Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
Yesterday, during our Advent Luncheon gathering, we discussed the Advent concept and promise of peace. Like any past Miss America contestant, we all would love to see “world peace” achieved in our lifetime. It’s the perfect answer for any wannabe politician or philosophical savant. It fixes everything. Who wouldn’t want to give peace a chance? Tis also the season for songs to yearn for “peace on earth” and yet we see just the opposite flood the daily new cycles. Wars. Violence. Hatred. Judgement. The work of Satan, the rattler of peace, is on full, heartbreaking display. As we often understand it, peace is certainly desirable, but it is also very unattainable. Dictionary.com defines peace as the “non-warring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world.” More than detailing what it is, it speaks to what it is not. The problem with regulating peace to a secular definition of only the absence of war or conflict, is that we don’t come close enough to what God’s intention for peace is. God offers His people a peace that is absolutely available here and now—a “peace that surpasses all human understanding and will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (cf. Phil. 4)
The word PEACE is common in most languages. People can talk about peace treaties or times of peace; it universally means the absence of war. In the Bible, the word peace can refer to the absence of conflict; but it also points to the presence of something better in its place. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for peace is shalom. The most basic meaning of shalom is complete or whole. The word can refer to a stone that has a perfect whole shape with no cracks. It can also refer to a completed stone wall that has no gaps and no missing bricks. Shalom refers to something that’s complex with lots of pieces, but that is in a state of completeness, wholeness. Think of Job who says his tents are in a state of shalom because he counted his flock, and no animals are missing. Shalom can also refer to a person’s well-being. Like when David visited his brothers on the battlefield, he asked about their shalom. The core idea is that life is complex—full of moving parts and relationships and situations—and when any of these are out of alignment or missing, your shalom breaks down. Life is no longer whole. Peace is absent. It needs to be restored. But how does this happen?
Do you remember the song “Let there be Peace on Earth?” I don’t recall who originally wrote it, but it has been covered by many artists. The repeated verse says “Let there be peace on earth… And let it begin with me.” Although I can appreciate the sentiment behind the song, it also completely misses the mark. Indeed, we should all strive to live peacefully with one another. The Apostle Paul tells us this very thing. It is also the very force behind Jesus’ words to “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, if “peace on earth” in any capacity is up to me, we’re all in trouble! The same is true for any one of us. We may have moments where we work towards peace, but our own sinfulness and brokenness will eventually limit the extent to which peace can overflow into this world. Walking with each other in perfect harmony is not something that will ever happen if peace begins with me, or you, or anyone else. Peace on earth will never be fully realized when we look within ourselves—to governmental parties, motivational seminars, or worldly cliches.
That’s a hidden reality in the message of Christmas. Peace cannot permeate the world without an outside force. The inbreaking of God in human flesh is the answer to a world that is no longer whole, that needs to be put back together. Humans cannot establish or cultivate peace, only God can do that. Only God can restore. This is why Jesus’s birth in the New Testament was announced as the arrival of eirene (cf. Luke 2:14); in the New Testament the Greek word for peace is eirene. Jesus came to offer His peace to others like when He said to His followers, “My peace I give to you all” (cf. John 14:27). Advent peace is a worshipful recognition that Jesus has restored what was no longer whole, what was broken. And what is that? YOU! The peace that we are given as Christians does not hinge on the circumstances around us. It is not defined by what is lacking, but by what we have. We have Jesus! This peace is found in knowing that we are beloved children of God who have been completely restored and redeemed by our Savior. Our peace, this Advent and all year round, is found in knowing that our God who restored us through His cross, is always with us and still growing us towards wholeness. In this second week of Advent, we place ourselves in the posture of God’s people of the Old Testament, groaning for and excitedly awaiting their Messiah. We too eagerly await the (second) coming of the Prince of Peace.
“All you beneath your heavy load, by care and guilt bent low,
Who toil along a dreary way with painful steps and slow:
Look up, for golden is the hour, come swiftly on the wing,
The Prince was born to bring you peace; of Him the angels sing.” (LSB 366, stz. 3)
“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (C.S. Lewis)
“The peace of God is first and foremost peace with God; it is the state of affairs in which God, instead of being against us, is for us. No account of God's peace which does not start here can do other than mislead.” (J.I. Packer)
I recently came across this statement, “If you get to December 25th and you are sick of Christmas, then you didn’t do Advent correctly.” Has this happened to you? Have you been exhausted by Christmas? Have you wished these festive days away? Have you found yourself stuck in yuletide survival mode?
We’ve all been there. So, what does it mean to do Advent correctly? Advent starts this Sunday. It is a season of preparation and waiting. It is a season in the church year designed to fix our eyes on the coming of the Lord, the return of our Savior Jesus. It is a countercultural season calling us to slow down as the world moves around us in a fa-la-la-la-la frenzy. Advent reminds us that the Savior who came before in a Bethlehem stable, whose Spirit lives with us still now, will come again. Jesus is coming back. So, during the Advent season we “stay awake and keep alert” (cf. Mark 13:35-37) as we anticipate His return.
Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to find any semblance of Advent in our world today. Stores quickly shifted their shelving displays from Halloween to Christmas—with perhaps a small hiatus for Thanksgiving in between. In fact, many stores have already sold out of certain Christmas items and décor. Earlier this week, the only gingerbread houses I found were ones that crumbled during the earthquakes of their shipping and shelving. Even before the last bites of Thanksgiving turkey have been gobbled up and devoured, the Christmas specials have commenced on TV and the non-stop, holly-jolly tunes saturate the airwaves. Even at my home and here at church, there are no lack of Christmas decorations present. They are out and on full display. Even the most faithful Christians can skip through these four weeks to get to the glow of a glitzy, tinsel-filled holiday. As such, before it “begins to look a lot like Christmas,” we need to hit the holiday brakes and make a stop at Advent’s rest area. We need the season of Advent to prep for Christmas—and not in the more time to shop or more cookies to bake sort of prep. But in the “waiting for the revelation of Jesus Christ who will sustain you to the end” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:7) sort of preparation.
A celebration of Christmas will only be upgraded and enriched if we take time to do Advent correctly. Before we get to Christmas it is good to go back to the age-old stories and prophecies. It’s natural to want to “skip to the good parts,” but when we look back, we see that God’s people have often anxiously longed for God to show up and do away with the bad. Over years, decades, and centuries, God repeatedly reminded His people of His promise to deliver them. So, we also, during the four weeks of Advent, cherish and anticipate the hope of God’s people. The more we remember that the people of God have always been “waiting” people, the more we have hope that God is still at work and still with us. During Advent in our church, we will prepare for Christmas by revisiting the prophets, singing the carols, rereading the gospels, and lighting the candles that re-energize our hope, peace, joy, and love. Then we will be better equipped to come alongside Mary and Joseph to celebrate the birth of the world’s most pivotal newborn.
Most Christians are pretty good at celebrating Christmas. It’s kind of our thing. We thrive on it. It’s what we do. But let’s not get there too fast! Slow down and celebrate the simplicity of this waiting season. Join us in worship—before December 24th—and do Advent the right way!
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes – and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside – is not a bad picture of Advent.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
“Advent: the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” (Bill McKibben)
A little boy of six was invited to his neighbor’s home for a meal. As soon as all were seated at the table the food was served. The little boy was puzzled, and with a child’s frankness asked, “Don’t you say a prayer before you eat?” The host was uncomfortable and mumbled, “No, we don’t take time for that.” The boy thought silently for a while, and said, “Oh, you’re just like my dog. You just dive right in.”
Do you ever dive into something without the Lord? I think we can all agree that life is not always what we expected. We all have our stories. For all the peaks, we also must go through our fair share of valleys. Whatever your journey has been, it does not change the goodness of God. You don’t give thanks if you don’t believe someone deserves the thanks. Thanksgiving for Christians is awareness of who God is and what He has done. It does not mean we don’t recognize that there are difficulties, it simply—yet profoundly—means we stand upon a greater reality. God is on the throne and deserves praise!
We have much to be thankful for each Thanksgiving and each day. Our highest thanksgiving comes from the gift of Jesus our Savior. God has given us everything in Christ; therefore, we thank and praise Him, serve and obey Him. “Thank the Lord and sing his praise; tell everyone what he has done” (offertory, LSB). Each day will not go as we would like it to go. This is undeniable truth. There will be disasters, storms, and diagnoses. It recalls another cute story of a little boy who was asked to pray for dinner. Before he bowed his head to pray, he looked at the dish. Then, closing his eyes he prayed, “Lord, I don’t like the looks of it, but I’ll thank you and eat it anyway.” Such is life in a broken world; sometimes we won’t like the looks of things. Yet we remember to stay faithful and stand resilient. Whatever dish life puts before us, we eat it knowing that our God is right beside us. We dare not let our circumstances squash our faith. Through the many challenges we encounter, the devil would have us doubt and question God. At those moments let us go the Psalms and other passages in God’s Holy Word for comfort and assurance. One that I recall is from Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
Keep rejoicing my friends. Give thanks and have a blessed Thanksgiving!
I’m grateful for you all!
“A bad moment for an atheist is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank.” (G.K. Chesterton)
“What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” (unknown)
“Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to gather together and express gratitude for all that we have been given, the freedoms we enjoy, and the loved ones who enrich our lives. We recognize that all of these blessings, and life itself, come not from the hand of man but from Almighty God.” (George W. Bush)
I’m a hero.
That’s right. You read that correctly.
No doubt, many of you probably hold me in this high regard already; but allow me to explain.
This past Monday night I took Collin to a private coaching session for baseball. After a brief introduction and some basic mechanics from the coach, we stepped outside into the chilly fall air. This coach has a fully-enclosed batting cage in his backyard, complete with plenty of lights and pitching machine. Collin and I were both a tad bit jealous and dreamed of having one in our own backyard. Nevertheless, just as Collin was about to start taking live swings, we noticed a little rabbit caught in the netting way back in the corner of the cage. One line drive to the far-left corner of the cage would have sent that bunny into baseball oblivion, much like this poor bird. Talk about having a bad hare day! Fortunately, we saw the bunny caught before any pitches were thrown. So, the final 30 minutes of our lesson was spent trying to set him free. Easier said than done. Of course, the more this young bunny realized that he was trapped in the netting, the more he panicked. He flipped around with such reckless abandon that what was once, one foot caught had now become 3 legs caught and netting wrapped around his neck. Long story short, we were able to finally cut the rabbit free. After all the netting that entrapped him was cut loose, the bunny laid on the ground, still a bit shell-shocked, before finally scampering back to his home under the nearby shed. Hopefully to live hoppily ever after.
On our way home, this Bible verses came to mind: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrew 12:1) The image of that poor rabbit violently bouncing around, trying desperately to get himself free, loudly preaches to the reality of sin. The more the bunny panicked and the more he attempted, the more stuck he became. You could see the struggle and fear in his big black eyes. What was once just a single leg had gotten far worse; and the gravest part was that the net was now wrapped around his neck multiple times. There was no way, that poor rabbit, would have broken free. If he had survived the onslaught of baseballs, he would eventually have died from the cold, starvation, or a passing-by predator. The writer of Hebrews reminds us to cast off and throw away anything that seeks to entangle us. Any sin. Any false priority. Any misplaced adoration. Any potential pitfall. If it seeks to remove our gaze from the Creator, it will eventually trap us in a no-win situation. Of course, sin is not something we can cut ourselves loose from. There is no amount of twisting or maneuvering that can shake us free. There exists no spiritual scissors strong enough to cut through the nets of sin we often find ourselves underneath. To put it bluntly, we cannot be the hero of our own story. The more we try to master the Devil who seeks to devour us, the more entangled and helpless we become. If we try to fight on our own, we will end up exhausted, defeated and without hope. As our opening liturgy reminds us of each week in worship, “We cannot free ourselves from our own sinful condition.”
But the good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to free ourselves. Allow me to bring back to mind this uplifting verse of the Reformation hymn we sang a couple of weeks ago. Verse 2 of A Mighty Fortress says: “No strength of ours can match his [the devil’s] might. We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, Whom God Himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is He, Christ Jesus Mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious.”
Jesus Christ comes to battle and sets us free from all that entangle us. By His merciful acts, we are cut loose from the stranglehold of sin, death, and the devil. Our struggles cease and instead we can rejoice in what God does for us. Having no power to set ourselves free by own might or right, God breaks into his world to do the dirty work on our behalf. Suffering. Desertion. Crucifixion. Death. This was the excruciating price Jesus paid, so that we can know what it means to be restored and released from bondage. This is how we are held victorious. Now, as His redeemed and restored children, we can excitedly scamper back to the eternal homes that await us. We give thanks and we worship Jesus. The Hebrews writer continues on, “…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Heb. 12:2-3) The English word ‘consider’ leaves so much to be desired. We do more than consider him, we reflect on all that He endured on our behalf, and we worship Him. We thank Him for the love, life, and forgiveness that He brings. We think deeply and intentionally how His act of salvation changes everything for our lives. We rejoice over the fact that we need not be weary or lose heart because He still promises, even today, that He is always with us. Whenever something entangles us, we throw it off—by the power of and in the name of Jesus.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus is our hero.
He is our champion.
Thanks be to God!
“The Gospel is the only story where the hero dies for the villain.” (unknown)
“One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.” (Gordon D. Fee)
“The kids look at me, 'Ah, you're my hero.' I want to teach those kids. 'Hey listen, God is my hero. He died on the cross for my sins, and He's the one. That's how I wanna live, like Him, and I want you guys to do the same thing.” (MLB player, Albert Pujols)
Goodbye ghosts, goblins, and skeletons.
Farewell insanely expensive big bags of candy.
Don't move too quickly to Thanksgiving.
Today is worthy of celebration too! Did you know?
Today is not just a Halloween hangover day. True, our bellies may ache over one-too-many Snickers bars. Our children are probably droopy-eyed and still recovering from crashlanding off of night-long sugar highs. Nevertheless, this day is an oft-forgotten celebration—overshadowed by last Sunday’s red-clad celebration of Reformation or the candy-driven desires of the day before it. November 1st is a very significant festival (or holiday) on the church calendar. Today is All Saints’ Day, also sometimes referred to as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. This day has been celebrated, in some capacity, by the universal church going all the way back to the early eighth century. The festival originally, in the Roman Church, honored those who were considered especially holy—heroic figures from the Scriptures and martyrs who had given their lives nonviolently in witness to the faith. However, it is an especially Lutheran accent for the feast to honor not only those who lived exemplary lives, but all who have been baptized into Christ’s death. For Lutherans, All Saints’ Day resonates with the conviction that in Christ every saint is a sinner and every sinner a saint. In other words, saints are ALL true believers on earth and in heaven, both living and dead.
In our Lutheran Confessions and tradition, the departed ones do not hold a higher “position” in the Church. We do not pray to the departed Saints. We do not seek their approval or blessing. We do not request their counsel or ask for them to intercede to the Father on our behalf. Only Christ stands between us and the Heavenly Father as our one and only mediator (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5). Some saints are indeed revered for the role they served in Christ’s Church throughout history. But just like you and me, ordinary and faithful pew-sitters, they are each just another sinner washed in the blood of Christ. To be sure, we give thanks to God for their faithfulness and example, the impact they made for the Kingdom. But each is just another flawed and fallen individual who have been clothed by the white robes of Christ’s righteousness. For all of time, a person is given the title of “Saint” in a completely passive way. Not by their credentials. Not by merit. Not by work or accomplishment. The title of “Saint” is bestowed upon them, and us, by grace alone. Through faith given by the Holy Spirit, they believe Christ is their Lord and Savior. Flowing nicely from our timeless Reformation theme, we know that all people are saved solely by His complete atonement for their sins.
In our commemoration of All Saints today (and in worship this coming Sunday), we remember those who have died in Christ with the sure and certain hope of salvation and redemption by His grace. We are thankful for the blessings the departed saints we knew brought to our lives. Our grandparents. Our parents. Former pastors and Sunday schools. Men and women who have modeled the faith and poured into our own spiritual upbringing. We also remember the Christian faithful from all generations, not limited by time, denomination or earthly accolades. Today, between bites of leftover Halloween candy, is a day to reflect and give thanks for those saints in your cloud of witnesses. These are the faithful people whom God worked through to instill the faith you and I have in Jesus today.
So, celebrate today as a saint. For that is what you are. A beloved and sainted child of God; a justified and forgiven son and daughter of the King! Give thanks for all the sinners declared saints before you. Rejoice that this same performative Word that bespoke them saints is still speaking, still sanctifying sinners in Christ who rose for our justification and whose righteousness is our robe, the source of our sainthood. No, this title, dear friends and saints, is not earned or deserved. It is a gift. A gift given and freely available to all. And because this saintly title isn’t from you, it is as sure and certain as its Giver—the One to whom all the saints of every age point and in whom they live and move and have their being. Take off the Halloween regalia; adorn your saintly attire. Cover yourself with that white robe and garnish your head with that beautiful crown. Be not ashamed. Walk around as boldly and proudly as those cute-costumed kids that rang your doorbell last night. This “saintly” attire is no mere costume. It is the real deal. Try it on for size and wear it well, for it won’t ever wear out. It’s as eternal as the One who gave it to you. And instead of ‘trick-or-treat’ our tongue heeds the direction of the psalmist: “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” (Psalm 30:4)
“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (Revelation 14:12)
I’m reflecting further on our reading from last Sunday, specifically 1 Thessalonians 1:9, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”
Notice the direction of this action: to God, from idols. It is not put the other way around. The people had come out of the darkness and into the marvelous light of the Gospel. They had been immersed in deception and misplaced adoration; then they left that for something better. You do not leave your idols for some reason and then painfully try to find God. What happens is that you discover moments of the beauty, the glory and greatness of God. Seeing that and wanting it, you are willing to forsake the cheap and tawdry things you have been trying to satisfy yourselves with. At its core, Idolatry is seeking of self rather than God. Idolatry is putting our trust in created things rather than the Creator. It echoes Satan’s words, which started all of this process: “You will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) True worship of the true God recognizes the great gulf existing between the quality of life we are disposed to live and the sacrifice of God’s only Son on the cross. God is a God of justice and also a God of love. In the cross of Christ, justice and love have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. The real God is a relentless pursuer who gives no peace until our religiosity is transformed into repentance and faith.
Modern America is surely one of the most idolatrous countries the world has ever seen. We are surrounded with idol worship. We are guilty of the same self-serving idolatry. We may not fashion idols of wood or gold or silver as did our Old Testament ancestors, but we still find no end of things to worship—money, power, politics, youth sports, pleasure—whatever temporarily satisfies our selfish needs and desires. For example, perhaps our greatest idol that we encounter in our hearts today is the idol of comfort. Americans believe we should be able to do whatever we want and like. We should be able to do what makes us comfortable. We should do what makes us happy. This is the idol of comfort. Sound familiar? Trying combat that American mindset with a call to penance. Good luck! No wonder the Apostle Paul and others met such resistance in their early years of church planting and ministry. Whenever they called people to repentance, it was a rebuke to put God first. They called people to return to the Lord and away from self-gratifying idols and self-centered mantras. It also highlights why Paul and his fellow teachers were so impressed by the transformation in the lives of the early Thessalonians.
Elsewhere, in Genesis, Jacob discovered in the corners of his own household a monstrous problem calling for drastic action: “Get rid of the foreign gods,” he said, “and purify yourselves.” These words of Jacob are just as much needed to today than ever before. Thousands of years later, they are just as relevant and the need has only increased in urgency. “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you.” Love for God allows nothing else to take first place; only God can hold that place. Because only God can bring the peace and healing we need. With this love properly fixated on God, the gods of materialism and self go out the window. That insanity that makes men pursue things as if they were gods is replaced by a new and holier affection. Life acquires a new center and a new direction. That center is God, and that direction is God-ward. May the Lord help us put aside everything that distracts us from Him, so that we can return to serve the living and true God. May our lives be renewed through Jesus Christ. Help us clean house Lord; it’s time for You to take over.
“For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength! Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His Name; bring an offering, and come into His courts!” (Psalm 96:5-8)
“Idolatry happens when we take good things, and make them ultimate things.” (Tim Keller)
“The system of idolatry, invented by modern Christianity, far surpasses in absurdity anything that we have ever heard of.” (Orson Pratt)
“We make a god out of whatever we find most joy in. So, find your joy in God and be done with all idolatry.” (John Piper)
*** I read a number of similar blogs prior to putting this together. So, this is my attribution to a bunch of random blogs and authors that I didn't do a good job of keeping referencing. My apologies and thank you for the words/inspiration.
FULL DISCLOSURE… this blog is a bit longer today. But it’s something, I believe, many need to hear. If nothing else, I’m writing this to myself. You’re more than welcome to join me for the ride and the reflection.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our epistle reading from church this past Sunday. Primarily, it is these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” We know these words from the Apostle Paul. I’ve seen many a wall plagues, Sunday School posters, kitchen magnets, and travel coffee mugs with this verse emblazoned upon them. It’s a happy verse. It encourages. We really don’t mind it, most of the time. As life is chugging along, things are good, and we count our blessings we have no problem putting it into practice... rejoicing.
But let’s be honest, with all due respect to the Apostle Paul, sometimes joy is hard to come by. There are moments when joy seems so very unrealistic. There are many circumstances in life that can make us feel this way: grief over the loss of a loved one, failures in our endeavors, responsibilities in the workplace, battling loneliness, lacking relationships, or simply the constant background anxiety of living in a world under sin’s curse. There are times, when even the most faithful believer, is barely hanging on. Have you been there? I suspect we all have. We may put on our Sunday best facade and proclaim to the world that we are peachy-keen; but there are burdensome and melancholy moments, often kept hidden from reality, when the last thing we feel like doing is rejoicing.
On any given day, there are a billion things that can steal our joy, but only one source from which we can receive it. This is the point. Joy is not found in the circumstance; but it is in knowing that Christ is present in whatever circumstances you are in. Joy is not found in the particular moments; but it is in knowing that Christ is present in every moment. Joy is not found in impressive success nor is it lacking in depressing frustrations or embarrassing failures; but it is in genuinely believing that the “Lord is at hand.” It is found in knowing that Christ is present whether you’re riding high or barely hanging on.
Paul strongly emphasizes that such an attitude should be constant, not temporary. Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul writes from his prison cell in Rome. Paul is an inmate, a jailbird. That’s important to remember – that he writes these words while being imprisoned because of his Christian faith. So, when Paul tells us that we can rejoice in the Lord always, he really means, always. He is not writing these words from his high horse or a sheltered place of abundance. Rejoice. Always. To be sure, this is not easy—and we desperately need that gentle, constant prompting of the Spirt to remember these words. Always rejoice, because God is always faithful. Grounded in this unshakable truth, we won’t be destroyed by the sufferings of this world. In fact, we can thumb our nose at the hardships of this world and tell the Devil to go right back where he came from. Why? Because our joy in the Lord is not for sale, it cannot be polluted, it will not be seized. God is always faithful to His beloved. Isaiah 46:4 says, “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made you, and I will bear you; I will carry you and will save you.” That’s what we need to hear. When we are frustrated, sorrowful, filled with doubts… God is always faithful. He will carry us. Full of love and grace and mercy, the Lord promises that He is always there for you, always here with us.
Back to the imprisoned Paul, instead of focusing on himself and his situation, Paul focuses on this Gospel and on how God is at work. He is especially focused on the idea that rejoicing is to take place at all times. This from the man who is a prisoner in Rome. He had been wrongfully arrested for some time, shipwrecked on the way there, bitten by a snake, and left under house arrest for two years. Paul had every reason to complain, yet focused on rejoicing. He rejoices in the opportunities he has to talk about his faith with the palace guard, he delights in the boldness with which other believers are speaking out, and, as for those who are preaching with false motives – as long as they are telling people about Jesus, Paul chooses to find joy in that. Even in chains, he trusted that the Lord was with him and caring for him.
No matter what is happening in your life – no matter how bad it might seem – you have a God who loves you, a Savior who died for you, and a promise from our God to be with you always. Don’t look for your ability or desire to rejoice internally. Instead look up and look outward; look to God. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I had hoped that the heart of reality might be of such a kind that we can best symbolize joy as a place. Instead, I found it to be a Person.” And that’s why you and I can always rejoice. Because we are rejoicing in a person, Jesus Christ the Lord.
God’s blessings my friends and may the joy of the Lord be your strength!
“Such is the rejoicing of which Paul speaks—a rejoicing where there is no fear of death or hell, but rather a glad and all-powerful confidence in God and his kindness. Hence the expression, "Rejoice in the Lord"; not rejoice in silver or gold, not in eating or drinking, not in mechanical chanting, not in strength or health, not in skill or wisdom, not in power or honor, not in good works or holiness even. For these are deceptive joys, false joys, which never stir the depths of the heart. They are never even felt. When they are present we may well say the individual rejoices superficially. To rejoice in the Lord—to trust, confide, glory and have pride in the Lord as in a gracious Father—this is a joy which rejects all else but the Lord…” (Martin Luther)
Then Nehemiah… said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep. Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:9-10)
This past Monday, along with our church preschool staff, I went through first aid and CPR training. It had been many years since I had received any formal instruction, and though most of the direction and training has probably stayed the same, it was very necessary and beneficial for me to have a refresher course. I would hate to find myself in an emergency setting where I feel ill-prepared or hesitant to render help. But after a day of training, I can now quickly come to the rescue if someone starts choking on donuts during fellowship hour. In the event of any health crisis or accident, I am, at the very least, better equipped to act. God willing, I will never have to use any of the training. However, knowing that I have the necessary information and training, I feel confident that I can help provide the care to someone in danger without any pause.
What about Spiritual Care? When a crisis comes—and it will—how can we care for others? How can we come to their aid? Much like in physical situations, we want to be quick to react. No doubt. No hesitation. If we see someone hurting or suffering, we want to quickly take what we know and put it into action.
Have you ever observed a lifeguard rush to the aide of someone who stopped breathing? Aside from watching it on TV in the series Baywatch or the movie Sandlot, I haven’t seen it firsthand. But lifeguards leap immediately to action. They jump in and go right to life-giving measures such as CPR. The Bible says we are drowning in our sins (see Psalm 38:4), unable to overcome our guilt and shame. But we are not without a rescuer. Jesus dove right in—overcame our trouble by living, dying and rising again so that we might live again in Him. Today, He wants to breathe that life right into your hearts and minds and make you "wise for salvation," to make you sure you are truly ready to face the challenges that await you and make the most of the opportunities that are set before you, chances to give spiritual care to those around us. Knowing that we have been loved and redeemed in Christ, that we have been rescued by Him and are healed by His wounds, gives us all the necessary tools and information that we need to come to the spiritual aide of those around us.
The Apostle Paul says the Bible is God-breathed: that means it is already full of the power and presence of God, and when it enters your mind and heart through your eyes, through your ears, it's like God is performing spiritual CPR on your life. He is giving what you need to sustain you and help you preserver through the “emergencies” of this world. That's the picture Paul wants you to have for the Bible. The Bible is not so much a rule book or a book of principles and truths—though there are truths contained in it, for sure. The Bible ultimately is a book that is alive with the love, the grace, and the mercy of God for you. It is God-breathed so you can spiritually breathe again in Him. It is full of God's Spirit and life so that you can truly be alive by His Spirit. So, open the Bible, take a look. Who knows? It might be the breath of fresh air that you really need.
“O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” (Psalm 30:2)
Last Tuesday, I sat at a meeting with area clergy from the Mountain Lakes, Denville, Boonton, and Rockaway areas. The question was presented to us, “In what area of ministry do you feel most helpless?” One answer, which was echoed by everyone gathered, was the undeniable and frustrating apathy that the general population has towards the church. Across the denominational spectrum, numbers have dropped and pastors are discouraged. Many blamed the past pandemic. Certainly, a factor, but I don’t buy it for the present. It’s a convenient excuse more than anything. People will spend money, drive distances, and assemble in crowds without any hesitation when it comes to sporting events, concerts, birthday parties, and food festivals. People simply don’t care about the church. They’re too busy. They’re not interested. They’re chasing after their modern-day golden calves. Thousands of years ago, the prophet Jeremiah observed that the people he was sent to serve had also run away from God, “…Judgement will be upon their wickedness, who have forsaken [the Lord] and have burned incense unto other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands… My people, [says the Lord], have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (1:16, 2:13) Sadly, not much has changed. How can the church at large increase our impact if people don’t show up? How can we grow together and in our relationship with Jesus if we only sporadically spend time together? How can we advertise and sell a life-giving product to the outside world, if we are not using and rejoicing in it ourselves?
Recently, this math was shared with me to ponder in regard to church attendance. If a person came to church this year each Sunday (53 weeks) and then also for the midweek gatherings (9 hours total) and special services (5 hours) you would spend about 70 hours hearing God's Word, receiving Holy Communion, and singing His praises.
70 hours. Total. For the year.
Add 53 more hours if a person also wanted to attend a weekly Bible Study. Total for attending church and Bible study = 120 hours—for the entire year. Here are the numbers, on average in a year Americans spend (from the 2017 Bureau of Labor and Statistics Time Spent study):
None of those things are bad in and of themselves, yet seeing the numbers compared to one another might help you understand just how weekly church and Bible study attendance is really not a priority in the lives of most Americans. It is not that hard and does not take a huge chunk out of your life when compared to other things we so gladly do. If only the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh hated television like they do church attendance... right?
The church is not a club to join or group to belong to. It is not a place that can be found or duplicated by anyone else; it has not become irrelevant and will never become antiquated. The church continues to be the only “organization” that was instituted by God. It is the only community He sacrificed Himself for. God is the architect and builder of this temple. He is the founder and presider. For this reason, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the church in the eternal plan of God. The church is His building, His bride. It is where He shows up to grace, redeem, and grow His beloved people. Our heavenly Father, the Creator Himself, pledges that the church—that universal body of believers under Christ’s headship—will have a visible being and a testimony in this world as long as the world itself lasts. Do you remember this promise of Jesus? “… On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18) All the enemies of truth combined shall never secure the defeat or destruction of the church. We are on stable ground, a firm foundation.
Remember you are baptized. You are a member of His body, a part of His family. This is where your God invites you. This is where He promise to show up to meet you, to listen to your prayers, to comfort your sorrows.
This is where He forgives you.
This is where He feeds you.
Your pew is the sweet, Gospel reception spot.
Make the time. Come to church.
“Belonging to a church means investing your life in a gospel-centered community of believers who joyfully serve one another and advance Jesus’ mission together.” (Tony Merida)
“The church isn’t just a particular building or congregation, but the spiritual fellowship of all who belong to Jesus Christ.” (Billy Graham)
“If Church history teaches us anything, it is that we cannot afford to be a vacillating Church. We minister to a people who are in great need of hearing truth; we dare not make any attempt to soft pedal that glorious truth.” (Martin Luther)
My daughter made the middle school field hockey team. In our town, this is only the middle school team’s second year of existence and my daughter's first time ever playing it. Nearly the entire team of girls are brand-spanking new to the sport. Prior moving back east to New Jersey, we had no real familiarity at all with the sport. Forced by dad to try something new, she made the team and we now have one more thing in our busy fall schedule.
This past Tuesday was her first game, so I traveled over to Pequannock in between work and a church council meeting to watch it. It was fun to see the excitement and energy of the girls—Carolina blue jerseys, flashy mouthguards, and colorful field hockey sticks in hand. After only a short week of practice, they were ready to go. They were bouncing up and down on the sideline, shrieking and cheering each other on. But I have to be honest, I had no idea what was happening. Granted, I do understand the basic concept; hit the ball into the other team’s net. However, that is where my knowledge of field hockey comes to an abrupt and embarrassing end. The best I could surmise is that if hockey and soccer had a baby, it would be field hockey. There appeared to be nuances and rules from each sport playing out on the bumpy, high-grass field. Fortunately, I could tell by the chatter of fellow parents on the sidelines, I wasn’t alone. We often had questions. Many times during the game, the whistle would blow, and the two referees would, in some arm motion toward each other, signal an infraction or penalty. Don’t ask me what it was or when it happened. I still have no clue. Before her second game tomorrow, I will have to find a “Field Hockey for Dummies” video on YouTube. It was fun to watch her out there, but it is tough to fully enjoy the game when you’re not sure what’s going on.
This experience gave me flashbacks to days when my son and I would play a card game of Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh. No matter how many times I would read the instructions or the information on the cards, I had no idea what was happening. Despite his best efforts to explain the strategy of the game, it still made little sense to me. I would be winning one minute and getting whooped the next. Just when I thought I started to get things figured out, my son would inform me of some rule that would prevent me from utilizing a certain card or attack mode. On the cusp of what I through was about to be a victorious move, I would quickly find myself defeated and sent tail-spinning back to a state of frustrated cluelessness. Yes indeed, it is tough to enjoy the game when you’re not sure what’s going on.
Sometimes life can feel this way.
Out of control. Frustrating. Chaotic.
Confusing. Peppered with penalties.
Exacerbated, we throw up our hands and exclaim, "What is going on here?"
But it shouldn’t surprise us.
Jesus tells us, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth, you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) There will be so many times in life when we feel like we’re playing a game without knowing the rules. Things will happen that will leave us shocked. Events will take place that will leave us scratching our heads. The good word of Jesus is that no matter the confusion of “the game,” He will always be taking care of us, always watching out for us. Trials and temptations will continue to come; but we put our faith and trust in the One who is bigger than them all. This coming Sunday, you’ll hear this reading from Isaiah 55:8-9, which tell us to trust in the One who is all-knowing and all-powerful. Every challenge and crisis, or “trial and sorrow” that comes your way provides the opportunity for us to confidently trust God more deeply. The Psalmist knew this when he declared, “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.” (Psalm 18:32)
“Winning in the game of life can only be assured if we trust God as the Mastermind.” (unknown)
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Pastor Steve Vera