Out of Shape?

This year, there is a great deal of emphasis being placed upon the importance of the Reformation of the Church 500 years ago. Being repeated so many times, I wonder if the word “Reformation” starts to lose some of its meaning for us when we hear it. To “Re-form” something means, of course, “to form again.” Luther set about his work because he saw that the Church had become misshapen, off kilter, or “out of shape” from what it was when formed originally by the apostles’ teaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified. It needed to be formed once again into what Christ through His apostles had built it.

This gradual falling “out of shape” is not “natural” in a perfect world. At the Creation, God gave us a world where there was no decay, nothing misshapen or off kilter, and things held together the way they were intended. However, with the world cursed by sin, such falling out of shape is an inevitable consequence. We see it in many places besides the Church of the 16th century. Our bodies slow down, our senses deteriorate, our parts settle into unusual positions, and the older we get the more we recognize a general sense of being “out of shape.” Our societies forget or ignore the moral law that God has written upon our hearts, they reject the teachings and traditions of history and our forefathers, and there is a general sense that things are falling apart in our world. Even the family unit can become misshapen and distorted as individual families drift apart through conflict or apathy, parents and children forget their fourth commandment duties to one another, and our world even goes so far as to redefine what “family” is. Let’s face it: everything falls apart in this sinful world.

Thankfully, by the power of the Holy Spirit our faith and hope are in the mercy and grace of the Great Reformer; and no, I don’t mean Martin Luther. Jesus Christ came into this misshapen, off kilter, out-of-shape world to mend what had been broken and lost. He took this world in His mighty, gentle hands and molded it back the way it was meant to be. In His life, we see flashes of Creation restored: the hungry are fed, storms are calmed, the sick are healed, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead rise again. But even greater that all these, we see Him bringing forth the forgiveness of sins through His death and resurrection. We are made alive again in Him, our relationship with God the Father is restored by Jesus’ mediation, and we will live eternally with our Triune God.

The same Potter Who formed the universe by His Word and formed man out of the dust has reformed, restored, and renewed His living Church. In Christ alone is our hope, only by His grace, only by faith, through the power of His Word. To God be the glory! Amen.

By His grace,

Andrew Boll

The “Why” and “How” of Teaching Obedience to God

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

We all know and believe that obedience to God is important. We see that God’s law is not only for our earthly good, but that our obedience serves as a light and a witness to those apart from God. God does not make His blessings and salvation to the Israelites contingent upon their obedience. God has given them the Promised Land. Now they in response are to show obedience to Him, thereby glorifying His name to those apart from the covenant community and drawing them unto Him.

Of course the Israelites would not follow God in perfect obedience. If they had, what need would there have been for the promise of Jesus, the Savior? But the obedience that they did have – where did it come from? I think verse 7 holds the answer: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray?”

You see, God did not draw close to the Israelites because of their perfect obedience. You don’t have to read much of their history to understand how true this is. Rather, the obedience that they showed to God was a response to His having drawn near to them, loving them, and redeeming them from oppression and slavery.

We are not redeemed because of our obedience. Obedience follows redemption. This was, is, and always will be the proper order. “Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:134-135). God does not love the writer of this psalm because of his obedience. Rather, the psalm writer obeys God and gladly learns His decrees because he loves God. Why does he love God? Because God has first loved him saved him.

Teaching obedience is important. We want our children to have peaceful, happy, orderly lives. We want them to be lights and witnesses to the Lord our God. We want to equip them with the full armor of God, so that they may be able to take their stand against the devil’s schemes (Eph. 6). We want them to be able to quell the wickedness that comes from their own human hearts (Mark 7:20-23).

So where do we start? We start by helping them to realize that they don’t always obey God’s law. Sometimes their lives will not be peaceful and orderly, and they will not be content. Sometimes they will fall victim to the traps and snares that Satan sets for them. Sometimes the wickedness of their own hearts will rise up and spill forth in their thoughts, words, and actions.

But then comes the best part: showing them that Jesus Christ came to earth for them, lived the life of perfect obedience that we could never achieve, and finally died and rose again so that we might also enter the Promised Land by His grace. Redemption.

We do not begin teaching our children obedience to God by telling them to obey. We begin by teaching them love for God through the story of our redemption in Holy Scripture. As they grow to understand and appreciate just how much God has done for them, we see the beautiful and natural response in their lives: obedience. And when this obedience inevitably fails, they will know it. Then it is our joy once again to point them back to God’s Word, to the cross, to the waters of their baptism, to their redemption through God’s love and grace.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to teach others love for You through sharing the Gospel of what you have done for them.  Guard my heart from doubt and disbelief when I fail to obey Your Law.  Send Your Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament to bolster my faith, through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

The Parable of the Foolish Branch

Text: John 15:1-17

Once upon a time there was a great Vine with a very foolish branch.  One day this foolish branch was thinking about how strong and thick he was, how green and shiny its leaves were, and how plump and juicy fruit always grew on its stems.  Seeing all this, he decided that he didn’t need the Vine anymore.  So he cut himself off from the Vine and set off on his own.

The foolish branch experienced all kinds of wild, exciting things in the days to come, and he knew that he had made a very wise decision.  After all, these were experiences he had never had before, in places he had only dreamed of visiting.  He felt sorry for all the other branches back in the vineyard, stuck firmly in place, rooted to the Vine.  Oh, if only they knew what they were missing!  A wave of superiority flooded over him as he compared his newly enlightened lifestyle with the boring, mundane life of his old friends.

However, these new experiences were taking their toll on the foolish branch, which he soon began to discover.  His delicate leaves weren’t used the abuse of gallivanting all over the countryside, and he noticed after some time that his foliage wasn’t quite as thick as it had been when he was attached to the Vine.  Many of his fine, shimmering leaves had fallen or been knocked off during his adventures outside the vineyard.  He wisely concluded that he would just have to be more careful – but this was no crisis too terrible for one such as him.

At first, the foolish branch didn’t even notice the parching thirst that came over him – he was so distracted with all the fun he was having away from the Vine.  He was not accustomed to this lack of water.  All his life it had constantly been supplied to him through a constant and invisible mystery; but that was when he had been attached to the Vine, and its distended veins allowed the sweet, life-giving liquid to flow steadily into him.  But now, his few remaining leaves lost their sheen, growing dry and brown around the edges.  The foolish branch knew that he must find a water source on his own if he was to survive, but without the strong, deep roots of the Vine, this was proving very difficult indeed.  When he finally did manage to locate a filthy little mud puddle, he was shocked to learn that the healthy veins that had connected him to the Vine were steadily closing up, as though an invisible firebrand had cauterized the place that had once secured him to life and health.  The foolish branch became worried.

As the branch trudged along, no longer reveling in the liberty and excitement of his enlightened lifestyle, he stopped to rest against the fence behind the barn.  Peering across the field, he saw something strange; the vineyard workers carried sad, dilapidated bundles of something brown and twisted.  Squinting, the foolish branch recoiled in horror as he realized what it was; it was the branches that year after year produced no fruit and had been cut off from the Vine.  When he had seen them last, they looked healthy enough; true, they had no fruit on their stems, but their leaves had been green and lustrous as his own…

He looked down at himself and almost withered on the spot.  He was no longer bearing even the slightest bit of fruit.  His leaves were wilted and dried up.  Everything about him bore a striking exactitude to the branches now being carried by the vineyard workers, to…where were they taking them?  The branch’s eyes were drawn toward a thick billowing cloud of inky black smoke on top of the hill.  His eyes continued to follow the workers as they approached the burning heap, stopped, and promptly cast the great burden into the waiting flames!  The horror, the shock of seeing it sent the foolish branch reeling.  What was he doing here?  Why did he leave the Vine in the first place?  Who did he think he was?  He was a branch, grown to produce fruit – not amble about the countryside idly enjoying the sights!  There was only one thing to do; he must produce fruit, and now!

The foolish branch thought that perhaps he could produce fruit on his own, without the Vine.  Yes!  That’s it!  The branch hunkered down where he lie and squeezed with all his might.  He pushed and grunted and heaved, but it was no good.  He suddenly came upon the terrible realization that he had no idea how to produce to a single grape.  Sure, he had produced thousands before, while still attached to the Vine, but back then it had just sort of…happened.  Now, now that he must perform this feat for himself or be destroyed, it was simply impossible.  The same life-giving waters that the Vine had poured into him had been the very source of the nutrition that produced each and every grape on his stems.  He realized now that – by himself – he had never been able to produce any fruit to begin with.

Parched, wilted, and despairing, the branch crawled its way back to the Vine.  He could see, well up the Vine, the very place where he had cut himself off from life.  The spot was healed over now.  Even if he could reach it – which he knew was impossible – there would be no way to be grafted back onto the Vine at this point.  He was as good as dead.  He lay down on the ground and waited for the inevitable – when the vineyard workers came and made their rounds, picking up the dead branches to be cast into the fire.

Toward evening, he heard steps approaching.  The footsteps stopped just next to where he lay.  He felt himself being slowly lifted from the ground, saw the bundle of brown, twisted, fruitless branches a few yards away, and waited to be tossed atop the pile.  But something happened then that he wasn’t expecting.  As gentle hands turned him over, he found himself looking at no mere worker; it was the face of the very Gardener Himself.  The Gardener just looked at him; looked at him for a long while with a very sad, compassionate look on his face.  He then nodded to himself, took a knife out of his pocket, and trimmed away the crusted surface where the branch had once held onto the Vine.  What was he doing?  The foolish branch looked on apprehensively as the Gardener reached out to his own Vine, the Vine he had loved and cared for all these years, and sliced into the surface of that Vine directly where the branch had cut itself away.  The branch could have cried out for pity’s sake – don’t hurt the Vine!  It’s my fault!  I was the fool!  I deserve the fire!

The branch didn’t understand what was happening, but watched with shame and sorrow as the sap poured out of the Vine which had been wounded because of him.  The Gardener continued to work, pressing the now clean surface of the branch to the freshly-wounded Vine, grafting the branch back in its very own place.  He bound the foolish branch there with strong and gentle cloth, working with care and diligence.  The foolish branch felt life flowing back into it once more through the wound of the Vine.  In time, his leaves began to green once more and luscious fruits ripened and filled on his stems.  And the once-foolish branch never again forgot that this miracle was only possible because of the ever-sustaining Vine and the love and sacrifice of the Vine and the Gardener.


 

My friends, it is a very dangerous thing to cut ourselves off from Jesus, the true Vine.  We know that in Him, and in Him alone, is found life and salvation.  Yet we neglect His Word, always finding something “better” to do with our time than read the life-giving Scriptures.  We fail to pray, to call upon him in praise and thanksgiving, to put our every sorrow and need into His loving hands, opting instead to face the impossible in our own feeble power.  We stray from our worship habits, relishing Sunday mornings as “our own time,” and not even noticing the slow withering of our leaves and the decay of our fruits as we distance ourselves from the Church that would feed and nourish us with His Word and Sacraments, cleansing our sinful wounds through the confession and absolution of sins.

We, like the branch, are all fools.  We go our own way, looking for excitement and adventure even at the very cost of our own destruction.  We cannot produce any good work that is pleasing to God apart from Jesus, for Jesus is ultimately all that matters in this world.  We cannot even take credit for the growth of our faith, just a branch does not decide to grow itself, but starts as nothing and grows up out of the Vine, by its power and discretion.  And when we fall away, it is only through the caring, gentle hands of the Father that we are brought back to life and salvation through the True Vine, Jesus Christ, who poured out His own blood on the cross that we might live in Him and through Him.

May Jesus sustain and nourish you always through His Word, and may you always rest in the loving hands of God the Father.  Amen.

Dissentions and Factions – By Schisms Rent Asunder

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)

The army of saints is most effective in spiritual warfare when we move as a single unit under one Lord and General.  Part of our training process is learning to fight side by side with other Christians in humble submission to God’s Word, rather than each faction, congregation, or individual insisting on “having things my way.”

But aren’t doctrinal issues serious enough to warrant thorough study of the Scriptures and – if need be – diligent discussion and debate among God’s people?  Of course.  Can Christian brothers and sisters pursue the teaching of God’s Word in truth and purity without becoming weakened and divided?  Absolutely.

Even the apostles disagreed upon certain issues.  The disciples didn’t always “get it” when Jesus would reveal to them a certain facet of heavenly truth.  Does this mean that they weren’t united?  For all of the frustration that Jesus must have had to deal with in teaching His twelve students, He yet confessed that He was united with them – even at the end of His earthly ministry, while they still did not understand the basic mission that He had come to accomplish: “For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.  They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me…I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:8,14).

Faced with His hour of suffering and ultimate victory, Jesus knew that the unity of the Church today would be a vital part of carrying the message of that victory into the world.  He even spent his last precious moments before being arrested and taken to die praying for us – the Christians of today – that we would be united in Him:

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

Even as we engage in debate and discussion concerning the Scriptures, Christians of all synods and denominations can find unity in the love of God through Christ Jesus.  The Holy Spirit further equips us against the dangers of factions and dissensions by giving us powerful weapons; the joy of salvation through Christ alone; patience, kindness, and gentleness as we lovingly respond to our Christian brothers and sisters; the inexpressible comfort and peace that comes from knowing that God has loved all of us enough to send His Son to suffer and die for our sins.

Onward, Christian soldiers.  Be one in spirit and purpose, united in our assault against the prince of this dark world.  Let our love of God show in the love that we direct to those around us, humbly walking hand in hand – even when we don’t see eye to eye.

“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” (1 Timothy 2:8)

“Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace.  And the God of love and peace will be with you…May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:11,14)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, send Your Spirit in power and unity upon Your Church.  Bless us through diligent study of Your Word, that we may come to know You ever more deeply.  Grant that all of Your children may work steadfastly for Your kingdom, united by Your love and the peace that we have in the forgiveness of sins; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Discord – Reaping what you Sow

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

“Men’s hearts ought not to be set against one another, but set with one another, and all against evil only.” (Thomas Carlyle)

What sets one man’s heart against another man?  What causes him to go out of his way to sow discord, anger, and malice between others or incite hatred against another individual?  James pretty much nails it when he says to the Christians of his day, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1).

Once again, we find that old culprit “Self” at blame for the discord and strife in our world.  One man turns against another or sows discord, spreading lies and stirring up evil against his brother, because his self comes first in his heart.  Perhaps it is an issue of wounded pride.  Maybe he simply wants something a certain way and won’t let anyone get in the way of his own comfort or ideal.  And quite often, we feel perfectly justified in our malice and discord directed at one another because we honestly believe that what we are doing is “for the best.”  If someone is liable to get hurt in the process, well, they probably brought it upon themselves by opposing us in our “rightness.”  Besides, doesn’t the end justify the means?

Sowing and practicing discord is a form of idolatry – a blatant raising of the Self above God and His clear commands for us.  My pride, my desire, my way of doing things comes first.  God’s command to love one another gets shoved aside to make way for our selfish motives and hurtful means.  Rather than serving our neighbor in love, we do a great disservice to everyone involved by convincing ourselves that what he really needs right now is to be “put in his place.”  The animosity between us grows, the unity is shattered, and our witness to the world is greatly diminished as others look on in horror at the way these “Christians” treat each other.

So what weapons does God give us to combat this great evil in our midst – indeed, even within our own hearts?  One weapon is singled out as particularly effective against discord, and the Savior Himself hands it to us today; “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27).  Paul encourages us to fight with all our strength against discord and to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  And James reminds us that the sowing of discord must be countered by God’s warriors with the sowing of peace; “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 4:18).

As God grants us peace with Him through His Word by the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ, He can also calm the raging tempest of wicked desires that battle within our hearts.  He shows us the way and gives us the means to have peace with our neighbors; by using the weapons of love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.  Finally, we can also have peace within ourselves as we find true meaning in living a life as a redeemed child of God and serving Him by loving our neighbor.

God’s love empowers and compels us to sow the seed of the Gospel in peace, watching joyfully while the Holy Spirit raises up a harvest of true righteousness as those who hear it receive the very righteousness that comes through Christ’s own blood.  The world and our sinful nature call us to the sowing of discord and the worship of selfish desires, but God calls us to glorify Him by sowing His Word, that His peace may be harvested in abundance throughout the world.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:17-18)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for giving me the peace that comes from knowing You have reconciled me to Yourself through the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Help me to share this peace with all those around me by boldly sharing the Gospel and by serving them in love.  Amen.

Hatred – Directing our Anger Rightly

“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” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Nothing destroys the credibility of Christian witness like a healthy dose of hatred.

Unfortunately, our world has been misled about what hatred is.  We are told that the worst form of hatred is “intolerance,” and that it is more loving to simply “live and let live.”  This, my friends, is a deadly lie.  We ought not tolerate sin in our midst any more than we would tolerate a boa constrictor in the crib of a sleeping infant.

Out of love for the precious child, we would strike at the fiendish serpent, tearing it from the body of the infant and crushing it underfoot.  However, at the same time as we are ruthlessly killing the snake, we would take the utmost care not to harm or damage the child.

In the same way, though God instructs us to hate sin and take all measures to remove it from the life of a believer, we care deeply for the one who has become entangled by the serpent and exercise great caution lest we harm their faith.  Sin has crept into their life as they lie numbed and sleeping, lulled into a sense of comfort and safety by the world.  Though their sin may be large and hideous, what mother would be so overwhelmed by the sight of the gruesome serpent that she would forget herself and strike out at her own child in order to kill the snake?

And yet, that is exactly what happens all too often with Christians.  Our hatred is misdirected; we forget that sin, death, and the Devil are the enemies, and that the sinners are – in at least some sense – victims.  Even if your child had been playing with snakes and bringing them into his bedroom, you would still not hesitate to rush to their rescue when they lie crushed and strangling.  A lecture may soon follow the harrowing experience, but saving the life of the child would undoubtedly come first.

Our “enemies” are such because of sin in the world – the disgusting serpent that has wrapped its slimy body around you and me and all people.  We react angrily to sin, especially sin directed toward us.  This anger translates quickly to hatred when we put ourselves first, thinking about my comfort, my peace, and my reputation before the needs of our sinful neighbor and the commands of our loving God.  Instead of directing our ill will towards this person, we can respond in love, showing them God’s “more excellent way” and gently, yet firmly, pulling the serpent from around their throat.

The “me first” philosophy is certainly prevalent in our society, and perhaps it is largely to blame for the rampant hatred in our world.  Our weapons against this evil are patience, kindness, gentleness, and of course, love.  Don’t be deluded into thinking that your own neck is serpent-free; rest assured that you offend others daily with your carelessness, thoughtlessness, and callous insensitivity.  Let us look always to the needs and interests of others (even our “enemies”) and to the calling we have received from our great and merciful God.  Let us ever be ruthless and unrelenting when handling the serpent of sin, yet tender and loving to the precious child of God about whom it is wrapped.

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen…Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:29;31-32)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as You strengthen and equip me to fight the evils of sin, grant me also an extra measure of Your love, that I might deal compassionately with those who deal wickedly with me; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Spiritual Self-Defense

“He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3)

When I look at my self carefully, I don’t always like what I see.  I see a self that constantly wants to do what God in His love forbids.  I see a self that relies on its own powers and abilities instead of trusting the Lord.  I see a self that is sinful, arrogant, and weak.

I see a self that needs defending.

It’s some comfort to know that I’m not alone in this assessment.  In fact, St. Paul came to the same conclusion when he looked at his self: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Romans 7:21-23)

So much for comfort.  If St. Paul couldn’t defend his self from the attacks of the world, the Devil, and his own sinful flesh, then I figure I’m pretty much toast.  I know Paul called himself the “chief of sinners” and all, but let me you – there are days when I think I could teach him a thing or two about being a sinner (and not in a good way).

It’s fairly evident that if my self is going to be defended against evil, it had better not be left up to me to get the job done.  I haven’t the strength to resist even the pettiest temptations and attacks that Satan throws at me.  So, who you gonna’ call?  “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1)

St. Paul came to the same conclusion: “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)  Thankfully, it isn’t up to ourselves to defend our selves in our spiritual self-defense.  My self is protected against all evil by the One who has already rescued me from sin, death, and the power of the Devil.

We may be able to delight in God’s law as we see the inherent goodness and holiness of His will for us, but we could never live up to its requirements, so it brings only death.  But through the power of the Gospel, the Law has been fulfilled and we are saved from the dreadful consequences of our failure.  God’s love, shown though Jesus’ death and resurrection, not only justifies us before His judgment seat, but it also transforms our hearts through the Holy Spirit, empowering us to live as His children and disciples.  And yet our defense doesn’t come from self; it comes from God through Christ Jesus.

In the coming devotions, we will examine many of the individual ways we are attacked spiritually in our walk with God.  Praise be to God that through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, we are daily enriched in faith, strengthened in will, and renewed with the drowning of the Old Adam in us so that we can stand firm against the Devil’s assaults as we minister to the world.

And even so, we will stumble; we will fail to live perfectly and will allow many thrusts, jabs, and slashes to get through our defenses.  But underneath, we have the ultimate protection – the cloak of Christ’s own righteousness that renders us immune to the accusations of the Evil One.  In His incredible mercy and grace, God uses even our failures to testify to His power and goodness through the free forgiveness we have in Christ.  Be blessed by this knowledge, and let it defend your self against all evil.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, teach me to delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties.  Give me grace to always point to Your love and forgiveness in every situation.  Strengthen and defend me against all the attacks of the Devil, that I may always honor You before men; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Faithfulness – A Mighty Fortress

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” (Psalm 91:4)

If we are to speak of faithfulness as an armament of faith, we must look first to God’s own faithfulness.

Again and again the Bible speaks of God’s faithfulness as an awesome source of protection for His children.  In His faithfulness, He protects us from the troubles of this world, the temptations of the Devil and our own sinful flesh, and especially against the wrath that our sins deserve:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thessalonians 3:3)

“O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief.  Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Psalm 143:1-2)

Yes, God’s faithfulness is truly our ultimate protection against every evil we face as His warriors.  In times of trouble and affliction, the best thing we can do is to place ourselves in His loving hands and proclaim, “Thy will be done!”  We have seen and know that the Lord is faithful to fulfill all of His promises: “But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

So what about our faithfulness?  If God’s faithfulness produces fruit in us, as Jeremiah claims, what is the role of the faithfulness which we return to God in thanksgiving?  The first and most important way that we return God’s faithfulness to Him is by continuing to cling to His promises throughout our lives.  “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).  This is God’s will for us, and it is our sure defense against the accusations of the Evil One.  But don’t doubt its effectiveness as a weapon against evil!  Perhaps the best witness we can bear to others is a sure and steady trust in God’s promises that is evident in our words and actions.  This testimony can certainly deliver a stunning blow to the Devil as he attacks those around us with doubt and unbelief through their own trials and difficulties.

We can also return thanks to God for His faithfulness by remaining faithful to our calling as Christians.  Our integrity toward others and in our service to God’s kingdom is modeled after God’s own faithfulness in our lives.  And as we persevere in doing God’s will, we can rest assured that God will remain faithful to bring about results: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).  Because God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us, we know that He will also be faithful to prosper all our ways in Him.

God has not abandoned his rebellious creation, but in His faithfulness has sent the Hero, Jesus Christ the Lord, to slay the Dragon and deliver us from bondage:  “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11).  Despite our unfaithfulness, God has remained true to His love and His Word of promise.  This is our sure defense, and the faithfulness we return to God and neighbor is the weapon we wield in our fight to bring the light of God’s righteousness through Christ to a dark world.

“I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation.  I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly.” (Psalm 40:10)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You before all the world for Your great love and faithfulness to me – a sinner.  Grant that I may never falter in being faithful to Your name as I call upon You in repentance and proclaim Your steadfast mercy to all those around me; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Paul – The Weapon of the Enemy

“All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name?  And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’  Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.” (Acts 9:21-22)

Imagine waking up to this news: Richard Dawkins, regarded by many as the world’s foremost atheist, has just converted to Christianity and is boldly proclaiming the name of Jesus.

What do you suppose would be the reaction to news such as this?  I’m sure shock and puzzlement would be the immediate response by people from all backgrounds.  There would probably be suspicion on the part of the Christian community, and perhaps even some anger directed at Mr. Dawkins.  What is he playing at?  How did this happen?  Even after the news had sunk in and been accepted, there would probably be some wondering why God would choose a man such as this instead of one of the many willing warriors already in His service.

And it would be the reaction of Mr. Dawkins’ fellow atheists that would give us the greatest clue as to the answer to this last question.  While Christian preachers, missionaries, and apologists might not hold much sway with this group, a prominent individual from among their own midst certainly would.  Indeed, many of them likely have adopted or confirmed their “beliefs” as a result of his “testimony.”  Upon his conversion, how many across the world would question their views on evolution and humanity’s place in the universe?  Wouldn’t it baffle the unbelieving world to see someone who seemed so grounded in their worldly philosophy suddenly turn to Jesus in faith?

Whether it’s Richard Dawkins or the Dalai Lama, there are certainly individuals who have the power and authority to sway the thinking of a great many people.  While I think it is sadly unlikely that either of these men will convert to Christianity, such things have happened before.  In fact, the reactions described above were just the type of response generated by the conversion of the Pharisee Saul (later to become St. Paul).

Saul/Paul went from trying to stamp out Christianity to being the most active evangelist in the history of the Christian Church.  Through the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, God has many times taken some of the Devil’s most influential proponents and brought them into His own service.  The blood of Jesus Christ is powerful enough to forgive even the sins of those who have gone so far astray as to wage open warfare on the saints of God.

We must remember that our “spiritual warfare” is not a battle against “flesh and blood,” but an attack against the Devil’s lies that have captured so many men and women through false religions and ideologies.  We do not fight against unbelievers, but against their unbelief.  Jesus died also for them, and we have no more merit or worthiness in us than they do, except that which we have received from Christ.  It may be that the Word of God we share with them is snatched up by the birds of the air or choked out by thorns and thistles.  But then again, it may be that God has chosen them to be His instrument to those you or I may have great difficulty in reaching.

“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.  Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:7-8)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, send Your Spirit in power to change the hearts of unbelievers through the preaching of Your Word.  Grant that they may come to know You through Your Son and obtain the riches of His life and salvation.  Use all those who have been called to faith, that they may minister boldly and effectively to people of every background, fearlessly proclaiming Your Gospel; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Ananias – Preaching in the Danger Zone

“Go!  This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)

“Lord, you’ve got to be kidding…”

I’m sure something like this was going through the mind of Ananias when God called him to go minister to Saul.  After all, this guy was viciously hunting down the Christians, putting them in prison or worse!  He was bad news, and it was practically suicide to approach him in the name of Jesus.

Yesterday’s devotion focused on following the guidance of the Holy Spirit as He directs us to minister to people in all different walks of life.  But sometimes the High Commander gives us orders that are so absurd, so ridiculous, so dangerous, that we can’t help but second guess.

It must certainly have taken a lot of guts and a lot of faith for Ananias to go to Saul and heal him in the name of Jesus.  For one thing, he was putting his own life into the hands of a sworn enemy of the Way.  For another thing, helping this nemesis of the Church probably would not have been a very popular choice among the believers in Damascus.

Most of us probably aren’t called to witness in situations quite as hostile as this.  However, we must recognize that God can and does use very unlikely men and women to act as His chosen instruments.  Besides, we are called to bring the Gospel to all nations – even to those who may initially react to it with hostility.  We must certainly pray continually for those who boldly follow in the footsteps of heroes like Ananias, bringing the message of salvation into the “danger zones” of spiritual enmity.  We ask God to watch over them and keep them safe, and also to send His Holy Spirit to bend the hearts of those to whom they minister.

Even if we don’t face physical danger for the sake of our witness, we may still be able to relate somewhat to Ananias’ situation.  There are people in our society that many believers feel are “unworthy” of receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Some men and women have done terrible things in their past, hurting or even killing innocent people.  It may not be popular – even within the Church – to show kindness to them and bring them the message of salvation after what they have done.  So we pray also that God would give us the strength and courage to bring His love even to terrible “sinners” who don’t deserve it (I know the irony isn’t lost on you…), and also that the Holy Spirit would work in all believers to foster an attitude of forgiveness and evangelism within the Church.

God’s Word is powerful.  Many times before, the roots of the Gospel have sprung forth and penetrated even hearts of solid stone.  In fact, it is these unlikely plots that often produce some of the most amazing crops!

“’Two men owed money to a certain moneylender.  One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both.  Now which of them will love him more?’  Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.’  ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.” (Luke 7:41-43)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, give me a deeper understanding of Your righteous Law, that I may fully appreciate the vastness of my debt of sin.  Help me to boldly share the Gospel even with those who despise You and Your servants.  Watch over all those who proclaim Your Word to their own hazard.  Bless the Gospel message that they preach, that those who hear it may come to know You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.