A Season of Hope

This past Sunday, our church began the yearly tradition of lighting the Advent candles. If you aren’t familiar with the lighting of these candles, it takes place on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and concludes on Christmas Eve. 

The word “advent” actually means coming or arrival. So, we light the Advent candles in celebration of Jesus’ first arrival on this earth and then the anticipation of His second-coming. 

The first four candles that we light represent an aspect of who Jesus is and what He brought to each of us at that first arrival, some two thousand years ago. And the final candle represents Jesus Himself, the One who came to save the world.

The candle we lit on Sunday represents the hope that Christmas brings. Now this isn’t the kind of hope with which many of us are familiar: it isn’t the wishful kind of hope that we’ve come to know, like, “I hope I get an A on my test” or “I hope my family can visit for Christmas this year.”

This hope that Jesus brought at Christmas is so much more. The definition for the kind of hope that this candle represents is the assurance of what WILL come. You see, Jesus has made a way for us to have new life and someday He WILL return in all His glory and bring order to this fallen world, once and for all.

Luke 2:10-11 says: “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The angel tells us here that a Savior was born—Jesus the Messiah had arrived. God in flesh is with us and in this we find hope. Christmas is a great reminder of the hope that we have in Him. The hope that He WILL soon return and take us all to be with Him. I pray that we can all experience His Hope this Christmas season!

Running the Race

There are a handful of scriptures in the Bible that talk about running the race or seeking to receive the prize. One of those verses is found in Hebrews 12:1-2 where it says: “…And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

These verses are metaphors for the Christian life, as we are all in a race to the finish line. But this race is not a sprint, it’s a marathon and maybe even an ultra-marathon. Which means we have to pace ourselves. It’s like the old children’s story of the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race. And that’s because it’s not about how fast we finish or what place we take. Finishing is the win!

Life is challenging and, as we seek to live our lives for the Lord, we are going to face challenges. At times we will find ourselves tired and weak. And we may even feel like giving up. It’s in these times, though, that we need to run with perseverance. It’s in these times that we need to fix our eyes on Jesus. Jesus is the prize and He wants to see us finish. And, the truth is, He’s the only one who can sustain us and give us the strength we need to press on and finish. 

How are we doing in the race? Are we tired and weak? Are we feeling like giving up? Wherever we’re at in this race and whether we feel like were succeeding or failing, we need to make sure we keep our eyes on Jesus, because He is our strength. He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. So let’s continue to run with perseverance and look forward to the finish.

Being Part of the Crowd Isn’t Enough

In Matthew 5:1, it tells us: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.”

Some of you may be familiar with this section of scripture and remember this is what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. This is His most widely known sermon, where He shares some amazing truths about His Kingdom. As He begins to speak the greatest sermon in history, we see that there are two groups of people He is addressing: the crowd; and His disciples. And I think it’s important that we understand the difference between these two groups.

The crowd were those who were intrigued by Jesus. They were fascinated by what they’d heard about this new teacher whose teachings were different than any they had ever heard before. They were amazed by the miracles that He had performed and hoped that they could experience some of what He had. And though the crowds constantly surrounded Jesus, the people who were in the crowds were constantly changing.

Then there were the disciples: a small group of people who weren’t just intrigued by Jesus and His teachings, they were people who chose to follow Him. They were fully committed to Jesus and His ministry.

A little while back in our men’s group, we went through a study titled “Not a Fan.” The study talked about this same idea: Are we simply fans of Jesus who give the occasional nod to Him or are we followers who seek to obey Him and follow His commands?

The truth is, being a fan or a part of the crowd is much easier, but that’s not God’s desire for our lives. He has called us to be His disciples and to follow Him—to not just know of Him and His teachings, but to truly KNOW Him and to live out His teachings. 

Are we merely intrigued and fascinated with Jesus or are we actually committed to Him and His will for our lives? Just being part of the crowd isn’t enough. My prayer is that we can step out of the crowd and become the disciples that He’s calling us to be. 

Shining in Adversity

As believers, we are called to be light in a dark world. It’s something I talk about often. But one of the things I’ve realized is that our light often shines the brightest in the midst of adversity.

People aren’t drawn to someone who finds joy in the midst of prosperity. Because the truth is, anyone can find joy in the midst of prosperity. What intrigues people are those who find joy in the midst of struggles.

The apostle Paul had a way of using his pain as a witness. He wrote from a prison in Philippians 1:12: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”

As a prisoner in Rome, Paul wrote many letters to the church that became part of the New Testament. He didn’t allow his circumstances to keep him from letting his light shine.

I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t take God’s power to get through the good things. Honestly, anybody can handle the good stuff. But it does take God’s power to faithfully endure the difficulties and to allow His light to shine in and through them.

The world doesn’t know how to navigate the pain and brokenness we experience in this life. But as followers of Jesus, we can be the examples that they need and help draw them to Christ.

Rick Warren wrote: “Your deepest ministry will come out of your deepest hurt—and your deepest life message will come out of your deepest pain.”

God has this amazing way of working all things together for good for those who love Him. And, as followers of Jesus, we get to allow God to shine through the difficulties and challenges we face—so that we can be His witnesses to the world.

More Than Enough

I talk to a lot of people who deal with insecurities and self-doubt. And if we’re being honest, we probably all deal with this at times in our lives. We have this way of comparing ourselves to others and feeling like we just don’t measure up. Or we realize the realities of our sin and feel like we will never be good enough.

Something I’ve learned over the years is that one of the effects of sin is insecurity. The more we sin, and the more aware we become of our sin, the more insecure we become. I believe this is because we fear that God and others will reject us because of our sin and failures.

So, I guess the question is: How do we work through this fear of rejection and insecurity? 

I think it starts by realizing that God’s love for us is unconditional.  In Romans 5:8 it says: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”You’ll notice that it didn’t say, “Once we get our stuff together, then He’ll show us His love.” No, it says that He showed us His love while we were still in our sin. God knows we’re sinners, He knows that we’re going to fall short: that’s why He died for us. He loves us that much. And because of His love and sacrifice, we are more than enough in His eyes. 

Years ago, I talked about shame and the fact that shame comes from this feeling that says we aren’t good enough. But I believe the unconditional love that Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross was His way of saying we don’t have to be good enough—because He alone is good enough and He did the work for us.

And the second thing that I think will help us to overcome this fear of rejection and insecurity is not comparing ourselves to others. We are called to live the life that God has called US to live. We are all in different places on this journey of following Jesus and our lives should look different. We aren’t called to be a cheap imitation of someone else—we are called to be an authentic version of ourselves. 

God loves us unconditionally and He’s calling us to live the lives that He created US to live. And when we live in this way, we realize we are more than enough in and through Him!

Love Your Enemies

I’m realizing that, the more I watch the news, the more people I find to dislike. We live in a time where people can voice their opinions more freely than ever before. This can—and should—be a good thing. But, unfortunately, it also has many negative aspects.

The news and media continually platform people with extreme views to stir up disagreement and anger from even the most reasonable viewers. And, like I said, this gives us more people to misunderstand and ultimately dislike.

So as Christians, how do we respond in this volatile world that we live in? How do we respond to those who think or believe differently than we do? (Especially the ones that are so vocal and in-your-face about it?) 

Jesus actually dealt with this Himself. There were many people and religious leaders in the days of Jesus who believed differently than Jesus did. There were many who were vocal about it and spoke poorly of Jesus. What did Jesus do? How did He respond to these kinds of people?

In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus shares some challenging words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Are we loving our enemies and praying for them? And if we do pray for them, what are we praying? I’m convinced that, when Jesus said to pray for our enemies, He didn’t mean to pray for something bad to happen to them. 

I’ve talked a lot lately about the fact that God’s Kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. Meaning: He desires for us to live opposite of how the world tells us to live. Right now, the world seems to be telling us that we just need to be louder and more aggressive than those who oppose us. But Jesus tells us to humble ourselves; to speak love instead of hate; to pray for our enemies instead of cursing them or gossiping about them.

Jesus didn’t change the world by putting everyone down and waging war against those who opposed Him. He changed the world by humbling Himself and laying down His life for ALL OF US in love. Jesus didn’t just die for those who were for Him. He died for everyone, even those who opposed Him—even those we might consider our enemies.

Lord, help us learn to live the way You desire for us to live—The way You lived. Help us learn to love our enemies and to pray for them in a way that honors You and shows Your love to a world that so desperately needs it.

For God So Loved

As I was praying and seeking the Lord on what to share this week, the scripture that popped into my head was John 3:16. It happens to be the first scripture I ever memorized as a little 5-year-old. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” -John 3:16

This is a scripture that most Christians know by heart. It’s a scripture that can be seen all over the place. As a huge football fan growing up, I was always intrigued by the rainbow-haired man who would hold up the sign on national television with the words: John 3:16.

It’s an amazing scripture that reminds us how much God loves us. And if we take the time to really process the reality of what God did and what Jesus went through because of their love for us, it can be a little overwhelming.

In John 15:13 it says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I want to believe that I would be willing to lay my life down for a friend. But what about someone who had treated me poorly? What about someone who mocked me or ridiculed me? Would I be willing to lay down my life for them?

What the Father and Son were willing to do for people that had rejected them, for people that had turned their backs on them. That is the kind of love that is overwhelming to think about. But this is the kind of love that God showed the world. This is the kind of love that God shows to you and to me.

Thank You, Lord, for Your love! Thank you for demonstrating what true love looks like. May we learn to love like You love.

Risky Business

Whether we realize it or not, living our lives for Jesus is a risky business. Yes, God is good and yes, we can experience His many blessings. But the fact that we’re called to “take up our cross daily” reminds us that living our lives fully for Him involves risk.

Those that know me, know that I love to quote Pastor Ron Mehl. And one of my favorite quotes of his is this: “If what we’re doing isn’t bigger than us, then we’re outside the will of God.” When I first heard this quote, it really made me think. But the truth is why would God (who created us for relationship with Him) call us to something that we could do on our own?

God calls us to step out and to take risks because He wants us to learn how to trust in Him. He has promised to never leave us and reminds us over and over in His Word that He is a firm foundation for us. The problem is that we often times allow fear to keep us from stepping out, as if every result is on our shoulders.

This week in my message I actually reference the Israelites as they were being called to leave Egypt. Many of them were afraid to leave Egypt. This fear of the unknown and the risks of what they might face paralyzed them and caused them to want to choose a life of slavery over the Promised Land that God had for them.

Do we trust that God is good and that He is calling us to something bigger than ourselves? And are we willing to step out and take hold of it? We aren’t called to be people who play it safe. We’re called to be people who live our lives for Jesus: people who live beyond ourselves and embrace the seemingly risky business of following Him! Because, in the end, we know that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Lord, help us not to be controlled by fear. Help us not rely upon our own control, strength, and understanding, but to remember instead that You are a firm foundation. And help us to trust in You and Your good and pleasing will for our lives.

New Every Morning

This week, I’ve watched the parking lot at our church transform from an old lot full of pot holes and cracks with faint lines that you could barely see to a brand-new lot with fresh pavement and crisp, beautiful lines.

It’s amazing the difference between how it was before and how it is now. And as I looked out the window admiring the new look, I was reminded of how God desires to make us new.

Often times our sin and failures cause us to feel a lot like my churches old lot—run down and in need of some help. But God is willing and able to come alongside us and make us new.

Lamentations 3 tells us that His mercies are new every morning. It doesn’t matter what sins or failures we struggled with the day before, if we confess them and give them to Him, He will take them away and make us new.

As I look at the new parking lot, I can’t help but smile at how nice and new it looks. But the fact is…it can’t even compare to the feeling of a new day in and through Christ.

Lord, we thank You for Your mercies, we thank You for the grace that You so freely give. May we grab hold of the new day You have for each of us!

Stop and Listen

A question I’m asked often as a pastor is: “How do you hear the voice of God?” It’s a great question and actually an easy one to answer—“Take time to stop and listen.”

We live in a world that never stops. We are continually bombarded with one thing after another. There is so much chaos and noise all around us that it seems impossible to hear any voice, especially that still, small voice.

Which is why we must be intentional about taking time to stop and listen. 

I think most of us want to hear God’s voice. We want to do what He’s calling us to do. But the reason many of us fail to hear God’s voice is because we don’t slow down enough to listen.

This reality forces us to ask the question: “What’s most important to us?” We want to hear God’s voice, but we don’t make time for it. Everything else in our lives seems to take precedence. What does this say about the importance of God in our life?

I know most of us have a hero or person in this world that we would love to meet someday. Whether it’s a sports star, a movie star, a famous singer, a favorite evangelist, or someone else. Who is that person that comes to your mind?

If we got a phone call today telling us that this person was going to be in town and wanted to meet us for breakfast tomorrow at 6am, I’m pretty sure we would cancel any other plans we had and be there. We would get up as early as possible to look our best and probably even arrive 30 minutes early. Why? Because it’s something that would be important to us.

The crazy thing is, the Creator of the universe desires to meet with us daily. Are we willing to make time for Him? Are we willing to slow down a little and take time to stop and listen to what He wants to say?

I know that my days are filled with important responsibilities, commitments, and activities. But my time with God should be the most important thing on my calendar, because everything else is meant to flow out of this. If I want to hear His voice, I need to make sure I’m taking time to stop and listen to what He has to say.