Always Love

Background Passages: Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6; and Luke 6:1-12

I read another news account this week about the Baptist church in Kansas staging another protest to condemn with unholy words those they deem to be sinners responsible for the ruin of the world. Citing scripture. Calling names. Their views right. All others wrong. Compassion lost to the certainty of their conviction.

I don’t understand it. How can a people claiming to be of God miss so badly the spirit of God? How can they interpret scripture so strictly that they fail to see the hurt they inflict?

Their actions this week reminded me of a story from scripture. Journey with me to Capernaum.


He watched from the shadow of the alley between two homes as Jesus wound his way through the streets of Capernaum, a gathering crowd surrounding the healer and his closest friends. He darted from house to house, staying just ahead of Jesus, always in shadows cast by the rising sun. Unnoticed. That’s the way he liked it. When people noticed, they stared. When people noticed, they judged.

Without warning, someone grabbed his left arm startling the man. Dark brown eyes under bushy eyebrows, stared into his own. The elegant robe told him all he needed to know. A Pharisee. He recognized him as one of the priests from Jerusalem following in the footsteps of the healer for the past three weeks.

“Come with me,” commanded the priest, pulling him down the alley into deeper darkness. When alone, the priest looked at his withered right hand, dangling uselessly at the end of an arm lacking any strength. Nodding at his infirmity, how did that happen?

“I was kicked by a donkey eight years ago. I can no longer use my hand.”

“I have a proposition for you…” started the Pharisee as he explained his plan. Then, with a furtive glance and a smile that lacked sincerity, he slinked away.

Instructed to go to the synagogue where the healer would teach that morning, the man with the shriveled hand stood by the entrance to the white-stoned building near the market, waiting for Jesus. As Jesus approached, the man stepped out to greet him. “Rabbi, I am in need of your healing.” Words the Pharisee told him to speak.

Jesus smiled. Saw his hand. The need obvious, but sensing more to the story. “Why come to me?”

“I’ve seen what you can do,” said the man. Then, with a nervous glance inside at the Pharisees finding a seat in the crowded synagogue, “They told me you could heal me today.”

Jesus looked at the men who questioned his every move for weeks. “Did they now?”

The man, oblivious to the obvious, continued, “I need to provide for my family. I need to work. I want to work. If there is a chance…” His voice trailed off in all too familiar whisper of hopelessness.

Jesus looked into his eyes. Heart full of compassion. He threw his arm around him, glancing once more at the Pharisees. “Come on in. Find a seat. Let’s see what God will do today.”

Jesus walked to the front of the room. Sat down on the stone bench. Surveyed the packed room filled with the contrite, the curious and the condemning. The stage set for another lesson about the priorities of God.


Read the account of the man with the withered hand in three of the four gospels. The confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue started in the fields that morning on the way to worship. In the end, the Savior’s compassion was both rejected and received. It started as an ordinary Sabbath morning.

Jesus and his disciples rose that morning, intent upon going to the synagogue for the Sabbath time of teaching and worship. The local rabbi requested Jesus lead the discussion, a frequent occurrence early in his ministry.

For days, the Pharisees sent from Jerusalem tagged along everywhere Jesus went, hovering always on the edge of the crowd. Dipping in and out of the conversation when it suited them. Questioning his motives. Probing for answers. Checking Jesus’ words against their own rigid interpretation of scripture. Determined to find reasons to discredit his teaching. Hoping to turn the crowds against him.

As the disciples moved along the country path into the village, they walked along the edge of a wheat field. Through stalks of grain ripe for harvest. In the cool of the morning, they absentmindedly plucked heads of grain from the stalks. Rubbed their hands together to remove the husk from the kernels. Blew into their palms to separate the wheat from the chaff. Popped the morsels into their mouths. Hungry men on the way to church.

On any other day the action of the disciples would raise no eyebrow. Eating another man’s grain along the path was a standard of care for the hungry and weary traveler. But, today was the Sabbath. The Pharisees almost giggled in delight. They caught Jesus’ followers violating the strict rules of the Sabbath regarding work…harvesting, winnowing and preparing food.

They practically ran over the disciples in their haste to confront Jesus for this egregious violation. This blatant disregard for Sabbath law.

Jesus took the opportunity to teach, hoping his words would resonate. “Have you not read…” reminding them that David entered the Temple while under duress and took the consecrated bread in order to feed himself and his hungry men.

He quoted Hosea, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

As the debate ensued, Jesus silenced them. They stood with their mouths opening and closing like a fish out of water. No rebuttal. “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

The day cannot take precedent over human need. The law cannot substitute for mercy. This whole episode troubled Jesus. The conversation lingered in the Savior’s heart as he began to teach the lesson that day. A lesson about the priorities of God.

The same Pharisees who hassled Jesus during their walk into town laid their trap for him, taking advantage of a man’s disability for personal gain. Dangling him in front of Jesus. A worm on a hook. Begging Jesus to bite. To heal the man so they could challenge Jesus in a public setting about his contempt for the Sabbath.

Can’t you see the Pharisees fidgeting in their seats, waiting for Jesus to take their bait? When he didn’t immediately do so, one of them could no longer contain himself. Interrupting Jesus as he taught, he reminded Jesus of the episode in the grain field. He demanded to know. If, as you say, it’s permissible to harvest on the Sabbath… “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

From the moment he met the man with the withered hand outside the synagogue and heard his story, Jesus expected the question. “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!” The implication clear. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Jesus waited for their response. Jesus expected the question. They didn’t expect that answer. So they sat, tight-lipped and tense.

It’s hard for 100 people to fall silent, but if a pin dropped in the sanctuary at that moment, everyone would hear it. All sat perfectly still. Only their eyes darted back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees, waiting for the next sandal to fall.

Jesus rose to his feet. Walked to the middle of the room. He looked for the man he met earlier by the door. He found him, sitting in the corner. Hiding behind the town’s burly blacksmith. The savior caught his eye. Motioned for him to come forward. A smile, warm with compassion. An invitation. Jesus stood behind him. Rested his hands on the man’s shoulders. “Stand here with me in front of everyone.” In front of these self-righteous men.

With fire in his eyes stoked by their hard hearts, Jesus bore into the soul of the Pharisees. Hear a heavy sigh in Jesus’ voice as he posed one last question, hoping to elicit a glimmer of understanding from their closed and locked hearts.

“Let me ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or destroy it?” To do the good I intend to do or the evil you’re now doing?

Every eye in the room drawn to the obvious. The misshapen and shriveled hand, hung uselessly at the man’s side.

In the silence of the Pharisees, more contempt. More condemnation.

Jesus looked toward heaven. Eyes closed. Let out a slow breath to purge his gut of the bile of disgust rising in his throat. When he spoke softly to the man, little more than a whisper in his ear. “Stretch out your hand.”

In the instant the man followed Jesus’ command, the muscle and tendons regained their strength. The gnarled, misshapen fingers relaxed. As he raised his hand in front of his face, his hand was completely restored. Strong and sound like the other. Healthy again. Productive again. The synagogue erupted in shouts of joy from the people gathered to worship.

In a huff unable to celebrate for a life made whole, the Pharisees stormed out to conspire with bitter enemies to plot the death of Jesus.


When you read these stories, we tend to look at them only as episodes chronicling the growing confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders. If that were all it was, I’m not sure all three gospels would have carried an account of the story. There is a deeper, richer lesson waiting to be learned and it starts with the verse quoted by Jesus from Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”

Jesus told the Pharisees, “If you understood what these words mean…” Well, what do they mean? Mercy trumps sacrifice. Compassion trumps dogma. The Pharisees clung so tightly to their “truth” they failed to recognize the need in front of them. Their strict adherence to law served as blinders to the suffering of those around them. We cannot and must not hold our “truth” so tightly that we dismiss how valuable another human being is to God.

Through these two vignettes Jesus suggests that we cannot place every jot and tittle of scripture over our call to serve, care for and forgive. Feed the hungry. Tend to the infirmed.

Think about it. Jesus didn’t dishonor the Sabbath. He was there every Sunday. (If you don’t see the irony of that statement, maybe that’s the problem.) Jesus sat aside the Sabbath as a day of worship to God the Father. As natural to him as breathing, but not if it meant ignoring a need.

We tend to cherry pick our Sabbaths. Taking things out of context without applying the whole of Jesus’ teachings. We cannot condone sin, but, by nature of our own sin, we are also disqualified to judge it in others.

Jesus met the woman caught in the act of adultery by another group of Pharisees. Jesus asked them to reflect upon their own sin. When her accusers faded away in the reality of Jesus’ question, he told her. “Neither do I condemn you…go and sin no more.” Rather than exclude, Jesus chose to love and teach.

Is it possible the social issues of our day have become our Sabbath law? The eating of the grain. The man with the shriveled hand. Depending on your personal beliefs, consider them the ancient equivalent of our attitudes toward whomever we deem undesirable. The Liberal. The Conservative. The Gay. The Transgender. The Straight. The Black. The White. The Brown. The Rich. The Poor. The Gun Owner. The Unarmed. Consider them anyone on whom we pass judgment. Anyone we point to in disdain while channeling our inner Pharisee.

Those in whom we easily see the sawdust in their eye while disregarding the 2 x 4 jutting from our own. Judgment is the easy way. Loving is the hard way. I’m too often guilty of taking the easy way.

If we are to live as the image of God, if we are to be like Christ, we cannot declare our “truth” or value “being right” more than we value lifting our hands to help the broken, the hurting or the drifting. As soon as we do so we lose the heart and spirit of Jesus. For him, it was always truth and right grounded in love. But always love.

In the story, the Pharisees never see themselves as a soiled robe in need of a good scrub. They see themselves as a garment already cleansed by their strict obedience to the law…in need of nothing else…now or ever.

Here’s the really sad thing about these stories. The Pharisees never doubted that Jesus could heal the man. They begged him to do it. Knew he would. They recognized in him God’s sufficient and amazing power and gift of healing. They never questioned his ability to heal, only his timing that broke a rule they created to set them apart from others. Staring them in the face was the chance to join with the Son of God and they could not comprehend it.

Never doubt for a moment that God loves the Liberal and Conservative. The Gay. The Transgender. The Straight. The Black. The White. The Brown. The Rich. The Poor. The Gun Owner. The Unarmed. Let us escape the confinement of our entrenched Pharisaical truths.

Jesus calls us to love. Jesus calls us to serve. This week let’s reach out to the hungry heart and the shriveled soul. It is always lawful to do good.


God Is At Work

Habakkuk 1:1-5; 2:4, 14, 20; 3:17-18; and Romans 8:28

Lately, we watch the news with a sense of morbid dread, waiting for another work of wickedness to destroy our comfortable complacency and erode the innate innocence of our children and grandchildren. I must admit God and I had a “come to Jesus” meeting over the past few days.

I shook my fist a little. Lashed out a bit. Questioned how he could sit by and watch events in Florida unfold without intervening. I finished my little fit and waited. Getting no immediate response, I huffed a bit more and went back to my worry and work.

It felt like an Old Testament week as I prepared for this devotional. I was in “an eye for an eye” mood. I scanned pages of scripture and read about Jeremiah complaining bitterly to God about the unfairness in the world around him. How evil men grow powerful and prosper. How righteous suffer. Jeremiah shook his fist at God.

Elijah hid in a cave. The prophet who had just won a major test of faith now cowered in a cave after being threatened by an angry and vengeful Jezebel. He complained balefully that he was the last godly man standing. That God had stepped aside, allowing him to be hounded and chased. Elijah shook his fist at God and wanted to die.

I read again about Job, God’s long-suffering servant. Plagued by calamities not of his making. Criticized by his friends. Struggling with the loss of those he held dear. Job lashed out critically to the Creator. “What does it profit us if we pray to him?” Job shook his fist at God.

I get it Jeremiah. I know where you’re coming from Elijah. I understand Job. That’s exactly how I feel.

Then, my eyes settled on Habakkuk. I didn’t intend to stop here. No one does a devotional on Habakkuk, right? But, this prophet joined me in shaking his fist at God so I kept reading.

In three short chapters, I discovered a God big enough to take my frustration and teach me about his presence and his purpose even in the middle of a perverse week.

Habakkuk spoke at a time when evil men ruled the day, punishing the righteous, inflicting violence upon them. “Why do you make me look at injustice?” lamented the prophet. “Why do you tolerate wrong? How long must I cry for help?”

My heart aches as Habakkuk’s aches. I see innocent children slaughtered again in a world run amuk. “Why, God, do we keep seeing this? Why do you put up with it? How long must we cry out for help?”

God’s answer to Habakkuk started a transformation in his outlook on life…an answer that lifted my own sagging spirit.

“Look at the nations and watch–and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” (Hab. 1:5)

All that questioning I did…this was the start of God’s rebuttal. “Look, Kirk. I didn’t cause the wickedness in the world. Human choice creates catastrophe and chaos. Your choice. Their choice. My job is to work through tragedy using people of faith to restore the broken. Redeem the lost. Rescue the troubled. I know you don’t understand. I could explain it to you, let you in on the secret, but you wouldn’t believe it.

“Know this. You are not alone. Those who are hurting most are not alone. I can carry you, carry them, through this. I will never abandon you. Despite your sorrow and struggles, I will never give up on my children. I am at work even if you can’t see it.”

Every one of us who love and trust God can look back through our lives and see the hand of God at work through the best and worst times of our lives. In those times, when we seemed to be abandoned and alone, we can now see the winding path he guided us down to emerge from the haze into a clearer understanding of his presence in our lives. I think about those times in my life and…God’s right. Had he told me how he planned to bring me through the struggle, I would not have believed it possible.

I kept reading through the book and found these declarations of eternal truth God spoke to the prophet.

“…the righteous will live by his faith…” (Hab. 2:4)

Habakkuk was blind to the work of God as he stood there and complained. God said to him, “Trust me. Have faith in my work even when you see no evidence of it.” Like an arrow, the words pierced the anxiety in my heart.

Living by faith is a hard pill to swallow when we’re sick to our stomachs over what we see happening around us. It sounds so cliché. Yet, faith is often the only answer we have…at least in the beginning. God would eventually use Habakkuk’s voice to bring about his intentional plan for redemption. When I have no answers, faith is enough. Perhaps my faith in him…my trust, my belief…can touch those troubled by tragedy.

Two other verses offered a message of hope and promise to the prophet. The strife caused by evil evaporates in the face of God’s presence. Though the bad seems to reign, its power will fade.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea…The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Hab. 2:14,20)

Our pain in the middle of tragedy cannot be denied. I cannot imagine the grief of parents and family in the aftermath of such insanity. While we seldom claim the promise of God’s eternal victory in the middle of tragedy, grief-inspired blindness doesn’t make it any less true. God will conquer. I take heart in understanding in my core the simple truth that pain and suffering around me is temporary and transient…especially when considered on an eternal scale.

God sits on his throne. Like any good ruler he knows his kingdom and his people. His anguish over our suffering is real. When we seek an audience with him to complain bitterly of that which hurts us, he listens. He is big enough to handle our confusion, our anger, our frustration, our disbelief. When our emotion is spent he reminds us that he walks among us through life’s mud and muck.

That’s why the hue and cry to put God back into our schools sits so uneasily in my bones. God never left our schools. There are people of faith teaching and serving in every public school in America. There are prayers lifted up daily on behalf of children and families. There are children and young people who lift up prayers every day in the halls and classrooms across America. Heartfelt prayers far more meaningful than a rote or recited prayer over the intercom.

Still his presence was not enough to prevent another senseless act. Why? Not because we “took God out of our schools.” Evil gets its way because we forced God out of our lives, not out of our schools. Stop making God political. Make him personal. Then, and only then, can he make an impact in and through us.

Here’s the truth I know. God is on his throne. God is present in the lives of all who believe…in school and out. Always has been. Always will be.

Without question, the senseless school shooting in Florida tested my faith this week. I struggle for words in the moment for those most touched by such devastating loss. I struggle for answers on how we might prevent such madness from ever happening again. Right now, I have no words. No answers. While I will keep searching, I have only my faith that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)

Make no mistake. God is at work today. I may not see it. I may not understand it, but he is at work.

The book of Habakkuk ends with the prophet’s faith renewed and restored. Despite not knowing the end game, Habakkuk rested in the strength of his faith. He accepted as I do that despite every intrusion of wickedness that creeps into our lives, whether by our own design or the horrific act of another, God will create the best plan and path through it.

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Hab. 3:17-18)



Wherever He Leads

Background Passages: Mark 8:27-36; Luke 9:18-25

Jesus slipped to the grass from the flat rock upon which he sat as he spent the last hour in prayer. The canopy of trees under which he now reclined with his back against the rock sheltered him from the late afternoon sun. Jesus glanced at his disciples gathered in a loose cluster about 40 feet further down the hill. As they finished their prayers one by one, they talked quietly among themselves, breaking out a small loaf of bread and passing it around, satisfying their hunger.

Jesus looked from his disciples down into the town of Caesarea Philippi, a bustling city 30 miles north of the region of Galilee. He watched the frenetic pace of the people as they finished the work of the day and headed home. He lifted his eyes toward the sheer cliff on the north side of the city. It rose 150 feet above the lush, green valley below. He knew the streamlet gushing from the massive grotto on the western edge of the cliff were the headwaters of the Jordan River as it flowed south to the Sea of Galilee.

The cavern was said to be the birthplace of Pan, the Greek god of nature. Worshippers still brought their offerings of fruit and grain, laying them at the altar.

His vision shifted to the gleaming temple of white marble which Philip, the region’s ruler, dedicated to Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor whom the people considered a god. Before these temples and altars were built, Jesus knew his history well enough to know the whole area stood as a center dedicated to the worship of Baal, the ancient Canaanite god.

It was a deeply reflective moment. Jesus contemplated the scene spread across the valley below. Considered all he had done during his ministry. Felt his gut tighten when he thought about the cross to come. Had anything he said and done made a difference? Before he began his final journey to the cross Jesus needed to know. Did anyone really know who he was?

He turned to his disciples quietly talking and laughing in the ease of friendships forged by common experiences. His words cut through the comfortable conversation. “Who do the crowds say I am?”

They turned toward Jesus in a rustle of robes and shuffling feet. They were used to his probing. Knew an answer was required. “John the Baptist,” one blurted. “One of the old prophets brought back to life,” announced another. “Elijah,” another proclaimed.

Jesus glanced again at the city below, lost in thought for a moment. Then, he turned back to his disciples. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Jesus held his breath, looking into the eyes of each of his closest friends. Their answers would make all the difference. Would he see blank stares of incomprehension? Would he catch so much as a spark of understanding that meant he had at least lit a torch in their hearts. He waited. Felt his heart thump anxiously in his chest.

How his soul must have soared when Peter stood among them, looked at his friends, then to Jesus, knowing that he answered for all of them. “You are the Messiah. The Anointed One of God.”

That moment sealed the deal for Jesus. He then taught them intently about the events to come. Suffering. Rejection. Death. Resurrection. Prophecies that left them frightened and confused. Then, he challenged them with words that echo still in the ears of every believer today.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose or forfeit his very soul?”

The call of Christ demands that we deny self. It’s not a matter of dismissing our lives as unworthy or inconsequential in the grand scheme of God’s plan. Denying ourselves means to set aside our egos. Deliberately subordinating our will to the will of God. Opening our lives to the possibility that his plan for us is greater and more meaningful than the one we planned for ourselves. It means turning from where we wish to go to follow the path he lays before us.

The call of Christ demands that we take up his cross. Not just any cross…his cross. Jesus knew the horror of what lay before him. When Jesus was a boy, a Jewish rebellion in Sepphoris, just four miles from Nazareth, ended badly for those who fought against the Roman empire. Historians tell us more than 2,000 rebels were crucified, set in lines along the roadside as a frightful reminder of the power of Rome.

To face the cross was a vicious reality burned into the back of his mind. He, as well as anyone, knew what it meant to take up the cross. It stood as the inevitable certainty he faced by declaring a kingdom of God that rocked the boats of the pious and the political.

Today, taking up the cross of Christ means to live our life with the same focused commitment to God’s purpose that Jesus did. It means preparing for rejection in a world that does not understand. Letting nothing… no thought of ridicule, persecution, or embarrassment…prevent us from doing that which we know God desires us to do. It means looking at a world that dismisses Jesus as irrelevant and proclaiming in word and deed, “I belong to Christ!”

Denying ourselves. Taking up his cross. These are steps in the right direction. If we stop there, however, we miss that which matters most. The call of Christ demands we follow. It means spending our lives, not hoarding it. It means giving of ourselves, not taking from others. It means not playing it safe, but doing the right thing at all times and in all situations. It means not getting by with as little as we can for the cause of Christ, but investing ourselves completely in his ministry.

The way of the world always seeks to gain advantage over another. The goal of the world is to amass more wealth, power and glory than the guy next door. Jesus would answer that unbridled ambition with this question. Where is the eternal profit in that way of life? Jesus said one saves his life when he loses it in service to others.

As believers in Christ we have been called to follow the lead of Christ, not always knowing where it will take us. Doors open and doors close. Following his lead is not always easy, but it is always best.

I’m reminded of the old invitational hymn, Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go, written in 1936 by Baylus Benjamin McKinney. He penned the words to his poem after meeting with the Rev. R.S. Jones, a South American missionary who had been pulled from service. Because of a serious illness, he would not be allowed to return.

“What will you do?” McKinney asked his friend.

“I don’t know, but wherever he leads, I’ll go.”

From a simple conversation between two old friends poured the words that challenge us…challenge me…today.

“Take up thy cross and follow me,”
I heard my master say;
“I gave my life to ransom thee,
Surrender your all today.”

He drew me closer to his side,
I sought his will to know,
And in that will I now abide,
Wherever he leads I’ll go.

It may be through shadows dim,
Or o’er the stormy sea,
I take my cross and follow him
Wherever he leadeth me.

My heart, my life, my all I bring,
To Christ who loves me so;
He is my master, Lord and king.
Wherever he leads I’ll go.

The chorus of the song declares, “I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so.”

Wherever he leads, let’s go.



Living as the Image of God

Background Passages: Genesis 1:27; John 14:9; Matthew 5:1-12

I pored through a number of old 35mm slides, pictures taken by my parents when my siblings and I were small. I enjoyed sharing those captured memories with my children and grandchildren. Fascination grew as we recognized family resemblances across generations…the power of genetics, I suppose. If I heard it once, I heard it several times, “I see your Dad in his eyes.” “You look so much like your uncle at that age.” “She is the spitting image of your mother.”

There is some measure of joy in knowing that we physically resemble those most dear to us. Then, I wonder, when others look at us, do they see how closely we resemble Christ in spirit and deed. Can the world see Jesus…see God…in us?

“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”

On the surface, being created in the image of God seems such a complex theological concept requiring a deeper understanding of the nature and spirit of the Creator himself. But, it’s really not that hard. Jesus told his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” In other words, we find in the character of Jesus Christ, the very nature and spirit of God. The image of God reflected in the life of Christ. To be the image of God in our world, as we were created to be, simply requires us to be like Jesus.

So, how are we to know what that looks like?

Every gospel story reveals the character of Christ. We can identify in Jesus God’s compassion, love, faith, humility and honesty. We find in his teachings keys to living as the image of God.

People flocked to Jesus early in his ministry in Galilee, drawn by the candor and consistency of his teaching and the power of his healing. As he left Capernaum one day, the crowd pressed around him to hear his words and feel his touch. Eventually, somewhere on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, he sat himself down on a rocky hillside and began to teach. Matthew records this event as the Sermon on the Mount.

Rather than being a single event, the Sermon on the Mount may be a collection of ideas that Jesus taught over and over again throughout his ministry captured by Matthew as a summary of his teaching themes. William Barclay, in his commentaries, suggests as much.

One of the most beloved segments of this passage is known as The Beatitudes, a passage that unveils the character demanded of those who desire to be a part of the kingdom of God. When you look at the passage and look at the life of Christ, you’ll find that Jesus modeled each characteristic in his daily walk.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus teaches about kingdom living. Think of them as proverbs or declarations. Assuring us that we will feel blessed as a result of our actions or attitudes that align with the expectations of the Father. That demonstrating these character traits leads to promised rewards.

Consider the word “blessed.” Some translations substitute the word “happy” rather than “blessed.” But, “happy” feels too frivolous. Too superficial. Think, rather, in terms of the contentment, joy and peace that comes from being in right relationship with God. It cannot be dampened by external circumstances. Happiness may be a part of the equation, but take it deeper into the heart of our relationship with the Father. One commentary called being blessed “a pledge of divine reward for the inner spiritual character of the righteous.” I like that. Jesus promises that if we live in such a way as to reflect the character of Christ, we will be filled with inner peace and joy.

Let’s discuss the specific character demanded of those who would be a part of the kingdom of God and the promise that follows. Blessed are…

…poor in spirit.
To be poor in a financial sense is to be destitute. To be poor in a physical sense is to be oppressed. To be poor in the spirit is to be humbled, to live without arrogance or self-sufficiency. It speaks to the person who recognizes his or her sinful nature; who comes to God each day with a contrite heart; knowing that God’s grace is an unmerited gift that promises a life within the kingdom of God.

…those who mourn.
Everyone in this life will experience sadness and grief. Such mourning is a natural part of the ebb and flow of life. Here, Jesus speaks of those who mourn for a lost world; for the sinfulness that serves as a barrier separating us from God…from the relationship he desired with us when he created us. If we don’t grieve for the lost we will never feel compelled to share the love of Christ with a ruined world. God will provide comfort for those whose hearts break when confronted by sin and disbelief. Comfort which allows us to continue the hard work of reconciling a lost world to the one who loves them so much.

…the meek.
Think of meekness not as passivity or weakness. That is the world’s definition. Its first century meaning carries an idea of self-control…gentleness…kindness…all fruits of the spirit identified by Paul. The meek control their instincts and impulses, harnessing the passion and power within them to build and edify, to lift up rather than tear down. They see all things through the eyes of empathy, hearts free of evil intent and purpose. These are people who treat everyone with respect and dignity regardless of their station in life.

…those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Hunger and thirst represent our most primal needs. When truly hungry and thirsty, a body will do almost anything to secure food or drink. Little else seems to matter. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to demonstrate that strongest spiritual desire to understand and act upon the will of God. Our passion to live for him takes precedence over anything else. Therein lies the promise. The one who seeks after God will have those needs satisfied. His or her life filled with the joy of knowing who walks beside you.

…the merciful.
Mercy is an act of grace. Despite our sinful ways, God offers his forgiveness, requiring only a contrite heart. It is pure, unmerited grace. Mercy is not a quality limited to God alone. As believers in Christ discover his forgiveness, mercy toward others ought to be a natural outgrowth of our hearts. People hurt us. Ignore us. Sin against us. Hate us. Persecute us. We face a choice: retaliate or redeem. Mercy finds expression in the kindness and compassion we extend even to those who hurt us. It is a quality borne out of the mercy God extended toward us even when we hurt him. As we forgive, so are we forgiven. That is the promise of God.

…pure in heart.
When the Bible speaks of the heart, it speaks to the center of will, the choices we make. Pure in heart means the decisions we make, the desires we hold, the intent of our thoughts and deeds must be unblemished with sin, wholly pleasing to God. The purity of our hearts lies at the center of every characteristic proclaimed in the beatitudes…our mercy, our quest for righteousness, our meekness and humility. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” to suggest a spiritual change in his heart. To take that which was unclean and purify it from all self-interests and desires.

Jesus promises those who would listen that the pure in heart would see God. There is certainly within this statement a promise of our life eternal in the presence of the father. It might also suggest that the pure in heart have within them the capacity to see God in every circumstance…seeing his presence in life’s heartbreaks and horrors as well as its blessings and bounty.

…the peacemakers.
The kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace and yet we are too often at war with one another. The broken relationships, the societal divisions, the political acrimony, the racial bigotry drive a wedge between God’s people. Joy comes to those who find ways of bringing people together in the love of Christ, reconciling others to God and to one another. This statement promises the peacemakers will be called Sons of God.” The Old Testament called angels the Sons of God. Angel may be an apt description of those who act as God’s peacemakers.

…the persecuted.
Living a lifestyle exemplified by the characteristics listed in the beatitudes puts one in a precarious place. The life God demands of his children is a life the world opposes and rejects. All who identify with Christ face a hostile world that tolerates in the best of times and terrorizes in its worst. God offers a promise to those who face such opposition. Hold on. Run the race. Keep the faith. God’s kingdom is yours forever.

I go back to the beginning. We are to live as the image of God. That’s how he created us. We discover how to do that by looking at the life of Christ and paying attention to his teachings. Throughout his ministry Jesus taught us how to live and modeled those choices every day of his life. He lived and breathed every action and attitude he taught in the beatitudes. If we are to live like him, as the image of God, we ought to do the same.

The promise of the beatitudes is not a pie-in-the-sky, wait-for-it, kind of promise. Barclay writes, “…the beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing but nebulous prophecies of some future bliss; they are congratulations on what is…It is a blessedness (a joy and peace) which exists here and now.”

Blessed are those who live as the image of God. Live it and claim the promise.


God is Faithful

Background Passages: Lamentations 3:22-23; Hebrews 10:23

I recently connected on Facebook with Jesse Owens, a friend of ours from college. We’ve had no contact really since those days long ago. Our lives have gone separate ways. Still, the one good thing about the social platform comes when we find opportunities to connect and reconnect with family and friends.

Jesse and I attended different churches while in school. He went to the Student Ministry program at First Baptist Church, Lubbock, and I served as youth minister at First Baptist Church, Wolfforth. We first met through the Baptist Student Union at Texas Tech. The man’s voice was one to be envied and he was not afraid to use it. If you ever heard him sing, “My Tribute,” backed up by the Student Ministry choir at First Baptist Church, you surely found yourself kneeling before God’s throne.

I guess all of us use the New Year as a way of refocusing our lives. We naturally gravitate toward personal and spiritual reflection. During these first few weeks of the year, I found myself…unsettled. The world seems in chaos with turmoil boiling around us. I keep finding myself trying to see into the future and what the world holds for my four grandchildren. To be honest, I’ve been worried…until this week.

Worrying about tomorrow is not biblical. Losing faith in God’s goodness damages the spirit. Drives me away from doing the things I can do in my part of a troubled world to make it less troubled. Trusting in God, even in an uncertain world, brings peace in the midst of chaos. I was reminded of this truth by a song Jesse posted on Facebook this week. It hit the nail on the head and slammed the 2 x 4 across the bridge of my nose.

“He’s Been Faithful,” sung by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, resounds as a wonderful wake of call to walk daily in faith. Reading the lyrics without the melody speaks loudly to God constant faithfulness.

In my moments of fear,
Through every pain, every tear,
There’s a God who’s been faithful to me.
When my strength was all gone,
When my heart had no song.
Still, in love, he’s proved faithful to me.

Every word he has promised is true.
What I thought was impossible,
I’ve seen my God do.

He’s been faithful, faithful to me.
Looking back, his love and mercy I see.
Though in my heart, I have questioned,
Even failed to believe,
He’s been faithful, faithful to me.

We hear our pastors encourage us to “Have faith in God.” And, we should. God remains in control of a chaotic world around us. Though our sinfulness rests at the heart of the world’s ills, God provides a path through the darkness, enabling us to find ways of turning the bad to good…time and time again.

He does this not because we are faithful, but because he is faithful. The writer of Lamentations described it this way: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations. 3:22-23)

The writer of Hebrews echoed that sentiment when he said, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews. 10:23)

I watched our grandchildren play in our house this week. Followed them. Chased them. Hugged them. Let their laughter warm my soul. Celebrated the uniqueness in each of them in ways I seldom had time to do with my own kids. Being a retired grandparent has its advantages.

Most importantly, this week, I prayed for them. I prayed that on the day they accept Christ as their savior that they grasp, at least in part, the unfailing faithfulness of God. For, if they hold even a smidgen of understanding, it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world. They will have the only resource that matters as they find their way through life.

So, thanks, Jesse, for the reminder.

You read the lyrics without the melody. Now, listen to the two together. May it speak to you today as clearly as it did for me this week.

Whose Neighbor Can I Be

Background Passages: Luke 10:25-37; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 7:12

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question, shouted by an expert in the law, quieted the intimate conversation Jesus was having with the small crowd that gathered around the Galilean teacher. Heads turned toward the booming voice coming from the edge of the crowd. The man hiked up his flowing robe, pushed himself away from the large rock he leaned against, moving forward until he towered over Jesus who was sitting on a cedar log.

Jesus had noticed him skirting the periphery of the crowd for the past three days. Listening without hearing. Rolling his eyes. Biting his tongue. Biding his time. He was among a small group of Pharisees tracking Jesus from Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. They weren’t there to understand Jesus and his teaching. They were there to find fault in his words in an effort to discredit him in the eyes of the people.

Though the scribe asked a good question, it lacked in sincerity. Uttered by one who loved to hear his own voice. Seeking a specific answer. Hoping for something heretical. Jesus looked at the man for a moment and smiled. “What does the law say? How do you read it?” giving the man his moment in the spotlight.

The scribe turned to the crowd and confidently proclaimed, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” With a self-satisfied grin, he turned back to face Jesus, challenging him to disagree.

“You’re absolutely right,” Jesus answered. “Do this and you will have eternal life.” Jesus sat silently, his eyes never wavering from the eyes of the Pharisee. As the silence deepened, the scribe shuffled his feet. He did not get the answer he was expecting from the teacher. His eyes flashed as he fell back on his legal training, focusing his attack from a different angle. “Ahh, and just who is my neighbor?”

Jesus’ lips tightened and he let out a slow breath through his nostrils. For all he understood of God’s greatest commandments to his people, the lawyer limited its universal truth by qualify its spirit.

What Jesus speaks next is perhaps one of the most well-known parables he ever shared. The parable of the Good Samaritan transcends religious conversation, working its way into a secular context. Good Samaritan laws protect those who lend assistance in life-threatening situations. Those who go out of their way to help another are called good Samaritans.”

Here’s the gist of the story Jesus told.

A man traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers who beat him senseless and took his clothes and his money. They threw him in the ditch next to the road, bleeding , broken and near death. At separate times, a Jewish priest and a temple administrator happened upon the scene of the crime. They pretended not to see the man lying in the ditch. They averted their eyes, shuffled to the other side of the road and quickened their pace, ignoring the man in distress. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Later, a Samaritan on his way to Jericho came across the bleeding man. Compassion ruled the moment and the Samaritan jumped into the ditch to render aid. He cleaned the man’s cuts and bruises with his oil and wine and tore the hem of his garment to bandage the man’s wounds. He lifted the injured man onto his own donkey and walked him miles into the city. He took the man to an inn, nursing his needs throughout the night. The next morning, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to watch over the man, promising to cover any additional costs the innkeeper incurred when the Samaritan returned.

Jesus told the story to the crowd gathered around him. He looked into the faces of every person around him. Finally, his eyes bore into the eyes of the scribe still standing in the middle. Jesus’ eyes narrowed and his voice lowered an octave. His next question landed like a heavy weight upon the man’s chest, crushing the breath from his lungs. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell in to the hands of the robbers?”

I picture the man opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water, fully aware that he had been outfoxed by the master teacher. His brain flashed in overdrive as he tried to think of a snappy comeback. Unable to give credit to a hated Samaritan, he answered in little more than a grudging whisper. “The one who showed mercy on him.”

The lengthy conversation between Jesus and the scribe must have inspired those who sat around and watched it unfold. The parable shared by Jesus subtly suggesting that faith is best demonstrated, not by grand theological arguments, but by the things we do for others. And, it is a message that echoes loudly today. A lesson I still need to learn at times.

Here’s the thing. The scribe asked a great question in the beginning. It is the fundamental question all of us who long for meaning in life should ask. “How do I find eternal life?” Ironically, he gave the same answer that Jesus gave to another group of Pharisees who questioned him about God’s greatest commandments (Mark 12:28-34). Had the man stopped to consider the meaning and spirit of the words he spoke, the whole conversation might have taken a different and better turn.

His second question, however, reveals an exclusionary faith. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question that seeks to limit our compassion…creating boundaries that give us an out. “Who is my neighbor?” suggests that some groups or some individuals are unworthy of my time and effort.

The scribe practiced a ritualized religion based on man-made rules that identified peoples that the law considered unclean and unworthy of God’s love. The Pharisees and scribes knew Jesus frequently associated with tax collectors, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, outcasts and outlaws. When the scribe asked his question, I suspect he hoped Jesus might identify as a neighbor one among this group of the unclean which Jewish law excluded from fellowship.

We often fall into the same trap as the scribe. Surely my “neighbor” only includes those people with whom I have a relationship…those who look like me…those who live in my social circle…my own racial subset, those for whom I can give money, but not get my hands dirty…those whose needs do not inconvenience me.

Jesus rejects that view. In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan showed compassion and mercy to the injured man even though society considered the Samaritan an outcast and unworthy of God’s love. So, from Jesus’ standpoint, the question is not “Who is my neighbor,” but rather, “Whose neighbor can I be?”

It’s not a matter of identifying the person I wish to help. It’s a matter of looking for the unfolding opportunities God places before me where I can serve my God and my fellow man. Determining whose neighbor I can be demands that I step outside my comfort zone…insists that I engage with those whose backgrounds and cultures differ significantly from mine…mandates that I move past the safety of simple charitable giving to immerse myself in the gritty world of need in which others live.

Jesus defined our “neighbor” when he addressed the Pharisees in Mark. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Find the definition also encompassed in the Golden Rule. “Do unto others (your neighbor) as you would have others do unto you.” Both verses suggest an empathy that allows us to see ourselves in the circumstances experienced by someone else. Except for the grace of God we could find ourselves in similar circumstances. That realization should compel us to provide the help and assistance to another in need that we desire in our most desperate times.

In essence Jesus asked the scribe to abandon the smooth road ritualized religion and live in the dirty ditch of practical and powerful faith. Forget about qualifying those we choose to help. Look instead for the chance to change the course of another’s life.

It’s a good question.

Whose neighbor can you be?


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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 or

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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