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

Showers of Blessings

“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.”  ~Isaiah 45:8

 

“April showers bring May flowers.”

I think these words give us hope as we stare out the windows at the early springtime weather. It’s wet, gray, sloppy, and at times simply depressing out there. So we have to remind ourselves that the current dreariness will soon produce the beautiful and abundant fruits of the earth. God’s blessings for tomorrow often come in the form of cold and bitter rainstorms.

In our personal lives, it is often the same. I know there have been times in my life where I was very angry with God over some temporary pain, loss, or disappointment – only to feel the sting of shame later when I realized how God was bringing about incredible blessings in my life through that same event. Scripture tells us that affliction leads to perseverance and eventually hope. Strangely enough, none of us jump up and down and get excited when affliction comes our way.

Heavy rain certainly reduces visibility. We tend to be so self-centered and short-sighted that we immediately become blind to the many, many other present blessings that God continues to shower down on us, even as we shake our fists at Him for our current discomfort. Our heads are hunkered down against the stinging cold of adversity, forgetting that it is the same rain that will bring forth fruitfulness, life, and abundance in the near future – but also pushing away all thoughts of other comforts and joys that are ours through God’s grace.

Perhaps this is our present state as we feel a certain amount of disgust toward our culture and society. We get frustrated and depressed over the Godlessness and immorality in our country, and forget the fact that God has graciously preserved our ability not only to worship Him openly, but to speak freely and challenge the empty philosophies of secularism. As we despise the humanistic notions that are running rampant around us, we lose sight of the many joys, comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that we so richly enjoy in our country. And who knows, but that this current shift in culture is not the rain that will moisten the earth and provide the perfect setting for the seed of the Gospel to sprout and flourish in the hearts of millions?

Occasionally, there will be rain showers; financial difficulties, health problems, frustrations and dilemmas in future planning. But we know that in all these things, God is faithful to the work which He has begun. We stay mindful of the hope we have of the growth occurring just below the surface, which will soon spring forth in splendor as God’s Word blossoms in our community and country. And we do not lose sight of the many, many blessings that He continually bestows upon us; the faithful members of our congregations and families, the devoted friends and neighbors, the beautiful children of God who have been entrusted to our care – and most of all, the life and forgiveness we have through Jesus Christ our Savior.

What a blessing it is to be allowed to tend this patch of earth!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  ~Isaiah 55:10-11

Prayer: Heavenly Father, bless Your Word as it goes forth in our communities, our nation, and throughout our world.  Grant that the seed which is sown will fall upon fertile soil, that the harvest be one of hope in the righteousness won for us by Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  In His name we pray.  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.

Drunkenness, Orgies, and the Like – Indulging Sinful Sensuality

“Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22)

Our sinful nature constantly wages war upon us.  Our selfish will defies God’s good decrees and vainly seeks temporal pleasures instead.  The corrupt flesh holds such power over us that we willingly forfeit true peace and lasting happiness for fleeting physical gratification.

One the one hand, as redeemed children of God, we deeply and sincerely desire to serve and glorify Him for the great gift of salvation He has given us through His only Son, Jesus Christ.  But on the other hand, our wicked impulses drive us to flout the commands of our great God and Father, bringing shame and trouble upon ourselves and rendering our ministry flimsy and hypocritical at best.

We know that our own good works have no power to save us – that victory is complete and final, by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and triumphant resurrection.  And yet, as God’s chosen warriors in a world filled with darkness and despair, we earnestly yearn to please Him through thankful service that extends the fruits of His love to those around us.  Paul tells Timothy that “cleansing” is necessary if the Christian soldier is to be set to serve: “If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Paul doesn’t say, “Do this in order to be saved” – he says, “Do this in order to serve.”  What child in a loving family doesn’t wish to please his or her parents?  What student wouldn’t want to please and honor his wise, kindly teacher?  What noble soldier wouldn’t willingly go above and beyond the call of duty for a faithful and caring commander who has saved the lives of his men time and again?

Perhaps you, like many others, long to do what is pleasing in the eyes of God, but find that your sinful flesh often gets the best of you.  Some may even be at a point where they find very little desire to do what God wills, and are wondering what that means for their spiritual state.  In either case, the answer can be found in the same place: the Word of God.  The Law convicts us of wrongdoing, guiding and directing us in the way we should go.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God has taken our sins and placed them upon the cross of our Redeemer, making us free from the terrible eternal consequences of our sin and releasing us from the power it holds over us here and now.

If you desire to be prepared to serve God as a loving child, a faithful student and a noble soldier, turn to God’s Word for the weapons of faith.  In an amazing, miraculous way, the Holy Spirit equips us with all of the spiritual armaments we need to fight evil wherever it may lie; in our world, in our nation, in our community, in our household, and in our own hearts.  Through weapons like the love, peace, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control which the Spirit imparts through the Word, God adds to the joy of our salvation by showing us true meaning for our lives in service to Him.  And when faced with the most deadly attack that can be directed at our souls – the ugly accusations of Satan himself over our failures – our defense is in much more capable hands; it rests securely upon the breastplate of Christ’s own righteousness and the helmet of His salvation.

“The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:8)

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Prayer: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me – help me to know the fullness of Your love and mercy, that I may ever serve You joyfully; 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.

Patience – Today’s Battle

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14)

There is a general sense of arming for battle in this passage, and patience is a key element in the protective gear that is being described here.

Unfortunately, our generation has been subtly stripped of this magnificent armor.  What has happened to patience in our world?  Why is it so difficult to bear with one another in love?  How can we receive forgiveness so richly and abundantly every day and be so stingy when it comes to sharing it with others?

Two words: “instant gratification.”

Satan has launched an aggressive campaign against one of our nine chief spiritual weapons, and it has been devastatingly effective.  We want what we want when we want it – now!  Whether it’s material wealth and possessions, earthly success, answers from God, or even compliance from other human beings in our lives, Satan has rendered most of us nearly incapable of wielding patience as a weapon.

Across the country and throughout the world, Christian couples are finding it more and more difficult to overlook offenses and patiently endure the minor (or major) annoyances of their spouses – we’ve seen the casualties in the broken relationships and divorce statistics.  Christian parents have trouble rearing their children gently and patiently in a world that teaches instant results and entitlement.  Road rage, workplace disputes, and all manner of senseless reactionary violence demonstrate the basic inability to brush off even the most petty and insignificant insults and inconveniences.

Satan’s war on patience has perpetuated every kind of evil imaginable.  Truly, a great many of our social ills are caused by the absence of this virtue.  Much of the conflict and tension in every kind of relationship is due largely to a lack of patience.  And do we really think that our witness and testimony to Christ’s cross goes unaffected by our impatience with those to whom we preach – and with the Holy Spirit?

The key to a patient heart is love.  Whenever we feel ourselves losing patience with our spouse, our child, our coworker, or anyone else, we need to look to the cross.  Mindful of Jesus’ patience with our sinful world, we draw from Him the strength to bear with our loved ones patiently.  Love binds the armor tightly together; without it, our protection falls to the ground and fails.  Along with love, the joy and peace we have through Jesus’ righteousness and salvation will help us to patiently resist whatever temptations and attacks the Devil hits us with.  We can once again take up this keen spiritual weapon, strike down the wicked inclinations of our impetuous hearts, and wait with gladness upon the Lord our Savior.  Where the Devil has disarmed us, the Lord our God equips us mightily through the power of His Word.

“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)

“…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” (Colossians 1:11-12)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as You have dealt with me in patience, help me to also deal with those around me in a manner that reflects Your love; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Titus – Training Tomorrow’s Warriors

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.  These, then, are the things you should teach.” (Titus 2:11-15)

Like Timothy, Titus was faced with a monumental task.  Paul had left him with the people of Crete, and while the Holy Spirit had begun to work in their hearts, it was evident that the “raw material” was, well…it needed some work.

However, Paul was confident that the people of Crete were in good hands.  Oh, Titus was certainly a very capable leader.  He was entrusted with several important missions in the New Testament, and Paul had a great deal of faith in his abilities.  But it wasn’t Titus that Paul was trusting to shape the hearts and lives of these new converts, it was the Potter Himself – the Lord God Almighty.

Titus was working with men and women, young and old, who were used to a rather ungodly way of life.  The darkness of the society from which they were coming made the road of sanctification long and arduous.  And yet, this very darkness would allow the light of the Gospel to shine forth from each of them all the more brightly by contrast as they were changed and renewed by the grace of God.

The reason Paul was able to have such confidence in “drill sergeant” Titus was that he knew that Titus understood the crux and impetus of the Lord’s training regimen.  Titus was there for two purposes: 1) to share the Word of God so that those who heard it might be redeemed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and 2) to train these “new recruits” in righteousness and godliness so that they could be effective witnesses to those around them who remained yet in darkness.  Thankfully, Titus knew the importance of putting “the horse before the cart” so to speak – he understood that any change or purification was a result of God’s free grace, unlike those who were still preaching that God’s favor was gained by first amending our outward lives.

Why was this spiritual training program so important for these poor Cretans?  After all, if they were saved by grace through faith and not by their own works, why did it matter if they underwent such “purification” at all?  First of all, this change in their hearts and lives would be a natural response as a result of receiving God’s mercy.  It’s sort of like when you turn a four-year-old loose at the playground and tell her to “Have fun!” as if you could really stop her from having fun it that situation.  In the same way, when God freely bestows His grace upon us and we see all of our sin and wretchedness being washed away, the new man cannot be restrained, but breaks forth and serves the Lord in gladness.

And yet, Titus is instructed to remind these men and women of Crete what might be riding on the example of their good works and godly lives.  Again and again, Paul reminds Titus that the reputation of Jesus’ Gospel is at stake in the model of Christian life: “…so that no one will malign the word of God” (2:5); “…so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (2:8); “…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (2:10); “These things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8).

So no, we do not perform good deeds, speak in kindness and compassion, and serve in humility for the sake of our salvation.  We do these things for the sake of the Gospel message and the salvation of those around us, that through our example their hearts may be softened and plowed, ready to receive the miraculous seed of God’s Word and produce a harvest of saving faith.  That is both the reason and goal of our spiritual training here on Earth – may this training enable us to be always ready for service to the glory of our Lord and Savior.

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant that all new warriors of Your faith may be trained and equipped for service and evangelism, inspired to serve You solely out of love and thanksgiving for Your great gift to us.  Help us to be Your faithful ambassadors here on Earth, that we may prepare the hearts of men for the Gospel which we sow; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Apollos – Armed and Dangerous

“He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately…he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.  For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:24-25,27-28)

Since we’re on the subject of spiritual warfare, and since this is “The Armory” after all, let’s talk a little bit about some of your weapons.

The first thing that we need to understand when we analyze our personal spiritual arsenal is that every weapon with which we have been armed is from God.  There are no exceptions.  All of our gifts and abilities come to us by the grace of our Heavenly Father, and we are to use them in service to Him.

Now I realize that you’ve worked really hard at honing your intellect, or strengthening your physical abilities, or sharpening your public speaking skills, or developing a killer talent with creative writing, or whatever else you pride yourself on being great at.  But once you start to trace the origins of your personal knacks and aptitudes, it doesn’t take long for God’s hand to clearly appear in the picture.  He planted a seed in your mind or body, grew it daily by guiding your life in a certain direction, and brought it to fruition by mercifully preserving your faculties so that you could use this gift to His glory and in service to your neighbor.

That’s one type of weapon, and these God-given/God-grown abilities can certainly be useful in battling the unbelief that is so rampant in our dark world.  But unless they are coupled with the Word of God and with the faith that is given to us through the Holy Spirit, they will never penetrate the enemy’s defenses.

The real armaments of God are undisputable gifts to us, given in mercy by the grace of a loving and caring Father.  He has caused the Word of God – our Sword of the Spirit, a weapon of keen power and flawless design – to be passed down to us through many generations by the miracle of faith in every age.  He has sent His Holy Spirit to stir up our hearts in faith toward Him, enabling us to use the many abilities we possess as munitions against Satan’s worldly onslaught.

Apollos was certainly a force to be reckoned with.  He possessed a brilliant mind.  He had been given a fine education.  He was endowed with remarkable boldness, tremendous public speaking skills, and profound powers of persuasion.  But even with all this, he would have been a useless drone if it weren’t for the other gifts of God: his knowledge of the Scriptures, his Christian upbringing and instruction, and the faith that grew out of this spiritual training.

Like Apollos, you have been given many personal abilities and gifts that could be used for a variety of worldly purposes.  Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; invest your energies first and foremost into study of the Scriptures, prayer, worship, and receiving the Word of God and His Sacraments.  Witness the miracle as your own faith grows and is strengthened by God’s grace.  Then all that you are and all that you possess will be transformed into a weapon of Divine Light as God uses your whole person in His service.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for the many gifts and abilities which You have bestowed upon me.  I thank You most of all for the free gift of salvation through the faith that You have granted me by Your grace.  Help me to use all that I have and all that I am in service to You, glorifying You for Your great mercy and serving those around me in love; 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.

Stephen – Rejected by Men

“Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?  They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.  And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts 7:52).

If you have ever been scorned, ridiculed, tormented, or in any other way persecuted for speaking the Gospel, then know that you are in good company.

Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8), paid the ultimate price for his witness concerning the Lord Jesus.  While the apostles had recently rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41), Stephen now gains the distinction of becoming the first recorded martyr of the Christian faith.

Stephen and the other apostles discovered the hard way that sinful human beings don’t enjoy hearing God’s Word.  We (all of us) become defensive when convicted by God’s just and righteous Law.  We even resist the Gospel because it forces us to bear our souls before God and face our own wretched sinfulness.  It leaves us helpless and vulnerable, reminding us that we are powerless to achieve salvation through our own works.  We would rather exalt ourselves in the eyes of men than humble ourselves before the mercy seat of Almighty God.

Those who preach and confess the Word publicly are often met with resistance and hostility.  For the apostles, it meant torture and humiliation.  For Stephen, it meant death by stoning.  For us, it sometimes means loss of reputation or even employment.

How are we to react when our testimony is met with hard hearts and stiff necks?  We can take our cue from the great heroes of the faith who have gone before us.  The apostles rejoiced that they were permitted to suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name.  Stephen – like his Lord – forgave his murderers even as they carried out his death sentence.  We too should try to recognize that those who revile us are prisoners of darkness who need our prayers and the Holy Spirit in their lives.  God instructs us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and to love even our “enemies” (Matthew 5:44).  His exhortation to take up our cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23) reminds us that our ministry to others may require personal sacrifice on our behalf.  Others undoubtedly sacrificed much to bring the Gospel to you and me, and Jesus sacrificed all to make that Gospel a reality.

In the midst of whatever suffering we are called to endure for the sake of Jesus’ name and whatever resistance we are met with, we must never forget that the Word of God is living and active.  Though our own powers of persuasion may be feeble and faulty, God’s Word is at work doing what it says it will.  In the time of Stephen and the apostles, scores of people were coming to faith in Christ Jesus – including many priests and influential Jews – despite the suffering and persecution of those who proclaimed the Gospel.  In our time, the Holy Spirit continues to work in the hearts of those who hear the words we proclaim; even in those who seem only to scorn and revile us for our testimony.  For this, we give thanks to God for His exceeding grace and mercy!

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, give me the strength and courage to proclaim Your Word without fear or hesitation.  Send Your Spirit to work in the hearts of all those who hear, that they may believe and live; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.