Friday, August 26, 2011

I am confident that the good work God has begun in me will be perfected (Philippians 1:6)

As I look back at my life, there are places where I can feel twinges of regret over things I started but never finished.  When I was about 10 years old I thought the theme song of "The Beverly Hillbillies" TV show was really cool and so I decided to learn how to play it.  My parents were all for my learning a musical instrument (my brother had started learning guitar), so they eagerly signed me up for banjo lessons and rented a used banjo for me to practice on.  After four half-hour lessons, I quit.  My fingertips were inflamed and sore and I still hadn't a clue how to play "The Beverly Hillbillies" theme song.  Imagine that!

My baseball career lasted longer.  In Little League I was a decent pitcher (I even pitched a no-hitter once, though I think I walked eight batters!).  I made an All-Star team though we were never good enough to make it to Williamsport and the Little League World Series.  One year I had progressed so well in my pitching that I was moved up to a higher level of play than most of my peers.  I got scared because most of the kids were older and bigger and stronger than I was.  I actually started developing chest pains due to the stress.  After a few weeks, I quit baseball.  Even though I got back into it a few years later, I had lost some valuable years of experience and so eventually dropped it altogether.

I used to paint.  I don't paint anymore.  "I'm too busy," I tell myself, and maybe I am...too busy.  There is this really cool painting I started probably 30 years ago of a grist mill by a stream with all these trees and sunlight shining through the leaves.  I never finished it.  I don't even know if that unfinished painting is around anymore.  I've lost track of where it is.

Probably all of us have those areas where we say, "I wish..."  I wish I had stuck with piano...  I wish I had kept on going and got that black belt...  I wish I had finished that nursing degree...  I wish I had worked harder on my first marriage...  And so on.

Even more painful, we may recall people that hung with us for a while but then dumped us.  People we thought were our best friends who suddenly stopped calling or didn't want to hang out with us anymore because...well...they found somebody else they thought was more cool.  Teachers who seemed to like us at first but who then later discovered another student-phenom onto whom they directed their efforts.  Coaches who paid attention to us and called on us in important parts of the game until an injury sidelined us or somebody else got hot.  Maybe even parents who lost respect for us and favored another sibling...letting us know in no uncertain terms that they wished we were more like our brother or sister.  The litany of disapproval, disinterest, disrespect and even disgust from those who we once thought were on our side goes on and on.

Is God like that?  Does He play favorites?  Does He hang with us for a while but when we are slow to "get it" does He move on to other, "better" Christians?  Does God ever get disgusted, throw in the towel, give up on us and bench us?

Of course, we would like to hope He doesn't do that kind of thing, but today's Scripture assures us that He won't.  Here are two renderings of Philippians 1:6:

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.  (NASB)

There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you will keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears. (The Message)

Wow!  What a relief!  No matter how slow we are to learn, no matter how many times we blow it, God doesn't give up on us.  Never.  He keeps on keeping on with the good work of making Jesus shine through our lives more and more and more.

Even when we get scared and quit for a while, He doesn't.  He keeps on working on us and in us behind the scenes.  Later in that same book of Philippians, Paul wrote:  "for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).

Have you been wondering lately if God is doing anything in your life?  Have you had this gnawing suspicion that He may be a bit weary of your wanderings or frustrated with your failures and that He might be close to saying, "I've had it with you!"?  Are you worried that He might just trade you for a fourth round draft pick and a player to be named later?

No worries, mate!  You are not a partially finished painting that God has lost interest in or forgotten its whereabouts.  You are His precious child and He is eternally committed to making you like His precious Son until the day of His return.  Paul was confident of that truth and so am I.  I hope you are, too!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I have been established, anointed and sealed by God (2 Corinthians 1:21,22)

I love how the NIV renders 2 Corinthians 1:21,22:  "Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.  He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come."

Did you catch that?  It is easy to read something REALLY profound but not stop long enough to drink in its significance.  Let's look at the first sentence of that passage again...

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.

Who is it that makes you and me stand firm in Christ?

Is it you?  Is it me?  Is it our good behavior?  Is it our staying away from sin?  Is it our hard work of reading the Bible, praying, fasting, hoping, pleading...?  No, no, a thousand times, NO!

It is God.  Period.  God is the one who put us in Christ, and it is God who keeps us in Christ.  That reminds me of 1 Corinthians 1:30 (NASB):  "But by His [God's] doing you are in Christ Jesus..."  

It is God's grace that puts us and keeps us in Christ, not our efforts.  It is God's power that puts us and keeps us in Christ, not our hard work.  It is God's faithfulness that puts us and keeps us in Christ, not our faithfulness.

So if it is not our good works that keep us in, then our bad works will not take us out.  We are in Christ because God has done it and God will keep doing it until we are safely brought to Him in heaven (see 1 Peter 1:3-5).

So where is fear?  Gone!  Where is anxiety?  Bye bye!  Where is uncertainty and doubt?  See ya'!  Where is drivenness to perform to keep God's favor?  Outta here!

Now, just in case you and I might be tempted to take God's grace for granted and party hearty here on earth (though Romans 6 makes it clear that a true understanding of grace would NEVER bring that result!), God has also anointed us, set His seal of ownership on us and given us the Holy Spirit as a down payment of what is to come.

God's anointing sets us apart from the darkness of sin into the kingdom of light and teaches us what is right and wrong (see 1 John 2:20,27).  His seal of ownership...which is currently invisible but will one day be visible (see Revelation 7:3; 9:4)...basically tells those who would harm us, "Hands off!  This one belongs to Me and the enemy cannot touch him!"  And to seal the deal, so to speak, God has given us His Holy Spirit as a down payment of what is to come!

A down payment!  The presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit is the DOWN PAYMENT!!??!!  If God Himself is the down payment, what could the rest of the gift possibly be?  It blows your mind!

What an incredibly giving, generous, abundantly lavishing God we have!  He has taken care of everything.  He saved us and placed us in Christ.  He anointed us, and protects us with His seal that tells the entire universe of evil..."Don't you dare touch the Lord's anointed!" And as if that weren't enough, He seals the whole deal by placing His very presence in our hearts as we await the final consummation of the ages when God bestows our full inheritance as sons on us in heaven!

And yet some believers still want to mess around with sin and the cheap, counterfeit stuff the world has to offer?  Come on!  Let yourself be swept up in the grandeur and the wonder of Christ and who you are in Him!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I cannot be separated from the love of God. (Romans 8:35-39)

As I write this blog, I am sitting in my parents' sun room, with the sunshine thawing the chill out of the air on a tranquil late summer morning.  Right now there are no major hardships threatening my peace of mind, though I know that could change at any time.  Yeah, finances are really stretched right now (so what else is new?), but otherwise things are okay.  It's easy to feel a bit guilty at times like these, because, as an elder in our church, I am aware of some really deep needs in our congregation.

There's a dear lady with maybe only days to live, because of a liver saturated with cancer.  And a man who is struggling to keep his failing eyesight even as he wrestles with God  over nearly three years of unemployment.  Add to that a church leader agonizing over his grown daughter as she succumbs to alcoholism and all the poor choices that go with it.  And another leader who hasn't had a decent night's sleep in years and who is desperately scrambling to keep from being sucked down the black hole of depression.  And there is much more...

Chances are that today either you are at the end of your rope with your sweaty hands starting to slip, or you know someone else who is right there right now.

What does God have to say at times like these?  "Don't worry; be happy"?  Hardly.  Today's Scripture looks suffering straight in the eye and provides solid encouragement when life decides to play hardball with us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: 'For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.'  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."   (Romans 8:35-39)

There you have it.  No promises of an easy life, are there?  That wouldn't have cut it in first century Rome when torched Christians were being used as street lights by Nero.  Nor will it cut it today or in the future when things will really get hot for followers of Jesus.

True, God sometimes does intervene to spare us from life's greatest pains.  Praise God when He does!  Cancer is healed.  Blind eyes see. Jobs are provided.  Prodigals come home.  Joy and rest are restored.  But He doesn't always work that way...not always.  So we seek the Lord and pray and wait and hope for God to come through miraculously.

But what if He doesn't?  What if His plans are not to take us out of suffering, but to take us through it?  What is the anchor for our souls when hellish hurricanes threaten to shred our lives?

Here it is:  God and His love will never bail on us.  Never.  The worst that the world and the devil can throw at us do not...not even for an instant...endanger our secure standing in the love of God in Christ.  In fact, through His love, today's passage reveals, we are more than conquerors!  Even when we as the sheep of God's pasture are captured, skewered and roasted alive, we are more than conquerors.

How can that be? the end...we win.  God's love remains with us, sustains us, comforts us, strengthens us, emboldens us, and safely carries us into eternity with Christ...with our spirits and souls unscathed, and with new bodies to boot!

But those who hate Christ...both His invisible and visible enemies...the ones who seek to destroy us...they lose big time.  And one day you will get to see it.  God's love will make sure of that.

So, for today, no matter what you are going through, let God's love fill up all the wounded and worried places.  He lives in you and so He can do that and He wants to do that...time and time and time again.  Nothing...absolutely nothing...can ever cut you off from the flow of God's deep love in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And that is enough.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I am free from any condemning charges against me. (Romans 8:31-34)

Do you ever notice how, when we are waiting for news from someone or are awaiting a response to a text or email we have sent or a phone call we have made...and that response is delayed...that our minds tend to create worse case scenarios?  I do that all the time.  Our kids are out late at night and Shirley and I get no response to a text inquiring as to their whereabouts, so "worst-case-scenario-itis" kicks in big time.  I don't imagine that our kids are busy leading a whole group of friends to Christ.  No way.  I am imagining some gruesome car wreck and already trying to figure out how I can live life without them when the return text finally arrives:  "Still at the party.  Will be home soon."  What a relief!  And how foolish we have allowed our minds to be taken for a ride.

So how are we supposed to navigate the rough waters between when our kids leave to when they return?  We have to look back at their track record of faithfulness and trustworthiness (and if there isn't much of a track record, we probably DO have cause for uneasiness!) and ultimately have to entrust them to the Lord's care.  "Don't worry; pray instead!" is great...and biblical...advice (see Philippians 4:6,7).

Maybe you don't have kids or grandkids that worry you at the moment, but all of us are right smack dab in the middle of a time between when the Son of God left and when He finally returns.  As far as exactly when we'll see Him, we don't know...though we have all sent Him tons of "texts" encouraging Him to come "home" soon.  But He's not answering back when we ask Him when.

So what do we do?  We rely on His 100% faithful track record of faithfulness and trustworthiness, entrusting ourselves to God and what He has said.  He WILL come back.

Maybe you are a bit anxious as to how your eventual reunion with Jesus will go.  Will He recognize you?  Will He be mad?  Will He be ashamed of you?  Will He accept you or will He dredge up all the junk you've ever done in your life, throw it back in your face, and go back to heaven without you?  If you don't watch it, you can find yourself in a real mental and emotional pickle, succumbing to a very bad case of "worst-case-scenario-itis"!

Today's Scripture, I believe, provides a beautiful antidote for fearful, doomsday thinking.  Listen in:

What shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?  Who will bring a charge against God's elect?  God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?  Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.      (Romans 8:31-34)

Pretty good news, eh?  Let's sum it up:

  • God is for us.  He's on our side.  We're on His team.  He is rooting for us.  He wants us to win. It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks about or says about us.  GOD is for us.
  • That same God already showed how much "for us" He is by sacrificing His only Son so that we could have life.  If God did the biggest, hardest thing for us already, can't we trust Him for all the rest that life throws at us?
  • Nobody will dare to try and condemn someone that God has declared innocent (everyone who is in Christ!).  Sure, Satan may accuse us (like a really nasty prosecuting attorney), but he can never condemn us.  Condemnation is up to the judge and the Judge has already said that "there is therefore now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus"! (see Romans 8:1).
  • Jesus is in charge; He died, rose from the dead, and is enthroned just to the right of the Father
  • This same Jesus is praying for us right now.  Do you think God the Father hears Jesus' prayers?
So relax, breathe a sigh of relief, if you are in Christ today.  True, Jesus isn't answering our texts as to when He's coming back, but He IS coming.  And when He does, all those who are in Christ Jesus will be warmly welcomed, without one ounce of condemnation.  By the grace of God, I can gratefully proclaim today in Christ, "I am free from any condemning charges against me."  I hope you can, too!   

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Abba! Father!

Next week I will go back to blogging from the Who I Am in Christ statements, but this week I want to share some more thoughts on what it means to be children of God.

1 John 3:1 says, "See how great a love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are!"

Incredible.  Simply incredible...that sinners would be smuggled out of the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13), then adopted into God's family (Ephesians 1:5), and even counted as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).  All by the Father's gracious heart of love!

To the abandoned, this means family.  To the abused, this means safety.  To the fearful, this means security.  To the anxious, this means serenity.  To the rejected, this means belonging.  To the aimless, this means purpose.  To the addicted, this means hope and freedom.  And to all of us, this means new life.

Zephaniah 3:17 paints the vivid picture of a strong, valiant God who is also a victorious warrior, coming home from battle to dote on his kids.  He plays with them, heartily laughing and singing.  He cheers them on in their life challenges.  And He gently, tenderly calms and soothes them, bringing comfort, peace and rest.

What a beautiful portrait of our heavenly Abba!  Daddy!  And the only expectation of the child in this scenario is to accept this Daddy-child relationship as real and to rest in the reality and trueness of it.  For some, this is not easy at all, for in their thinking the term "father" or "dad" drags with it a load of explosive baggage.  There is, therefore, a process of grace and healing that God Himself must activate before the child of God can let go of that baggage and take the hand of his or her heavenly Dad instead.

Our God is so patient, isn't He?

Though there is no hurry or rushing with God, and His primary agenda is always that we trust in His character of gracious love as well as His faithful, truthful promises, there is more.

The Lord desires our love in return.  No, He doesn't need it to be complete; that would make Him like the creation rather than the Creator.  But He does request it...even requires it...of His children.

For some of you reading this blog, a shift just took place in your mind.  Involuntarily you moved from a place of grace to one of law, of duty, of performance, of jumping through religious hoops to maintain God's favor...of subtly thinking, "Oh, now I get it.  God just changed the rules.  He acts like Mr. Nice Guy to bring us into His family, but once we're "in"...oh better toe the line!"

Honestly, that is not what we are talking about at all. Not even close.  Maybe an illustration will help.

My wife, Shirley, and I are raising four teenagers (well, actually one just turned 20 a month ago).  Anyway, we love our kids deeply and would do anything for them.  But we also are seeking to help them develop godly character and wisdom so they can faithfully represent Christ and live responsible lives in this world.  Part of their place in our family involves doing chores around the house, treating their siblings (and parents!) with respect, and when they are not at home obeying the laws of the land and seeking to do good.  When we tell them to do walk the dog or come home by a certain hour...we expect them to do what they are told.  We expect them to obey.

This obedience does not grant them an upgraded membership in our family, nor does it purchase a guarantee that we will love them for another day.  Being loved members of our family is a "given."  But they do communicate to us as parents their love and respect for us by doing what they are told, even as the assigning of these expectations expresses our love for them by serving to help mold and forge godly character in them.  And they discover that obedience brings greater freedom; disobedience brings about a cutting back of freedom.

In Romans 8:15 (echoed in Galatians 4:6), it reads:  "For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba!  Father!'"  As the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are God's kids (v. 16), there is an "Abba!" element to that relationship and a "Father!" element as well.  The cry of "Abba!" speaks of God's tender love and affection and comfort and care.  The "Father" speaks of His authority and worthiness to receive our worship, respect, reverence and obedience (see 1 Peter 1:17).

Rather than our spiritual childhood being a place of entitlement (as too often our American culture fosters in a far-too-lengthy adolescence), it is a place of empowerment.  "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance," 1 Peter 1:14 tells us.  Indeed, we are to be holy as God is holy (v. 15,16), not doing what we just want and think will be fun, but doing what God says is right and good.

Obedience is not a dirty word in the world of grace.  Not at all.  It is part and parcel with being children of much as is the acceptance that we enjoy in Christ.  Let me explain.

If the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all we have and to love others with all we are (Matthew 22:37-39), how do we show that love?  Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15).  Pretty straightforward, isn't it?

We show that we love God by obeying Him.  But that kind of love is not a drudging, grudging, grin and bear it, dry devotion to duty.  It is doing what God says to do out of a deep love and respect for Him.

Let me change metaphors for just a moment and give one final illustration.

Imagine a college football coach who has been around for decades.  He is a winner and highly respected.  Being a Penn State grad, I can't help but think of Joe Pa (Joe Paterno).  The guy loves his players and would die for them.  He spends endless hours getting to know them, helping them work through the struggles in their lives, urging them on to academic excellence.  They are far more than football players to him.  They are human beings.  I imagine quite a few of them he grows to love like sons.  Picture Joe telling his players that they are going to practice late one day because they have a really tough opponent coming up...or his asking them to go visit kids in a local cancer ward on a Sunday afternoon...or even doing extra laps for being late for practice.

It is unimaginable for those players to say, "Naah, I don't think so.  What have you ever done for me?  I'm outta here."

I think you get the point.  Joe Paterno's love is far from perfect, but God's love is perfect, shown to us through Christ's shed blood and death on the cross as payment for our sins.  Such sacrificial love on the part of God through Christ for us ought to generate such a deep love, devotion, gratefulness and respect for Him that the most (super)natural response is to show love to Him back by obedience.

1 John 5:3 sums this up beautifully:  "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome."

Disobedience is burdensome.  Rebellion is burdensome.  Self-centeredness is burdensome.  But obeying God in His power out of love for Him is not burdensome.  It is exactly what we were made for.

So, go ahead and crawl up in Abba's lap and let Him love on you.  He yearns for that closeness with you and you (and I!) need it desperately.  But when, as your Father, He tells you it's time to get up and visit a sick neighbor or show love to an unlovable spouse or spend time with a really obnoxious it!  You will experience an "invasion" of the love of God into your soul like you had never imagined.

"If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love.  These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full."   -the words of Jesus (John 15:10,11).