Happy New Year

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” – James 4:13-16.

The new year is an exciting time as we look forward to what is ahead. It is a new chapter in our life and we are the author. It will be written on a new, clean piece of paper. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:13-14: “No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”  Paul did not dwell on his past failures.  He looked forward to the goal which is the prize. That prize is the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. It is a race with a finish line. 

2018 presents us a new race with a new finish line. It’s a new day, a new year, and a new you. As the new year approaches, we often think of things we would “like” to change in our lives.  Perhaps we ponder things we “need” to change. We may even consider matters that we “want” to change. We start making statements like “I have to get on track this year in making a particular change.”  Or “I have to get started on the journey by taking this step.” 

So what changes would you like to make this year? What will you resolve to do differently this year? Psalm 17:3 provides an excellent example of someone that feels he “has” to make a commitment.  He is “determined…”   “You have tested my thoughts and examined my heart in the night.You have scrutinized me and found nothing wrong. I am determined not to sin in what I say.” 

As we begin this new year, my prayer is that we are committed to trusting God to work in our lives in a new, and powerful way. So rather than seeing the start of another year as a daunting task to be met or an unknown to be feared, my prayer is that we can trust in God’s sovereignty over every aspect of our lives. There will be new blessings, new trials, new failures, and new victories, but His goodness will guard them all.

In 2018, let the joy of the Lord be your strength, let Him direct your life, remember, He is all you need.

Discussion questions:

  1. What is your mindset entering the new year?
  2. What would you like to change in your life in 2018?

What God Wants For Christmas

“This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. All honor and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen.” – 1 Timothy 1:15-17.    

“What do you want for Christmas?” It is a question Santa asks excited kids from one end of the country to another. The same question is asked by parents to their kids regardless of age. The same question is asked of husbands by their wives and vice-versa. It is the pressing question on the minds of business people who want consumers to purchase their products in stores or online. Every year we ask the question of family and friends and every year family and friends ask us in return: “What do you want for Christmas?” Perhaps, though, we need to ask God what He wants for Christmas.  

How often do we pray to God, “What do You want for Christmas?” After all, Christmas is the celebration of Christ Jesus’ birth. It would seem to be appropriate to ask God what He wants amidst the billions of gifts that are given to loved ones each year. Micah 6:8 gives us the answer in part: “No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This verse tells us what God really wants from you and me. Scripture says that God requires us to do three things; do what is right, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

The message of Micah is still pertinent today. Trying to be religious, not matter how well intended, can never compensate for a lack of love: If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3) What does God want for Christmas? The answer is simple: you.  He came to earth 2000 years ago in order to die on a cross to rescue us from sin and death.  In a word, He was born for you.  He rose again so that we would rise with Him.

There is really only one thing that Jesus wants for Christmas. Jesus wants you.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What can we give to Jesus this Christmas season? 

Quite The Story

“But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.” – Galatians 4:4-5.

Everyone loves baby Jesus. Even casual observers find it easy to warm up to this sweet little Jesus boy away in a manger — no crying He makes. It’s such a great story. Even to those who don’t believe — it’s a captivating and engaging tale. A poor girl visited by an angel; a miraculous pregnancy; an exhausting ride on a donkey to Bethlehem; no room in the inn; a baby born in a barn among sheep and cattle; a magnificent star; more angels; bewildered shepherds; and royal visitors from far away.

This was how God was controlling the world events crucial to the birth of Christ. It set everything in motion for what must have been a miserable trip physically, distressing for her to go far from home. In addition, she was far from her mother, far from her family, far from everybody who knew her and loved her and cared about her to have a baby on the road, as it were, in an obscure place.  And remember, she was very young. Even if it wasn’t a tale of the divine, we would be intrigued by it. Unfortunately, that is as far as some of us ever get. We are just intrigued.

But none of this story is accidental. Every single detail was in the hand of Almighty God. And God still directs history and He still holds everything in His hand for His own purposes. So the Christmas story is so very much more than a story. It is God Himself, seated on His throne, yet sleeping in a straw bed; holding the planets in place, yet grasping Joseph’s finger. It is the Alpha and Omega, ungoverned by the dimensions of time and space, but confining himself to a specific moment in a dirty and uncomfortable place. It is the indescribable God becoming a son to a simple Jewish girl and a carpenter. Colossians 2:9 tells us “For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.” 

Now that is some story. And the best part is, it is a true story of love. As the Christmas season comes and goes this year, may hope be found in the truth of God’s word and the knowledge of His unchanging love for us every day of the year. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. With no room in the inn, what do you think Mary and Joseph might have felt?
  2. Do you think someone might have made room if they had known more about the child Mary was carrying?
  3. In what ways do we make room for Jesus? Have there been times in your own life when you failed to make room for Him?

Last Christmas I Got A …

“So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” – John 1:14.

Christmas is a hectic time that typically adds additional preparation tasks to a already busy schedule. Setting out decorations and replacing dysfunctional light strands, getting serious about all of the gift shopping, and maybe now gift returns. Advertisers, Amazon, and retail shops are thinking about Christmas a little earlier every year. The question is when should the church start thinking about Christmas? No matter how early we begin thinking about Christmas, we tend to forget once the decorations come down and the calendar has turned to January. But why should it be strange to be thinking about the Christmas story other than at Christmas?

If I asked a group of people what they received for Christmas last year, I wonder how many could quickly come up with an answer. If you can remember what you got last Christmas, it is a good sign and an indication that what you received was something that you really wanted. It was something that was either useful or fun and and made a difference in your life. For those of us who can’t remember, it is an indication that you received something you did not want. And chances are, the gifts you don’t remember are no longer in your possession.

The Christmas story is about the most wonderful gift that any of us could ever receive and the truth is that Christmas is for life and not just for Christmas. The birth of Jesus Christ, which is what we celebrate at Christmas, has meaning all year round, because Christ is for life, not just for Christmas. The fact that God came down to earth in the Lord Jesus Christ changed everything forever. Jesus being born in Bethlehem proves to us that rather than being a distant creator who now has little or nothing to do with ordinary people like us, God is right here with us through the ups and downs, the highs and lows of life.

That is what Christmas is all about. Sometimes we can forget just how powerful this holiday really is. Whatever the case, as we reflect on Jesus’ birth story, observing the Father’s wisdom, I pray you’ll come to realize just how great and mighty our God is.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What if our church decided to “skip Christmas?” What impact would that have on people or on you?
  2. What’s the one thing you wish you could change about Christmas?
  3. What can we do to keep the Christmas story in our hearts all year long? 

God Is Close

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” – 1 Kings 19 11-12.   

A little over 2,000 years ago, God spoke in the most inconspicuous way. He sent His Son to be born of a no-name teenage girl in a no-name town at just the right moment God had promised to send a Messiah, one who would save His people. He could have easily burst on the scene as a full grown man, a seven-foot warrior with fiery eyes and arms of steel. Or He could have been a mighty king, or a hero. Most people were expecting the Messiah as either a king, warrior or hero. But that was not God’s plan. The Messiah came as a whisper, a very small package, wrapped in rags, given from the heart of God; the perfect gift.

There is a story in the first half of the Bible that relates Elijah’s experience of hearing God speak to him in a whisper. 1 Kings chapter 19 relates the story: Elijah is dejected saying that “…The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:10) Then in verse 11: “The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” As we read in the passage above that God is not in the wind, or in a earthquake, or in a fire. God is in a gentle whisper.

So why does God speak to us through a whisper? Perhaps God speaks to us in a whisper because He is close. He doesn’t need to speak any louder. You don’t shout when you’re close to someone. You talk at the appropriate volume. Paul explains in Acts: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.” (Acts 17:26-28, NIV).

The Messiah was born in a whisper in Bethlehem all those years ago. But if we listen closely, we can still hear the soft whisper of God today. We can hear that still small voice that says, “Do not be afraid. Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you; I will help you.”  God is close enough to each of us to whisper. 

Discussion questions:

  1. What is the “still small voice?” Why would God whisper instead of shout?
  2. Do you listen for the still small voice?
  3. What are the benefits of listening for the still small voice?

A Christmas To Remember

“ …And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is becoming easy for society to remember the presents and glitter while the true reason for Christmas has been steadily slipping away from the world’s focus. Yet, for 2,000 years, Jesus has not been forgotten. Nor has the story of His birth. If you asked the average person on the street why Jesus came to earth, you would get different answers. Some would say that it has something to do with peace and good-will on earth, to teach us to forget hostilities and to renew our hopes for mankind.

When was the last time you paused to consider why we celebrate Christmas, and why did Jesus come in the first place? We find the answer in the angel’s words in Matthew 1:21: “…you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  The angel also told Joseph, “…they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23) 

I don’t think we need much to convince us that our world has real problems. We can look around every day and see that the world is broken, and no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to fix it. Closer to home our lives have problems as well.  We do things we know we shouldn’t. We feel guilty, broken, empty, like we’re always missing something — even at this time of year. Surrounded by bright lights and festive music we are hoping for something new and different. It is then we find the hope of Christmas and the reason God came to earth. That reason is echoed throughout the New Testament in different ways and with different words – but all with the same meaning and thought. Why did Jesus come? Jesus came to save sinners.

So this Christmas, remember why God came to earth. Luke 2:11 says, “The Savior–yes, the Messiah, the Lord–has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!”  Think about that for a few moments and take time to remember the reason for the season.

Discussion questions:

  1. What is your favorite part of the Christmas story and why? Do you ever feel like God came to earth to save you?
  2. Do you feel like your family captures the heart and the integrity of the Christmas season? If so, how have you done that successfully?
  3. What would you suggest are a couple of practical ways to help refocus on the true meaning of Christmas?

Living With Hope, Hurts, Habits And Hangups

“We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently).” – Romans 8:24-25. 

The road to success is often littered with potholes, speed bumps, zigzags, cliffs. and failures. At some point on our journey, we will have the urge to sigh and to lose hope.  At other times we will cling to our hope that things will get better. But it is one thing to cling to a hope, it is an entirely different thing to have a true, living hope.

In 1 Peter 1:3 (ESV), Peter tells us, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”  We have a living hope. Ours is a living hope only because its foundation is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And this living hope will never end and sustains us through this sometimes bumpy ride called life.

The fact that Jesus rose from the dead gives us assurance that our hope is not in vain. The resurrection vindicates Jesus’ identity as God; who is making all things new: “And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5).

So what do we do with this hope? “Living hope” requires action. Living hope should be a fruitful and productive hope. Living hope is hope that has power and produces changes in life. This is what “living’ means in Hebrews 4:12, where it says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

So Christian hope is a strong confidence in God who has power to produce changes in how we live and how we deal with trials or disappointments.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Knowing God allows us to live with great hope and great expectation. Agree or disagree and why?
  2. How does having a living hope cause us to live differently as we plan, receive bad news, walk through trials or disappointment, or even enjoy earthly blessings?
  3. In light of reading this devotional, what is one specific way you want to apply this passage this week? 

The Hope Of Christmas

“Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” – Luke 2:13-14. 

I enjoy the time leading up to Christmas as much as I do Christmas day itself. There is something special about this time of year. It’s the Christmas music. It’s the feeling of love and hope that overwhelms me this time of year. It’s seeing God’s love in this world and the hope of what is to come. 

Hope is is not a granted wish or a favor performed. No, it is far greater than that. It is a faith-filled, unpredictable dependence on a God who loves us and wants the best for us. Hope isn’t actually something we do, but something we receive, like grace. But for hope to exist, there must also be hopelessness. If everything was perfect or even near perfect there would not be any need for hope. But our world was far from perfect. And in all the millions of concerted efforts to make the world a better place, to bring hope to humanity, real hope came unexpectedly. God came to earth to provide a once-and-for-all substitute for the sins of everyone on the first Christmas. 

It is impossible not to be in awe of God’s design and methods. Who could have conceived of the plan of salvation or the virgin birth. Who could have imagined the plan for the walls of Jericho to crumble, for hungry lions to turn into Daniel’s pet kittens, or the Red Sea to part and offer up dry land. Who could have conceived of the Son of God dying on the cross for the sins of the world. And who can conceive the plans God has for me and you and the blessings and miracles we could see this Christmas. So neither do I know how my problems will be solved, or what miracles I’ll be blessed to see this Christmas. 

Isaiah 9:6-7 talks about the hope of the prophecy being fulfilled that brought us a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The last sentence of verse seven says it’s “The passionate commitment of the Lord” that will make this happen. Romans 15:13 says: “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

Why is there hope? Because Jesus was born. So we celebrate the hope of Christmas today. I hope you take a few moments this Christmas season to reflect on and to thank God for bringing us this hope.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does a hope in a Jesus Christ life look like?
  2. How does hope change the way we live our lives?

Set Free

“For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.  For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” – Galatians 5:13-15.

In our society today the definition of freedom has become distorted. The world has confused freedom with indulgence. Christians are called to freedom (Galatians 5:13-15). Yet we are not to use our freedom as a excuse or license for self-indulgence. Freedom is not a permission slip.

It is easy to fall into what Andy Stanley calls our sin bucket mentality. Every day we fill our sin bucket and that evening we ask God to forgive us our sins, thus emptying our bucket.  Then we go about filling the bucket again the next day. Yes, we have freedom, and yes God will forgive, but freedom isn’t a license to continue filling our sin bucket.

True freedom is never freedom from responsibility, but responsibility not only for choice, but right choices. True freedom flows out of total commitment to Jesus Christ. “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.” (Mark 8:35)  In turning control of our lives over to Him, we find true freedom—the freedom to be what we were designed to be. Using our freedom to indulge ourselves never really satisfies us as an individual or as a group. 

There was a far higher cost paid for the freedom that you and I enjoy in Christ. You and I must never take for granted His mercy, love and grace.  We are free in Christ.  There is no other freedom like it.  No king, nation, president, congress, senate, or supreme court can steal it, remove it, or destroy it.  We are held firmly in His hand: “So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” (John 8:36) And Jesus will not only make you free, if you let Him, He will keep you free.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you have define Christian freedom?
  2. How does Galatians 5:13-14 define Christian freedom?

A Landslide Victory

“For the Lord your God is going with you! He will fight for you against your enemies, and he will give you victory!” – Deuteronomy 20:4

In every facet of life, we have seen victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. That requires a person or team to win, succeed, or be victorious at the last moment, despite the apparent likelihood of failure or defeat. A prime example is the Houston Oilers. 1993 AFC Wild Card Round, playoff game verses the Buffalo Bills known as “‘The Comeback” and rightly so. The Oilers were up 35-3 early in the second half. The Bills went on to put up an incredible 35 unanswered points and ended up winning the game in overtime 41-38. There are two opponents that we can never snatch a last minute victory over: sin and death.

The Bible tells us everyone has sinned. Every one of us occasionally pushes God aside to do what we want to do. Our sinful nature is very difficult to control and so it can easily gain control.  In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul makes an honest portrayal of his enslavement to his sinful nature. If we were to be as honest as Paul, we could probably relate to his inability to do what he wants to do or stop doing what he doesn’t want to do. It is a universal problem. Sin is one enemy we cannot defeat no matter how much time and effort we put into it.

Death is the other enemy we can’t defeat. We can’t control sin, and sin results in death. God told Adam and Eve if they sinned, they would die, and the wages of sin remains death today. (Romans 6:23) We die. It is pretty hard to argue with that fact when death has been batting a thousand since Adam and Eve.

Fortunately, God is a god of victory. In the Old Testament we see God victorious, and giving the ultimate victory to His people. But even then there were two enemies even God’s people could not defeat: sin and death. So God sends His only Son Jesus, born in manger in Bethlehem. God takes human form. “Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form.” (Philippians 2:7)

Jesus lived a human life and then went to the cross. Tortured, beaten and bloody, He died a horrible agonizing death and was buried in a tomb.  It seemed like the most devastating loss ever suffered. The one who many thought was God in the flesh was now dead and buried. Defeat seemed total and final. Except it wasn’t final, it wasn’t total It was not even defeat. It was the ultimate victory. For it was on the cross Jesus overcame our sin problem. Three days later, Jesus walked out of the grave, overcoming our death problem and setting us free.

1 Corinthians 15:57 says, “But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  We can live with confidence. A confidence not in ourselves, but in the One who has the power to experience victory over sin and death.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does a victorious life look like?
  2. Through Christ, we have victory over sin. How can that be evident in your life this week?