Nothing can capture for me the mystery and the beauty of Christmas better than the carols we sing. They have the power to recreate in my imagination the scenes of the first Christmas. They seem to be able to set the atmosphere — the crowded inn, the smelly stable, the sleeping city, the great star spilling its beauty down over the waiting earth, the lonely shepherds in the field, the blazing, sudden glory of the heavenly hosts breaking through the darkness, then the contrast of the stable in a cave with the sleeping babe and the wondering hearts that come to worship and kneel before this amazing wonder, Jesus Christ born on earth.

One carol we sing at Christmas asks the question,
“What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?”

And the chorus answers,
“This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the son of Mary.”

I am sure the shepherds asked the same question when they went into the stable on that first Christmas Day: “What Child is this?” But no one had an adequate answer. Mary, you remember, “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart,” Luke 2:19. She did not know what the answer was. You never can answer that question until you have the full record unfolded in the Gospel accounts of the silent years in Nazareth and the coming of age of Jesus, His baptism by John, the trudging up and down the hills of Galilee and Judea with His disciples, the teaching, the miracles, and finally, the last crowded dramatic week in Jerusalem that culminated in the cross and the blazing glory of resurrection.

And then it still was not over. There was the moment in Jerusalem when the Spirit was poured out upon the waiting disciples. The whole city was gathered to hear the great sound of a rushing wind in the wonder of Pentecost.

It is only then you begin to get a full answer to this question, “What Child is this?”
How do you answer this question?

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I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. —Psalm 130:5

In an age when drone delivery is a reality and information is constantly at our fingertips, we’ve become accustomed to immediate gratification. We get impatient with slow Internet connections and microwave ovens. So the idea of a long wait or a lengthy journey doesn’t hold much appeal on the surface.

As I was waiting in a line which wasn’t moving at the airport recently the Lord reminded me of the importance of waiting and having patience in just circumstances. But perhaps it is the journey, the process of the long wait, that is exactly what we need. We need time to recognize the depth of our need and to allow hope to build in our hearts. We need space to block out the many distractions of our lives. We need to quiet ourselves in the darkness so that we won’t miss the arrival of the light of the world.

We need to wait and watch for the miracle of the birth of Jesus—when the God of the universe entered our world in order to transform us through His love.

Advent is just that—a long period of waiting, expecting, and looking forward to the coming of Jesus. In a rushed world, Advent is a deep breath that allows us to pause and then take each purposeful step on the journey as we follow the star toward Bethlehem. So we begin this season of waiting with hope in our hearts. Maybe your sense of hope is only the faintest glimmer right now or a mere spark. It’s okay. Allow the long wait to be a place where hope grows—where it can build with each passing day and create space in your heart to receive the light of the world.

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“And by that will we have been sanctified
through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Hebrews 10:10

Last week we looked at “Legalism or Grace”?
We want to continue along that theme with our thoughts today.

Rigid adherence to a list of do’s and don’ts appeals to our pride and self-sufficiency by fostering the myth that if we work hard enough we can earn God’s favor. That’s fear­ based thinking, but we need to remember what God has called us to as His children.

“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
2 Timothy 1:7

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18

Legalism is fear that God isn’t big enough to forgive your sins, that unless you do the right thing in the right way at the right time-and do it perfectly-you’re in trouble. Jon Walker writes: “That’s a lie with the smell of hell all over it! When we fear making mistakes we become timid, and limit ourselves from living abundantly. We let…analysis permeate our decisions as we lead quiet, desperate, anti-faith lives, afraid to move with the bold confidence that grace gives us to walk in uncertainty… unafraid of rejection.”

Speaking against works-based religion, Martin Luther said, “Be a sinner and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger…rejoice in Christ…the victor over sin.”

No, Luther wasn’t excusing sin! He was restoring grace to its rightful place, affirming that nothing can separate us from God’s love (See Ro 8:38-39). He wasn’t downgrading the law, He was upgrading grace. Grace means communicating with God and allowing Him to communicate to us through His word.

The truth is, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Hebrews 9:24

He freed us to have a relationship with Him without fear of sin separating us.
That’s something we can put our faith in and count on.

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“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law,
then Christ died for no purpose.”
Galatians 2:21

Imagine going to the emergency room and being asked to leave because you’re bleeding all over the floor!  Jesus encountered that legalistic mindset when He healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath.
“But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” (Lk 13:14)
Observing the law was more important to him than the people he was supposed to care for.

Max Lucado says:

“All religion falls into…two camps: legalism or grace. A legalist believes if you look right, speak right and belong to the right group, you’ll be saved…The outside sparkles…but something’s missing…Joy. What’s there instead? Fear-that you won’t do enough. Arrogance that you’ve done enough. Failure-that you’ve made a mistake. Legalism is…slow suffocation of the spirit, amputation of one’s dreams…enough religion to keep but not nourish you…Your diet is rules and standards. Legalism…doesn’t need God…It’s the search for innocence-not forgiveness…a systematic process of defending…explaining…exalting…justifying…It turns my opinion into your burden. There’s only room for one opinion…and guess who’s wrong? It turns my opinion into your boundary. Your opposing opinion makes me question not only your right to fellowship with me, but your salvation. It turns my opinion into your obligation. Christians must toe the company line. Your job isn’t to think, it’s to march…Salvation is God’s business. Grace is His idea, His work, and His expense. He offers it to whomever He desires, when He desires. Our job is to inform people, not screen them.” 

Paul writes, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)

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Give Thanks In All Circumstances

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:18

The Heidelberg Catechism says that belief in the providence of God makes it possible for us to be “thankful when things go well” and “patient when things go against us”.
So sometimes we are thankful, and sometimes we are patient.

Paul sums things up this way. He says it is God’s will for us to be thankful “in all circumstances.” Really? Well, it may help to note that Paul is not saying we should be thankful for all circumstances but in them. When things seem to go against us, I think God expects us to be grateful that his hand holds us and helps us to endure under the strain. That’s a big challenge–to look for reasons to be thankful when the going is tough.

Sometimes it can be equally difficult for us to be thankful when things are going well. We might not think it would be that way. After all, when things go well, we have so much to be grateful for. But the very nature of human beings, even if we are Christian, is to overlook the crowd of God’s good gifts to us every day. Let me suggest that today you sit still where you are and exercise the gift of noticing. Notice what you see, what you have, and who is with you. Notice the color, beauty, and variety around you. Keep noticing, and make a list of the gifts you notice. Then give thanks to God, the great giver!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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What It Means To Live Your New Life

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 4:20–24

One of my very favorite stories from the Scriptures is the story of Jesus’ good friend Lazarus. Lazarus was sick. Jesus found out, but waited until four days after he died to come. Upon arriving, Jesus ordered that the stone be removed from the tomb and raised Lazarus from the dead.

Something interesting happened next. Lazarus was still bound with the linen strips that were wrapped around a person when he died. And Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44).

What I love about that statement is that Jesus isn’t allowing Lazarus to wear the clothes of a dead man. Instead, He intends for Lazarus to shed the garments of death and move forward in life.

Much the same way, when we come to Christ and are raised from the death of our sins, Jesus calls us to shed the garments of death that bind us and put on the clothes of grace and glory.

Many Christians have stepped out of the tomb, but are still bound by their death clothes of sin. But in Christ, you have the ability to shed the clothes of death and put on new clothes of life. Walk in that new life today by God’s power!

“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Romans 13:13-14


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Reformation Sunday: 500 Years of Biblical Faith

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16

There’s an old song by Sam Cooke that was popular in my younger days that had a line in it that goes: “Don’t know much about history…” 

I think that pretty much describes our generation.  We are close to being historically illiterate in our day.  We know a little about the founding of our nation, we know something of our own family heritage, but when it comes to our collective religious roots, well that’s another story.  For example, many know dates like October 12, 1492, and July 4, 1776, and certainly September 11, 2001.  But how many of us know the significance of May 4, 1415 or October 31, 1517.  We may know trivia tidbits like the names of 3 ships that Columbus sailed to the new world: the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. 

But many if not most have never even heard of John Wycliffe, John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Knox.  And yet, these names are far more important to our Protestant faith.  

Well this is Reformation Sunday, commemorating the day 500 years ago when a monk named Martin Luther nailed those 95 Theses to the wooden doors of the Wittenberg Chapel, protesting the excesses of the Church.  It was a world-changing moment in history that ultimately impacts the way we view and practice the Christian faith.  John MacArthur states the following concerning the Reformation, “The power of the Catholic Church was stifled by Scripture itself, as God’s people came face-to-face with the truth of His Word. The pope and the priesthood, along with Catholic dogma and tradition, were exposed as untrustworthy and unbiblical intermediaries between God and man. In the light of God’s Word, their satanic lies were laid bare.

Today, we worship and serve in the long line of faithful believers who held to the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture. This line includes the heroes of church history who helped recover the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. If not for the work of those faithful servants, we might still be living under the dark dominion of Catholic lies today.”

May we remember the sacrifice that has been made by many so that we may enjoy the privilege of having our own personal copy of God’s Word to read, study and enjoy daily.

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Why All This Suffering?  Part 2

When we ask the question, “Why all this suffering”? we have to be prepared for the answer. As we discussed in part one, we understand that “why” question goes back to the very beginning.

We may not be able to make out all the peripheral details of why — they may be obscured from our view — but there are some key Biblical truths that can illuminate some points for us. And if we consider these truths, they will lead us in the right direction, toward some conclusions that I believe can help give us some basic answers.

  1. God is not the creator of evil and suffering. This answers the question you hear so often: “Why didn’t God merely create a world where tragedy and suffering didn’t exist?” The answer is: He did! Genesis 1:31 says: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Tragedy and suffering exist because we live in a fallen world filled with sin.
  2. Though suffering isn’t good, God can use it to accomplish good. He does this by fulfilling His promise in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Even our trials and tribulations in life have a purpose and plan in the ultimate purpose of God.
  3. The day is coming when suffering will cease and God will judge evil. A lot of times you’ll hear people say: “If God has the power to eradicate evil and suffering, then why doesn’t He do it?” And the answer is that because He hasn’t done it yet doesn’t mean He won’t do it. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9
  4. Our suffering will pale in comparison to what God has in store for his followers.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” 2 Cor 4:17

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Rom 8:18

  1. We decide whether to turn bitter or turn to God for peace and courage. The bible clearly teaches us that when faced with trials and hardship, God will be faithful to care for us even through those trials.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

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Why All This Suffering? Part 1

I don’t know if this question has entered your mind or has been asked of you in the past couple weeks, “If God is good and loving, why is He allowing all this suffering and evil to exist in our world”? This has been a tough month or so for the United States. First came the hurricanes which brought major flooding, death and destruction to our southern and gulf communities. Then we had the horrible shooting deaths of 58 individuals by an apparently lone crazed gunman who rained down warlike gunfire on crowds of concert goers in Las Vegas. Now here in California we are faced with wildfires, which are currently ravaging the houses and properties of thousands of people in Southern and Northern CA and at the date of this writing has caused many deaths. All this suffering causes many to ask the question, “Why?”

That “why” question goes back thousands of years. It was asked in the Old Testament by Job and the writers of the Psalms, and it was especially relevant during the 20th century, where we witnessed two World Wars, the Holocaust, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, devastating famines in Africa, the killing fields of Cambodia, the emergence of AIDS, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. There was 9/11, the ISIS slaughters, and on and on. Why all of this if there’s a loving and powerful God?

But if you’ve never asked why our world is infected with pain and suffering, you will when they strike you with full force or they come to a loved one. And Jesus said they are coming. Unlike some other religious leaders who wrote off pain and suffering as just being illusions, Jesus was honest. He told us the truth. He said in John 16:33, “You will have suffering in this world.” He didn’t say you might – he said it is going to happen.

We may not be able to make out all the peripheral details of why — they may be obscured from our view — but there are some key Biblical truths that can illuminate some points for us. And if we consider these truths, they will lead us in the right direction, toward some conclusions that I believe can help give us some basic answers.

I’ll list them here today and go into each one a little deeper in part 2 of this article.

Biblical Truths To Consider When Contemplating Evil and Suffering

  1. God is not the creator of evil and suffering.
  2. Though suffering isn’t good, God can use it to accomplish good.
  3. The day is coming when suffering will cease and God will judge evil.
  4. Our suffering will pale in comparison to what God has in store for His followers.
  5. We decide whether to turn bitter or turn to God for peace and courage.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

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“for God has come to test you.” Ex 20:20

Do you remember the tests you took in school? You passed or failed, but you couldn’t avoid them. Life works that way too. When it comes to life’s tests-you must prepare yourself in advance! 

Jesus said: 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”  (Mt 7:24-27).

The first man built his house on rock because he knew it wasn’t a question of “if,” but “when,” a storm will come. The second man built his house on sand because it was cheap and easy. When the storm came the first man’s house stood and the second man’s house fell.

What’s the point  Jesus was making?  Your talents, your resume and your reputation may get you to the top, but if you haven’t built strong character you won’t stay there long.

Furthermore, your beliefs may be sincere and line up with what other people around you think, but unless they’re founded on God’s Word they’ll fail you when you need them most. Three times in the Bible we read, “The just shall live by faith” (Ro 1:17).

When the tests of life come you’ve got to be able to rise up and say, I may not have all the answers, but I have proven God’s character and track record and I’m trusting Him to do what He’s promised in His Word!”

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