Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Today's Advent Passage: Matthew 1:18-23

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). - (Matthew 1:18-23 ESV)

Thank God today for fulfilling His word to Isaiah. Reflect on what it means that Jesus perfectly fulfilled every Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah. Immanuel means "God with us"; throughout your day today remember that God is with you in every circumstance or situation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Today's Advent Passage: Luke 1:17

But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. ... and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." (Luke 1:13 ESV)

Pray for God to prepare your heart for all the Lord wants to teach you this Advent season

Monday, November 28, 2011

Today's Advent Passage: Luke 1:68-69

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (Luke 1:68-69 ESV)

Thank God today for visiting us, in the person of Jesus Christ, and for the redemption and salvation He raised up by sending Jesus.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent: Hope

I recently read a quote from Lou Holtz: "I think that everybody needs four things in life. Everybody needs something to do regardless of age. Everybody needs someone to love. Everybody needs something to hope for, and, of course, everybody needs someone to believe in." 

Without hope, we quickly become depressed and lose the will to live.

With hope, even the tiniest spark, we can face the challenges of a day that might seem overwhelming on paper.

Jesus' birth brought hope - eternal hope to live forever with Him, and temporal hope for the difference He wants to make in the here and now. Jesus' entire life demonstrated both the practical and spiritual aspects of the hope that is found in Him alone.

As you read the passages below and listen to the song afterward, praise God for putting hands and feet to the Hope that He sent us in Jesus. Ask God to use you this week to bring hope to someone around you.

Today's readings (read passages and light Advent candle - usually after dark, but whenever is best time for your family). 

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. (Lamentations 3:21-26 ESV)

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. - (Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV)

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. - (Isaiah 60:1-3 ESV)

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. - (Isaiah 7:14 ESV)

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). - (Matthew 1:18-23 ESV)

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples--of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. - (Isaiah 11:1-10 ESV)

In search of a child, they traveled so far
Led by a star to a place of joy
The wise men told a beautiful story
Describing the glory of a baby boy

Hope has hands
Freedom has feet
Truth will stand
The word will speak
The holy and the lowly will finally embrace
For love has a heartbeat
And grace has a face

Compassion has a tear
Joy has laughter
And here everafter
Peace has a smile
Redemption's blood has veins to flow in
A temple to glow in
For light is a child

Hope has hands
Freedom has feet
Truth will stand
The word will speak
The holy and the lowly will finally embrace
For love has a heartbeat
And grace has a face

The holy and the lowly will finally embrace
For love has a heartbeat
Love has a heartbeat
And grace has a face

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why I Love Advent

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth....For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:14, 17 ESV)

1. The coming or arrival, especially of something extremely important.
2. a. The liturgical period preceding Christmas, beginning in Western churches on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and in Eastern churches in mid-November, and observed by many Christians as a season of prayer, fasting, and penitence. b. Christianity The coming of Jesus at the Incarnation. c. Christianity See Second Coming.

Christmas Day is 28 days, 6 hours, and 56 minutes away as I write this.

In the United States, that frequently means 28 days of harried shoppers and store clerks, people going to ridiculous extremes to be the one to grab ridiculous bargains. In a word - commercialism.

A few years ago, our family grew tired of the growing commercialism. My husband and I wanted to set a different tone for our family. We had been reading a series of books by Jan Karon called The Mitford Years and learned through Episcopal priest Father Tim about a season on the liturgical calendar called Advent.

I grew up in a solidly Baptist home and had never heard of Advent. I was intrigued but a little skeptical. The more we researched, though, the more we realized the potential Advent held for our family.

Like any tradition, Advent can become just another date on the calendar. It can be reduced to chocolate calendars and pop-up toys. But at its heart lies a focus - an emphasis on the full meaning of the birth of Jesus. We made the decision to embrace this intention at the heart of Advent.

This year we celebrate our 10th Advent season. I've come to love Advent ... to anticipate it and crave the simplicity and focus that it brings to a season that can be filled with too much food, too many events, and an unnecessary amount of stress and tension. For me, Advent reflects the hope, joy, peace, and love that filled the manger that first Christmas morning.

Our culture has secularized Christmas in many ways. Advent reminds me that the "spirit of Christmas" isn't ours to redefine. Indeed, Christmas isn't about a feeling at all ... it's about a person. It's about the One who was born to die that I might live forever. Advent helps me keep my eyes on Him.

Advent doesn't require or expect a total rejection of what is called "the Christmas season". We still decorate, bake, host and attend special events, and shop for gifts for loved ones within a reasonable budget. What Advent brings is a simplicity and purpose to those activities. In fact, I've enjoyed Christmas more this side of adding the Advent tradition than I did before, when the focus was on how long I had to get things done until Christmas Day. Then I rushed through, hardly noticing the beauty around me. Now, I reflect on the depth of meaning behind every tradition, even when obscured by our culture. Truly, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. " (John 1:5)

If you are wanting to start your own Advent tradition, I encourage you to jump in starting tomorrow. I'll post our daily verses and weekly readings. I encourage you to make an Advent wreath, lighting one candle each Sunday with a focus on a different aspect of Jesus' first Advent each week (learn about making an Advent wreath here). As you walk through the Advent season, reflect on the "why" of Christmas traditions. Look intentionally for the light shining into the darkness. And ask God to help you be a light to guide others to understand the true meaning of the hallowed manger.

Friday, November 18, 2011

17 years of grace

I've experienced God's grace in numerous amazing ways in my life. This weekend, I celebrate an extended season of grace beyond anything I could ask or deserve.

On November 20, 1994 my husband and I said "I do" in a little church in Fort Smith that we "borrowed" because at the time we were unchurched. I can't even begin to tell you how much grace has been poured out on our lives. Even before I began walking with the Lord, I saw His hand on our marriage.

For over 6200 days of my life, I have woken up next to a man [ok, technically most days I've woken up after him by a couple of hours, but still ... ] ... next to a man whom I have never doubted, for a single moment, loves me deeply and would willingly "take a bullet" (his words) for me.  Even more significant, he does lay down his life for me in countless demonstrations of sacrificial love all the time.

For over 6200 days of my life, I have heard "I love you." More days than not, I've also heard, "You're beautiful."  

For over 6200 days of my life, I've experienced grace, and I am oh so grateful.

Two years ago I wrote the blog post that I'm reprinting below. Every word is even more true today. We've weathered a few more storms and seen a few more victories since I've written them, but the heart of our marriage has stayed the same. And that's worth celebrating - which is why I'm going "off the grid" for a couple of days to just hang out with my hubby.

I don't know what the future holds. What I do know is that as we celebrate our official 17th anniversary Sunday, I look forward to discovering that future together.

Nov. 19, 2009 post:
Tomorrow, my husband and I celebrate 15 years of marriage. For us,that represents 15 years of grace. On paper, we shouldn't have made it. We both made mistakes and came to our marriage broken individuals. But over the last 15 years I have learned that grace flows best when it has some nooks and crannies to seep into ... when there are cracks to seal and chipped edges to mend.

I'm not perfect, he's not perfect. But we're perfect for each other. And I am inordinately grateful for the partner God has given me. Our marriage, like any, is unique to us. It might look kooky to the outside, but it works. And the main reason is simply ... grace. Unmerited favor. We got it wrong before we got it right, and we still mess up. But we've learned that God's grace is bigger than that and we've learned to let that grace flow to each other. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.

I do love the husband God has given me. I love that he happily brings me hot packs for my neck in the mornings before I wake up, when he's barely awake himself. I love that he seems to spontaneously know the practical outworking of Scripture while I hash it out with my word study books. I love that his gift of faith overflows to every aspect of life. I love that after 15 years of marriage he still thinks of me as his princess. I love that every single day of our marriage I have felt loved and treasured. I love knowing that he will always be the one to check out the weird noises and that he reminds me constantly to be more security conscious.

I love that as much as he treasures and protects me, he doesn't have me in a "doll house". Just as much as he takes care of me, he also respects and supports my dreams and interests. In fact, he encourages me to pursue things beyond what I would even consider knowing that God has bigger things for me than I would envision for myself ... because I am not a risk-taker and have trouble dreaming big! It was on our anniversary 5 years ago that he encouraged me to look for a degree program instead of just some Greek/Hebrew classes ... and here I am on the verge of graduating, thanks to his support. I love that he never gets upset when I forget the coffee I made him or leave the dog out too long because I got distracted studying. I love that when I fall asleep reading he tells me I need to come to bed. I love that he cares about what I was reading and asks me about it the next morning.

I love that he enjoys hearing the details of my work day and sharing the details of his. I love our traditions and our reading together and our constant interaction in each other's lives. I love that he gets excited to talk to the kids and sends me emails with multiple exclamation points about the conversations. I love that he couldn't bear to miss the first day of football with his son in Little Rock and drove down for the day at War Memorial on the spur of the moment. I love knowing that his Pawpaw's heart wants to run to Tulsa everytime one of the grandkids has an event or sheds a tear and I love that sometimes he does it, like the day he dropped everything to attend Cassidy's school function and have lunch with Jesse. I love watching him call around and tell grandkid stories after every visit. I love his pride in the technical skills of his youngest daughter, the servant's heart his son has, and the multitasking talents of his oldest, including her ability to bend people in two at their request (aka personal training).

I love that he always has my best interests at heart. And most of all, I love that this man gets up every morning to spend time with God before he spends time with me. That spiritual leadership has helped me in so many ways.

Our marriage is still a miracle of grace, and I treasure every second.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Closer than we think: The persecuted in the body of Christ

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.” On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it. (1 Corinthians 12:21-26, NET)

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3 ESV) 

It's easy to forget how closely connected we are to the persecuted church - how we are all part of the same body. A few years back when I injured my neck, God gave me a vivid illustration of how persecution affects the larger body of Christ. When my was neck hurt, I hurt all over! Honestly, I took my neck for granted before this episode. I didn't realize that my neck muscles play a role in typing, or opening the bathroom door, or tying my shoelaces. But when I was in severe pain, all those things hurt. I could feel my neck muscles in literally every movement.

That's how it can be with believers in other countries, and specifically the persecuted church. They can seem so far away, so unrelated to the immediate needs of staffing the nursery and cleaning the church and planning the Christmas pageant.

But no matter how distant persecuted believers seem sometimes, the verses above are true. The body of Christ is hurting when the church in the Middle East is nearing extinction ... when some believers recant their testimony rather than watch their children starved or their wives be raped ... when we exalt the persecuted church rather than identify with them. When my neck was at its worst, I didn't glorify the pain for the lessons it was teaching me; instead, my whole body threw itself into compensating for the pain and helping me get through it.

As we've looked this week at five things worse than persecution, it might be easy to think that perscution isn't all that bad. Not so. As I have learned more about persecution I have seen that the church either tends to ignore it or glorify it - both of which are unbiblical responses. (See this earlier post on myths related to persecution).

Persecution is bad. It can throw the church into a survival mode. It can tear churches apart when people give in to pressure and recant their faith and then repent and want restoration. At its worst it can destroy all the believers in a specific area (it's happened in places before and some feel is happening again in the Middle East as believers are either killed, recant, or flee to the West).

The persecuted church needs our prayers. Sometimes they need our tangible support - letters to officials, financial support for family members, Bibles. And we need them too. We need them to remind us of the importance of worship, prayer, and Scripture reading - those elements of our daily quiet times that can seem routine are their lifeline. We need them to remind us that this world is not our home, and that no matter what happens we always can have hope. We need them to demonstrate vividly that as bad as persecution is, there are things worse - things like apathy, lovelessness, denial, idolatry, and the absence of God's word.

Open Doors does the best job I've seen of connecting the persecuted church to the rest of the body of Christ, finding out what their real needs are and communicating how we can pray for them and meet their needs. There are other great ministries as well. I encourage you today, as part of IDOPPC, to take a few minutes to find a resource you can refer to regularly to remember those who are part of the body, but hurting today.

They are closer than we think.  

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Worse than Persecution #5: A famine of God's Word

"Behold, the days are coming," declares the Lord GOD, "when I will send a famine on the land-- not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12 ESV)
Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law. (Proverbs 29:18 ESV)
There's a reason why believers imprisoned for their faith throughout the world are typically denied a Bible.

There's a reason why they treasure every word they recall or every portion of Scripture that is slipped to them.

There's a reason new believers in lands where persecution is prominent are taught to memorize Scripture.
  • It is the means He uses to impart faith to our souls so we can believe and increase our faith as believers. (Romans 10:17)
  • It teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains us for righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
  • It's living, active, and pierces the deepest parts of our soul. (Hebrews 4:12).
  • It gives us encouragement and hope. (Romans 15:4).
  • It is eternally written in the heavenly places, so it can never be eradicated by man. (Psalm 119:89). This means it withstands every effort to destroy it, minimize it, or doubt it.
  • When it is taught by pastor, teacher, evangelist, prophet, or apostle, it builds up the church. (Ephesians 4:11-16). Embraced by enough people, it has the power to transform a society.
  • Wherever it is proclaimed, it goes forth with power - even if the proclaimer utters the verses with disbelief, sarcasm, or wrong interpretations. It never returns empty. (Isaiah 55:11).
Scripture contains everything God knew we needed to know until His return. It points us to Jesus so we can have a relationship with Him to guide us in those areas that aren't specifically spelled out in Scripture (which job to take, whom to marry, etc.).

Even when we don't realize it, we have an underlying hunger for God's Word. A famine of His Word would leave us searching, even if we didn't realize specifically what was missing. The absence of God's Word, therefore, is more devastating to a believer than persecution could ever be. We absolutely do not want to know where we would be without Word of God as revealed in the Bible.

We have to hear from Him through His Word.

Let us pray to be people immersed in Scripture. Let us commit to read every word God has revealed in the Bible - not in any certain time frame, but in an ongoing way, consistently reading through the Bible and being reminded of passages we had forgotten were in there.

And let us pray that those who are being persecuted will recall passages they have read or heard even one time. Let's pray for all those without Scripture in their language, so that when they find themselves facing persecution they will have been infused with its faith-giving words.

Worse than Persecution #4: Idolatry

Little children, guard yourselves from idols. - 1 John 5:21

I don't remember getting the hope chest in the picture above. From my earliest memories, this chest has held treasures primarily of my choosing. My mom gave it to me when I was too young to remember. In true southern fashion, she intended me to fill it with things I would need some day when I had a home of my own. What I put in the hope chest wasn't necessarily important to my mom, but every item was very special to me.

It's a sobering reality: The Apostle John wrote his first epistle to believers, specifically to give them assurance that they could know with certainty that they had eternal life -- but he still warned them about idolatry.

Christians can be drawn into idolatry. We might not build a golden calf as the Israelites did, but we certainly can have false "gods". Biblically, an idol is anything which a person places ahead of God - in importance, in priorities, in ultimate trust or hope. That's why Jesus said: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). "Treasure" here doesn't just refer to money - it refers to a place where good and precious things are stored. Our spiritual "hope chest", if you will.

That's not to say that trust and hope are bad - we're not supposed to be cynical or hardened - but we have to keep in mind that ultimately our trust and hope are in God alone. Everything circumstance or possession is merely His instrument. We must always look beyond His instruments to see the One on the throne over our circumstances. That spouse, that job, that retirement plan, that politician who's saying all the right things - none of them are our ultimate hope. When we are free from idolatry we know that if we lost them tomorrow, we would be ok.

That's why idolatry is worse than persecution. Idolatry says "my future depends on ___________". Idolatry places something in the hope chest besides God Himself. And where our treasure is, our hearts follow.

Ultimately my life looked very different than my mom probably envisioned when she gave me the hope chest. The treasures I placed in it were unique to me. Those things which tempt each of us to idolatry will also be unique. John's warning to "guard yourselves" literally means "protect from outside assaults.". We have to be intentional about protecting ourselves, especially in areas we know are temptations to idolatry.

Fortunately John gives the best antidote to idolatry in verse 20:
And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20 NASB)
The revelation God has given us of Jesus is a revelation of truth. It's a revelation of certainty in who Jesus is and of our position in Him. This is the true hope, the true treasure. Let us pray that we will be so enthralled with the True that anything less will hold no appeal for us. Pray for those being persecuted to cast their total hope on God alone and hold fast their confession of faith. And pray that whether we ever face outright persecution or not, we will have all our treasure stored up in Him alone - that He will be our ultimate hope.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Worse than Persection #3: Denying Christ

Peter didn’t get it right the first time. Even when he was forewarned, Peter initially chose denial: 
Matthew 26:31-35 ESV - [31] Then Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' [32] But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." [33] Peter answered him, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." [34] Jesus said to him, "Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times." [35] Peter said to him, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!" And all the disciples said the same.

Luke 22:54-62 ESV - [54] Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. [55] And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. [56] Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, "This man also was with him." [57] But he denied it, saying, "Woman, I do not know him." [58] And a little later someone else saw him and said, "You also are one of them." But Peter said, "Man, I am not." [59] And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, "Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean." [60] But Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are talking about." And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. [61] And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times." [62] And he went out and wept bitterly.

Peter felt the depth of his denial, and wept bitterly. He didn’t take it lightly. Imagine denying Jesus then having Him look at you with His all-seeing, all-knowing, ever-loving eyes. Eyes that were not surprised. Eyes that saw ahead to Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost. Eyes that looked ahead to another time when Peter would reject denial and pay the ultimate price:
John 21:17-19 ESV - [17] He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. [18] Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go." [19] (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, "Follow me."
 Reliable church tradition holds that Peter was executed under Nero’s reign:
Among many other saints, the blessed apostle Peter was condemned to death, and crucified, as some do write, at Rome; albeit some others, and not without cause, do doubt thereof. Hegesippus saith that Nero sought matter against Peter to put him to death; which, when the people perceived, they entreated Peter with much ado that he would fly the city. Peter, through their importunity at length persuaded, prepared himself to avoid. But, coming to the gate, he saw the Lord Christ come to meet him, to whom he, worshipping, said, "Lord, whither dost Thou go?" To whom He answered and said, "I am come again to be crucified." By this, Peter, perceiving his suffering to be understood, returned into the city. Jerome saith that he was crucified, his head being down and his feet upward, himself so requiring, because he was (he said) unworthy to be crucified after the same form and manner as the Lord was. (
When Peter got a do-over, he chose persecution over denial

Denying Christ doesn’t just happen with words, but with deeds:
Titus 1:15-16 NASB - [15] To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. [16] They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.
Let us pray for grace to never deny Him – with our words or with our actions. Denial is far more dangerous than persecution could ever be.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Worse than persecution #2: Lovelessness

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:35-40 ESV)

It's hard to overstate the importance God puts on love - loving Him, and loving others. The Apostle John, that "Son of Thunder" turned "Apostle of Love", hits the point over and over in 1 John, unfolding the inseparability of loving God and loving others. And with good reason -- Jesus Himself laid out love of God and others as the top commandments. Loving God passionately and others selflessly should permeate every aspect of our lives. It's simply not optional.

That's why two of the most sobering passages in Scripture jump out to remind me again and again that lovelessness is to be avoided, period. Without a doubt, it's on the shelf labeled "Dangerous Things for Christians." Lovelessness is worse than persecution.

Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:12-13, NIV)
(Revelation 2:1-5 ESV) - (1) "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: 'The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. (2) "'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. (3) I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. (4) But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (5) Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Taken together, these passages should motivate us to not harbor any vestige of lovelessness. Jesus warns that the love of "most" will grow cold. Not just a few - most. The word literally means "a multitude." It's sobering to see what motivates this lovelessness: An increase of sin. Oh, can I ever identify. My grandparents reached out to show love in ways I would never dream of today because of an increase of wickedness -- picking up hitchhikers, serving food to strangers walking through their property, leaving church doors unlocked day and night. I'm not saying we shouldn't be wise - absolutely we need to discern the times and act accordingly. But we must be very, very cautious not to let wisdom toward our fallen world turn into lovelessness. The challenge I give myself is to always look for ways to love, with wisdom, rather than excuses not to love. This keeps my heart soft and tender to God's very creative Spirit.

Ephesus bears another warning against lovelessness. Don't miss verse 3 - this church had successfully endured a level of persecution! Yet Jesus held against them their abandonment of love. Wow. We never, ever have an excuse not to love. Paul even tells us that martyrdom is no substitute for love:
(1 Corinthians 13:1-7 ESV) - (1) If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Scripture has so much to say on the subject of love that there is no way we can exhaust the subject. One very clear principle, though, is that love is not passive, theoretical, or distant. Look again at Paul's definitions. Love is active. Love is tangible, practical. (1 John 3:18 ESV) Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. And love reaches out, just as God reached out to us in Christ. (Romans 5:8 ESV) but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

May we never settle for lovelessness. May we pray constantly to know His love more, to love Him more in response, and to manifest His love to others better every day.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Worse than Persecution #1: Apathy

Sometimes here in the west, we imagine that persecution is the worst thing that could happen to us as Christians. For most of us persecution remains only a distant, theoretical possibility, and so we are able to place it in a box on a shelf labeled "Dangerous Things for Christians". We may be fully willing to take down that box if circumstances warranted, but it's easy to forget one glaring truth:

There are worse things than persecution.

This Sunday, Nov. 13, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Along with others around the world, our church will be participating and prayer and awareness activities to identify with those who suffer - to be "One with Them." The persecuted church has been heavily on my heart and mind lately, and for years I've studied and written about persecuted believers.

But this morning in my quiet time, God caught my attention with a couple of passages that reminded me of something worse than persecution: Apathy.

Recounting Israel's history before his death and their entrance into the Promised Land, Moses describes a time when serious intercession impacted the course of events:

(Deuteronomy 9:11-21 NIV) - (11) At the end of the forty days and forty nights, the LORD gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. (12) Then the LORD told me, "Go down from here at once, because your people whom you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt. They have turned away quickly from what I commanded them and have made a cast idol for themselves." (13) And the LORD said to me, "I have seen this people, and they are a stiff-necked people indeed! (14) Let me alone, so that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make you into a nation stronger and more numerous than they." (15) So I turned and went down from the mountain while it was ablaze with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my hands. (16) When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the LORD your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the LORD had commanded you. (17) So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes. (18) Then once again I fell prostrate before the LORD for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD's sight and so provoking him to anger. (19) I feared the anger and wrath of the LORD, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the LORD listened to me. (20) And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too. (21) Also I took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire. Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain.

Moses - described in Scripture as a very meek and humble man - was so distraught by Israel's idolatry and God's threat to destroy them for it that he smashed the tablets, fasted for 40 days and nights, and crushed the idol calf.

There is no suggestion that Moses hesitated even a moment before taking righteous action. He seems not to even consider that God would keep His plan going through another people that would come from Moses' line. Moses didn't take a laissez faire attitude toward the situation. He didn't let pride at being a potential patriarch of a chosen line guide his thoughts; he didn't justify prayerlessness by focusing on God's sovereignty; he didn't rationalize leaving the people to their own devices and letting them keep the calf and suffer the consequences.

Moses was anything but apathetic.

And his prayer made a dramatic difference. Instead of destroying the Israelites and starting over, God listened to Moses. The sovereignty of God and the free will of man intersected - God was glorified and the people benefitted.

There is no place for apathy in the body of Christ. Each day as I pray for a different country in Operation World, I learn much about God's global work. One principle I've seen played out repeatedly - where the church is on mission, God is working and spiritual battles abound. But where the church is apathetic, there is decline. There is often little spiritual warfare - there is no kingdom advance to which the enemy needs to respond.

Psalm 107 describes the stories of several who were rescued by God. One story spoke to me of those who are walking with the Lord through the ups and downs of life:

(Psalm 107:23-32 NIV) - (23) Others went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. (24) They saw the works of the LORD, his wonderful deeds in the deep. (25) For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. (26) They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. (27) They reeled and staggered like drunken men; they were at their wits' end. (28) Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. (29) He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. (30) They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven. (31) Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men. (32) Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.

This group literally rode the waves with God - the ups and downs of the storm. They were glad when it grew calm - who wouldn't be? - but it was "in the deep" (v. 24) that they saw His works. Apathy might be safe, but it's when we actually get out into the deep with God that we see His works... even if it means riding the waves at times.

Christians aren't supposed to be apathetic. Jesus counseled the church at Laodicea: "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! (16) So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." (Rev. 3:15-16 ESV). Let us pray to have a burning passion for God and desire to know Him and make Him known. Let us ask for a heart like Paul's for those who don't know Him:

(Romans 9:1-3 ESV) - (1) I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit-- (2) that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. (3) For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

Let us ask He would break our hearts with the things that break His heart. Let us walk in the Spirit and always be prepared for the righteous actions that characterize those who have nothing to fear.

And let's remember that on that shelf of things dangerous to Christians, there are things much worse than persecution.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Little by Little

The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. (Deuteronomy 7:22 NIV)

It's reassuring to know that not every spiritual victory will happen instantly.

This truth (like many others) is one that we often know theologically, but struggle with in practice. We get frustrated with ourselves when we struggle in an area. We grow discouraged when someone in whom we've invested time and prayer falls. We want every victory to be a dramatic delivery from Egypt, a parting of the Red Sea and a dance on the banks of the river.

Such divine deliverance is an important part of our walk with Christ, establishing strongly within us an awareness of His character and ability to deliver. In the same chapter, God recounts this deliverance to the Israelites to encourage them toward faith, not fear:

(Deuteronomy 7:17-19 NIV) - (17) You may say to yourselves, "These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?" (18) But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. (19) You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the LORD your God brought you out. The LORD your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear.

God had a new victory planned for the children of Israel - but He tells them it will happen "little by little". His mighty hand and outstretched arm would be equally at work in the gradual deliverance as it had been in the dramatic one.

What a relief this is to me, and should be to anyone seeking to advance the kingdom of God. One reality God is teaching me lately is that just as ministry opportunities are present in every aspect of my life, the reality of spiritual warfare is also present. When we individually or corporately live with a focus on the kingdom, we will face ongoing struggles with the world, our own flesh, and satan - who wants to stop the kingdom in its tracks. God guarantees that we can walk in victory over all these enemies - but that victory might come "little by little."

"Little by little." That's encouraging, because in some of my ongoing battles I might not see progress over the past week - but I can look back a year and see definite forward movement. My part, especially in battles with my flesh is simply to walk humbly with my God - walking in surrender and obedience, trusting that He truly knows what is best for me in every area of life.

One of the principles that has jumped out at me in scripture recently is that the smallest acts of obedience take back ground and block oportunities for the enemy to gain an opportunity (See 1 Corinthians 7:5; Ephesians 4:27; James 1:14-15; Revelation 12:11). Spiritual warfare is not only reactive, it's proactive. Like the military and the underground in World War II undercut the enemy by sabotage, I can "sabotage" the enemy's efforts in my life by the weapons of worship, prayer,and the word of God - not only hearing it but living it out. This obedience sabotages the enemy by refusing to give him more ammunition and takes back ground he's gained. The purpose? To keep moving forward on mission with God. When we are not distracted by minor skirmishes, we are able to keep moving forward for kingdom gain and be prepared to fight for those still held captive. This does not mean a frontal assault won't come - but we can make it very hard for the enemy in the process.

Psalm 101 teaches a lot about the warfare of obedience. Every morning, we have to silence the voices that come our way which are not from God. We do this by taking in huge doses of the Word and setting our minds on what the Spirit desires by living His way, not our own. We make no room in our "temple" for evil, carefully choose who ministers to us, and refuse to allow the actions of those not walking in faith to "cling" to us.

Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of "a long obedience in the same direction". This describes the "little by little" victory quite well. Ultimately, our obedience is fueled by faith - and our faith is described in 1 John 5:4 as the victory that overcomes the world. Think about that - our faith itself IS the victory. Simply continuing to believe and persevere, to walk in faith, is in itself victory!

Whatever you are facing in your ministry today, in your efforts to engage the kingdom - keep walking forward in obedience fueled by faith. Remember that we don't have to know the 'strategic plan' for the battle. All He asks if for us to walk in him, and allow ourselves to be led by Him - in a word, to surrender. Don't resist the Spirit at any point; don't grieve Him by rebellion or quench Him by shutting out the gifts He gives us. When we do that, we will find ourselves right where He wants us - part of the victory, little by little.