Saturday, November 30, 2013

Christmas: A Prelude to Greatness

                As I have entered into my “mature years”, my taste in music has gravitated to classical, especially orchestral music. I find classical music enriching, relaxing and uplifting. Much of classical music follows familiar patterns. There is usually a prelude, of some sort, that introduces the major musical themes of the piece. Often these themes are contrasting: dynamic and bold vs. calm and subtle. This is followed by several movements that develop the major themes. The piece then comes to a climax at the end, which again emphasizes the major themes of the music.

                Christmas is a BIG DEAL. For many people, it is the climax of the year. It is a time for families and friends to get together and celebrate their connection. It is a time of giving and receiving. It is a time of extravagant parties and intimate gatherings. It is truly a joyous time. But Christmas is not really the climax; it is the prelude to God’s symphony.

                If we look closely at the accounts of Jesus’ birth, as recorded in Matthew and Luke, we can see all the themes of Jesus’ life introduced. We see joy and sorry, conflict and struggle, and ultimate victory. Christmas sets that stage for a life of greatness.

                The main theme is introduced with the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." Luke 1:30-33 The child to be born to Mary will be no ordinary child. He will be great, in fact, he will be a king.

                The main theme of the story is further defined when the angel comes to Joseph.  But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." Matthew 1:20-21 Not only will this child be a king, he will be a Savior. God has established the main theme of his symphony.

                There are two secondary themes that are introduced during this prelude: joy and sorry. The theme of joy is introduced by Luke, as the shepherds are informed of the good news of Jesus’ birth. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Luke 2:8-12

                Matthew advances this theme with the arrival of the Magi. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Matthew 2:10-11

                Even as the theme of joy is lingering in the air, the black cloud of conflict begins to build.  When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." Matthew 2:13

                Throughout the rest of God’s symphony, Jesus develops and lives out the themes introduced in the prelude. The climax comes some 33 years later, when Jesus emerges victorious from the tomb on Easter. But God has one more movement to His symphony, and it is yet to be played. For one day, Jesus will return in power and glory to claim his rightful place on the throne forever. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013


                The Thanksgiving holiday is less than  two weeks away. Stores have already rushed on by it to start promoting Christmas. In many ways, Thanksgiving has become the Cinderella of American holidays. It is tucked away in a corner and gets a minimal nod. It is viewed as less important than the more lucrative holidays. Even Halloween gets better billing than Thanksgiving.

                Maybe this is as it should be. Thanksgiving is not about making money, it is about rediscovering gratitude. Thanksgiving is a humble holiday that prefers the intimacy of the dining room table to the spotlight of public acclaim. Thanksgiving calls us to something much higher; it calls us to stop running and reflect upon our life. It calls us to be honest about just how blessed we really are. It ultimately calls us to express our thanks to the giver of all good gifts.

                We are born into this world selfish, self-centered individuals. We all begin life believing the world revolves around us. We expect to be cared for, waited on and pampered. We have to be taught to be thankful. I can still hear my mother instructing me to say thank you. We have done the same thing with our children. The point I want to make is, being thankful is a conscious choice. It is far easier to complain. It is far more common to focus on what we don’t have instead of being grateful for what we do have.

                King David challenges us, in Psalm 103, to remember all that we have to be thankful for. Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—He goes on to expound on all the blessings that God has showered upon us. I could fill the page with blessings that we all take for granted; air to breathe, food to eat, clothes to wear, places to live. Instead, I want to raise the bar a little higher and remind us all about the eternal blessings that can be ours through faith in Jesus Christ.

Salvation through Jesus Christ: Ephes. 2:8-9
    For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast.

Forgiveness of our sins:  1 John 1:9
    If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Renewal of our relationship with God: 1 Peter 2:9-10
    But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Strength to face the challenges of each day: 2 Cor. 4:7-9, 16-18 
    But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 
    Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

The companionship of the Holy Spirit: John 14:15-18
    "If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

Peace: John 14:27
    Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Hope to the future: 1 Peter 1:3-4
    Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you,

Joy: John 15:9-11
    "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

Spiritual gifts: 1 Cor. 12:4-7
    There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

The Bible: 2 Tim. 3:16-17
    All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

                When we stop and reflect upon all that Christ has done for us, we have no reason to complain. We don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to choose to live a life of gratitude. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

No Artificial Additives

    For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.
Colossians 2:9-10

                In many ways we live in an artificial world. We have learned how to create amazing facsimiles of many natural things. For example, the entry way of my house has a wood grain floor, but it isn’t really wood. It’s a form of vinyl. We have developed artificial flowers that sometimes look better than the real thing. We have learned to mimic natural flavors. Many of the products that we consume daily have listed, as part of their ingredients, artificial flavors. Because something is artificial doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad, but it is not the genuine article.

                Paul warned the church at Corinth about settling for an artificial faith. There were those who wanted to include artificial additives to faith in Christ. These additives seemed strong and powerful, and at times better than the real thing, but they led people away from genuinely following Jesus.

                We face the same struggle today. The world is offering us many artificial additives that try to imitate true faith in Christ. These artificial additives are supposed to enhance our faith. They tell us that Jesus is fine, but he is not enough. He is only a part of a much larger and richer spirituality.

                Many people drink diet pop. They often tell me that it isn’t bad, once you get used to it. I have never gotten used to diet pop. It always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So it is with artificial faith. We can get used to it, but if we are honest, it leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Paul gives us some insights into living additive free in an artificial world.

                In an artificial world, we need to hold onto the genuine article. Paul reminds us that faith in Christ is the genuine article. Everything else is a cheap substitute.

                It is very common today to find imitation products for sale. This is actually a billion dollar business. These products look like the genuine article, but they are really cheap knock-offs. Some of them are fairly honest about what they are doing. They put their own labels on the product and let you know they are a copy. Some try to pull the wool over our eyes. On a trip to Ukraine, I visited a village market. They had all manner of goods for sale. At one stall they had athletic apparel. Prominently displayed was a hat with the NIKE swoosh across the front and under that the letters NICE. It was a nice hat, but it wasn’t a genuine NIKE.

                In our world today, there are many imitations of genuine faith in God. Some of them bear their own label and declare that they are the better way. Some try to pass themselves off as a form of faith in Christ. If we look closely, it becomes clear that they are not the genuine article.

                In an artificial world, we need to beware of spiritual additives to our faith. Paul warned the Galatians that false teachers were leading them away from the pure simple gospel of Jesus Christ.

                 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Galatians 1:6-9

                Paul was not afraid to challenge those who wanted to add something else to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He felt that this was one of the worst forms of treachery and deception. He knew that Satan is a master at twisting the truth to lead people astray.

                 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. 2 Cor. 11:13-15

                We need to be on our guard that we are not polluting the gospel with spiritual artificial additives.

                In an artificial world, we need to celebrate the real thing. We don’t have to add anything to the gospel, because it is complete. Christ is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to us. When we put our faith in Christ, we have all that we need.

                For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. Colossians 2:9-10

                For many years, Coke’s slogan has been “It’s the real thing.” A number of years ago, Coke did a couple of experiments. They decided to introduce some new products to capture more market share. One of these experiments was New Coke. They adjusted the formula to what they thought people wanted. It was a flop. In fact, New Coke tasted like Pepsi. Another experiment that flopped was Clear Coke. People just couldn’t get used to Coke not being brown. Both products failed because they were not the “real thing.”

                There are many “new” approaches to spirituality today. They come in just about any form that you might want. Many people are buying into them, but, in the long run, they will all fail. Why? Because they are not the real thing.

                Jesus made it clear that he is the real thing. If we want to encounter God in a personal, transformational, eternal way, we have to go through Jesus. Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

                There is a commercial on the radio that uses the tagline, “Why settle for artificial snacks.” Paul might challenge us with the tagline, “Why settle for an artificial faith?” Jesus offers us the genuine article, with no artificial additives. He invites us to put away our spiritual junk food and seek what will really brings us life.

    The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10 

Saturday, November 2, 2013


                One of the challenges in life is finding your style; a style you are comfortable with. Mine is business casual. I enjoy wearing sport coats, although usually without the tie. I reserve t-shirts and blue jeans for my day off and for vacation. My children give me a hard time, because in their minds I am always “dressed up.” For me, it is what I am the most comfortable in.  
                I also like hats. I am not talking about baseball caps. I am talking about wide-brimmed hats, gentleman’s hats, hats with a little class. I have always been a little timid about wearing hats, because I felt self-conscious. Recently I decided to throw caution to the wind. I purchased a genuine fedora and a Stetson trilby. Now that the weather has turned cooler, I wear one of them every day.

                The problem with finding our style is that we often allow it to be overly influenced by the opinions of others; or at least to our perceived understanding of those opinions. So what we tend to do is look around at our community and adjust our style to the norm. We would rather live in a style that is not really us, than stand out in a crowd and feel awkward. It takes a certain amount of courage to own your unique style.

                As followers of Christ, we need to discover and live out our God-given style. This plays out in two specific ways.

                First, we are called to live out a style that is uniquely different from the world around us. We are called to stand out in a positive way and not blend in with the prevailing style of our world. Every Christian is challenged to live a distinctly Christ-like life-style. As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Ephesians 4:1-2 Paul expands our understanding of our style in Ephesians 5:1-2. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. This should be every Christians “base” style.

                Here comes the rub. Just as we tend to conform to the style we see in the world, we can start to conform to a new, generic “Christian” style. We start looking around at other believers and try to mimic what they are doing. We become cookie-cutter Christians. That is not what Christ has in mind for us.

                Just as there is a basic “Christian style” that we are all to conform to, there is a unique, individual style that Christ has for each one of us. We often think of this in terms of our spiritual gifts, but it is more than just that. It is a combination of our gifts, talents, personality and passions. As these elements are brought together, our unique, Christ-shaped style emerges.

                Paul talked quite a bit about gifts. He gives lists of gifts. He challenges us to use our gifts. He makes the point that we don’t all have the same gifts and that every gift is valuable and important. In Ephesians 4 he gives a powerful summary about the purpose of our gifts.

                It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
                Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:11-16

                Christ wants us to discover our unique style in Him, and then put it to work for the good of the whole. Our ultimate goal is to see everyone become the person Christ created them to be.

                Styles in fashion come and go. They are transient and ultimately don’t make any lasting difference in our lives. But our spiritual style is eternal. It is the way that we live out our faith and demonstrate to the world that we are a follower of Jesus. Jesus wants to use our unique, individual styles to open the doors of faith to other people. So what s your style? Whatever your style is, embrace it. It is the way God has equipped you to make a difference in your world.

    And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:17

Friday, November 1, 2013


Hebrews 11:1
    Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

                I have been thinking a lot about faith lately. What does it mean to live a life of faith? I was asked recently to give a talk about Daniel, as an example of living a life of faith. From our perspective, Daniel was amazing. He took bold stands in incredibly difficult situations and triumphed through faith in God. It is easy to think, I wish I had that kind of faith. I am quite sure that Daniel faced all the stress and apprehension that we would in those circumstances. Daniel had to step out in faith, not knowing what the outcome would be. He was willing to trust God, full speed ahead.

                I have the tendency to live life timidly. I am cautious and calculated, not bold and spontaneous. When we go on vacation, I book all the motels in advance. It gives me a certain sense of security when I travel. Recently, my wife and I took a week of vacation and traveled up the Mississippi River from Lacrosse to St. Paul. We decided that we would take each day as it came, not planning out the whole trip. We actually embarked on our adventure without having booked all the motels in advance! Scary!

                It is natural for some of us to live life at “all ahead slow.” We move tentatively, not wanting to take a wrong turn. We act cautiously, trying to control all the variables, as much as possible. Surprises are not welcome; detours are to be avoided at all costs. This may seem like the safe way to live life, but it is not a life lived by faith.

                Living a life by faith is more like “full speed ahead.” Already my cautious side is rebelling, so let me clarify. Living by faith does not mean being reckless, foolhardy or rudderless. It does mean taking positive risks, even when, especially when, we cannot see the outcome. Living by faith is carefully listening to God, seeking to understand the direction He wants us to go, and then boldly stepping out with confidence in Him.

                The truth of scripture is that faith always comes before sight. If we can see the other side clearly, then it is not faith. John Ortberg shared this insight about faith. “Where things are possible, faith is impossible.” Those are scary, but true words. God called Abraham to leave everything he was familiar with and go to a land God would show him. God called Moses to leave the security of the back side of the desert and challenge the most powerful leader of his day. God told Joshua to pack up the people and move across a flooded Jordan River to take the Promised Land. In each case, these men had to trust God and step into the unknown before they saw the fruit of their faith. Full speed ahead!

                Living “full speed ahead” requires three things. It requires that we have confidence in Christ’s call. It requires that we have clarity about the direction we are going. It requires that we have the courage to move forward.

                Many people stumble over the question of God’s specific will for their life. How do I know what God’s will is for my life? The problem is not that Christ hasn’t called, it is that we are looking for the wrong things. We would like a detailed road map of our life. This comes from our need for security and certainty. Christ doesn’t give us a road map, he calls us to follow Him. That is what faith is all about. Our confidence is in our Guide, not in knowing what is coming. The Bible is very clear about Christ’s general call on all of us. Jesus summarized it in two commands. Love God with everything that you have and love people. As we sincerely practice doing these two things, all kinds of amazing opportunities open up to us.

                As our confidence in Christ grows, our ability to boldly move forward increases. When I first began actively running again, I was a timid runner. At my first couple of races, I placed myself near the back of the pack. When the gun went off I stepped out tentatively. My confidence in my ability to run the race was low. The more I trained, the more my confidence increased, and it changed the way I approach a race. Now, when it is possible, I get as close to the front as I can at the beginning of the race. When the gun goes off, I sprint forward, quickly putting some distance between myself and the pack. Then I settle in to my pace and run my race. I have learned that if I hold back, I get caught in the pack and cannot run freely. I have also learned that it doesn’t matter if runners pass me along the way, as long as I maintain my pace.

                A funny thing happened to me at one particular race. My niece and her husband decided to run in the same race. It was their first race running together and they were a little unsure about it. I told them that I wasn’t a fast runner and that I would run with them. We took our places at the starting line, the gun when off and I took off. After about a ½ mile, I looked around me and my niece and her husband where nowhere to be seen. We laughed about it later. They told me that when the gun went off they started jogging, but I shot forward at full speed. So much for running together.

                Living by faith is scary. It is full of “what ifs.” Living by faith is putting our lives in God’s hands and letting Him be in control. But living a life of faith is the only way to experience the full measure of God’s blessings and grace. Hebrews 11:6 makes this point very clear. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

                Three guys who knew what it means to live by faith were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They three young men faced a life and death challenge and stepped out in faith, full speed ahead. They were given the choice of worshipping an idol or losing their lives. In the face of some pretty overwhelming odds, they demonstrated the most amazing level of faith in God.

                 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." Daniel 3:16-18

                These three young men demonstrated “even if” faith. They boldly took their stand, not knowing what the outcome would be. They stood firm in their faith in God and refused to compromise. FULL SPEED AHEAD!