We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
2 Corinthians 5:20a (NIV)

I was shopping at Walmart the other day and a sales associate smiled and greeted me as I walked by. His greeting took me by surprise and put a smile on my face.

And the Holy Spirit used the opportunity to remind me that I am Christ’s ambassador…and then to ask me how that was going. The answer – not nearly as well as the Lord and I would like it to be. You see, I keep forgetting to act like an ambassador. The Walmart associate was doing a better job that day of being an ambassador for Walmart than I was at being an ambassador for the Lord. Ouch!

I once took a missions trip, and throughout the trip, I was so aware that my behavior represented Christ to the people around me. I made a point of smiling and being pleasant and talking about the goodness of God. Throughout the trip, I was mindful that I wanted people to see Christ in me, their hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

Then I came home. And I returned to life as usual. I don’t want to live my life as usual in 2015. I want God to use me to impact the Kingdom of God. That requires living life as an ambassador for Christ. Let’s put the verse in context:

16So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

18And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NLT)

One of the purposes God has given us – and it’s one He will infuse with His power as we perform it (read this blog for more on that topic) – is telling others about Christ. That’s what this passage says, but it wraps in it in a bit of a different package.

God, through Christ, took the initiative to reconcile the world to Himself. That means He took the first step to restore the relationship between sinful man and holy God. That reconciliation is possible because God no longer counts our sin against us. That’s His gift to us. We are forgiven. And being forgiven, our relationship with Him is restored to the way God originally intended it to be – loving, intimate and ongoing.

He’s given us the message of reconciliation – in other words, He wants us to tell others that they can be reconciled with God, just as we are. God is making His appeal to the world through us – you and me. In other words, we are Christ’s ambassadors. We speak and act for Him.

An ambassador is “the highest-ranking person who represents his or her own government while living in another country” (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary).

  • We’re not flunkies! As ambassadors for Christ, we are people of high stature and authority. We speak for the King. We’ll need to study what the King would say and how the King would respond to situations we encounter if we want to represent Him well.
  • We represent the government of our true home – God’s Kingdom. To do so, we must know as much as we can about our country – God’s Kingdom. Its values, customs and goals are significantly different from our earthly country.
  • We live in a country that is not our home. While we’re here on earth, we’re just passing through – earth is not our home. Lord, help me to live that way! Someone who is just passing through travels light. I confess that I’ve accumulated too much stuff to be considered one who is traveling light!

It’s important for us to get all three of those points firmly planted in our minds and spirits. Being confident of these things, we can fulfill our role as ambassador effectively. When we lose sight of any of those points, our ambassadorship is hindered. We don’t live or act in the authority of the King, we don’t represent Him well or we become too preoccupied with the way things are done in our temporary country.

While living in our temporary home, it’s important that we have a Kingdom perspective. Verse 16 reminds us that we should not evaluate others from a worldly or human perspective. In other words, everyone we meet is a child of God, create in His image, loved by Him. God wants to shower His love on each person we meet. He wants each person to join us with Him in eternity. Do you view people from this perspective when you meet them?

Lord, change my perspective. Help me to see others as you see them. Help me to love others from a Kingdom perspective and in a Kingdom way.

I want to be a better representative of Christ in 2015. How about you?

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Hi Folks! I initially published this blog in March 2012. It is so appropriate to yesterday’s blog that I wanted to re-issue it – with a bit of updating. Enjoy! Sandy

It All Started with Edward
In 1855 there was a man named Edward Kimball. Edward taught Sunday School at a church in Boston. There was a 17-year-old boy in his Sunday School class who Kimball described as having one of the darkest hearts he’d ever seen. One day Mr. Kimball felt lead to visit the boy outside of Sunday School, so he went to the store where the teenager worked. By his own admission, Mr. Kimball was unsure of himself. He wrote about it later:

“I began to wonder whether I ought to go just then during business hours,” he latter reported. “And I thought maybe my mission might embarrass the boy, that when I went away the other clerks might ask who I was, and when they learned, might taunt [him] and ask if I was trying to make a good boy out of him. Then, I decided to make a dash for it and have it over at once.”

Can you sense Mr. Kimball’s insecurity from his own words? He later described himself as having made a rather anemic presentation of the gospel with the young man. But the boy was ready. God had been working on him.

That young man’s name was Dwight L. Moody.

I see several things in this story…

  • We never know what is in another person’s heart or when they are ready
  • Trust the Spirit’s prompting
  • Believe that God is going to use you! (Need a reminder of that? Read yesterday’s blog!)

Dwight Moody was holding a meeting in the late 1870’s at Lake Forest College in a suburb of Chicago. After the service, he counseled a student who was struggling with the assurance of his salvation. That young man later became a friend and co-laborer with Dwight Moody.

That man was J. Wilbur Chapman.

Mr. Chapman was an evangelist like Dwight Moody and later hired a young man to assist him in his ministry. That man was an former baseball player who had come to know Christ at a city mission in Chicago.

The man was Billy Sunday.

Billy Sunday was saved in 1887. Many years later he told the story like this:

“Twenty-seven years ago I walked down a street in Chicago in company with some ball players who were famous in this world … and we went into a saloon. It was Sunday afternoon and we got tanked up and then went and sat down on a corner. … Across the street a company of men and women were playing on instruments – horns, flutes and slide trombones – and the others were singing the gospel hymns that I used to hear my mother sing back in the log cabin in Iowa and back in the old church where I used to go to Sunday school.

“And God painted on the canvas of my recollection and memory a vivid picture of the scenes of other days and other faces.

“Many have long since turned to dust. I sobbed and sobbed and a young man stepped out and said, ‘We are going down to the Pacific Garden Mission. Won’t you come down to the mission? I am sure you will enjoy it. You can hear drunkards tell how they have been saved and girls tell how they have been saved from the red-light district.’

“I arose and said to the boys, ‘I’m through. I am going to Jesus Christ.’”

His story tells me some things:

  • God uses seeds planted in our childhood.
  • God used the Christians playing various instruments and singing on a street corner to touch long-overlooked memories.
  • God used the gentle boldness, enthusiasm and compassion of some unknown person to bring Billy Sunday to the mission and another nameless person in history to bring Billy Sunday to Christ.

Billy Sunday became a well-known evangelist. He held a series of evangelistic meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1924.

Out of those meeting an organization of businessmen with a heart for evangelism was formed.

This group held an all day prayer meeting in the cow pasture of William and Morrow Graham. During that prayer meeting, someone prayed “Lord, raise up a man out of Charlotte, North Carolina, who will preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”

That summer the businessmen invited an evangelist named Mordecai Ham to hold evangelistic meetings in their town. There was a high school student in town who knew his mom and dad wanted him to attend the meetings – but he had determined to have none of it. He would not attend. During the meetings, Billy Sunday challenged students to attend and the student became curious. One evening he jumped in the back of a friend’s pickup truck, went to the meeting and sat in the back row.

That man was Billy Graham and he gave his life to Christ that night. He was the oldest son of William and Morrow Graham, owners of that cow pasture where they held that all day prayer meeting.

In June 1994 Billy Graham held his second crusade in Cleveland, Ohio. My Aunt Dolly attended one evening and gave her life to Christ. My Aunt Dolly died earlier this year. She is now with her Lord and Savior, Jesus. Thank you, Edward Kimball.

Trace it backwards, friends, and you see that Billy Graham (and my Aunt Dolly) came to Christ because Edward Kimball allowed God to use him in his fear and ineptitude. As I wrote earlier, Kimball later reported that he felt like his presentation of the gospel to Dwight Moody had been pretty anemic. It might have felt that way in the natural, but God added to it His dunamis power and a miracle occurred. Again, thank you, Edward Kimball for letting God use you to impact eternity.

Edward Kimball obeyed the whisper of God and stepped into the works God had prepared in advance for him to do.

Lots of Names, One Theme
Well, I’ve just thrown a lot of names and details at you, but the theme is that history is full of people – people just like you and me – whom God has used in extraordinary ways.

Beginning with Mr. Kimball – he was a Sunday School teacher of teenage boys, and by his own admission his presentation of the gospel was pretty weak – but God used him to bring one of the greatest evangelists of all time to the Lord, Dwight Moody. But Mr. Kimball’s influence didn’t end there. There is a direct line of influence from Dwight Moody all the way down to Billy Graham and then my Aunt Dolly. And of course the influence continues. Billy Graham’s son Franklin leads an organization called Samaritan’s Purse that provides food, clothing, shelter and medicine to people in need all over the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that thousands, perhaps millions of people have been impacted by this ministry. Billy Graham’s grandson is a good preacher in his own right. And let’s not forget about my Aunt Dolly – the people she influenced are no less important than those influenced by Billy Graham. Her children and grandchildren influence those around them to love Christ – including Aunt Dolly’s great grandchildren.

And we can trace all of them back to Edward Kimball, a Sunday School teacher in a church in Boston. And we can trace it back to a young man who struggled to believe Scripture that says “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

And we can trace it back to men and women who played instruments and sang gospel songs on a street corner where drunk ball players took a break from their drinking.

And we can trace it back to some businessmen who attended an all-day prayer meeting.

We can even trace it back to that one individual who boldly prayed “Lord raise up a man out of Charlotte, North Carolina, who will preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

The thing that stands out so clearly to me from all of this is that within this chain of historic events there are a number of Christians who had large ministries that were used by God to sweep multitudes into His kingdom, and there were a number of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived out their calling and obediently ministered to the few whom God put in their path. The chain of events would have broken down without the obedient and faithful action of the ordinary Christians. While Edward Kimball and the slide trombone player on the Chicago street corner were never called by God to have a worldwide ministry like that of Dwight Moody or Billy Graham, both of those great evangelists can trace their spiritual ancestry back to those faithful Christian workers.

God has a plan for each one of us. Scripture makes that clear in both the Old and New Testaments.

Jeremiah 1:5 (God is speaking to Jeremiah) “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

There was nothing extraordinarily special about Jeremiah. What God did for Jeremiah, He has done for each of us – not necessarily calling us to be prophets to the nation, but creating us for a purpose.

The Psalmist wrote this awesome passage that has the same message:

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139: 13-16

The message is repeated in the New Testament:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10

God has worked in your history, setting things in motion, preparing you and preparing the world in which you live, for the good works that He’s called you to.

So, everyone in that chain of history that began with Edward Kimball and ended with Billy and Franklin Graham stepped up to the plate to swing at the pitch God threw them. They had given their time and their talents to God. Instead of staying home and watching the latest episode of their must-see-TV, they spent all day in prayer. Instead of going out drinking with his buddies, Billy Sunday said “Today, I’m going to Jesus.”

I want to encourage each of us to get in the game. Let’s not be satisfied with life as we know it, but allow God to use us in ways that leave a lasting impact on this world.

I want to see God move. I’m not going to see it without getting in the game. I’m not going to see my community won to Christ by just going to church every Sunday. I’m not going to see men and women grow in their faith by just enjoying fellowship with other believers. I’m not dissing those things. Both are very important. But we can’t change the world without being in it and being purposeful in it.

What has to change for you and me to accomplish the purposes that God has prepared in advance for us to do? Here are some ideas:

  • Believe that God wants to use us (see yesterday’s blog)
  • Change our patterns and schedules
  • Know what He has called us to
  • Step out in faith, even when we don’t have all the answers

A Final Encouragement

Phil 1:4, 6 “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

God will bring the work He’s started to completion, but we have a role to play. Your role may be large, but more likely it will be small. You may not be used by God to lead thousands to Christ, but you may be used by God to lead the world’s next great evangelist to Christ. You are a part of God’s chain of events in human history.

Others can’t keep us from accomplishing the things God has ordained for us to do, but we can. We can step out of the chain of events and not have that impact that God wants us to have. God will still accomplish His purposes on earth…He’ll just use someone else. Don’t let someone else receive the blessing of serving God that He has set aside for you. Get in the game. Step up to the plate. Start today!

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On the third of December I sent myself a fairly cryptic email. The subject line read like this: “Journal/Blog: 2015 – Year of Hope.”

2015 – Year of Hope. I didn’t identify any specific Scripture I was reading when God dropped that into my spirit, but I remember feeling the nudge from God so strongly that I sent myself an email so that I could later transfer the thought to my personal journal and seek God for what else He might want to say about it. Maybe I would develop it into a blog or series of blogs.

That was it. I haven’t done any more writing on the topic or study or research. But God planted the word in my spirit on December 3rd and it’s been growing.

I suspect there will be a number of blogs on the topic of hope in 2015, but I wanted to start with sharing the thing that gives me the greatest hope on a day-to-day basis.

What is it that gives you hope when you are tempted to feel less than hopeful. When life beats you up a bit, or even perhaps when life just continues in the constant sameness day after day – How do you answer the question that comes unbidden into your mind “Is all this worth it?” What is it that gives you hope?

Now as Christians, we have many reasons to be hopeful. As a believer in Christ and one who desires to make Him Lord of my life, I can have hope regardless of my circumstances because I am…

  • forgiven
  • saved
  • sanctified – a fancy word for “made holy or acceptable to God” (a pretty amazing and wonderful thing)
  • filled with the Holy Spirit
  • the bride of Christ
  • seated with Him in heavenly places

And on top of all that, I have the promise of spending eternity in heaven with my Lord. Hallelujah!

Those are all tremendous reasons for rejoicing and for having hope…all great reasons that I’m not going to write about today, except to say that if you are not totally confident in all those things – if you’re not totally confident that you’ve been forgiven, if you’re not totally confident that you will spend eternity in heaven, check out these blogs:

Made Right with God

How Can I Know I’m Saved

There’s another reason to be hopeful that sits at the top of my list. I can get pretty jazzed about the reasons I’ve just identified, but they’re all very future. Yes, they have a “for today” element, but they’re largely reasons I can be hopeful for my future.

The reason I get most jazzed about is a present, for today, reason. That one reason is this: God – the Creator of the Universe and everything in it – the One who holds the world together – the One who created me and knows me better than I know myself – that God has plans and purposes for my life that have eternal significance. He has things for me to do today that will have impacts that continue through all eternity is what I get jazzed about.

And you know what? I can step into those plans because I know that He is the God of the impossible. So no matter what my circumstances are, no matter what my physical or intellectual abilities are, no matter what my personality limitations are, He is the God of the impossible and He wants to use me to impact eternity! Wow! Hallelujah!

You see, I am sometimes tempted to be discouraged by my circumstances or physical abilities. I am tempted to think I’m not smart enough or I don’t have the personality or natural abilities I need to do something for God. But you know what? A God who can do the impossible – a God who has miracle working power – that God (my God) operates outside the boundaries of our circumstances and abilities.

That’s important enough to repeat: Our God is not limited by our circumstances and abilities – He works outside them. Yes, He works within them in the sense that He uses our circumstances and our abilities to accomplish His purposes, but He works outside them in the sense that He is God. He can do what we can’t even begin to imagine. And the thing is, He wants to do it in and through us. He could do it on His own…but He says “come on, let’s do it together.”

Friends, that’s what I get jazzed about. Let’s look at Ephesians 3: 20-21:

20Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)

In the New King James translation, it reads “to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” Hallelujah!

Let’s break look at the passage a bit more closely.

“Now to Him who is able” – are you convinced that God is able? That’s the place to start.

We’ll come back to this passage, but let’s look briefly at Hebrews 11:1. A very common verse…

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

The Holman Christian Standard Bible says it this way:

Now faith is the reality [or assurance] of what is hoped for, the proof [or conviction] of what is not seen.
Hebrews 11:1 (HCSB)

Choosing to engage our faith – in other words, choosing to say and hold to the “I believe” – comes before the reality of seeing – it is the place where hope lives.

Do you want to have hope? Choose to believe God and His Word. Every day, in every moment, in every circumstances, in every inadequacy, in every discouragement. Choose to believe that God is able.

I’m not asking you to believe that you can do whatever God calls you to do. I’m asking you to believe that He can do it. That He is able.

I know that’s not always easy. But it is where hope lives. When you believe God is able, hope rises in your heart and your spirit.

Even though believing isn’t always easy, there’s an element that’s even harder – choosing to believe means more than simply saying and holding to the “I believe”, it means living the “I believe.”

It isn’t enough, to simply say “I believe” – even if you are believing with all your heart. It must be lived! Faith is living in that confidence that God is the God of the impossible. Living in a way that shows you believe He is able to do the impossible in your life. Not just in Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s lives. Not just in the Apostle Peter’s life and in Paul’s life and in John’s life. But in your life and in my life.

And if it’s true that God is able to do the impossible in our lives (and it is), then no matter what our circumstances or physical abilities are, we have a choice to make over and over again many times every day – to believe and live in hope or to back away from it.

Friends, I am exhorting us today not to back away from believing God. Don’t back away from hope.

Let’s return to Ephesians 3:20:

“Now to Him who is able” – Lord we believe that You are able – to do what? “more than all we can ask or imagine.” This verse jumped off the page at me during a Bible study in early November. I felt like God was challenging me to improve my imagination. If God can do more than that, I want to imagine more.

Later, however, I noticed a little word that hadn’t hit my radar before. Scripture says “more than ALL we ask or imagine.” Not more than a little bit of what I can imagine, or some of what I can imagine, but more than all I can ask or imagine.

That’s what the God who is able can do! Lord, I believe you are able. Improve my imagination, give me bigger dreams. And help me choose to believe that you can do it all – that You can do more than all of it.

And even as I say that, the enemy whispers, but…but… you’re 58 years old…you can’t jump as high as you used to jump and you can’t run as fast as you used to run…you have obligations to take care of parents who live 50 miles away…you are overwhelmed with work sometimes…you’re tired…you’re…

And so I am tempted to step back from hope. But the Lord is prompting us to say… “Get thee behind me satan.” “Lord, I choose to believe that you are able to do immeasurably more than all I can ask or imagine.”

Hallelujah! Are you with me? Do you believe that God is able?

Well if so, hang on because there’s more to this verse.

As if God’s ability to do more isn’t exciting enough, here’s the part that I get super jazzed about…How is he going to do that immeasurably more, that exceedingly abundantly more? By the power IN US.

The power – the word is dunamis – the word from which we get dynamite. The explosive power. Miraculous power. When you read the words “mighty works” or “miracles” in the gospels, it is probably the word dunamis in the Greek.

In Chapter 1 of Ephesians, Paul prayed for the Ephesians to know God’s “incomparably great power” – dunamis (Eph 1:19). He went on to say something about that power – He said that the incomparably great, dunamis power, is the same power that He “exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 1:20).

God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to the power that is work within us – that dunamis power that raised Christ from the dead.

Wow!

The word dunamis occurs in many places, but I want to share one curious place. In Matthew chapter 13 we have the story of Jesus returning to his hometown.

54[Jesus] went to His hometown and began to teach them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “How did this wisdom and these miracles come to Him? 55Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother called Mary, and His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? 56And His sisters, aren’t they all with us? So where does He get all these things?”

57And they were offended by Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his household.”

58And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.
Matthew 13:54-58 (HCSB)

That word “miracles” in verse 58 – it’s dunamis.

Friends, I don’t want to limit or diminish God’s use of His dunamis power in my life because of my unbelief. I want to believe God’s Word that says He is able.

Now to Him who is able to do immeasureably more…by the power – dunamis – at work in us.

We’ve answered the question “is God able?” – how about the question “does He really want to work through me?” Does He really want to work through you? Ephesians 2:10 answers that for us:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

We were created for a purpose – to do things that God has prepared for us to do. We are not here by happenstance. We are not living in our community, seeing the people we see, going to the places we go by happenstance.

There is a verse in Acts that says God determined the exact times and places where we should live. It’s not happenstance.

God has worked in your history, setting things in motion, preparing you and preparing the world in which you live, for the good works that He’s called you to.

Did you get that? God has worked in your history, setting things in motion, preparing you and preparing the world in which you live, for the good works that He’s called you to.

And that, friends, is what I get jazzed about that. That gives me hope on a day to day, even hour by hour, basis. When life gets boring, I know that God is working – using His dunamis power in me to accomplish immeasurably more than all I can ask or imagine to accomplish the good works He’s prepared in advance for me to do. When life gets tough, I know that God is working. When life is good, I know that God is working. In all the situations, God is working in and through me…if I continue to pursue Him. If I plug myself into the plan. Because the sad news is that at any moment, I can choose to step out.

I want to encourage all of us not to step out of God’s plan. As we look into the new year, tell God you want to plug into the plans He has for you. And then believe it is happening. Live in that place of faith and hope, whether you see it or not.

Here’s an important point, though: God’s dunamis power doesn’t always look like a TNT explosion. It is at work in the every day things. I can be sitting listening to a message at church, and the pastor can say something that rocks my world. And those around me won’t have a clue. My husband may not even have a clue until I tell him. But in my spirit something arises that spurs me on to love God more and to serve God more. And that is no less an example of God’s dunamis power than the more explosive, miracle workings we think of. When God works in one person’s heart to grow in obedience and love for Him, eternity watches with anticipation to see what God will do next, how He will use his dunamis power in that person’s life.

The works God’s created for us to do may very well be low-key acts of obedience – offering a cold cup of water to a prophet, for example. And here’s a cool thing – God promises us that when we do that, we will receive the prophets reward! (Matthew 10:40-42) Why, because we believed that God was working through us, so by faith we acted. And our cold cup of water enabled that prophet, that evangelist, that Sunday school or Bible study teacher, that preacher, that missionary, that lay person, to accomplish the work God has prepared for him or her.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

And so we act, we step into the good works that God has prepared for us to do. We say, “Lord, thank you for using me today. What small or large work do you have for me to do? I believe it will have impact throughout all eternity.”

That’s how I want to approach life.

Here’s my hope and confidence: Some day, I will be sitting with the Lord, and someone will come up to me and they will say “Sandy, you don’t know me, but I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. In 1981 you led a girls club and you encouraged the girls to share Christ with a friend. I was a friend of one of those girls.” And a while later someone will come up to me and say “Sandy, you wrote that blog and it woke me up out of the spiritual slumber I was in.” Or “you preached that message and made it so simple that I understood for the first time that God wanted to use me.” Or “you shared that facebook post and it made me angry but I couldn’t get it out of my head.” Or “Sandy, you built that Operation Christmas Child shoebox or gave that offering and someone worlds away from you introduced me to Christ.”

Friends, I get jazzed about that. That’s my greatest reason for having hope on a day-to-day basis. And not just that, but for what follows it – that person I impacted will impact someone else who will impact someone else who will impact someone else…should the Lord tarry.

It’s not that I have visions of grandeur. It’s not that I’m so great. Quite the opposite! I have confidence – faith – in my God to do phenomenally cool and exciting things – to use His dunamis power in and through me…if I let Him. If I give Him control. If I follow His lead. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from ballroom dance lessons, it’s that two people can’t lead. One must follow. That’s my job. I’m the follower. It often goes against my nature, but that’s what being conformed to the image of Christ is all about – conforming my will to His.

Lord, as I look forward to 2015, help me hold onto faith – that place where hope lives – believing that You are able to do cool and amazing things that will impact eternity through my typically ordinary life.

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Christmas is such a magical time of year. The snow glistens as it falls during the day and glows as it falls at night. Homes and businesses are decorated in celebration. People seem friendlier and more joyful.

For the Christian, though, it goes beyond decorations and magical snow falls. It’s not just a magical time of year, it’s a miraculous time of year. It’s the time of year in which we remember and celebrate the miracle of Jesus and the message of Jesus. Jesus is the reason for the season. Jesus is the Christ in Christmas – without Jesus there would be no reason to celebrate.

Today  I want us to step back from the Christmas story we’re most familiar with and see what came before it. We’re going to look at what was foretold about Jesus 700 years before the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and Joseph. 700 years before the birth of Jesus in the manger God gave Isaiah a message about Jesus. Isaiah prophecied this:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

The story of Jesus didn’t start with His birth or when the Angel visited Mary. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that told the Hebrews – the Jews – that a Messiah, or Savior, would come. It was knowing that a Messiah was promised to them – promised by a God who is faithful – it was this promised Messiah that gave the Jews hope, even during very difficult and dark times.

This verse in Isaiah is one of those prophecies that holds the promise of a Messiah, given to the Jews during a very dark time in their history. The Jewish people had split into two nations – Judah and Israel, and they were each aligning themselves with sinful nations in order to battle one another. The country is in the midst of a civil war, not unlike our own civil war so long ago. I bet many of you had grandparents who fought in our civil war.

It is at this point that God holds out the promise of the Messiah:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

Isaiah’s statement is very simple, but each phrase is important. Let’s look at it closely.

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign.”

Who is giving the sign? The Lord Himself.

Isaiah wants to be sure that we understand that it is the Lord’s sign, given to us. It didn’t originate in the thoughts of Isaiah, but from the heart of God. The sign is God’s gift to us.

Was God obligated to send the Israelites a sign? Absolutely not. They were led by an evil king and aligning themselves with evil nations. God could have said “I’m done with them. They have rejected me.” God didn’t have to give them a sign, He chose to give it.

He’s like that with us. He doesn’t have to come into our lives. He doesn’t have to provide for us and love us and even heal us. He doesn’t have to offer us eternal life. But He chooses to because He is compassionate and loving.

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign.”

Who did the Lord give the sign to? The prophecy is given to Israel, but the sign was given to everyone. The sign wasn’t given just to those who knew the Lord and followed His commands, but it was given to the whole nation – to everyone. Not just to those who believe, but it’s also to those who don’t believe. Signs, by their very nature, point people toward things. Street signs tell you which way to go. Signs in the grocery stores tell you what food is in each aisle. Everyone who sees the sign and follows it ends up where they want to go. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God says He is giving us a sign. If we pay attention to the sign and follow it, the sign will lead us – in this case, to everlasting life.

A few minutes ago we said that God didn’t have to give us a sign – He chose to. It is out of His mercy and compassion that God doesn’t leave us to wander around trying to figure everything out for ourselves. He gave us a sign – a pretty significant one – like a blinking neon sign on a dark night! And His sign points directly to Jesus, as we see in the next phrase of the verse.

What was the sign? The next phrase of the verse tells us:

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth.”

A young woman who has never been with a man will become pregnant and will give birth. Isaiah must have been thinking “That’s not possible, Lord!” Yet what does Scripture say about the impossible? It says that “with God, all things are possible.” There is nothing impossible with God. No matter what impossible situation you’re facing, you can know that “with God, all things are possible.”

If we had been around before Creation and God told us He was going to create light and the land and the sea and all that are in the land and the sea…we’d have thought “That’s not possible, Lord!” Or maybe we wouldn’t have been quite so skeptical and would simply have thought “How in the world are You going to do that?” or “Can You really do that?” With God, all things are possible. I love that God has creative solutions to those situations that cause us to think “It’s not possible.” When that phrase comes to our minds, we can immediately think of the sign that God gave us – the virgin will be with child and will give birth. God interrupts our lives in miraculous ways. Perhaps not as miraculous as the virgin birth. That was a once only event because it ushered in the promised Messiah. But the miracle of experiencing His peace in the midst of our trials is still God doing what is impossible.

The prophecy of Jesus reminds us that God can do the miraculous. Every time you sing a Christmas carol this year that reminds you of the birth of Jesus, remember that God can do the miraculous.

In this verse, the Jews were promised that God would one day do the impossible and that “impossible thing” would be a sign to us. The young virgin would become pregnant and give birth.

But that’s not all. Isaiah finished the sentence by writing this:

“And will call Him Immanuel.”

The word Immanuel means “God with us.” Isaiah was saying that the child would be God with us – here on earth.

The sign that God would give us would be a miraculous birth. The message on the sign – the words written on it, so to speak – is that the child would be God in the flesh, here on earth. God, born as the baby Jesus. We read the stories of Jesus’ life and they become so familiar to us, that sometimes we forget that Jesus is God in the flesh and He walked here on earth.

In His compassion, God gave us a sign to point us in the right direction.

In His love, He came as a human who could literally put His arms around the disciples and say “Go this way.”

Seeing God’s compassion and love, is important because we know that Scripture tells us that He is the same yesterday, today and forever. God’s compassion causes Him to reach out to us, sometimes in miraculous ways, to lead us toward Himself. Jesus is a sign for us today. A Sign that God gave us because He is compassionate and because He loves us. He is a sign that will lead us to everlasting life.

A Child is Born – to Us; The Mighty God and Everlasting Father is Ours

A few chapters later Isaiah continued the prophecy about Jesus and wrote this:

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned….
6For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
The mighty God, The everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:2 (NIV), 6 (KJV)

Isaiah gives us more insight into the child that would be born. We have heard these words so many times, they almost don’t have the impact on us that they would have had on Isaiah. Think about it – a CHILD is born – and he will be called MIGHTY GOD! Everlasting Father! Prince of Peace!

The sign that God would give – the child born of a virgin – would be the mighty God. He would be the everlasting Father. He would be God – with us – Immanuel.

For Him to be our everlasting Father, we must have everlasting life. Jesus became God in human form to show us how the way to have that everlasting life. He tells us this Himself.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 14:6 (NIV)

The virgin giving birth was given as a sign and the words on the sign were “God is with us.” When Jesus grew up He said it differently – “I am the way and the truth and the life.” In other words, “follow me and I will give you everlasting life.”

If you don’t know the Lord personally, if you don’t know Jesus as your friend, let me introduce Him to you. He is the Child who was given to us. He is the Mighty God and Everlasting Father. He is Immanuel, God with us. And He is the way, the truth and the life. When we follow Him, we have everlasting life. Tell Him you’d like to get to know Him better. That it is your desire to follow Him. He will reveal Himself to you and if you follow that revelation, you will have everlasting life.

Jesus’ birth didn’t just occur by happenstance. God told us in advance:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

Will you pray with me? Father, thank you for sending us a sign so that we would no longer have to wander and doubt. Thank you for sending a sign that points back to you. I pray that during the coming Christmas season You would help us to know You better and help us to follow You better. We want to experience “God with us”. We want to know Jesus. We want to follow Jesus. Thank You, Lord, for giving us everlasting life.

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I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
Psalm 40:1 (NIV)

Hope

There are many words translated “hope” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, but all the words used in phrases like “put your hope in the Lord” or “our hope is in the Lord” mean more than the wish-washy way the word hope is used in contemporary English. In modern usage, the word “hope” means something like “I wish” or “it would be nice if.” For example, when we say “I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow” we mean “it sure would be nice if it doesn’t snow tomorrow.”

But that’s not what the Bible means when it uses the word hope. When scripture talks about hope, it’s not talking about some folly or wish. In the Bible, the word “”hope ”means a deep-seated confidence. The words that are translated as “hope” are also translated as confident, trust and rely upon.

So when we talk about having hope in the Lord, it’s not the kind of hope of wishful thinking. No, we’re saying “I have a confident expectation. I am fully persuaded of what I put my hope in. I have full trust in the Lord.”

Perhaps you’ve heard that explanation before. I know I had. I learned something interesting about one of the words translated “hope” in the Old Testament, however, that brought the definitions to life. The word we’re looking at is tikva, and it literally means “cords,” with the implication being “bound with cords.” In other words, we are bound to that which we put our hope in.

Let’s look at Scripture. We’re going to start (and end) in Psalm 40. In my last blog, I wrote about listening for the Lord each morning and some of the things He wants to say to us. Today, we’re turning the tables a bit and looking at what happens when God listens for us.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
Psalm 40:1 (NIV)

Those fourteen words fill me with such excitement. First, the words translated “waited patiently” is actually the same Hebrew word repeated twice. The word is qawa (pronounced kaw-vaw, accenting the second syllable). It is the root word from which tikva – hope – is derived. It literally means “to bind together (perhaps by twisting)”.

The first half of the verse could also be translated “I bound myself to the Lord – I put my hope in Him.” David then went on to write that two things happened when he trusted God.

The first thing is that the Lord turned to him. When we trust in God, He moves closer toward us. Another translation says He “inclined to me”. You could say He stretched out toward me. Friends, there are many things I don’t understand about Scripture, but I am increasingly coming to understand that when we actively believe and trust God, it activates something in the spiritual realm. It moves God closer to us so to speak.

The second thing that happened is that the Lord heard David’s cry. The Lord is always listening for our cry. He always hears it. God is always listening – and when we put our trust in Him, He turns and responds.

In verse 2 David explains how God responded:

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
Psalm 40:2 (NIV)

You know, when we forget to listen to God, we make a mess of things. We fall into the slimy pits that Satan puts in front of us. We fall into the muck and mire and get sucked in by our own self confidence and pride. We make a mess of things.

But when we cry out to the Lord, He lifts us up. He sets our feet on a rock. He doesn’t set me on the edge of the pit where the mud is still a bit slippery. He sets my feet on a rock and He gives us a firm place to stand. As I was thinking about this, the picture of a small child learning to walk came to mind. Their parent helps them to stand and they wobble a bit back and forth. The parent doesn’t let go until the little one has firmly planted his feet and stabilized himself a bit. Then, the parent lets go, but keeps his arms loosely around the child ready to catch the child when he falls. God is like that. He makes sure our feet are firmly planted – the word can also be translated “established” – before he gives us a bit of freedom. But He is always there to catch us when we cry out to Him.

Rocks

“He set my feet on a rock.” A rock is solid. It is immovable. And throughout Scripture, God is described as a rock.

30 God’s way is perfect. All the LORD’s promises prove true. He is a shield for all who look to him for protection.
31 For who is God except the LORD? Who but our God is a solid rock?
Psalm 18:30-31 (NLT)

6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and glory depend on God, my strong rock. My refuge is in God.
8 Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before Him. God is our refuge.
Psalm 62:5-8 (HCSB)

God is our solid rock. When we put our hope in him, we are secure.

How secure are we? Remember, the word hope comes from a word that means bound by cords. When we put our hope in Jesus, we are bound to him. Imagine the strongest cords you can and then imagine them wrapping around you and the Lord. And every time you choose faith – every time you choose to put your hope in God – those cords are wrapped more securely. It’s like they encircle us again and again each time we choose to trust God, with each layer of cord making us more and more secure.

Now I don’t want to mislead you. It only takes one cord to make us secure – because it’s God who is holding us. He is the one wrapping us in His arms. When we turn to Him, He is the one who turns toward us and hears our cry. He’s the one who picks us up out of the muck and mire. He’s the one who says “I gotcha.” God’s protection doesn’t depend on how strong our faith is. It depends on how good and how mighty God is. (And He is those things to the nth degree.)

But, I find that the more I trust God, the more I sense the cords that hold me secure.

God is the rock to which we’re bound. Hallelujah! When David thought about this, He wrote songs of praise.

The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God, the Rock, my Savior!
2 Samuel 22:47 (NIV)

Spider Webs

As I was studying hope, I was surprised to find myself in Job. Many people consider Job to be a pretty depressing book, so I was surprised to learn so much about hope from it’s pages.

Scripture describes Job as a man who was blameless and upright. A man who loved God. He was also a very rich man, described as the greatest man in all the east…Until Satan took everything from him. He lost his house, his children, his animals, his livelihood, and eventually his health. He was left to sit at the gate and beg while dogs licked the sores from his body. Even his wife encouraged him to curse God and die.

After he had lost everything – after he was no longer the richest man – no longer the man that everyone looked up to and even envied – no longer a man who could provide for his family…After he had lost his children and his money and had no ability to care for himself..After his wife told him to give up on God, to curse God and die…After all that, Job made an astounding declaration of faith.

25 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
27 I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
Job 19:25-27 (NIV)

Job was securely bound to God. His hope was secure. He was fully confident in God. He knew that when his body was destroyed, he would still see God. Job knew that nothing was going to separate him from his rock.

Job knew that a hope that was secure was one that was in God. He also knew that a hope that was in anything else was not one you could put your trust in. Not something you could rely on. Listen to what he wrote about those who forget God:

13 This is the destiny of all who forget God; the hope of the [person without God] will perish.
14 His source of confidence is fragile; what he trusts in is a spider’s web.
15 He leans on his web, but it doesn’t stand firm. He grabs it, but it does not hold up.
Job 8:13-15 (HCSB)

The hope of those who forget God will perish, Job wrote. Their hope will fail. If their trust is in anything other than God, their trust – their confidence – is fragile. It is like a spider’s web. When they lean on the web, it doesn’t hold them up. When things in life come at them and they try to grab onto their hope, it falls apart in their hands.

Now remember a time when you’ve walked into a spider web (or perhaps a cob web if the spider web has too much of an eeoow factor). If you’re anything like me, you begin to scream and thrash around, trying desperately to find the web (and the spider that lives in it) and get it off of you. But there’s nothing to grasp. It’s there, but it’s not there. It doesn’t hold up.

Friends, if our faith is in our strength, our youth, our wisdom, our finances, our friends, our spouse – anything other than Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God – our hope will perish. Perhaps I should write “when” our faith is in any of those things, our hope perishes – because I find it easy to slip into trusting those things sometimes. When our faith is in any of those things, we will fail. We will reach for our faith and it will disintegrate in our hands. We will try to lean on it and we’ll fall over. It is like a spider’s web.

But if we trust in Christ – when we trust in Christ – we know that the object of our faith is sure and true and strong. We have a firm foundation. We know that it will never fail us.

Hope and Joy

Now let’s go back to Psalm 40 and look at what happens when we put our hope in God and He turns and hears our cry.

1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.
4 Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.
Psalm 40:1-4 (NIV)

David, a man that God described as a man after God’s own heart, wrote that when he waited patiently for God, God turned and heard his cry. Then God reached down a lifted him out of the slimy pit he had found himself. He lifted him and put his feet on a rock. God gave David a firm place to stand. But God didn’t just leave him there to stand. He put a new song in David’s mouth – in other words, he filled David with joy and song. And the result is that others will see and put their trust in God.

David confirms that the man or woman who puts their trust in the Lord is blessed.

So friends, I want to encourage you to put your hope in that which is firm, that which is the solid rock. Put your hope in the Lord. Let’s not trust in our own efforts because they’re like the spider web. Jesus is the rock.

Is there an area in your life where you need to put your hope in God? Is there an area in which you’ve fallen into the pit of self-reliance or trusting in anything other than God? Spend a few minutes with God right now and ask Him to forgive you for trusting in that spider web and then place your situation in His hands. Put your hope in Him. He’s the rock to which you want to be bound.

Footnote: Word definitions and discussions are based on Strong’s Talking Greek and Hebrew Dictionary.

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Recently God reminded me of a very important principle in Scripture. He reminded me as I was reading one morning in Isaiah:

God awakens my ear in the morning to listen.
Isaiah 50:4

Every morning when God awakens us, He does so for one purpose – to listen to His voice. His desire is that we begin each day listening for His voice.

The theme is carried over in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation, for example, Jesus urges over and over again, “let everyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says.”

Yet I find that it’s often so much easier to wake up in the morning and listen, instead of to the Lord, to the radio or the television or the first person we see. Often, we allow them to set the tone for our day.

Imagine, however, if we asked God to help us listen to His voice every morning. What kinds of things would He say to us?

I’m writing to Christians today – people who have asked God to forgive them of their sins and take control of their lives. If you haven’t done that, you can do so at any time. Check out this blog to learn more.

If you are a Christian, here are some of the things God would say to you each morning:

God would say: “You’re forgiven.”

He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases.
Psalm 103:3 (NLT)

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.
Colossians 2:13 (NIV)

I am writing to you who are God’s children because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus.
1 John 2:12 (NLT)

What does that simple phrase “You’re forgiven” mean? It means that the separation that existed between you and God has been put back together. Scripture describes us as being at war with God because of our sin, but we have been reconciled – brought back together.

It means that we can live in the freedom of knowing that we are accepted by God without reservation. There’s nothing you or I have done that God isn’t ready to forgive. Scripture says that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

And it means we will one day spend eternity in heaven. Being forgiven brings us freedom in this life and eternity with God in the next life. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Not only would God say “You’re forgiven”, He’d also say: “You are loved.”

But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him. His salvation extends to the children’s children
Psalm 103:17 (NLT)

Long ago the LORD said to Israel: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.
Jeremiah 31:3 (NLT)

I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.
John 15:9 (NLT)

Knowing we are loved gives us courage to live the life that God has prepared for us. I don’t know about you, but it makes me smile every time I think about it. You are special to God. You are loved. Deeply loved.

God would say: “I gotcha! Don’t be afraid. I’ve got your back. Whatever comes your way – I’m with you.”

27My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, 29for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand.
John 10:27-29 (NLT)

God is our protection. He has our back! No one can snatch us from His hand. But there’s another element to God having our back. Not only is it His protection, it’s also His provision.

And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:19 (NIV)

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.
2 Peter 1:3 (NLT)

Friends, for those of us who have trusted Christ as our Savior, when we listen to God’s voice in the morning, we face the day knowing that we are loved, that we are forgiven, that there’s nothing that will come up during the day that God we have to face alone.

God’s reminder that He awakens me to listen was one I needed to hear. It came after a very long time of being very busy. Yes, I kept reading my Bible during that time. Yes, I prayed regularly. But at some point, I wasn’t lingering with God. You know, Phil and I have our best conversations when we’re not rushing from one thing to another. The same is true with God. I am being more purposeful about lingering over my Bible reading and prayers. And every morning, I am reminding myself that I am forgiven, I am loved and God’s got my back. I gotta tell you – it’s  a great way to start each day!

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About six months ago, the church Phil and I had attended for the past eight years closed when the founding pastor retired from ministry. (Sigh.) It’s hard having your family disbanded. We miss meeting together and celebrating the Lord with the friends we shared that privilege with each week.

The process of finding a new church home has given us an opportunity to see what God is doing in our community. But finding a new church is hard work. We feel like wanderers and in all honesty, as much as we love church, the temptation to sleep in on Sunday mornings and enjoy some leisure is pretty strong.

We resist most Sundays because we are committed to the local church. We’re committed to it because we believe it is God’s desire for each believer to be a part of a local fellowship. We grieve deeply at so many Christians who consider attending church optional. Writing about that will be the bulk of this blog, but first, I just want to share some random thoughts from visiting different churches over the past six months.

Random Thoughts About

  • There are many pockets of people who love the Lord. Each provides their unique expression of His love.
  • It’s so easy to be critical of those bodies we visit – after all, we’re evaluating each of them as a potential church home. Of course, none of them are the one we loved and can no longer attend. They don’t sing the songs we’re most familiar with. The people aren’t as loving as the ones from our church (or so it seems – I don’t really believe they are – I just don’t know them and they don’t know me so it doesn’t seem as if they are as loving as my friends). The preaching is a different style. You see, it’s so much easier to see what annoys us than to set our preferences aside and look for the good things God is doing.
    I know we’re not unique in this experience. We meet for Bible study with others searching for a new home and none of us has found a home yet. It seems there is something wrong with each church we visit. Of course there is. There’s something with every church. There were things wrong with our previous church. (“Get over it – quit looking for the perfect church” my brain whispers to my heart.)
  • The Holy Spirit regularly reminds me that we miss a tremendous opportunity if we’re not blessing the churches we visit and we do Christ a terrible disservice when we complain about them.
  • Each church we visited has at least three needs: More passion for the Lord, a stronger sense of purpose or vision, and committed believers who align themselves with that purpose or vision. The first two elements – passion for the Lord and a vision for the Church – were evident in some of the leaders, but rarely seen in the congregation.

I don’t write these things as criticism from the outside looking in. I count myself among those who need more passion for the Lord. God has been speaking to Phil and me about passion lately so I’ll be blogging about that in the future.

I grieve for the lack of vision I see in many churches, and for the lack of committed believers attending those churches.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Proverbs 29:18a (KJV)

And where there is no vision (or revelation) of her purpose, the Church perishes. She becomes filled with people who see no purpose and become complacent in their commitment…or simply leave altogether.

The Church in America is in desperate need of revival, and none of the churches we visited is currently experiencing it. Spotty attendance by members of the congregation is a symptom of our lack of passion. We visited a number of churches whose attendance varied as much as 50% from week to week because so many people who were regular participants in the congregation prioritized other things over church. Yes, we may all do that occasionally. But for many it is not the occasional or rare re-prioritization – it seems to be a weekly decision of whether or not to join fellow believers in worship and equipping. And for still others, it has become a decision to not attend regularly simply because…well, the best I can understand is that the Church isn’t doing or being what they want it to do or be.

I understand the Church not doing or being what you want it to be. I’ve been there. As we look for a new church home, I’m there almost every Sunday. What I don’t understand is allowing that situation to override God’s Word to you:

24And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, 25not staying away from our ?worship? meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Hebrews 10:24-25 (HCSB)

Christianity Today published an article online in August titled “The Promise of Church: Reasons we must go—and keep going.” The author, Jen Pollock, brings correction in the midst of hope:

No, we don’t go to church (and keep going) because it’s easy. We go because it’s necessary…When we declared our allegiance to Jesus Christ, like it or not, we became a part of his family, binding ourselves to the domestic responsibilities to love and to serve our spiritual fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. The Apostle Paul said church is like marriage, and in my estimation, that means there’s a lot of ordinariness to it (and not too few fights). And yet, as in marriage, there is great promise of transformation in church. When we dare the difficulty of abiding the promise to love unlovable people in the everyday, we are being formed into the image of Christ.
Christianity Today; “The Promise of Church: Reasons we must go—and keep going” by Jen Pollock Michel

No, we don’t go to church and keep going because it’s easy…or because it’s fun…or because we like the worship or the preaching or the people or….we go because it’s where we meet with other believers and are challenged to live out our faith – among one another and out in the world.

As we’ve been visiting churches, God has repeatedly reminded me of a favorite verse of mine:

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
Jonah 2:8 (NIV)

Church – that is, the gathering for worship and teaching in the format and style that most appeals to me – church, the way I want church to be – can easily become an idol that causes me to miss the grace God has for me to embrace a church with a different style and personality from what I’m accustomed. As I write this, it sounds like I am an old stick-in-the-mud church member who isn’t open to new patterns of worship and new formats. I don’t think of myself that way. I don’t want to be that person.

No, we don’t go to church because it’s easy or fun. What a blessing when it is! Easy and fun and spiritually challenging and encouraging and worshipful should be the norm. But when it’s not, we shouldn’t quit going. Nor should we immediately begin looking for a new body to align ourselves with.

For it to be acceptable for a Believer not to attend church is a thoroughly modern day perspective. For hundreds and hundreds of years after Christ, one was not considered a Christian – a Christ-follower – unless they were participating in a local fellowship of believers. Christ didn’t intend for His children to be lone rangers. We need one another. And the Church needs us. And the world needs to see us attending church.

Friends, the Body of Christ needs you to demonstrate your faith, in part, by taking the place God has set aside for you in a local church – to be a believer committed to be a part of a specific expression of the family of God. Without you, there’s a missing piece of the puzzle. There’s a body with a missing arm or leg or hand or foot. The Body of Christ needs your time and your talent, your gifts and your finances. It needs your prayers and your encouragement. It needs your faith to be added to the faith of others, and other believers need your unique contribution to fellowship. The Body of Christ needs you.

And you need the Body of Christ. You need the regular encouragement that comes from gathering with other believers. You need the regular teaching from other believers. You need the discipline that being committed to a local body brings. You need the opportunities to serve that are available through your local church. You need practice in submission, which is a natural consequence of committing to a church through good times and bad.

We don’t love church because she is always lovely. We don’t attend church because she meets our immediate needs. We go in the promise Scripture holds out, that the goodness of God’s people gathered and unified is “as precious as the anointing oil that was poured over Aaron’s head…as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon that falls on the mountains of Zion. And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing, even life everlasting” (Psalm 133:2-3).
Christianity Today; “The Promise of Church: Reasons we must go—and keep going” by Jen Pollock Michel

Last but not least, the world needs you to join yourself to a local fellowship of believers. If you are a believer who is not regularly attending church, I can guarantee that there is at least one person (probably more) in your sphere of influence who is thinking and perhaps saying “Mary is a Christian and she doesn’t go to church. If she doesn’t go to church, why should I?” And perhaps there is the non-believer who is thinking “Even David quit going to church. He knows it’s just full of hypocrites. I don’t want to have any part of that.” Our actions impact those around us. Do you want your church attendance to encourage those around you to fellowship with other believers or to discourage it?

Friends, let me encourage you to be a part of the blessing described in Psalm 133 and a positive influence on those around you. Make a commitment to a local fellowship today. You, the Church and the world need you to take your place in the Body of Christ.

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15It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,
Philippians 1:15-18 (NIV)

When was the last time you rejoiced because someone was doing something just because it would make your life harder? That’s what Paul is doing. He isn’t living in Pollyanna. He sees that people are preaching the Gospel not for the sake of Christ, but for the sake of causing trouble for Paul. Yet Paul says – “Who cares? The important thing is that Christ is preached!”

I sure don’t have that perspective yet.

The phrase “stirring up trouble for me” is the first thing that catches my eye, but there’s a phrase that comes before it that is also a bit shocking to me. Paul says people are preaching “out of selfish ambition.” OK, maybe I can get over that someone is trying to cause trouble for me…but quite honestly, I can easily see my “righteous indignation” rear its ugly head at people preaching out of selfish ambition: “They don’t love the Lord. They only want to draw attention to themselves.”

Paul says “What does it matter? The important thing is that Christ is preached.”

But it does matter (I say) – the pulpit is a sacred place. To stand before people and proclaim the Word of the Lord is a privilege, an honor and a holy and humbling calling.

Yes, friends, it is. And yet some will preach Christ out of selfish ambition instead of out of a love for God and a reverence for Him. And Paul says “I rejoice. Because Christ is preached.”

Paul says “Don’t lose sight of the important thing. The important is that Christ is preached.”

There is so much inside me that wants to argue with that statement. In the end, won’t the person who is preaching out of selfish ambition cause more harm to the Gospel than good? God whispers in my ear “leave the end to me. You take care of your own heart.”

I don’t want to take care of my own heart, I want to condemn that person who is preaching with ulterior motives. And God reminds me that such an attitude reveals that my heart lacks the full expression of His love. Lacks it by a long shot.

It’s always easier to be “righteously angry” than pursue love. I am not saying that there is a time and place for righteous anger – Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. But look at the whole of His ministry and you will find more love for the lost than I have and you won’t find Him condemning anyone who is preaching the Gospel.

He reserved his righteous anger for those who made it more difficult to get into heaven or who were preaching a different gospel. Paul is talking about those who are preaching the Gospel of Christ simply from wrong motives. Right message, wrong motives.

Lord, help me to have proper discernment, but mostly…help me take care of my own heart. Help me to rejoice when the Gospel is preached. Period. No caveats.

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12I want you brothers and sisters to know that what has happened to me has helped to spread the Good News. 13All the palace guards and everyone else knows that I am in prison because I am a believer in Christ. 14Because I am in prison, most of the believers have become more bold in Christ and are not afraid to speak the word of God.
Philippians 1:12-14 (NCV)

It is often challenging to find God in difficult circumstances. There are some Christians who believe that hardships and suffering are never of the Lord. They believe that the hardship is always sent by satan or the suffering would be overcome if we had enough faith. I reject those teachings, not because of my own experiences, but because of passages like this one.

Paul was in prison because he preached the gospel. That counts as a hardship to me. Paul had a thorn in the flesh. That counts as suffering to me. Jesus’ response to Paul’s prayers were “No, I won’t remove the thorn. My grace is sufficient for you to live with it.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

In the midst of hardship, Paul was able to not only find God, but to find God’s purposes – to see how He was using Paul’s circumstances. Paul saw that God was using his circumstances in two ways – to bring others to Christ, and to encourage believers to be more bold in their walk with the Lord. And in that, Paul finds the joy of the Lord. Not joy in his circumstances, but joy in the Lord in the midst of his circumstances. And the joy of what God is doing overwhelming exceeds the difficulties of his circumstances.

Paul wanted the Philippians to understand that – to grab hold that truth. He didn’t want the Philippians to be praying prayers of discouragement and defeat (“Oh Lord, we pray for our brother Paul and ask you to encourage him as he labors in the prison. Lord, he’s been there so long…”). No, he wants them to pray bold prayers of victory and thanksgiving. (“Lord we praise you and thank you that you are using Paul’s circumstances to bring jailers to the love of Jesus. Thank you for the boldness of the believers who see Paul’s witness. Lord, may their impact spread beyond the prison to all of Rome.”)

Imagine the impact the two different kinds of prayers have on the pray-ers? One leaves them defeated. The other leaves them trusting and walking in the anticipation of see God’s hand at work in their lives.

I fell into a trap awhile back in which I realized that I was praying the discouraged and defeated prayers of the Philippians. Here’s the notes I made in my prayer Journal:

Every day I pray for wisdom to balance my many competing priorities.

This morning, I realized that I make that prayer in an attitude of anxiety.

Anxiety does not equal faith.

The Lord honors faith.

The Lord is worthy of my faith

I’m changing the words I use and the attitude with which I pray them.

God will provide.

God will enable.

God will guide.

God will rescue.

But if He doesn’t, He is still God. (And what appears to me as not rescuing is simply rescuing a different way from what I am expecting. After all, that’s what the gospel is all about. The Jews expected a conquering Messiah. Jesus came as a suffering servant who died for my sins.)

So today, I take a deep breath, put a smile on my face (a real one, not a plastic one) and I thank God for his direction throughout my day.

Because He has solutions to all of it.

All of it.

Friends, how we pray makes a world of differences in how we live our lives. Paul wanted the Philippians to pray for him with boldness. He wanted them to see the victory that perhaps they weren’t seeing. He didn’t want them to see poor Paul stuck in prison. He wanted them to see God moving in the lives of Paul and those around him and producing miraculous results in the salvation of the jailers and the boldness of other Christians.

Lord, help me see You at work, not my earthly circumstances. Especially when things don’t seem to be going right. And prick my spirit when I forget to be thankful for all those circumstances.

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Zoey Grace, moments after her birth.

Zoey Grace, moments after her birth.

At 6:24 on 4/26 – 6:24 in the morning on April 26 – a lullaby rang through the halls of St. David’s Medical center.

That lullaby was an announcement to the world of the birth of Zoey Grace Martinez.

This was Zoey’s birth day – the day of her birth.

There was rejoicing in the hospital when we heard the lullaby because we knew what it meant. Zoey had breathed her first breath of life outside her mother’s womb.

There is Rejoicing in Heaven

I was reminded that Scripture says that there is rejoicing in heaven when one sinner turns to the Lord (Luke 15:7). Rejoicing over my birth! Rejoicing over your birth! Wow!

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

What a miracle that first breath is. In the womb, a baby’s lungs are filled with amniotic fluid. Near the end of pregnancy, the baby actually breathes the amniotic fluid in and out as they take practice breaths. Were they to do that outside the womb, they would drown. But inside the womb, somehow it prepares them for breathing air soon.

Then, suddenly, the baby enters the world and instantly they can breathe air. What an amazing and miraculous thing! “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” Scripture says (Psalm 139:14). The New Living Translation puts it this way:

13You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.
Psalm 139:13-16 (NLT)

As you read the passage, do you feel the loving care of the Creator as you were created? The angels rejoice when we are born again…but it was the Lord who carefully knits us together before we were born.

Profoundly Impacted

I was blessed to be in the hospital room while Zoey’s mom was in labor and in the halls of the hospital, right outside the nursery window waiting as Zoey was born. And I was profoundly impacted. God revealed His love for me in a way that was fresh revelation for me. And I was blown away by it. I want to share that revelation with you. I hope you are changed by it as I’ve been

He Loved Us First

About eighteen hours prior to her birth, the long labor process began. I was one of about a dozen people at the hospital, watching, encouraging, praying and rejoicing.

I watched as Zoey’s mom would have painful contractions and Zoey’s dad would come over and rub her back to help her through the pain. The contractions would come more frequently and then less frequently. She eventually got pain medication and then the day just went on and on…and on and on.

I couldn’t help but see the relationship between our physical birth and our spiritual birth. Just as there are labor pains that bring physical birth there are spiritual labor pains that bring spiritual birth.

When I think back to my own coming to the Lord, I remember the ebb and flow of the process. There would be a spark of interest, then there would be a kicking against the truth. And there would be a drawing near to God and then a pushing away…A drawing near and a pushing away. All the while Phil was there trying to coax me along, helping me over the trouble spots. It took quite a while for me to be born again. For a long time, I just wasn’t ready to be born. But the Lord kept calling me. I’m so thankful that God is persistent.

Zoey wasn’t ready to be born for a long time either. Her poor mama was in labor for eighteen hours. During that time, what really impressed me was how very much her parents loved her. What they were willing to go through just to bring her into this world is a testament to the love they have for her – even before she was born.

Scripture says that “While we were still sinners Christ loved us.” “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, NIV) That’s how God showed His love for us. He loved me first, and He loved me fully and with His life. He loved you first – fully and with His life.

Again, the spiritual implications have just blown me away. Seeing what these earthly parents were willing to go through…seeing their love in action – love that is so imperfect compared to the love of God, love that is so shallow compared to the love of God – seeing that gave me a glimpse of how very much God loves His children.

Extravagant Love – How Can I Ever Be Afraid of the Future?

He not only forms each of us in our mother’s womb, miraculously creates us so that we can breathe air the instant we leave the womb – He not only created us for our first birth, He then bought us back after we had sold ourselves into slavery. He paid the price so that we could be born a second time – free from the condemnation and ultimate consequence of our sins. Christ’s suffering on the cross was another sort of birth pains, another sort of labor pains. He hung on the cross while God heaped the sins of the world upon Him…so that I could be set free from those sins…so that I could live not just 70 or 80 or 90 years here on earth, but for eternity.

That’s love in action.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him, whoever hopes and trusts in Him, should not perish but would have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) 

“But God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Well, there’s one other thing that I experienced that day that is so over the top it has led me to ask – it has held me in the place of asking – with the Apostle Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) In other words – “Since God loves us so incredibly, how can I ever be afraid of the future?

“This One’s Ours”

I’ve never been a baby person. Phil and I are childless by choice. Shortly after Zoey was born I sent pictures to Phil and he said “Sandy, All babies look alike.” And I said, “I know…but this one’s different.” The truth is that I was experiencing so much love for Zoey and I couldn’t figure out why. I just knew that “this one’s different.” Not different in terms of her outward beauty – she’s a baby. Yes, she’s an adorable baby, but objectively, she’s just a baby like any other baby. But there was nothing objective about Zoey. Somehow she was different. It took a while for me to verbalize it, but when Phil said “All babies look alike” I knew what it was. This baby – baby Zoey – is different and the way she’s different is that she is ours.

“This one is ours.” That’s the phrase that kept going through my mind. “This one is ours.” It is impossible to put into words the full implication of that phrase, but it embodies a fierce love and protectiveness and so much more. “This one is ours.”

Now Zoey is not mine in any sense of the word. I’m the great aunt that lives a couple thousand miles away. (Or put more specifically, a thousand dollars away, because that’s about what it costs to visit her (oh – and her mom and dad and other family members.) By the time she’s 16, I’ll be lucky if I see her a dozen times. And given my lousy track record for sending packages, she’ll be lucky to get a dozen packages from me.

Still, I couldn’t get the phrase out of my mind… “This one is ours.”

And God continued to impress upon me His great, great love for us. That He looks down…or over…Scripture says He’s with us all the time, so it’s not really a looking down. But God looks at us and says “this one is mine.” “This one is mine.” “I created that one,” He says, “and I went to great lengths to buy her back.” “She’s mine.”

And I’m blown away.

How much does that God  love me, and how much would a God like that protect me, lead me and care for me? A God who has already done what he’s done, gone through what He’s gone through for my birth – how far would He go to help me? And knowing that He feels toward me much the same way I feel toward Zoey, only to a significantly greater degree than I feel toward Zoey – He says “This one’s mine” – knowing that, how can I ever be afraid? How can I ever not trust Him?

Leaving Me is Not in His DNA – He Can’t Do It

Zoey, about one day old

Zoey, about one day old

Scripture says He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). I don’t think He can, even if he wanted to. He doesn’t want to, but I don’t think he could leave us or forsake us even if He wanted to. Is there anything God can’t do? That’s a question theologians can argue, but I don’t think He can leave us or forsake us. Because He looks down and says “This one’s mine.”

Long ago the LORD said to Israel: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself. (Jeremiah 31:3, NLT)

“This one’s mine.”

If God is For Us…

A few days after returning home, I came to Romans 8 in my Bible reading. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Let me translate it in light of my recent experience and all of Scripture – “if God who loves us so passionately – if the God who looks at me and says ‘This one’s mine’ – if that God is for me – and we know He is – what does it matter if anyone else is against me?”

Friends, every time I feel overwhelmed or scared for the future, I return to that moment when I realized that God says “This one’s mine” and I am filled with peace and joy.

If you’ve trusted Jesus as your Savior, you’re His, too. He rejoices over you. Rejoice in Him. And rest in His peace knowing He will never leave you and He will move heaven and earth for you.

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