Wednesday, July 28, 2010

There is a time to confront, and a time to comfort, and now is the time to comfort.

"Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God. Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD'S hand Double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:1-2)

A disobedient city and people had endured the penalty for their sin, but the time was up; the warfare had ended; an age of comfort had begun. It was now time to clear and prepare the way for the Lord (verses 3-4). These verses - verses 3-4 - are referenced in describing the work and ministry of John the Baptist in preparing the way for Jesus. The "age of comfort", then, seems to refer to the era we live in when "warfare has ended ... iniquity has been removed". Any believer knows that warfare is far from over in the world, but the message of comfort here is that the warfare between sinful people and a holy God is ended through the sacrifice and work of His Son.

Perhaps more needs to be said and written about this "age of comfort", because it is a truth desperately needed in the "difficult times" of the last days (2 Timothy 3:1). On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus announced this age of comfort as He promised, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful" (John 14:27).

The scriptures, the Helper (Comforter, aka, Spirit of truth), and the people of God, all administer comfort in this age of distress and trouble. Nothing is more soothing and healing than God's word of truth, conveyed through His Spirit, and administered by the people of God. As such, the challenge is issued to be "encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:25).

As beneficiaries of "the age of comfort", it is our distinct privilege to administer comfort to others in the body of Christ. I have often had the privilege to be a "comfort-giver" as well as receiver. And what a joy to remind and be reminded of the timeless word of God that applies to life situations! How very fickle words of comfort would be if they were not grounded in eternal truth, and that truth is largely of the "Age of Comfort" to come, the kingdom of God.

I find an especially authoritative word of command today in Isaiah's words to "Comfort, O comfort My people". I believe this is His word to each member of the body of Christ today: prayerfully consider a brother or sister in need of comfort today, and extend both the comfort of a listening ear as well as timeless truth promises. We will be blessed even as we are a blessing to someone else.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

So, it all comes down to a lavish party? The hope of the ages is a mountaintop feast? Apparently so, or at least that's the best image to describe the indescribable.

"The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, And refined, aged wine. And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, Even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken" (Isaiah 25:6-8).

Rich food. Choice wine. This may not sound like your typical church potluck dinner, but it describes the Party of the Ages in terms that non-churchgoers can readily relate to. And Jesus chose a similar setting to perform His first miracle (John 2), giving a clear picture of the beginning of the celebration called the kingdom of God.

We party with a purpose. Parties are occasions to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. The Party of the Ages is no different - it's a celebration of the removing of a cover and veil that presently is over the nations (a curse; blindness), and it is a celebration of the end of death, sorrow, and sin. Now that's something worth celebrating!

The banquet image we see in Isaiah may be a basic and vague picture of the reality to come, but the key truths presented are abundantly clear: it will be a definite event (banquet) at a specific place ("this mountain", aka, an earthly location; a mountain in Israel). It's on the calendar, scheduled for a specific location.

Not coincidentally, Jesus used this very banquet image as the focus of one of His key parables (Matthew 22:1-14). His point was not so much to describe the coming kingdom, but the need to respond to the invitation to attend. After all, who cares about a great party they won't be attending? Celebrations are only significant for those participating.

Tickets for this Great Party are freely available, but it's a limited-time opportunity. And don't let the cost (free) deceive you as to the value. While the tickets are free, in another sense they will cost you everything (Luke 17:33). But, isn't the value of the event worth the price of the ticket? It's like a paraphrase of modern credit card commercial: "ticket to the kingdom of God: a lifetime of discipleship ... entering the kingdom: priceless".

In many ways, we live to party. The key is to careful choose the parties to attend. This present world offers lots of glitzy and glittering parties that last a short time. The kingdom of God is the party of the ages; celebration without end. Get your ticket quick while there is time. And be sure to pass the free tickets around to everyone you know you doesn't have one.


Monday, July 26, 2010

We call it "the call". Mine wasn't all that dramatic, but it was undeniable. It involved a college catalog, a bookshelf, and a wastebasket (some day maybe I can fill you in on the details). I didn't see God or hear His audible voice at that time, but the sense of "calling" set me on a path that continues to this day. The call may not have been as dramatic as that of another man I know, but then the task hasn't been as difficult as his either.

"In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, 'Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.' Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, 'Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.' Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?' Then I said, 'Here am I. Send me!'" (Isaiah 6:1,4-8)

It's easy to envy Isaiah's dramatic encounter with God and call, but I wonder how many of us envy his challenging work? Essentially, God called him to what we might call, "a ministry of futility" - "He said, 'Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.' 'Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed.'" (Isaiah 6:9-10)

In essence, Isaiah was called to be the conscience of the people, but not an effective converter of souls. A stubborn refusal to hear and heed the message of God would be the response to Isaiah's call and ministry. There is a sobering parallel in our modern day to those who refuse to hear and understand Jesus' great message about the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13:10-17).

The God who called Isaiah calls us today as well. And, like Isaiah, He may not call us to impressive results and dramatic conversions, but He calls us to be faithful and clear with His message. As someone has said, our call is not to results, but to faithfulness. God is the God of the harvest, whereas we are the sowers of the seed.

My "call" was not as dramatic as Isaiah's, but the task has thus far been easier. God has graciously allowed me a ministry where results are evident. Through the power of His word in my hands and mouth, I see clear evidence of changed lives. I have joyfully baptized many who were repentant over the years. I can easily identify growth and progress in lives, due to responsiveness to His word. I'm blessed to see a certain measure of harvest among the work of sowing the seed.

God calls the responsive. As someone taking the time to read and apply these words, I believe that you are one of the responsive ones as well. May His word in your hands and mouth be used mightily today to advance the kingdom and impact those who are responsive around you.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I outgrew my back when I was a child. During one of my childhood growth spurts, I developed persistent back pain that eventually required medical attention. It was determined that my body was growing faster than my back, and that eventually my back would catch up and the pain subside. This eventually proved to be true, but missing a summer of Little League baseball in the process was equally painful.

We call these "growing pains", and growing pains are very much a part of the spiritual growth process:

"In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:6-7)

The outcome of our faith is "an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you" (1 Peter 1:4). But, the path to the realization of the goal is often characterized by suffering and pain. "Various trials" sometimes seems like an understatement! I often use the more positive-sounding word, "challenges", but in reality they are the trials and tribulations that stand between us and the blissful existence of the future age to come.

"Various trials" are the refining process that purify us for the kingdom of God, and there are two key components to refining that indicate pain: (1) fire, and; (2) the burning away of impurities. Refining involves a certain degree of loss through a process of pain.

The older I get the more I realize how much more refining is needed in my life (strange; it would seem like we would see a need for LESS refining as we age). Bad habits and selfish traits are much too easily attached to character as we go through life, and require the refining fire of adversity to burn them away so that purer character remains.

The old adage, "no pain, no gain", seems appropriate to spiritual growth as well as physical fitness. The untried life can all too easily grow like cancer, whereas the trials and tribulations of life "train" our lives to grow in a productive and Christ-like way.

I seriously doubt that any reader is today enjoying a trouble-free life. We can easily lament those trials that prevent an idyllic existence, but the better perspective is to see them as valuable refining tools that are preparing us for the perfect life of the age to come.

In light of the process that is preparing us for realization of our great hope, these words from Peter's pen give us the best perspective for living this day:

"prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13)


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Life is seasonal, much like nature. We refer to youth as springtime, and winter is considered the latter stages of old age. In between youth and old age are various stages of gain and loss. "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Adjusting to the seasons of life is one of life's great challenges. It is a challenge to remain humble and free of materialism during the adult seasons of gain and growth, but perhaps equally difficult is maintaining peace and optimism during later years of declining health and resources. Yet we can be sure that life holds each season - the season of gain, and the season of loss.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything is appropriate and beautiful in its proper time: "He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, without which man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end" (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

The seasons of life will seem senseless unless we view them from the perspective of eternity, which God has placed in our hearts. The seasons of gain and loss are mere pages in a large book which includes God's ultimate plan for eternity - life with Him on a renewed earth in the age to come.

A proper view of life's season and God's plans for eternity leads logically to the writer's conclusion: "I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor - it is the gift of God" (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).

Much of life is a perplexing mystery. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is justice so rarely evident? Why do the wicked prosper, while the righteous suffer? All these are maddening questions and issues if not seen from the perspective of God's seasons. Due to human choice, we live in the season of sin - characterized by such injustices. But God's ultimate "season" is the age to come on earth, in which injustices will be rectified, and suffering eradicated. Temporary seasons only make sense from the perspective of the "season" of eternity.

Life includes seasons of gain and loss. The sooner we face that reality, the better off we will be. We will grow bitter through the seasons of life if we lose sight of eternity which God has placed in our hearts.

I pray that today be a season of gain, but more importantly, I pray that you grow strong through whatever season you find yourself in today. Whether adversity or prosperity, it is life's season, and all of life is a gift from God to be savored and appreciated.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's a difficult choice, but a choice nonetheless. "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials" (James 1:2).

I prefer a trouble-free life (if there really is such a thing). I'm a firstborn perfectionist who likes things to be predictable, orderly, and manageable (some might call this boring). I'm up for adventure from time to time, but largely feel most comfortable in a predictable routine. Life's trials tend to upset that "comfort zone". They hold potential to be unpleasant adventures. And, if that's my assessment, that's likely to be the reality. That's where a key word in James' instructions to us comes in - "consider". To "consider" is to make a choice, difficult as that choice may be. But the choice is easier to make if we see its benefits. Consider the beneficial process and results of life's trials:

"knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:3-4)

The adversity of life's trials is the refining process that results in the lifestyle and character that our Father greatly desires and highly values. But the process isn't automatic; it is largely determined by the choice we make concerning it - the choice to "consider it all joy".

I've met plenty of Christians who seemed to have a dark cloud hovering over them (not that I haven't been like this more times than I care to admit). They appeared as those enduring "the trials of Job", devoid of joy or victory. Life's trials were hardships to endure rather than a process yielding benefits.

To "consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials" is not necessarily to choose happiness. Happiness is an emotion often associated with joy, but joy is confident optimism based upon faith rather than a fleeting emotion. Joy sees the ultimate triumph of our faith and hope, and is unwavering on the journey toward that victory. Joy sees the setbacks of trials as character advances. Joy resolutely declares that "we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). The adversity that the adversary deliberates throws our way boomerangs around for ultimate good in the hands of a loving Father.

Response to life's trials is a choice consciously but not necessarily easily made. But that choice is vital. The choice, to borrow a well-worn cliché', is to be made better, not bitter.

May the choice you make in faith this day, in response to life's trials, result in abiding joy that cannot be realized in any other way.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I well remember a conversation between my father and a fellow church member, who both knew from experience the challenges and struggles of factory work. While I don't remember the exact words, this friend shared some words of encouragement with my father concerning a challenge he faced with work, and the words were helpful because they came from someone in a common situation.

If Jesus is totally and completely Creator God, as is commonly taught, then He isn't really one of us, and can't truly relate to our struggle as flesh and blood humans. But, He really is one of us.

"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives" (Hebrews 2:14-15)

If the Immortal One took on flesh and blood and lived among us as God incarnate, perhaps He could better relate to His earthly creation, but how does One who is immortal die in order to defeat death? Either death is not death, or the Immortal One in reality isn't (which calls into question everything He said, did, or promised).

The focus of Hebrews two is not God Our Father, but rather Jesus, His Son. This Jesus was able to "partake of the same" flesh and blood existence that characterizes us, and, in His fleshly existence, truly died in order to defeat "him who had the power of death, that is, the devil". As such, he is able to free is from fear of death.

Jesus is one of us. I find tremendous comfort and encouragement in having a Savior Who truly understands. "For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:18). Our struggle was His struggle, and as such He provides help in situations He can truly relate to.

Knowing that this very human Jesus, now glorified and at the right hand of God, understands and brings to bear the full resources of the Father, it is little wonder that the apostle Paul would say, "I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:8).

May our lives be focused on truly knowing this incomparable Christ as well.


Monday, July 12, 2010

The Welland Canal in the Niagara Falls, Canada region has always been fascinating to me. Standing on an observation platform, one can see massive doors open and close as huge freighter ships enter a lock, and then a tremendous volume of water appears to effortlessly lift the mighty ship to the next level as it makes its way through the canal system. The massive lock doors in front of and behind the freighter ships are a fitting image of another set of protective gates.

"You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it" (Psalm 139:5-6)

Our Creator Father carefully and faithfully watches over us, and especially protects us from the harm that we would approach in our journeys, as well as the harm that would ambush us from behind when we are unaware. He is the Protector and Defender who both goes before us and behind us.

Contrary to the opinion many have, He is not a detached and disinterested Father:

"O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, You know it all" (Psalm 139:1-4).

Your Father knows how long you will stand on your feet at work today, or how long you will sit at your desk. He knows every detail of you even though you may be separated by light-years from Him in His vast universe. He microscopically examines every step you will take this day, and He knows your every thought as you lie on the couch or in bed. He knows exactly what you will say before your utter a word. He is far more intimately involved in your life than you will ever know.

The Father's involvement in your life is a two-edged sword. He knows full well if your heart is sincere and your ways genuine, and He also knows if deceit and self-gratification are primary motives. No one "pulls the wool" over His eyes.

This intimately-involved Creator wants to draw those whose hearts, minds, and lives are selflessly devoted to Him into His great plan and purpose. His desire is well expressed through the words of His Son, the Lord Jesus, as He commanded His followers to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).

A peaceful revolution of the heart is underway to take back a damaged and evil world, and restore it to its rightful owner and people. The God Who is in all the details desires to restore His world and populate it with a people who intimately desire a similar knowledge of Him as He has of us.

May you hunger deeply for the One who knows you intimately and earnestly desires to involve you in His great revolution to restore His world to its original perfection.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Regrets. We all live with plenty of them. There are regrets over harsh words spoken, good deeds left undone, poor decisions and choices made. But, no matter what our regrets are, I'll dare say they are not as great as that of a man I know about. The weight of guilt over murder and adultery must have been considerable, but "confession is good for the soul". The healing that his recorded confession brought to him personally is available to help with our healing over sin and guilt as well.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation And sustain me with a willing spirit" (Psalm 51:10-12)

There is wisdom in getting to the real core of the problem. It's one thing to ask for forgiveness for a particular sin and the ensuing guilt, but the real solution is seeking a "clean heart" that is not inclined to repeat the offense. Seeking a "steadfast spirit" is desiring to return to the rock-solid spiritual moorings that had safeguarded against such sins previously. And desiring the presence of the LORD through His Holy Spirit, and the joy of salvation, are pro-active measures to safeguard against the practice of sin.

One of the great tragedies in life is that of Christian men and women wallowing in the guilt that results from regrettable sins and decisions. Rather than being able to find release through confession and forgiveness, they live on in a state of spiritual and emotional captivity. These godly people bear the wounds of sin, and allow the taunts of the evil one to minimize their growth and potential. What a tragedy! Has anyone committed "worse" sins than King David, who found release and renewal through sincere confession and repentance? Definitely not.

Many acts of sin result in ongoing consequences. The child born out of wedlock is a lasting legacy. The pain and loss resulting from the death of a loved one leaves a wound that cannot ever fully heal. Family disruption through divorce leaves visible scars. But, guilt over deeds that cannot be undone only adds needless pain. True emotional and spiritual release can result through genuine repentance, and abundant forgiveness. "He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10)

Are past deeds and actions crippling your growth and progress today? If so, determine that today is the day to fully face and confess the past, and find the sweet release and peace that God's grace so abundantly brings.


Monday, July 05, 2010

"Wait" and "weight" sound just the same, and have much in common. To wait is to feel the weight of time heavy upon us. Few burdens are as heavy as waiting, yet waiting is top of the priority list.

"Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD" (Psalm 27:14)

Waiting is associated with inactivity. Pro-active people take action; procrastinators wait. Busy people are responsible, whereas lazy people wait. Waiting is for the indecisive; activity and action is for decisive, take-charge people. Except, God doesn't see it that way. Waiting isn't idleness; it is drawing strength and courage through active faith.

"Good things come to those who wait", goes the old saying, and it is true. The repeated pattern with the people of God in the Bible is that they received through waiting in faith. Abraham received a promised son through years of patient waiting (in spite of a few missteps along the way). Moses' character was shaped and refined such that he could be used mightily by God. Elijah waited patiently for God's provision through years of drought and famine. Jesus' character was effectively shaped through a grueling forty-day fast in a desert.

Personally, I find that waiting all too often produces irritability and anger. The goal of waiting seems elusive, and my temper easily flares. But, the goal I have in sight is far different than the one God intends through the process of waiting, To use a common phrase these days, "the journey is the destination". My purpose in waiting may be to see a dream or goal realized, whereas God's goal through waiting is the development of character. Kingdom character will never be developed through quick and easy answers, but rather through the crucible of trying circumstances that free us of self-reliance.

There are pressing concerns on my plate as I write these words about waiting - no doubt no coincidence. There are those in my family and church family who face crises amidst trying economic times. I desperately plead for a new job for them, or a promotion, or a new income stream. But, will the realization of these things better develop kingdom character within, or will they release them from faith and free them for self-indulgence? I fear that I know the answer.

Waiting in faith draws as to the priority of the Psalmist: "Teach me Your way, O LORD, And lead me in a level path" (Psalm 27:11). It is doubtful that we will ever truly learn the way of the LORD, and His level path, unless we are waiting upon Him in faith.

Make certain that the main thing is the main thing. Intimately know the LORD and His ways through faithful waiting. This is the pathway to "seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness", and having all else that is needful added to us as well (Matthew 6:33).