In His Presence

Sir Robert Stopford commanded a ship in the Royal British Navy at the end of the 18th century. He himself was under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horation Nelson. Nelson’s fleet was in pretty bad shape; their ships were battered and low on munitions, the food was nearly gone, and the fleet they were pursuing was almost twice the size of their own. Despite these difficulties, morale was unusually high.

When asked about this phenomenon, Stopford replied, “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our reward is that we are with Nelson.”

The men fighting under Nelson knew the danger they were heading into. They knew that no amount of money could tempt them forward nor recompense what they were about to face. There was only one thing that made it all worth while: They were with Nelson.

Friends and fellow warriors, we know that constant difficulties and hardships will beset us as God’s children. The world does not want to hear the message of Christ crucified for our sins. In some places, Christ’s disciples are mocked and ridiculed. In other parts of the world, they are treated with no less hostility that He himself was when He walked on earth. The path of discipleship is not an easy road to walk. Tragedies and heartache abound in this life; our struggle often leaves us feeling weary, battered, and on the verge of despair.

We can certainly find comfort in the words, “Great is your reward in heaven.” And yet, we have comfort even in the trials of today as we go forward into the uncertain future with the resolve to stand by our Commander and Chief, bearing the full armor of God and wielding the Sword of the Spirit.

We are with Him.

Whatever difficulties we will face are nothing compared to the reward of being in Christ’s presence throughout our fight. He comes to us in His Word, as we hear it preached by faithful servants and as we read it in our homes. He comes to us in Sacrament, as we receive His very body and blood in His supper and as we remember the marks put upon us in our baptism. He comes to us through those who fight alongside us in this spiritual battle, promising that even in those who seem to be least in the body of all believers, indeed, there He is.

Of all the hardships we face, morale should never have to be among them. We have our reward, and it is not a distant, far-off future promise. We hold it in our hand and clutch it to our breast as we recall his words, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Our reward is that we are with Him, and that He is with us.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant us the peace that comes through knowing that Your Son has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  Be with us in our struggle against the world and our own sinful nature.  Let our joy be ever in You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

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.

IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS

“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)

The title of this devotion is a Latin phrase which my family recently came across in their studies and shared with me.  Literally translated, it means, “So much the better, we will fight in the shade.”  Allow me to share with you the story behind these words:

The Roman orator Cicero (hence the Latin) retold Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartan king, Leonidas, led a mere 7,000 men against over 100,000 Persian invaders.  When asked to report, a scout betrayed his sense of despair at seeing such a tremendous force with these words to Dienekes, a Spartan soldier: “Their arrows will blot out the sun!”

To which Dienekes replied, “IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS!”

“So much the better, we will fight in the shade!”

Friends and fellow warriors, the darkness is gathering more thickly each day in our world.  Many of our former comrades have fled or turned against us, succumbing to the approaching terror and abandoning the truth of the Gospel for the sake of preserving their own temporal well-being.  As we stand near the battle-lines and survey the vast host of the armies of darkness that have been arrayed against us, paralyzing fear grips our hearts.  What is our response to this seemingly insurmountable threat?

Very well, then.  We will fight in the shade.

And indeed we will.  I do not mean to say that Satan’s hordes could ever blot out the light of God’s truth with their onslaught of fiery darts; truly, it shines all the more clearly in the face of darkness and adversity.  However, we will be shaded by the wings of our mighty and caring Heavenly Father.  His love, His mercy, and His strength will form a shield around us to protect and preserve our faith even in the face of every evil that comes swarming against us, no matter how dark the days may become.

“And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife,

though these all be gone, our victory has been won;

The Kingdom ours remaineth.” ~Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress is Our God)

Yes, my friends; the battle belongs to the Lord.  Our faith rests securely in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sealed and delivered to us in faith solely through His grace.  What have we to fear?  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice as the mediator between God and mankind, God is and ever will be for us and with us, sheltering us beneath the wings of His love.  Though all the adversity of this world rails against us, it cannot prevail against the ultimate victory that we have through the cross.  Christ Himself tells us, “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

King Leonidas himself was approached by the Persian ambassadors before the battle at Thermopylae began.  Knowing the odds against this king and his lowly army, and expecting him to immediately comply, they commanded him to lay down his arms.  To which he replied:

“Come get them.”

Do not despair, my friends.  Our eternal equipment will see us through whatever battles may rage in the days to come.  The Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, is strong to save.  Let Satan come and once more taste the Blade which brought about his destruction.  Though the hands that wield this supreme Weapon are frail and weak, the foe will never pry it from our grasp, for the Sword itself is invincible, and One who forged it and delivered it to us is ever by our side.

Does Satan come roaring against us?  Fine.  Come and get it.  Do the evils of the world gather more thickly with each passing day?  Very well.  Then we will fight in the shade.  Our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome the world and all its troubles.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus.  Give your Church the everlasting rest she longs for.

Until that time, we will fight.

“Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes.  I put no trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame.  In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.”  (Psalm 44:5-8)

See also 2 Chron. 20:12-19

Prayer: Heavenly Father, arm us with Your Word, that we may go boldly forth and proclaim the Good News of salvation to all who are in the clutches of sin and darkness.  Keep us steadfast in faith against the attacks of Satan, this world, and our own flesh.  Preserve and sanctify us by Your Holy Spirit, holding us ever in Your strong hand, that we may come at last to everlasting life and rest; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Commander, King, and Friend.  Amen.

 

From the pages of Building Christian Character through The Hobbit – Now available!  Click the “Books Available” tab at the top of this page to preview chapters 1-4 or to order a copy.

 

Chapter XIV – “Fire and Water”

 

“The dragon is inevitable – and let it come!  I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

Like the colonists living in Patrick Henry’s day, the people of Esgaroth have been living in the shadow of terror for too long.  Until they face the dragon that looms over them, they can never truly be free.  The dwarves and Bilbo have awakened the dragon’s wrath and stirred up his malice toward the men of Lake-town, but that is just as well – especially knowing that Smaug is destined to die in this battle.

Mr. Henry goes on in his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is no peace…What is it that gentlemen wish?  What would they have?  Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!”

The people of Esgaroth are so focused on their present suffering and the destruction of their town that they fail to see the wonderful, miraculous fact that seems so plain to us: Smaug is dead!  The monster of the north has been slain and the people of this region are now free from his centuries-long reign of terror.  While they may curse Thorin and Company for causing their present hardship, they ought to also recognize that the dwarves set into motion the chain of events that would lead to this great victory.

People have a way of delaying the inevitable.  As Christians, we often put off unpleasant battles in the hopes that the threat will just go away on its own, or remain sleeping beneath the mountain.  But the truth is, the monster is growing in size and strength with each passing day and year that we avoid confronting it – and the best we can hope for is that it will be our children or grandchildren who will have to combat the beast someday.  What terrible cowardice!

There are many difficult issues in our society that Christians are often reluctant to grapple with.  At best, we engage in minor skirmishes, hoping that it will be enough to stave off the threat without risking open war.  We make concessions to our faith and values, hoping that these compromises will reconcile us to the world.  They won’t.

So let it come.  Let us be the ones to wage spiritual warfare in our nation and world over issues of life, social values, and religious freedoms.  Let us boldly confront the evils in our society, even though it may mean a breach between Christianity and secular complacency.  Old alliances with those who undermine all that we believe and stand for may need to be cast down as we fend off the Dragon’s assault.  But it’s better that we take our stand now – while yet free to speak up and armed with the Gospel – than to relegate the task to our offspring who may be shackled and fettered with oppressive laws and a government that silences truth and wisdom.

We need to sound the alarm and take up arms against the Dragon right now, because he comes swiftly toward us breathing out deadly lies and fiery deceptions.  Christians at this time must especially take a stand on who God is and what He came to do.  There are many today calling themselves Christians who preach that Jesus came only to teach morality and self-enlightenment; that He was merely a wise teacher who set an example for how to live.  The battle-lines must be drawn here and now.  We must preach Christ crucified; that Jesus Christ is the true Son of God who died and rose again to atone for the sins of the world.  On this, there must be no compromise, because this is the truth and the difference between eternal life and everlasting death.

This will be a fierce battle.  We may risk much of what we have built up in times of prosperity to face the Dragon on this issue right now.  It will cause division and discord within our communities and country, because the world does not want to hear that Jesus is the only Way to the Father.  We will be condemned as intolerant – the worst possible sin of in postmodern society.  But the longer we postpone this battle, the stronger the Dragon will be when we finally face him and the more divided the Church will become, leaving the conflict to our descendants to fight with less hope and less strength than we currently possess.

We cannot afford to let sleeping dragons lie.  We must proclaim God’s Word – Law and Gospel – in truth and purity; even if it awakens all the fire-breathing menaces of every pagan religion, every secular humanist philosophy, and every false prophet that preaches any other Jesus than the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We mustn’t allow our cowardice to hand down this great task to our children for the sake of a false sense of peace and unity in Church and world.  We must fight.

 

The Dragonslayer’s sacrifice…

He spoke harsh words that were difficult to hear and were rejected by many.  He warned the people of the approaching doom, and fought on their behalf so that they could have life and freedom.  He was a descendant of kings, and the only one who could know the secret to defeating the evil monster.  He stood alone at last, enduring the flames of the dragon’s wrath, scorned by many and abandoned by his companions, because he alone could defeat the menacing beast and save them all.  He gave up his life to defeat the dragon, quelling its fierce might forever, but falling under the death-throes of his terrible enemy.  And when all hope had faded, he rose again victoriously and was exalted as king.

Sound familiar?  The triumph of Bard over Smaug is a striking parallel to the victory of Jesus Christ over the Devil.  While Bard may not be a perfect Christ-figure throughout the rest of the book, this particular instance provides an awesome image of the Son of God come to save those who had rejected Him.  And all in all, Bard serves as a great example of Christian virtue contrasted with the greed and hypocrisy around him.

Bard was condemned by his contemporaries for prophesying “gloomy” things; not that anyone disputed the truth and veracity of his claims, but it just wasn’t very pleasant to listen to.  Similarly, Jesus lost many followers and was rejected by a number of would-be disciples because of his hard teachings; things like being willing to give up earthly possessions and duties to follow Him, being “born again,” forgiveness based on faith by God’s grace, eating and drinking His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, and even His own death at the hands of His enemies.  Like Bard, Jesus would eventually be vindicated in all of His claims.  Those who rejected His words didn’t do so based on evidence to the contrary, but rather simply because it was easier for them to believe something else.

Just as Bard is the last descendant in the line of Girion, Lord of Dale, so Jesus was the Promised One in fulfillment of the Messianic line, reaching back to King David, Abraham, and all the way to Adam – the first recipient of the Gospel promise.  Being of the race of Dale, Bard was the only one who could understand the thrush and unlock the secret to defeating Smaug.  His black arrow that had been passed down from his father and “came from the forges of the true king” would prove to be the key to Smaug’s downfall.  Jesus, as the only begotten Son of God, was the only One whose blood was free from the curse of sin and who knew the way to defeat Satan, the great Dragon.  He was “from the True King,” and the black arrow of His divinity would be the shaft that would pierce the Dragon’s heart and bring him crashing down in ruin.

In the end Bard stood alone, abandoned by his companions, and faced the dragon while surrounded by the flames of his wrath.  Jesus’ companions all fled to save themselves, though they had sworn to stay by His side – even if it meant death.  He faced down the dragon, enduring the agony of the very flames of Hell as the Devil’s malice was poured out upon Him.  He fought our battle upon the cross so that we could enter the lifeboat of His Church and freely obtain life and salvation through the waters of baptism, just as the people of Esgaroth fled to safety through the waters of the Long Lake while Bard battled Smaug.

Jesus certainly did not escape the battle unscathed.  Just as Smaug came crashing down upon Bard in his last throes, so too did Satan strike the heel of Jesus with physical death and the torments of Hell even as he fell in utter defeat.  But like Bard, Jesus emerged victoriously amidst cries of mourning to claim His rightful title of King and Lord, claiming the honor of defeating the Dragon and freeing the people from his reign of terror – and of securing all the treasures of heaven on our behalf!

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.

Joy – The Best Defense

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

It’s certainly no secret that one of the best defenses a Christian has against the attacks and troubles of this world is the tremendous joy that comes from the righteousness and salvation granted by Christ Jesus.

And yet…too often we recklessly venture forth stripped of our joy, weak and vulnerable to the Devil’s lies and the wearisome burdens of everyday life.

There isn’t anything wrong with the armor, that’s for sure.  Ask Paul and Silas, who – armed with the joy of the Lord – turned a seeming defeat at the prison in Philippi into a smashing victory for the Gospel through their joyous prayers and praises.  Ask any of the noble martyrs, whose joy in the Lord enabled them to face even death boldly, witnessing and testifying to the love of God even as they received the fulfillment of their hope.  Yes, joy is the best defense – and it seems that it can serve as a very effective offense as well.

So what’s my problem?  Maybe I’m not strapping it on tight enough; I tend to forget the incredible reality of all the riches Christ has delivered unto me through His death, and without the “belt of truth” my joy and my armor crashes around my feet.  Maybe I just carelessly venture forth without bothering with armor at all, figuring I’ll wait until “things get really bad” to arm myself with the hope and joy of my salvation – then get so wrapped up in winning the battle through my own strength that I don’t find an opportunity later to don my protective gear.  Maybe the flimsy enticements of this world seem to offer more joy than the adamantine Good News of the Gospel, and I stupidly look to shallow, empty worldly pursuits for my strength, joy, and defense against Satan.

I think sometimes we Christians look at our salvation as something far off in the distant future, so we miss out on the joy that it brings for us today.  Like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, we’re “not thinking fourth-dimensionally!”  We forget that the salvation Christ has won for us through the cross is already a reality for us today, here, now! – despite how things appear to us in our present situation.

It’s sad how we can find strength and consolation in the midst of a difficult work week by eagerly anticipating the weekend to come, and yet fail to find the real joy of Jesus’ triumph over every problem in this life.  When compared to the joy we have through the Gospel, all of our troubles and difficulties seem utterly insignificant – even pain and death.  By clinging steadfastly to this joy, we can trust God and avoid the temptations of seeking worldly “happiness” through the transitory pleasures and false securities of this fleeting life.  And as others watch us laugh as the Devil’s attacks bounce harmlessly off our impenetrable armor, they too can see the strength and power of the Gospel and find refuge in the joy of the Lord.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, guard and protect me through the sure knowledge and joy of Your salvation.  Let my joy be evident to all, that they may see the fruit of Your Spirit within me and come to know the joy I have in the hope of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

St. John – The Final Victory

“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)

John was incredibly blessed.  His very name means “graced by God.”  He of all the disciples was especially beloved by the Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry.  He was given long life, concluding with a breathtaking vision of the final victory of the Lamb of God and the saints.  Indeed, Jesus’ words must have echoed in his head many times during this great Revelation: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?  You must follow me.” (John 21:22)

And follow Jesus he did, although the words were not spoken directly to John.  One of the greatest blessings John received during his life was to witness a vision of the Lord’s triumphant return.  What comfort this must have brought the suffering saint – to see his Lord and Savior come back in the flesh and bring peace and rest to His people!  How awesome to observe heaven and earth pass away as God Almighty made all things new!  How he must have trembled with joy at the words: “It is done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” (Revelation 21:6-7)

John was living in dark times.  Exiled, scorned, and deeply saddened by the state many in the Church had fallen into, John’s suffering undoubtedly caused him to watch carefully for the Last Day.  But given his close relationship with Jesus while accompanying Him on His ministry, I would expect that John looked forward to that day with all the more longing as he anticipated a personal reunion with his Lord and Savior.

Like John, we yearn for the Lord’s return.  Yes, we would like to see an end to the darkness and corruption of this fallen world.  Yes, we want to see the old order of things pass away, watching the renewal of the Church of God and the end of all suffering.  But I think I better understand where John’s desire came from as I imagine falling into my Savior’s embrace at last and picture my children run laughing up to Him to be held and touched by the Son of God.

Despite the darkness and suffering of this world, I can’t help but smile at this vision; the final victory – our reunion with God forever.  John’s great blessing is passed on to us today as we look forward to that day when we receive the crown of life from our gracious and merciful God.  Then, all God’s warriors will rest.  The heroes of the faith will have their reward in the person of Jesus, who is even now our comfort and assurance – our joy made complete when we see Him face to face.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!

“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, You have given me Your Spirit and Your own Son as my comfort and reward as I toil through this life.  Grant me the grace to remain strong and faithful, bearing witness to You through Your Word.  In Your mercy, continue to grant faith and belief to many more souls during this time of tribulation, that they too may honor and glorify You now and forevermore; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord – my strength and joy and sure reward!  Amen!

Timothy – Being a One-Man Army

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Timothy 6:11-12)

If you’ve ever felt like the expectations placed on you are too great, just consider Paul’s young friend Timothy.  Here we find a young warrior left with little ammunition in a battlefield surrounded by enemies.  Paul’s advice?  Fight hard!

First of all, Timothy was facing fearsome adversaries on every side.  All around him were men teaching false doctrines, promoting “godless myths” and sowing dissention and discord among the believers.  Paul commissioned Timothy as the last line of defense between God’s people and these heretics and blasphemers.

As if the spiritual threats of false teachers and hypocrites weren’t enough, Timothy must also face the many worldly assaults that are so prevalent in Ephesus: lies, murder, gossip, slander, sexual immorality, and all manner of illicit and illegal activity.  While combatting the lies and enticements of the heretics, Timothy was also supposed to stand firmly against the evils of his own secular society.

But that isn’t all.  For the sake of the Gospel and the reputation of the Church, Paul also instructs Timothy to carefully monitor and regulate the worship practices of the church in Ephesus.  He was to guide the lives of God’s people there, instructing everyone from the laity to the overseers and deacons on how to live and being accountable for their behavior and actions.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed yet?  Well, too bad.  Because we haven’t even mentioned the fact that in the middle of this battle zone, Timothy will have to grapple with his greatest enemy all the while.  The Devil will use Timothy’s own sinful nature against him, throwing every temptation at him to try and topple this young Church leader from the holy hill whereon he is making his desperate stand against the forces of darkness.  And it won’t be enough to simply avoid falling into sin and shame; Timothy will have to be a model citizen, a pillar of righteousness and worthiness.

Oh yes, and one more thing: there are a host of other social issues that need tending to in your spare time – everything from the treatment of widows to the attitudes of the wealthy in your church and community.  See to it that you take care of these problems for me, will you Tim?  That’s a good boy.

I don’t know about you, but thinking about all this makes me want to sit down and weep while banging my head against the wall.  How is one person expected to manage all this?  Despite the fact that Timothy must have known he couldn’t do all this perfectly, and most certainly didn’t, it still must have been a tremendous amount of pressure – truly, one man against the world.

The scary part is that you and I are called to exactly the same desperate scenario as young Timothy.  We are hard pressed on all sides by false teachings, worldly enticements, and our own sinful desires.  The responsibilities laid upon God’s warriors can be staggering at times as we constantly encounter those in need of spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional help.  There are certainly many times when it feels like “me against the world,” and this couldn’t be more true.  But as we look to the cross of Jesus Christ for strength to fight on and for forgiveness for our failures, we can be encouraged by this excellent promise from our Lord Himself and find peace in His Word:

“In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for the triumph of Your Son over all the adversity I face in this life!  Grant that I may face whatever struggles I am called to confront not only with strength and courage, but also with the joy that comes from knowing You are by my side as I serve You; though Jesus Christ, 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.

Josiah – Facing Bad News with Faithfulness

“Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God.  As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their fathers.” (2 Chronicles 34:33)

Hearing the words of our country’s top politicians lately has left many Americans yearning for a return to Godly leadership.  Unfortunately, our government officials haven’t exactly been striving for a morality that follows God’s Law.  We need to continue praying for faithful leaders who will direct this nation in the way of the Lord, asking Him to send those who will reform the evils of this land.

Josiah was the kind of king that the faithful remnant had been praying for.  Already at the age of sixteen, he had started down the path of a rock-star reformer.  2 Chronicles 34:3-7 is just a fun passage to read: Josiah the warrior-king, smashing the pagan altars and chopping down the false gods, crushing the wickedness of idolatry wherever he trod.  The God-fearing people of Judah must have wept with joy as he led the people back to the Lord and ordered that His temple be restored.  And then…they found the Book of the Law.

I’m sure Josiah had known that the people had not been doing what was right in God’s eyes, but he never imagined how utterly short they had fallen of God’s demands until now.  He tore his royal clothes and immediately sent messengers to the prophetess Huldah.  They returned shortly:

Josiah: “Well?  What did she say?”

Shaphan: “Well, my liege, we have good news and bad news…”

Josiah: “Hmm, better hit me with the bad news first.”

Shaphan: “Huldah says that all of Judah is going to be destroyed because of the wickedness of our fathers.  Jerusalem will be completely destroyed and all the people will either be killed or carried off as slaves.”

Josiah: “That’s terrible!  Well, what’s the good news?”

Shaphan: “You’re going to die, so you won’t have to see how bad everything will get.”

Imagine; Josiah had put his whole heart into reforming the kingdom and turning the people back to God, only to hear that everything he’s done will be destroyed soon and his life will be taken from him.  Most people would react to this news with anger, resentment, and despair.  How does Josiah react?  “The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord – to follow the Lord and keep his commands, regulations and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in this book” (2 Chronicles 34:31).

Josiah doesn’t question God’s judgment.  He doesn’t curse at Him for this “unfair” pronouncement of doom.  He doesn’t even despair of all the good that has been done in Judah, but rather redoubles his efforts in leading the people with Godliness and humility.  He celebrates the Passover with joy and festivity, and leaves the people with an imprint on their hearts of God’s mercy and love before being gathered to be with Him.  Perhaps it was Josiah’s faithful example that gave the remnant the hope they would need to get through the coming ordeals of destruction and exile.

Unlike Josiah, we don’t know what the future holds for our country, our world, or even our own family.  But even if we did, and even if it looked really terrible, would that be a reason to despair?  Or would we be like Josiah, and rejoice with great gladness in all that the Lord has done and all that He’s promised yet to do?  Would we leave a Godly example for the remnant that would follow us?

I’m not sure if Josiah knew that it wouldn’t be long before those in exile would see Cyrus deliver them out of bondage and exile; and then the true Messiah, Jesus Christ, deliver them from the bondage of sin and death as well as exile from God.  But He knew that God was faithful, and he was saved from despair and despondency by his faith in God’s promises.  We cling to those promises yet today, for they are our hope and salvation, and our strength in the face of dark times.

“I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit.  You heard my plea: ‘Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.’  You came near when I called you, and you said, ‘Do not fear.’  O Lord, you took up my case; you redeemed my life.” (Lamentations 3:55-58)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, hear now the cries of our nation for leaders who will faithfully guide us in Your truth.  Forgive the many sins of our people and redeem our country, that we may be a city on a hill and light to all the nations of the world; to the glory of Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Manasseh – Chief of Sinners

“But Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites.” (2 Chronicles 33:9)

Manasseh doesn’t sound very faithful or heroic, does he?  So why include him in a devotional series dedicated to “heroes of the faith”?  I have to admit, when one reads the account of Manasseh’s wickedness, it feels pretty dirty to put him in the company of heroes like Hezekiah and Isaiah.  But then I remember some of the other terrible sinners who God was able to forgive and redeem – Samson, Saul, Andrew Boll – and I am reminded that a faith hero is measured only by the love that God demonstrates through him.

Manasseh’s heinous sins led the entire nation into exile and slavery.  His decision to abandon God and perform terrible acts of idolatry caused him great suffering and shame.  Finally, Manasseh wakes up and realizes that his rejection of God is at the heart of all the troubles he and Judah are facing: “In his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.  And when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea…Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God” (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).

Manasseh was a legendary sinner, which makes God’s restoration of him to the one true faith one of the greatest displays of His loving, redeeming power in the Old Testament.  Manasseh finally acknowledges God to be the True King, and uses the remainder of his rule to correct many of the wrongs he had earlier committed.  He is a hero of the faith because he shows us today the path to salvation: Repent, and trust in a merciful God for life and restoration.

The depth of Manasseh’s sins shows all the more the awesome power and love of a God who would go all the way to the cross for the sake of miserable sinners like you and me.  Like Manasseh, in our state of defeat and bondage we turn toward the hills, looking for a Deliverer.  What a glorious sight when we see the Son rising there, swooping down upon our enemies to bring us freedom and hope!

“Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace!” (Nahum 1:15)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for the example of sinners as wretched and miserable as I am who show me the power of Your love to redeem.  Grant that I may always turn to You for deliverance from the bondage of sin.  Help me to bring the good news of peace and life to everyone around me today, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.