of one of life’s many storms.

There is one final message that shines like a beacon in the stormy night. When Peter found himself treading water, he called to Jesus for rescue. In his deepest fear, he knew to whom he must call. With an outstretched arm, Jesus lifted Peter from the water and…here’s a point we often miss…Peter and Jesus walked together, back through the storm, and climbed into the boat. It was only then, that the winds stopped blowing and the waves stopped crashing.

Faith does not dissipate the storm. Just because our fear grips us as the ill wind blows, Jesus does not take the storm away or remove us from its impact. Rather, he lifts us from our deepest despair and walks with us through the waves that would engulf us.

Christ does not abandon his followers to the storm. When needed, he reaches out for us. Challenging us rather than chiding us, he calls us, “Little Faith.” He probes our hearts, “Why do you doubt?” And, to prove his point, he walks with us on top of the water until the winds no longer blow.

So, here are the questions I must ask myself.

When he says to me, “Come,” will I jump from the boat? Will I walk on water?

As I live my life of faith, will I keep my eyes on Jesus or will I let the storms that come distract me from the life he has called me to lead?

When I falter, and I will falter, will I call upon his name and allow him to walk with me through the storm, or will I sink into a new wave of despair, struggling to keep my head afloat?

Those are good questions for all of us. Upon what are you focused today? The storm or the savior?

Come, Let Us Reason Together

Background Passage Isaiah 1:11-18

He was the coolest guy in town, wearing his jeans, a white t-shirt and leather jacket. A snap of his fingers called six attractive girls to his side. A tap of his fist or a quick kick turned on the jukebox. If a kid from another high school was threatening his friends, his mere presence sent the bully running for the exit of the malt shop.

Arthur Fonzarelli. He was the Fonz. As a leading character of the popular 1970s sitcom Happy Days, the Fonz, played by Henry Winkler, dispensed his brand of street wisdom to his group of wide-eye followers, Richie Cunningham, Ralph, “the Mouth”, and Potsie. In their eyes, Fonzie could do no wrong.

The Fonz rarely made a mistake so sitcom writers gave him an endearing quirk. He had a hard time admitting he was wrong. He would start to confess his mistake to Richie or Ralph and invariably stumble over the word. “I was wwwrr…” After a pause to collect himself, he would again stutter, “I was wroonn…” Trying again and again to communicate his mistake, he would change his approach and finally admit, “I wasn’t exactly right.”

Nothing stings as much as the sudden realization that we are wrong. I suspect it happens in our lives more often than we’d like to admit. I know it does in mine. Like the Fonz, we struggle to admit we are wrong. The words catch in our throats.

At no time is that fault more evident than when we sin against God. In our attempts to live our lives in our own strength, we fail miserably at times to live up to the standard of Jesus Christ, making a mess of our days. Even when confronted with our sin, we use every excuse, every reason to justify our behavior. Only when the earth gives way beneath us and our world starts to crumble, do we admit that we were “wwwrr…,” “,,,Wroonn.” “…Not exactly right.”

God knows this struggle within us and stands ready to talk it out.

The people of Israel in the days of Isaiah gave lip service to worship of the One God. They went through the motions of honoring their God. Offering their sacrifices. Singing their praises. Conducting their religious festivals. Spreading out their arms in prayer. Because God knew the insincerity of their hearts, he called them to task for their sin.

“The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings.” God called their offerings “meaningless” and their assemblies “unbearable.” He said, “I will hide my eyes from you. I will not listen to your prayers.” God, their Father, challenged them. “ Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case for the widow.”

Then, he offered something that only a loving Father would offer. An offer he still makes to us today. He said,

“Come, let us reason together.”

Imagine that. Our God, our Creator, the Almighty, wants to sit down with us to talk it out. Another translation of this passage says, “Come, let us argue it out.” God’s word here is not an offer to negotiate our decisions and choices. It is so much more. God extends an invitation to us to talk about our lives, the things with which we struggle, the things that break our hearts, the things we do to try and control our lives on our own. He calls us to engage in thoughtful and honest conversation.

Why would a sovereign Lord seek time with us about the things we do that run counter to his teaching and his will for our lives? When we make an argument before God in an attempt to justify our sin, and when we sincerely listen to his counter arguments, God knows that at some point in that conversation we’re going to open our eyes and our hearts and realize he was right and we were wrong. In an honest dialogue with God, that outcome is inevitable.

Within that debate, if we’re honest with ourselves, God’s logic, his evidence, his arguments against our chosen lifestyle will simply be too convincing and compelling. We will have no choice but to admit our guilt. Oh, we’ll struggle to say it out loud. We will pussyfoot around it. We’ll admit, “I wasn’t quite right,” before we finally bow down before him and say it. “I was wrong.” “I have sinned.”

God doesn’t just want us to admit our mistakes, he wants us to turn away from them. To repent and reclaim his promises. And, he offered restoration. He told the people of Israel,

“Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”

The conversation God invites us to enter with him, the dialogue that ensues, doesn’t leave us begging for forgiveness that will never come. It always leads to redemption and restoration. Admitting our guilt is step one. Turning from our ways to full obedience and trust sets us back on the proper path of God’s will for our lives. And, it all starts with the conversation. “Come, let us reason together,” says the Lord.

Understand clearly, in the balance between our God-given freedom and his divine sovereignty, our obedience does not force God to forgive. If it did, we would control his forgiveness. God forgives, not because our obedience requires him to, but because he wants to forgive. It is the desire of his heart. Just ask David or Jonah or a host of others throughout the Bible. God is the God of do overs and second chances.

I saw a poster recently. Paraphrased, it said, “Nothing stinks more than that moment during an argument when you realize you’re wrong.”

There may be an element of truth in that statement as it pertains to our worldly relationships. We just don’t like to be wrong. But, in our relationship to God, there is nothing sweeter than that moment when our conversation with the Father convinces us of our mistakes and draws us back under his will and way.

“Come, let us reason together.” What a life changing conversation that can be!

***

Dr. Kirk Lewis is author of two unique devotional books–Put Away Childish Things and The Chase: Our Passionate Pursuit of Life Worth Living. Learn more about author and his books at www.drkirklewis.com. 

How Firm A Foundation

Background Passages: Matthew 7: 24-27; Luke 6:46-49

In 2008, Hurricane Ike crashed into the Texas Coast as a strong Category 2 storm, inundating Galveston and the inland counties with 19 inches of rain across a two-day period, winds sustained at 110 miles per hour and a storm surge of about 17 feet. The devastation, particularly along the eastern shore of Galveston Island, was almost total. A single home on Bolivar Peninsula survived the storm. Ike had been a devastating storm.

As we have done for the past 35 years or so, my wife’s family gathers in a rented beach house on Galveston Island to enjoy time together. We began this journey with my wife’s parents and her siblings and a couple of our children. This year, my wife’s siblings and all our children and grandchildren came together…25 of us at one point, including 12 grandchildren, all but one under the age of seven. I can only describe the week as heavenly chaos.

The beach house that is our home this year, sits in a single line of similar houses just yards from the beach. One can sit on the deck of any of these homes as the high tide reaches within 60 feet of their foundations. Ideal in times of calm, I can only imagine the threat a storm like Ike would pose to these beach-front properties.

Strict building codes require thick foundations and deep-set pilings elevating the first livable floor to a height of between 12-15 feet. The key to surviving a storm, according to the architects, is the strength of the foundation. It is a lesson driven home again by the tide surge during Ike.

A carpenter by trade, Jesus taught a similar lesson to all who would listen. He questioned why anyone would call him Lord, the boss of his or her life, and not do as he says. He taught that those who hear and obey are like the wise builder.

“They are like the man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation (or the man who builds his house upon the sand alone.) The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

In such a simple illustration, Jesus gives us powerful lessons on what it means to commit ourselves fully to him. First, both houses faced the same storm. Jesus never suggested that the home that withstood the torrent faced a lesser storm than the one that was destroyed. The winds came. The rains fell. The streams flooded. The houses both faced the same dangers. It is not a matter of if the storms will blow. Jesus’ story tells us the storm will come to all of us. Our task is to prepare ourselves for that eventuality. That knowledge takes us to the second point.

Nothing in Jesus’ words leads us believe that the men constructed their houses differently. Unlike the three little pigs in the fairy tale who used different construction materials and methods, we can assume each man built a well-constructed house for his family. Quality materials. Quality workmanship. Yet one man’s house weathered the storm while the other crumbled beneath its strength.

All of us seek to build a quality life. Some focus on philosophy. Some on positive thinking. Some on good works. Yet none of these concepts, in and of themselves, are strong enough to weather the storm.

Jesus identifies only one difference in the homes as they were built. The foundation. The home built on a firm foundation survived the storm when the one built without that solid foundation failed.

It is a simple illustration. It’s not a question of if the storms or troubles will enter our lives. It is a matter of when. Storms are a given. It’s not a question of how strong we are personally. How well we feel our lives are put together. Our strength alone, our philosophy of life, is insufficient in the face of the even the most ordinary pressures of life.

We see the impact of trouble on the lives of friends and family. How does one person survive calamity while another crumbles beneath its weight?

Jesus tells us the answer rests with the foundation upon which each life is built. We make choices. We choose to live life our own way, in our own strength, failing to drive the piling of our faith to the bedrock. Far too many people lay a superficial foundation in something other than Jesus Christ that is insufficient to weather the storms, yet they move in anyway. Living life that way is a risky proposition.

Jesus teaches us that kingdom living requires a solid foundation, based both on listening to his word and acting upon it. Putting his teachings into the practice of daily life. Being obedient. When we set our foundation on his strength rather than our own, when we act upon the knowledge we gain through our experiences with him, when we immerse ourselves in his teaching, the rain, wind and flood cannot shake the foundation of our lives.

Finally, contractors pour the foundation, giving it time to cure before they start erecting the building upon it. There is a measure of truth in letting the foundation of our faith cure. Allowing it to grow in our hearts. Giving it time to cure. Such is the lesson of a lifetime of living in his grace. Jesus spent 30 years preparing his foundation before he began his ministry. God granted him time to drive the pilings deeply so he would be ready for the challenge of the cross.

The real joy of life is taking the time to let Jesus teach us his will and way throughout the years. To sink our foundation pilings deep into the bedrock of his word and resting in the knowledge that nothing can destroy our lives when planted firmly in his grace.

The old hymn, “How Firm Our Foundation” closes with these words:

The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

My prayer is that it our foundation would be that secure all the days of our lives.