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The Joy of the Lord

Are you feeling the joy? Or in this topsy-turvy 2020, are you feeling more stress, anxiety, and uncertainty? Many of us would probably say the latter. I need a dose of joy – how about you?

One of my favorite Biblical messages about joy occurs in Nehemiah 8:10: “Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.'”

To provide a little background, these words are spoken after a remnant of God’s people returned to Jerusalem after decades of exile in Babylon. They are engaged in the painstaking process of rebuilding the city of their ancestors after it had been reduced to rubble.

In a public assembly, Ezra has just read God’s Old Testament Word for the people, particularly the Books of Moses. For many of the people, God’s Word was new to them after spending much of their lives in a foreign land. Priests fanned out through the crowd to help explain God’s Word so that they could better understand it.

The people of Jerusalem understood enough that the Law caused them to grieve over their sin. They were confronted with just how rebellious the previous generations had been against the Lord and his holy will and with the reality of their own sinfulness.

To this grieving people, facing the seemingly never-ending task of rebuilding Jerusalem, their beautiful capitol city which had been razed because of their people’s idolatry, Ezra shares a word of Good News – “the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

The Lord’s character toward us is described in the next chapter: He is ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and does not forsake His people (Nehemiah 9:17b). In other words, despite our shortcomings and struggles, God is still our God and we are still His beloved people.

God’s people in Nehemiah’s time were surrounded by ruins, afflicted with guilt, and plagued by uncertainty. But in the midst of it all, they were comforted by the Good News that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

This joy is tied not to your feelings, circumstances, or future prospects. The joy of the Lord can affect our feelings, but it is not bound to their fluctuations. Your joy flows from your unchanging, eternal Savior, from His unconditional love and unlimited strength.

Jesus faced and endured the cross for you, Hebrews 12:2, tells us, because of “the joy set before Him” – the joy of returning to our Father’s presence and the joy of gathering all who trust in Him into the house of the Lord forever. And Jesus speaks His Good News of salvation to us for this reason: “These things I have spoken to you that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). In other words, there’s joy for the taking in God’s Word and promises for you!

Jesus came to share His joy with you. He came to be your joy! In a fallen world that feels like it can suck the joy right out of us, Jesus came to bring you joy that transcends the world and our troubles.

The joy of the Lord is the joy of being loved and forgiven and saved in Jesus. That joy is yours today. And when Jesus welcomes His faithful people into the life everlasting that He has earned for us, your joy will be full in Him forever.

Lord, may the present joy of Your salvation and the promise of full and forever joy with You give us strength to face each day in the assurance of Your love. Amen.

A Perfect Father

Somewhat forgotten amid the headlines these days is Father’s Day – Sunday, June 24, 2020 in case you forgot too!

Even in calmer times, though, Mother’s Day seems to get most of the attention. Mothers certainly deserve more praise and pampering than they get on one Sunday in May each year, but let’s not forget fathers either.

Fathers, too, are God’s gifts to their families, providing love and security and direction for their wives and children. Kids need time with us dads – playing catch, helping with homework, learning life skills, pursuing shared hobbies, or just snuggling on the couch.

But of far more importance than pursuing hobbies or activities with our children is pursuing God with our children.

God has wired kids to take their spiritual cues from dad. So dads, when you take your kids to church (or have church with them on the couch as many families must do these days), you’re making an impact not just on your children’s morals or values. You’re helping to shape your children’s souls.

Dads, you don’t have to be Bible experts for your family. Start small. When you open the Bible or a devotional book or a Bible storybook with your family, you’re having a greater impact than what can be seen in that moment. You’re bringing “the words of eternal life” into your home! (John 6:68) Lead simple meal prayers and bedtime prayers. Then branch out a little and pray for specific people, needs, and thanksgivings with your family.

You may be a perfectionist when you mow the lawn or when you’re building something in your workshop, but you won’t be a perfect parent. God’s grace is for you, as a far from perfect father, every bit as much as His grace applies to your kids when their imperfections come through in the form of back-talking or rebelling.

The Lord has given you a very important job to do at home: introducing your family to their Heavenly Father and yours.

While our love and energy and attention can all run thin, His never will. His strength and forgiveness and grace toward you for the sake of His Son and your Brother, Jesus, are new every morning!

You and your family have a perfect Father, and with Him, a saving Son of God, and a faith-building Holy Spirit.

May God the Holy Trinity bless you and your family this Father’s Day and every day.

For reflection: What concrete steps can you take this week to grow in Christ with your family?

A Future and a Hope

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV). This verse is among the most oft-quoted in Scripture. It’s comforting to think that God already knows the good plans He has for our lives.

The picture above is of a little keepsake I received years ago as a high school graduation gift – Jeremiah 29:11 quoted on a sailboat.

This year’s graduates (and all young adults) are sailing into a future which suddenly became uncertain and unsettling 2-3 months ago. The job market went from boom to bust, and in about every sector of society, people’s plans are changing rapidly in this pandemic-altered world.

What does God’s Word have to say to give us hope in the face of a challenging future? The promise of Jeremiah 29:11 certainly encourages us, but it has a different message than we might think.

Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” He lived and ministered in the Old Testament’s darkest hour. He witnessed the superpower of the day, Babylon, conquer Jerusalem and Judah, just as the Lord had prophesied through Jeremiah.

At the time God inspired the prophet’s words, Judah’s brightest and best had already been taken as prisoners to Babylon. Jerusalem was still standing, but a few years later, it was besieged and totally destroyed by Babylon.

The future and hope of God’s people was being snuffed out before their eyes. And God’s Word through Jeremiah made it clear that this was more than a political takeover. Babylon was an agent of God’s justice and punishment against His unfaithful people.

Jeremiah chapter 29 is a letter from God to His people who have already been taken as exiles from their homeland to Babylon, hundreds of miles to the east. God encourages the exiles to begin building a new life: have families, build houses, plant gardens, and work for the good of this pagan city which would be their home for the rest of their lives.

The exile lasted for 70 years. Anyone who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem would have been little when they left and gray-haired when they returned. But those who made it back to Jerusalem found a pile of rubble. The life their ancestors had known in the Promised Land was gone.

Where is the hope in this episode of history? Where is the good future? This exile was a major “reset” for Israel. The older generations, who had led the nation astray and worshipped man-made idols, were either wiped out in the conquest or died in exile. It would be up to the younger Israelites to begin again on a faithful foundation.

Here’s the Lord’s message again, but with a little more context:  “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

God’s future plans for His people begin with repenting, returning to Him, and trusting Him alone. Call on the true God once again, pray to Him and seek Him – that was God’s message 2,600 years ago, and for us today.

We don’t know (and we don’t really need to know) what God has planned for every step of our lives – where we will live and work, whom we will meet and marry, etc.

Above all, we need to know and trust the Lord Himself. Without Him, we don’thave hope and we don’t have a future. But in Him, we have everything we need!

Where we will go to school and what we will do with our lives are important, to be sure. But even more important is whether we will trust the Lord for today, our future, and our eternity.

Whether you are a new grad, or long past your school days, your hope is the Lord Himself. Through His Son, He has prepared a future for you which outshines the best that this world can offer!

I pray that all your days, you will know this hope in Christ Jesus. May this hope permeate your life, wherever you go and whatever you do, because the future – in Christ – is bright.

No Record of Wrongs

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”  (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)

Last week, I shared about the first two characteristics of love cited by Paul: patience and kindness.

As Paul continues to teach the church about godly love, he tells us what love is not. Perhaps Paul is being a “Captain Obvious” at this point.  Don’t we already know that true love is not proud or self-seeking?  We probably know it, but do we live it out, day after day?

We can easily gloss over the parts of the Bible that we think we already “know” or which may seem obvious to us on the surface, but I don’t think God would have inspired these words unless we needed to hear and apply them.

Love is much more than words and feelings. “I love you” doesn’t have the same ring when spoken by someone who is envious or easily angered. That’s what Paul was saying in verse one of the chapter when he wrote that even if we could eloquently speak in foreign tongues (Romance languages, perhaps?), but do not demonstrate love by what we do, we would be like noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.

The truth is, sometimes we are all noisy and clanging. We profess to love the Lord, love those nearest and dearest to us, and love our neighbors, but our actions can say the opposite.

How does God respond?  Rather than telling us only how He feels, He embodies true love in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus came from heaven to earth to lay down His life for boastful, selfish, irritable people like me and you. Although He is all too aware of the record of wrongs we have committed against Him and one another, He didn’t come to condemn but to save us!

While we naturally keep tabs of how much others have disappointed or offended us, Jesus does not do the same with us. As Paul says in Colossians, though we were spiritually dead in our sins, God made us alive with the Risen Christ through Baptism, “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)

1 Corinthians 13 is more than moralizing about how you should be more loving. Christ has already lived out these words about love for you! The record against you no longer exists.  It was blotted out at the cross.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

How can Christ’s love for you shape your love for Him and those in your life this week? Whose “record of wrongs” against you do you need to let go?

Love is Patient and Kind

An article from Pastor's Times of Refreshing blog:

It’s wedding and anniversary season – or at least in a “normal” year it would be!

The top Scripture passage read at weddings is 1 Corinthians 13.  However, this passage says nothing about weddings or marriage.  Instead, it’s a summary of Christ-like love and what such love would look like if we practiced it in our daily actions and attitudes in the Church and in all our relationships.

Beginning with this post, I plan to share a series of devotions based on 1 Corinthians 13, reflecting on how these timeless words describe Christ’s love for us, as well as our love for one another, even through these tough times.

 

Jesus warned that, in the last days, “the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b). Paul warned later in his ministry that love will increasingly become twisted and misplaced, loving pleasure, self, money, and other pursuits rather than loving the Lord of life (2 Timothy 3:1-5).  May it not be so among Christ’s faithful people!

Because love is so much more than a passing emotion (something you’re “in”), it takes practicepersistence, and, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:4, patience and kindness. Christ-like love definitely doesn’t come naturally to us, but Christ’s patience with people is staggering!

I believe Paul’s words in this chapter first describe Christ’s deep and patient love with His people.  I don’t think we can fully grasp just how much the Lord puts up with each of us as we disobey and distance ourselves from Him … Yet, He “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9b).

 

How’ve you been doing in the patience and kindness department?  Speaking for myself, I know that my sense of patience and my acts of kindness have been running thin lately.  The many effects of the pandemic are taking a toll on all of us.  It’s all too easy these days to be short-tempered and snippy, even with those we love the most!  It’s hard enough to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but it’s even harder when we’re afraid or overwhelmed or just drained by everything that’s happening.

My own willpower isn’t going to make be be more patient and kind – at least not for very long. Just like our patience and kindness, our willpower also has its limits.

The Good News is that Jesus’ love knows no limits!  His patience and kindness toward you is beyond description!  He’s ready – right now – for you and me to turn to Him, repent of the coldness of our love, be loved by Him once again, and be filled with His surpassing love for us. And as Jesus’ Word returns us to Him and the true love of God, that love will begin to flow through us.

 

Your family members, coworkers, and neighbors all need more patience and kindness in their lives.  Let Jesus’ love for you be your starting place.  He loves you patiently and unconditionally so that you can love others in His name.

For your prayers:  Jesus, bring me back to Your great and saving love for me. Help me to love others in my life by being more patient with … and by showing kindness to …

Outcomes from this Pandemic

An article from Times of Refreshing:

COVID-19 marches on.  Millions of people have now battled this virus and hundreds of thousands have died from it around the world.

And yet, the next chapter of life is starting to come into clearer focus. More businesses are reopening – at least partially.  More people are feeling comfortable getting out and about – while wearing their masks and social distancing. More plans for the summer and beyond are being made – or re-made.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not quite sure what life will be like when we come out on the other side.

As I see it, there are two major outcomes. I hope and pray that both will be the case for you.

Outcome One:  You remain healthy. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, you make a full recovery, and, with time, return to normal life.  You keep your job, or you get your job back when the economy regenerates.  You maintain your positive outlook.  Your loved ones stay relatively healthy, keep their jobs, and recover from this outcome.

Those outcomes will not be the case for everyone. Hopefully, all of these things will work out for you. If they do, thank the Lord for preserving you and providing for you and those you care about.

However, as important as those physical outcomes are to each of us, I believe there’s a more important and lasting outcome that could come out of this pandemic.

Outcome Two:  You may or may not remain healthy.  You may or may not come out of this economically stable.  Your loved ones may or may not be okay.

This pandemic has been a glaring reminder that we are not in control of life.  Even the experts and the powerful and influential leaders of our world have been at a loss some of the time.

What if there’s something better than just being okay?  What if there’s something more important than being in control or stable or healthy?

I truly do hope and pray that we all come out of this safe and healthy.  But of far greater importance is whether we trust Jesus in the midst of it all. 

Times of affliction are often the greatest opportunities for growth, both in our daily lives and in our life of faith.

Jesus is inviting you to call on Him for your daily bread.  Jesus is beckoning you to listen to Him in Scripture and speak with Him in prayer.  Jesus is sending you to serve your neighbor – whether over the phone or computer or in-person or under your own roof.

This morning in Bible study, we considered Philippians chapter 1, one of the Apostle Paul’s last correspondences.  Paul would not have grown to become the man of faith that he was by the time he wrote Philippians if not for all that he suffered for the name of Jesus (Acts 9:16).  Having seen so much affliction over decades of ministry, his concern is no longer whether he’s free or imprisoned, or even whether he lives or dies.

Paul knows that the best outcome, no matter what else happens, is that the Good News of Jesus continues to be made known, both near and far (Philippians 1:12-18).

A great (temporary) outcome in this pandemic will be for your to live and thrive and return to “normal”, but the best outcome will be for you to grow in Christ, even during the peak of this outbreak,  or for you to begin trusting Him, or for you to return to Him, as God’s Spirit works in your heart through the message of Christ.

That’s an outcome that will make a difference for all eternity!

Once again, I hope and pray that God will continue working in your heart and life during these difficult days, both preserving you and your loved ones, and most importantly, drawing you closer to Himself and His everlasting love for you!

A closing prayer – known as the Prayer of Good Courage:

Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,  by paths as yet untrodden,  through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage,  not knowing where we go,  but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Merry Easter! Now What?

An article from Pastor's Blog (timesofrefreshing.blog): 

Easter Sunday in Wisconsin was blustery, rainy, and then, snowy!  I’ve heard a number of people wishing each other a “Merry Easter!” this year.  I have a lot of Christmas song titles bouncing around my head: “I’m Dreaming of a White Easter”,  “Frosty the Easter Bunny” …

I do hope you had a Merry Easter!  However, I think we are all aware that this Easter did not feel so merry to many people.  For many who are grieving, isolated, ill, unemployed, or facing other serious hardships, this was probably one of the toughest Easters they’ve experienced.

If you are going through such hardships this Spring, I hope and pray that you can lean on Jesus as He shepherds you through this valley.

Easter follows the somber season of Lent. For me as a pastor, Lent is usually a very “full” time, especially with preparing for additional midweek services and for Holy Week. Feeling a little worn out, my Easter Sunday included a nap on the couch as my kids watched The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. (Faun Tumnus’ music lulled me off to sleep.)

Part of me feels like I “made it through Easter” – as if Easter is just a holiday which is now over and done!  But what if Easter has only just begun?

For starters, Easter is not only a day but a season. Easter season continues until the end of May this year when the season of Pentecost begins.  And as I shared last week,  every Sunday is a “mini Easter celebration.”  For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have gathered on the first day of every week, worshipping our risen Jesus, hearing His voice, and responding to Him with both joyful praises and also the prayers and concerns of our hearts and lives.

But the impact of Easter goes far beyond a season or a day of the week!  Easter is your future, your eternity in Christ!

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared;  but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

You shall be like the Risen Jesus!  Easter is just getting started for all who trust Jesus. Through your Brother, Jesus, you are God’s child – right now!  And when Jesus reappears and resurrects the dead and restores all things on the Last Day,  you shall be like Him – raised in an imperishable, immortal way, as Jesus was at dawn on the third day.

“We shall bear the image of the Man of Heaven” says St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:49. The image of God will be fully restored in all of Christ’s people. Both physically and spiritually, your whole being will be changed in the twinkling of an eye! (1 Cor. 15:51-52) In short, you have God’s own promise that you will be like His risen Son!

That’s great for the future,  but what about now?  St. Paul closes his Resurrection Chapter with this shot of confidence for all Christ’s Easter People:  “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,  because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58 NIV)

We live and labor for Jesus today in the sure and certain expectation of an eternal Easter with Him and those we love who have died in Christ.

Because Jesus lives, “you also will live”!  (John 14:19)

Merry Easter indeed!

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