Press On

The year 2020 will be known as the year a tiny mighty virus took over the world. Most of us will not be sorry when the year ends at midnight, December 31. We are limping into the end of 2020, isolated by Covid19, grieving losses of loved ones and friends, separated from our normal gatherings having experienced unbelievable sadness, great loss and profound change. It has been a long, strange, and difficult year.

However, as we enter a new decade, let us take courage and do what we can. Paul wrote, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me” (Philippians 3:14). We too need to press on—continue moving forward in a determined way, regardless of the discouragements around us.

So, what should we do after the darkness of 2020?

First, let’s not doubt in the darkness what God has promised in the light. God’s Word is true whether things are happy or dreary, encouraging or deplorable. God does not change, and neither do His promises. The 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, declared, “I would sooner walk in the dark and hold hard to a promise of God, than to trust in the light of the brightest day that ever dawned.”

Also, most of our forefathers have had it much worse. Ted Bauer, editor of White Rock Locators, wrote: “It’s a mess out there now. But for some perspective at this moment, imagine you were born in 1900. On your 14th birthday, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday. Later that year the Spanish Flu hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday, and 50 million people die from it in those two years. On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%, and that lasts until you are 33. Around your 39th birthday, World War II starts, and from then until your 45th birthday, 75 million people perish in the war. Smallpox was epidemic until you were in your 40’s, and it killed 300 million people during your lifetime. At 50, the Korean War starts and 5 million perish. At 55 the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. Four million people perish in that conflict.”

Bauer ends his blog with this: “Think of everyone on the planet born in 1900. How did they endure all of that? When you were a kid in 1985, you didn’t think your 85-year-old grandparent understood how hard school was. Or, he didn’t get how mean that kid in your class was. Yet your grandparents survived through everything listed above. Perspective is an amazing art. Refined and enlightening as time goes on. Let’s try and keep things in perspective. Your parents and grandparents were called to endure all of the above—and you are called to stay home and sit on your couch.” (www.WhiteRockLocators.com).  

Additionally, Christians need to remember: If you are living and breathing, God has a plan for your life. For believers in Christ, when life is over for us here, we will go to meet the Lord in heaven and as future believers, will “rest from their labors” (Revelation 14:13). But until your last “Goodbye”—God wants you to serve Him. There is a purpose for your life as long as you have breath. Jesus said, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4). So, if you survived 2020—Get busy serving the Lord! He is still working on, in and through you!

The psalmist Asaph must have faced similar problems when he wrote, “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; In the night my hand was stretched out without weariness; My soul refused to be comforted” (Psalm 77:2). What follows are several ways Asaph dealt with his troubles, which may help us. When facing dark days, what can encourage you?

1. Remember God’s Wonders—“I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old” (Psalm 77:11).

When Asaph remembered God’s wonders, His creation, His handiwork, and all the things God had done in the past, it encouraged him. The beauty of God’s creation, its vastness and majesty, helps put our small problems into proper perspective. Stop and remember what God has done.

2. Meditate on God’s Character—“I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God?” (verses 12-13).

To meditate is to turn a truth over and over, as you consider it from every angle. Asaph quietly focused his thinking on God, His work, His deeds and His ways. In the midst of trials, don’t forget the holy, sinless, perfect character of the God you serve.

3. Consider God’s Power—“You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples” (verse 14).

When overwhelmed and overpowered by negative news or outright assaults, consider the power of the God you serve. He is the God who works wonders. He is all-powerful. When overcome by the storm, call on Him who can still the storm with a spoken word.

4. Trust in God’s Redemption—“You have by Your power redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph” (verse 15).               

In the midst of trials, trust in the One who redeemed you. God gave His Son for your salvation and redemption from sin. This truth drove Paul to write, “If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us” (Romans 8:31-34, NLT). So, my friend, press on.

The Arrival

The arrival of most babies is the culmination of nine months of preparation, planning and anxiety. When the time arrives for the baby to be born, it will happen—ready or not. Our first child was born 2 weeks late, according to our reckoning. Pat and I were most anxious, having never trodden this path before. So, she quizzed our OB doctor pointedly about the delay in Daren’s birth. Doctor Grizzel was a seasoned veteran of thousands of pregnancies and deliveries, and his answer to her was simple. He said, “Ripe fruit falls from the tree.” Of course, he was exactly right, and it wasn’t long before we carried a baby home from the hospital.

When Jesus was born, it was the culmination of God’s plan from before the creation of the universe. Peter wrote that Christ was “foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20). His appearance in human form came that significant night in Bethlehem—the first Christmas.

The arrival of the King of kings and Lord of lords was surrounded by several unusual events. All these came together in one glorious night like no other.

1. His Arrival was Directed by Unusual Circumstances

The prophecy of Micah (5:2) stated the Messiah’s birthplace was to be Bethlehem in Judah, but Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth in Galilee. If Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, something had to happen to cause Mary and Joseph to be there at just the right time. That “something” that allowed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem was a world-wide decree from Caesar Augustus, “that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth….And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city” (Luke 2:1, 3).  Joseph had to return “to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary” (verses 4 & 5).

That Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was well known because some of the Lord’s critics pointed out: “Has not the Scripture said that Christ comes from the descendants of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” (John 7:42). The 90-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been torture for Mary, who was “great with child” (Luke 2:5).

2. His Arrival was Surrounded by Extreme Poverty

When God the Son became the Son of God by human birth, it fulfilled several Old Testament predictions. Isaiah had prophesied that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).  Matthew records this verse and adds, “Immanuel, which translated means, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:21). When Jesus was born, God came literally in human form. Isaiah also prophesied: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isa. 9:6). The Messiah would be a child born and a son given, who would later rule the world.

However glorious the future would be, the birth of Jesus was surrounded by extreme poverty. Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger.” The King who should have been clothed in linen was wrapped in pieces of cloth. The One who sat on a throne was laid in a cattle trough. The very One who made man, was neglected by man, “for there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

Jesus was surrounded by poverty, so He could later share His riches: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you, through His poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  

3. His Arrival was Accompanied by Unparalleled Glory

Unusual circumstances and extreme poverty could not dampen the unparalleled glory of heaven at the Savior’s birth. The arrival of the Lord of Glory, the Messiah of God, the King of all, was accompanied by the unimaginable glory of an angelic host. As the angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, “the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened”(Luke 2:9).

Then, “suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased’” (verses 13-14). Their visit with the newborn Child, and the glory of the Lord with the multitude of heavenly angels caused the shepherds to go home “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen” (verse 20).

4. His Arrival was the Fulfillment of an Eternal Promise

The birth of Jesus fulfilled God’s promise to provide a Savior for fallen mankind. In the Garden of Eden God promised One would defeat the devil. God told Satan that a “seed” (descendant) from the woman “shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Jesus won this victory on the cross when He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He claimed this conquest the night before when He said, “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:31-32).                                                                       

The attending angel declared “good news of great joy which will be for all people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). God’s promise of salvation came in the form of a baby lying in a manger that Christmas day.

Because of Christ’s coming, life, death and resurrection, salvation is proclaimed in His name for all people in all places. We can be redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ” because “God chose Him for this purpose long before the world began, but now in these final days, He was sent to the earth for all to see. And He did this for you” (1 Peter 1:20 NLT).  

The Announcement

Announcements of the upcoming birth of babies are exciting. I will never forget the surprise announcement of the expected birth of our first grandchild. We, and our daughter-in-law’s parents and some friends enjoyed a great meal in a restaurant. Following the meal Jenny handed Pat and her mom, Paula, a gift. Both ladies tore the wrapping away and stared at a book entitled, “101 Ways to Spoil Your Grandchild.” Jenny’s sheepish grin and Mark’s broad smile told the story—They were going to have a baby! We were going to be grandparents!

There is something thrilling about an impending birth. Childbirth is an amazing event. The birth of a baby is both exhilarating and mortifying. To be there when that breath is taken, the cry comes forth, and that little one begins to move is simply awesome. Then to hold that newborn in your arms is beyond description.

In last week’s devotional, The Anticipation, we learned that some people had been anxiously waiting for the Messiah to be born. Four hundred years of silence had followed the death of God’s last prophet, Malachi. During these four centuries Israel had fallen under the domination of Persia, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, and then Rome.

The coming of Jesus was right on schedule according to God’s plan. The Bible tells about the most unique conception and birth of the one-and-only God-Man in the history of humanity—Jesus! There were three things that make His Birth Announcement the most amazing of all:

1. The Angelic Mission….”the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee” Luke 1:26

During the “sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, before she gave birth to John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel came to Mary with a message. This angel seems to be one appointed to carry messages from God to people on earth. Over 500 years before, Gabriel revealed to the prophet Daniel, God’s plan for Messiah’s birth (Dan. 9:20-27). The angel Gabriel was the one who brought word to Zacharias about the future birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:19). Now, six months later, Gabriel is dispatched to northern Galilee with a message from God for this young woman.

The angel’s mission originated with God, for he “was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth.” The heavenly message was “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph” (verse 27). This chosen mother of the Lord Jesus had to be a virgin because of morality, but much more; because it was prophesied: “Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14). The Savior had to be virgin born because He would be “Immanuel,” or “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The Child born to Mary would be God’s “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

2. The Astounding Message…”you will conceive in your womb and bear…Jesus” Luke 1:31

 Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s announcement was understandable as, “she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept wondering what kind of salutation this was” (verse 29). The angel announced that Mary had found favor with God and would bear a son, “and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (verses 31-32). The name “Jesus” in Hebrew means “Savior” and that is what He was. “You shall call his name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

3. The Awesome Miracle… “the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” Luke 1:35

For one man to be the Savior of the world required one special birth—one unique Man—and one exclusive sacrifice—and that is what Christmas is all about. Virgin women do not give birth to children, so Christ’s birth required an exceptional miracle for all ages. Mary’s conception was a result of divine, not human, action. Gabriel explained: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (verse 35). Mary must have looked dumbfounded, because the angel reminded her: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (verse 37).

This miracle—the virgin birth of Christ—receives the harshest criticism of any doctrine of Christianity. Even among believers, there are doubters. In a fairly recent survey of protestant students of theology (people who become pastors and missionaries), 56% rejected the truth of the virgin birth of Christ. The reason for such unbelief is that it is humanly impossible—but there is no doctrine more essential in God’s plan. If there is no virgin birth, there is no one qualified to be Savior. The only One who can bear the sins of people is the One who had no sin, in His nature or practice; the only natural born son of God!

So, why is the virgin birth of Christ so important? Three Reasons:

First: Because Jesus had to be like us: “Therefore He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Jesus could die for our sins because, with Mary as His mother, He was a human being. A human had to pay the price for humans.

Second: Because Jesus had to be unlike us: “For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). Our Savior had to be human—yet sinless—hence divine (Heb. 4:15).

Third: Because Jesus had to die for us. The Lord’s birth made Him one of us—His virgin birth made Him sinless—so He could sacrifice Himself for sinners: “Who does not need daily to offer up sacrifices, first for his own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:27).

Christmas is special because of The Anticipation…The Announcement… and next: The Arrival!

The Anticipation

As a child, my anticipation for Christmas grew from Thanksgiving until December 25. I focused on gifts, parties, family gatherings, food and fun—but rarely on Jesus. I knew Christmas was about the Christ-child, but somehow, He always fell behind the tinsel and trinkets.   

What are you anticipating this Christmas? Around the time of the Lord’s birth, people were not anticipating Christmas at all, but a few were looking for the Messiah (Christ) to be born.

Who anticipated the coming of Christ?

Bible scholars may have anticipated the coming of Christ. Around 600 BC, the prophet Daniel, wrote out an event sequence revealing the time for the coming of Messiah: “From the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks…Then after sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off, but not for himself” (Daniel 9:25, 26). Everyone knew the degree by Artaxerxes to rebuild Jerusalem was in 445 BC (Nehemiah 2). In calculating the time, Daniel referred to weeks of years, not weeks of days, so 69 times 7 would be 483 years. When you take 483 years and subtract 445 BC (year of the decree) it equals AD 38—the year the Messiah was cut off on the cross. Daniel said the Messiah would be cut off, “not for Himself,” but for all of us.

The Magi, or Wise Men from the East knew about when the King of the Jews would be born. They came to King Herod and asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). The wise men had probably learned the time frame, and the appearance of the star, from the legacy of Daniel in Persia; so, they journeyed to Jerusalem, to worship the newborn Messiah.

Others who anticipated His coming were the priest, Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel revealed they would have a son, John the Baptist, and a few months later, Jesus would be born. The angel said: “he [John] will go as a forerunner before Him [Christ] in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).

There was another unlikely couple in Jerusalem who anticipated Christ’s arrival. Simeon and Anna were senior citizens who ministered daily in the temple. Luke 2:21-38 reveals Simeon was a “righteous and devout” man, who was “looking for the consolation of Israel” (verse 25)—anticipating the promised comfort of Messiah. God picked Simeon to see, hold and bless Jesus, for “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (verse 26). The other senior saint was Anna, an 84-year-old prophetess, a widow from the tribe of Asher who “never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers” (verse 37).

What are you looking for when you consider the birth of Christ? What did Christmas bring to the world that could be found nowhere else? In Jesus, Simeon and Anna saw three things we need:

1. In Jesus They Saw God’s Comforter…”looking for the consolation of Israel” v. 25.

Simeon was waiting for the “consolation” or the comfort that would only be brought to Israel through the long-awaited Messiah. Most Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah promised He would bring peace, victory and comfort to His people.

However, Jesus came to bring more than temporary comfort, He came to bring everlasting peace. He brings comfort like no other, as Hebrews 4:15-16 reads: “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Because Jesus came, He can comfort us in all our sorrows.

2. In Jesus They Saw God’s Messiah…”before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” v. 26

Simeon’s special visit by the Holy Spirit revealed he would see the Christ—the long awaited Messiah, before he died. The word “Christ” is Greek and means anointed, while the word “Messiah” is the Hebrew word for anointed.

For hundreds of years God had promised the “Anointed One” of God would come to bring salvation, peace, comfort and freedom to this sin-saturated world. Through God’s plan, Jesus was rejected and died a sacrifice for all sin, to provide eternal life for all people who will believe in Him. When Jesus came, the Messiah came – and we celebrate His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and soon return. Jesus is “the Lord’s Christ.”

3. In Jesus They Saw God’s Salvation… “my eyes have seen your salvation” v. 30

When Simeon looked at baby Jesus, he saw God’s Savior – but he used a word larger than Savior – He saw in that little baby the salvation for all mankind. It’s true Jesus is the Savior – but He is our Salvation as well.

Before His birth, the angel said, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). We celebrate the coming of Christ at Christmas because “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Jesus is both Savior and Salvation. Neither savior nor salvation is found in any other place or in any other person. “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow…and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

On that night, in the dirty stable where Jesus was born, the comfort, salvation and light of the world came forth to offer the only solution to man’s sin and failure. Most missed the meaning of His coming then, but we can clearly see the purpose of His coming now. Accept His gift of salvation and daily live in His hope of life. Let’s truly celebrate His coming this Christmas!

Blessed are the Merciful

James Edward Oglethorpe was a general in the British Army and became a member of their Parliament in 1722. While there, he presided over a committee that brought much needed prison reforms to England. His experience gave him the idea of founding a new colony in North America where the poor and destitute could start fresh, and where religious freedom was allowed. So, in 1733 he secured the charter for a new colony, and came to North America. Oglethorpe founded the town of Savannah, in what is now the state of Georgia, where he later served as governor.               

General Oglethorpe was a very strict and disciplined man. On one occasion, the Methodist preacher, John Wesley, visited him. During their discussion the general mentioned an incident involving a man who had so angered him. Oglethorpe said, “I shall never forgive him. I never forgive and I never forget—“ to which Wesley quickly replied: “Then I hope, sir, you never sin!”

Evidently, Wesley recalled the Lord’s 5th Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Jesus meant that people who are merciful and forgiving, will be treated with mercy and forgiveness.

Mercy is the inward feeling of compassion at the suffering or misery of another. It touches the heart, enabling the merciful one to feel sympathy for the suffering one. The merciful will compassionately move to relieve the affliction of the sufferer.

The concept of mercy fills Scripture from the Garden of Eden, where God provided for the sinful first pair (Genesis 3:21), to the last chapter in the Bible, where God invites all to “come…take the water of life without cost” (Revelation 22:17). God is a God of mercy that, for us, results in forgiveness, pardon, and soul salvation. He says, “For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). Even the prodigal prophet knew God was merciful, for he wrote, “You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

Since God is merciful to His people, He expects His people to be merciful with others. The recipient of unlimited mercy should become the dispenser of extravagant mercy. Christians compassionately forgive others because God has leniently forgiven them. Believers are to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” as they “bear with one another and forgive each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone: just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Colossians 3:12, 13).

Mercy is an integral part of the Christian life and character. Second century preacher, John Chrysostom said: “Mercy imitates God and disappoints Satan.”

Jesus promised happiness or blessedness to all who are merciful. So, what does that look like in life?

The Meaning of Mercy

Mercy was a rare commodity in Jesus’ day. Among the religious, Pharisees were often judgmental and rarely merciful. In society, most viewed acts of mercy as signs of weakness. One popular Roman philosopher called mercy the “disease of the soul.”

However, Jesus was the perfect example of mercy fleshed-out. He constantly reached out to heal the sick, restore hearing and sight, and even raised the dead to life. Hated tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners felt welcome with Him and found in Him full forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is described as a “merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God” so He could make perfect “reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful,” He was portraying His followers as givers, not takers. True disciples of Christ are merciful—not critical. They are concerned about feeding the hungry, comforting the bereaved, accepting the rejected, forgiving the offender, and standing beside the lonely. And above all, God promises blessing to the merciful.

The Practice of Mercy

In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, he quotes Jesus commanding His followers to, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). It is not enough to feel sympathy or compassion for others, Christians must show mercy, through outward, physical actions.

James brings this truth home by writing: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15, 16).

The words of John are even more convicting: “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17, 18).

Jesus plainly taught His followers to practice mercy when He gave the parable of the Good Samaritan. Of all who passed by the man in need on the Jericho Road, it was the despised Samaritan who was a true “neighbor” and manifested compassion in mercy (Luke 10:25-37).

The Results of Mercy

Not all who have received mercy show mercy to others. But this lack of response carries a high price: “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Jesus taught this truth in the parable of the unmerciful debtor (Matthew 18:23-35). Though the master of a slave graciously forgave his enormous debt, the pardoned slave showed no mercy as he demanded a small debt be repaid from a fellow slave. The debt of the unmerciful slave was reinstated.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful…for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Because we have received mercy—we should show mercy to others. When we do, we are blessed: “The merciful man does good to his own soul” (Proverbs 11:17).

Salvation and heaven itself is a result of God’s mercy. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5). As we rejoice in accepting God’s mercy—let us be quick to forgive and dispense mercy to any who sin against us, because: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Magnify God with Thanksgiving!

In 1609 the Italian scientist Galileo used a new invention called a telescope to become the first man to see craters on the moon. His telescope used glass lenses to magnify objects up to 30 times larger than could be seen with the naked eye. Around the same time, Hans Lippershey, a German spectacle-maker, invented binoculars, two similar telescopes, one for each eye, mounted on a single frame. Rightly enough, Hans called his new invention a “looker.”

Though not many of us are astronomers, advancements of the same technology produce riflescopes that enhance our aim and binoculars that improve our ability to peer deep into the woods, in search of that big buck deer. Of course, lens magnification does not change the size of the object; it just enlarges our view of the object. The binocular makes things appear larger to the viewer, revealing details that were previously hidden.

So, when we magnify God, the thing that is changed is our view, understanding, love and appreciation of Him. We know from Scripture that He is the same—He doesn’t change. He is perfect—He doesn’t need to improve. He is complete—He needs nothing else. But when we magnify Him, our perspective of Him—our view of Him—is enhanced and enlarged. As we focus more closely on who He is, what He is like, what He has done, and what He plans to do, our appreciation of Him is enriched. Our view of Him is expanded. And, our lives will be blessed if we magnify the Lord—“O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together” (Psalm 34:3). The more we learn of Him, the more precious the Lord will become in our lives.

One way we magnify God is by giving genuine thanks to Him. The psalmist David wrote, “I will praise the name of God with song, and magnify Him with thanksgiving. And it will please the LORD better than an ox or a young bull with horns and hoofs” (Psalm 69:30, 31). One prescribed way to magnify God is to give private and corporate thanks to Him. Offering God sincere thanks glorifies Him, and displays the work and person of God. These verses teach that when His people practice genuine thanksgiving, it magnifies God far better than giving offerings. God prefers your praise and gratitude to your money and sacrifice.

This practice of praise, appreciation and thanksgiving to God ought to be continual. The Lord is so worthy that thanks should never cease to be expressed from our hearts and lips, no matter what circumstances we face. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians that, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Do you want to do God’s will? Begin by being grateful and thankful all the time.

As you observe Thanksgiving this week, why not stop and count your blessings?

The first American Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 came about because the Pilgrims desired to specifically thank God for His bounty and care of them. Their first winter in America had been harsh, resulting in the death of almost half the settlers at Plymouth Rock. But the following spring and summer, they saw a bountiful harvest. Quite naturally, those God-fearing people declared a special holy day with a season of thanksgiving to God. There was no menu of deep-fried turkey at their feast, but they had plenty of venison, corn and vegetables for their three-day celebration.

The Pilgrims set a pattern by celebrating Thanksgiving after the fall harvest that continued through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is still practiced today.

One hundred and sixty-eight years after the first Thanksgiving, President George Washington signed a proclamation on October 3, 1789, that read in part:

   “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor …we recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God ….That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks.”

Most of us have a tendency to seek God in humility and thanksgiving only after difficult times come our way. That was true with the Pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving. It was true of Jonah, who cried to God from the belly of the great fish, “I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving” (Jonah 2:9). And it may be true of you as well. Offering thanks to God is the right response to tough times. But we do not have to wait for catastrophe to offer praise. We can always glorify Him—no matter what!

During Thanksgiving this year, be sure to remember God and His abundant blessing and protection, and thank Him for it. As your family or friends gather around your table Thursday or Friday, why not stop, hold hands, and offer a public prayer of gratitude to your God, Creator and Savior? Your family will be blessed, God will be praised, and you will be glad. That is what Thanksgiving is about!

Let’s follow the Psalmist’s encouragement to, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, and bless His name. For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:4, 5).

I pray that your Thanksgiving celebration honors your Lord, strengthens your faith, blesses your family and energizes your service to Him. Remember: It magnifies God when we give Him thanks!  Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy are the Hungry

It is not a blessing to be physically hungry. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pronounced blessing or happiness on everyone who was spiritually hungry, longing for a holy life. He said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

To hunger or thirst physically for something and have it filled, brings joy. Did you ever get so thirsty you would give almost anything for a drink of water? In the mid-1990’s, before bottled water became prevalent, my wife, Pat, and I spent a week in the hot and humid jungles of the southern Philippines. I was preaching at different mission sites in various places on the interior of the island of Mindanao, and people treated us graciously, but we could not drink the water. We learned to love Coca Cola, which all the missionaries and villagers supplied, but it could not satisfy like water. During that dry week, I dreamed of drinking glass after glass of cold, clean, Monticello water, at our home.

In this Best Sermon Ever Preached, Jesus used metaphors to enhance the meaning of His message. He pronounced blessing on the poor in spirit, those who recognized their spiritual poverty, and consciously depended on God and not themselves; He said those who mourned, recognizing their needs and presenting them to the One who could assist, would be happy; Then He promised those who were meek, humble and gentle that they would inherit the earth.

In this fourth installment of blessings in the upside down kingdom, Jesus confirmed that everyone who hungered—longed—for true righteousness and holiness would be satisfied with what He supplied. Since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, bringing sin and its contamination to humanity—pure holiness, complete righteousness and untainted goodness had only been found in one person, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only One “who committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22).

Though we lack purity because of our sin nature, something within us longs for it. In quiet, reflective moments, most yearn to be totally clean from the filth of sinful thoughts and wrongful deeds. Jesus pronounced blessing on people who have such longing. He taught that our deepest ambition should be to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).

The desire to be holy and righteous may wrongly lead one to seek self-righteousness. Even at our best, we are still sinners, separated from a sinless God. None of us can ever live good enough to earn eternal life or a home in heaven. Isaiah wrote, “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities like the wind, have taken us away” (64:6). The Bible is conclusive when it states, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Our God-given desire to have true righteousness should lead us to Christ and His salvation by God’s grace. The kind of righteousness that pleases God is the sinless life Jesus lived. This righteousness is available as a gift from our God, not as a payment for our work. Paul wrote, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but by His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5). In fact, it is “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).

The beautiful balanced symmetry of God’s plan comes to fruition when His children are made righteous by grace through faith, then live righteously by His grace in their lives. After receiving Christ as Savior, believers are commanded to “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:13-14). Because Jesus is Lord of your life, you are to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts” (Romans 6:11, 12).

This means believers in Christ should continue hungering and thirsting for practical righteousness and true holiness in their lives. When Jesus saves your soul, cleanses your life, and continually convicts and guides by His Holy Spirit, your life will be filled and fruitful. Our part is to seek Him—His part is to satisfy our souls. If we do our part—He will do His! We know that, “He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good” (Psalm 107:9)

Jesus Promises: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). This is true because, “He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). As you accept His sacrifice for your sin and trust Him to save you, He will satisfy your hunger and quench your thirst with full satisfaction—forever.

Thank You, VETERAN!

Henry Gunther is a name unfamiliar to most of us. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1895, a grandson of German immigrants. Sergeant Gunther served in the 313th Regiment where he was part of the American Expeditionary Force during World War 1. In the midst of a battle in the Lorraine region of France, he was killed in action at 10:59 a.m. on November 11, 1918. Significantly, the armistice, bringing an end to hostilities, was signed in Campeiegne, France, one minute later. German soldiers, who were aware that the armistice would take effect at 11:00, tried to wave Henry off, but he kept running toward them, his gun ablaze. The Army posthumously awarded him a Citation for Gallantry in Action and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1923 his remains were exhumed from a military cemetery in France and placed in the Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore. Henry Gunther was the last American killed in World War I.

 Veterans Day, observed annually on November 11, began as Armistice Day – celebrating the ceasefire, which brought an end to that war’s hostilities. That agreement was signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The formal peace agreement signed later is known as the Treaty of Versailles.  

On the same day one year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” On that day, soldiers who survived the war marched in parades and were honored by ceremonies recognizing their contribution. Years later, in 1954, Congress changed the word “Armistice” to “Veterans.” So, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans, wherever and whenever they had served.    

In 2016 the Census Bureau reported there were 18.6 million American veterans, 5.6 million of them having served since the first Gulf War. All Americans should regularly be thankful and express appreciation to our veterans. But on Veteran’s Day, we should honor them in special ways. So, what can we do to honor those who have served our country? According to the Military.com website, we can:

FIRST: Show up. Attend a Veteran’s Day event in your area.

SECOND: Raise a Flag. Remind others that this is a day to honor all who have served.

THIRD: Donate. There are many organizations dedicated to helping veterans. An average of one in five veterans since the First Gulf War suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and need extra attention.

FOURTH: Contact. Get to know a veteran in your church or neighborhood. Ask about his or her military service. Write a veteran, offering words of appreciation and encouragement. Thank them for their service.

FIFTH: Pray. Ask God to bless our veterans and active duty military personnel and their families. As they say: Freedom is fragile-Handle with prayer!

Because of the sacrifice of our veterans, we enjoy tremendous freedom as citizens of the United States. But our liberty has been bought by blood and sacrifice. Patrick Henry, expressed the sentiments of many brave American heroes, when, on March 23, 1775, he said: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” We must never forget the cost of our freedom, or fail to appreciate those who have paid it.

On Veteran’s Day in America, we celebrate the courage and sacrifice of our military veterans. We thank our living veterans and remember the fallen ones. We thank God for the brave who have fought, and continue to stand, so courageously, for our nation. We are thankful for the freedom their sacrifice has secured for us. We are free to worship; free to pray; free to speak; free to live in peace every day; because of their devotion and continual diligence.

This day also reminds us to thank our Heavenly Father for His great sacrifice by sending His one and only Son, to seek and save those who are lost in sin. The worst bondage is spiritual, not physical—likewise the greatest freedom is spiritual, not physical, as great as that is. Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Jesus died in our place to take away our sins. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). He said: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We must never take His sacrifice for granted. In the future, we will celebrate this victory Jesus achieved on our behalf, “when this perishable and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). And that life God gives, through Christ, will last forever!

So, raise Old Glory up the flagpole, thank God for salvation and the freedoms we enjoy, and pray for the veterans who have served our nation, and for those who daily put themselves in harm’s way for our sakes.

Happy are the Humble

Years ago in seminary, a friend and I were discussing characteristics we needed in pastoral ministry. He confidently confessed: “Well, I am just not the humble type.” I knew he was partially joking, but also realized pride would be a problem in a ministry aimed at serving others. Besides that, a lack of humility would hinder anyone from receiving the promise of the third beatitude: “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5).  

In the greatest sermon of all time, the Lord Jesus promised blessings to believers who practiced particular characteristics. He meant them to be aims for His followers. Those who acknowledged their spiritual poverty would receive His Kingdom (Matt. 5:3)—Everyone who endured sadness and loss would be comforted (Matt. 5:4)—Then He says everyone who is humble, not assertive, demanding or pushy, will inherit the whole earth (Matt. 5:5). Each of these goals is just the opposite of our natural inclination. The Beatitudes confront the proud, arrogant and self-righteous—But pronounce blessing on the meek, unpretentious and humble.

It must have shocked His hearers when Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). A person who was meek showed gentleness, humility and consideration of others. Meek people were never pushy or demanding, but easy going and kind. Some, including the Romans and Greeks of Jesus’ day, considered meekness a weakness to be avoided, but Jesus said it was a virtue to be desired. Meekness is not weakness; in fact it is just the opposite. People who humble themselves before God and others—who seek ways to elevate those around them—who are gentle in response to harshness—show the greater strength. In this verse Jesus quotes from Psalm 37:11, “But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

The meek are not inheriting the earth in our day. But when Jesus returns in the future, sets up His kingdom and reigns on this earth, the meek and gentle, humble and kind, will be the ones who inherit the earth, and lead in His monarchy. Someone rightly called this the upside-down kingdom.

In our world, mostly the ruthless are the leaders. In many occupations, the demanding tyrant usually gets his way, assertively climbing the corporate ladder. But Jesus said it would not be so in the future. The Lord rewards meekness and humility. Jesus said, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). In His kingdom, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). This is true because “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

This concept of blessing on the meek was not new. The characteristic of humility with strength is prevalent among Bible heroes. The great leader, Moses, was “very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). King David wrote, “He leads the humble in justice, and He teaches the humble His way” (Psalm 25:9). Paul included the characteristic of meekness, in those qualities that were to define the Christian life: “Walk worthy of the Lord with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). He urged the Colossians to “Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

If you doubt the great value of humility, just listen to the Lord’s call: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus, our Master calls himself “meek and lowly in heart.”

Meekness is so important they are included in the fruit the Holy Spirit produces in your life, as you follow Him. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

The rewards of meekness are both present and future. Jesus said, the meek shall inherit the earth. Humility and gentleness are not always rewarded here, but sometimes are mocked and ignored. Matthew Henry wrote “Meekness, however ridiculed and run down, has a real tendency to promote our health, wealth, comfort, and safety, even in this world. The meek and quiet are observed to live the easiest lives, compared with the forward and turbulent. All the blessedness of heaven above, and all the blessings of earth beneath, is the portion of the meek.” There is great promise in the command to “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:10).

If these things are true, and they are, then…happy are the humble! God’s will for each of us is: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). With this in mind, he continues: “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (verse 6).

These Beatitudes present goals for every child of God. We must recognize our spiritual poverty, admit we need God’s comfort in our loss, and humble ourselves before Him as we seek to serve Him and others. None can be achieved on our own. It is only as we seek Him, receive Him, love and follow Him, that we will enjoy His wonderful blessings. But when we do, what promise He gives! “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

Happy are the Sad

What? Happy are the sad? Blessed are the hurting? Isn’t that a contradiction?

It’s not a paradox when we realize that times of sadness are inevitable; they come to all people in time. None are exempt from sorrow, mourning and loss—Not the good or bad. Not the rich or poor. Not the pastor in the pulpit or the parishioner in the pew. Times of difficulty, pain and grief will come to us all.  

In the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached, Jesus assured His followers that sadness could be followed by joy; weakness could be overcome by strength. He said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). In this section of the sermon called the “Beatitudes,” Jesus reveals how to deal with things like poverty, sorrow and persecution, as a Christian.

How do you respond to deep troubles? David revealed his attitude, and reflected mine, when he wrote, “O that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest. Behold, I would wander far away, I would lodge in the wilderness. I would hasten to my place of refuge, from the stormy wind and tempest” (Psalm 55:6-8). As much as we may desire to flee sorrow and disappointments, they are usually waiting for us when we return.

When someone says, as Jesus did, “Happy are the sad,” that goes contrary to everything we know in life. The whole structure of our lives is about seeking pleasure, amusement, entertainment, fulfillment, fun and happiness. And, in seeking these things we avoid pain, sorrow and mourning as much as possible. So, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Happy or blessed are they that mourn”? Why did He connect two diverse concepts?  

Whether things bring us joy or sorrow is often based on our maturity. A baby will laugh when you play “peek-a-boo” and cry when you take his toy. He may be playing with something deadly, yet scream when you take it away. Why? Because he is immature, doesn’t understand danger, and only wants what he wants. Too many times, we are exactly like that.

This beatitude—creates two questions that must be answered:

ONE: What Causes Us to Mourn?  “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4a).

People are caused to mourn because of a natural sorrow—the kind that comes to every person in every place. Since Adam sinned, sickness, disease, disasters, crime, murder and death have become part of the human equation. Probably the saddest funeral on record was the one attended by Adam and Eve after their son Cain slew his own brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-10). Adam and Eve knew this sorrow was the result of their own sinfulness.

Sorrow, loss, disappointment, disillusionment, sickness, and pain are natural causes of mourning, but there is also a supernatural sorrow, for the cause behind the pain: sin itself. Paul wrote the Corinthians, “I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance…for the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:9, 10). Paul corrected the church for error, which made them sorrowful, but led to their repentance and restoration. That is sweet sorrow with good results.

TWO: How Does God Bring Comfort? “For they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4b)

Jesus told His followers that the mourners would be blessed because of God’s comfort. Our English word “comfort” finds its origin in two Latin words, meaning, “with strength.” When mourners are comforted, they are strengthened. So, what is the source of this comfort?

First, the God of the Bible is “the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). His attitude toward us is not of hostility but of love and encouragement. God is “for us” not against us (Romans 8:31); His Holy Spirit intercedes for us (verse 26); He gave up His Son for us (verse 32); and He promises that nothing can separate us from His love (verse 39).

Second, God comforts us through His Word, the Bible: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Bible verses throughout the Old and New Testament infuse strength to believers.

Third, God comforts us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. He is called “the Comforter” – “He will give you another Comforter that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16, 17). Then Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans: I will come to you” (verse 18).

If your doctor comes to you and says, “I have some bad news—you have cancer.” It would be crushing. But when he says, “The good news is that I can remove the cancer,” that would be delightful. However, what if he followed up by saying, “The bad news is that I must cut you with my scalpel.” About this time you would be shell shocked, so then he says, “But the good news is that once it is removed it will probably not return.” See the correlation? You would not mind being cut, prodded and poked by a doctor, if it was for your benefit.

It is exactly the same scenario for the Christian. The pain of surgery can be tolerated if you know it will benefit you. And, for every believer in Christ, the suffering, sorrow and loss experienced here, the distress of “various trials” “may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). This result is sure because “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). We do not understand how God can work it out for our good and His glory, but we are promised that He will!

YES! “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4)