Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 12 September 2017

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Hebrews 12, verses 1-2.

These are the same verses from yesterday, but I’ve added in the last sentence in verse 2.   It’s one of the most famous, most quoted verses in the entire Bible.  To get the full effect, you really need the previous words.  “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”   Read that to yourself over and over a few times, and try to let it sink in.

Yesterday we talked about Franklin Graham and his relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse.   Neither Franklin Graham nor anyone in Samaritan’s Purse set aside pure joy to endure pure torture for you or anyone else.   We talked about volunteers and first responders fighting fires and rebuilding after hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes.   None of them ever set aside joy, endured the cross, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father.  Your neighbors haven’t done this.  Barack Obama never did this and can’t; ditto Donald Trump.   Neither can Brad Pitt, the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Benny Hinn, Miss America 2017, nor your saintly little old lady grandma.

Jesus did.   He didn’t just do it willingly:   He did it lovingly, fully, without hesitation.   It’s the theme of the entire Bible and the central event in all of human history.   Everything that every is or was or will be hinges on Jesus dying on the cross, then rising to live forever.

The creator of all things, the most powerful being imaginable, who created everything simply by speaking; the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (as both Isaiah and Handel called Him):   He, the omnipotent and omniscient God willingly, enthusiastically let sinners He created nail Him to the most humiliating device of torture ever devised in hell.   He did it with gusto.   Jesus not only took the worst mankind could throw at Him:   He ASKED for it.  He ran the race of life fully, to its end, to show us where we were going.

He did so because Barack, Donald, Brad, Francis and the rest of us can’t.   We simply can’t.   We aren’t Him; we aren’t God.  He is.   We desperately needed Him to do it, too.  All too often, we don’t throw off those entangling sins.   Too often, the race seems like too much for us.

Yet there He is in the race, running ahead of us, drawing our gaze, our focus.  He’s in there to pace us, to give us someone to run toward.  He beckons us to persevere, to endure because He endured much tougher things than our day to day lives.   Notice that Jesus doesn’t take us out of the race.   He doesn’t pluck us from the middle of the world, removing us from our sins.  No, Jesus stays with us to give us a reason to push forward.   The reason is Him, sitting as equal with His Father in heaven, beckoning us to persevere, to run the race day by day.  With Him there is peace now and a meaningful forever.  In Him is the victory; in Him is the goal of running the race.   All of human history prepared for His coming, and when He came, all of history after Him was set on a different path.  No empire could prevent His resurrection; no ideology can refute it, deny it, or withstand it.  Every Christmas, memes and cards say “Jesus is the reason for the season.”   That’s true, but don’t bottle that up until the Holidays.   Jesus is the reason you run your race today.   He’s there in every step, not just every December.

Get up and get back in your race.   Your goal is dead ahead.   For the joy set before Him Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.   He did it so you could run your race.

For further reading:  1 Corinthians 9:24, Hebrews 10:36, Psalm 25:15, Hebrews 2:10, Philippians 2:8-9, Mark 16:19.

Lord, I lift up Your Name to praise You for running my race with me.   Abide with me, push me forward, and help me to finish in Your strength.

 

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Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 27 December 2016

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And God permitting, we will do so.  Hebrews 6, verses 1-3.

Just after Christmas, these are hard verses to understand.   I mean, here we are, fresh off celebrating a time of hope, family, peace on earth and goodwill towards men, and we’re talking as if these things are second-best.   Moreover, the verses seem to pour cold water on ‘the fundamentals’ of what one does when one is new to the faith.   Repenting, faith, instruction, prayer, resurrection, understanding judgment:   is the author of Hebrews saying these are meaningless things, or things we can forget?

Not hardly.  Indeed, I’d submit that the author is saying “you already know these things.   Let’s take them to another level.”

My NIV concordance says we should pay attention to six truths that these verses highlight:  repentance, faith in God, instruction, laying on of hands, resurrection, eternal judgment.   How surprising it is that these are the same things that the author seems to be deriding…except he isn’t.   Reading through the verses in the context of those before them (where the author talks about how the Hebrews need solid instruction in ‘the basics;’ they need milk, not solid food), then it seems that the author is building a bridge between identifying how his readers have only begun to grasp simple truths about Jesus while working to actually become more mature believers.   The way to do that is by going back to the basics and applying them to where you are now.

Think about it.  When you’re struggling in anything, it’s good advice to remember first principles.   My friend, Alan Louie, has always said that.  When analyzing any problem, issue, or challenge at work, the first step in troubleshooting should be to remember and evaluate first principles:   what’s the why behind the what.   Why was something done in the first place?   What are you trying to accomplish?   What’s the purpose, mission, or reason for doing something?   Chances are, whatever solution is decided upon must satisfy those first principles if it is to be effective in addressing the situation at hand.

Or think of athletics, football in particular.   When a quarterback wants to improve, he practices simple repetitive motions and plays.   Practicing with a receiver, pass routes, mastering the snap, effectiveness in the pocket:   the way to improve on all those complex skills is to practice the most basic skills.  Excellent quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning know this and constantly remind themselves of it.

It’s no different with our faith.   When we struggle in our walk with Jesus, or when we are trying to grow, when we want to get to the root of the struggle, we should focus on the basics of faith.   Is there something of which we need to repent?   Do we feel adrift in our faith?  Are we struggling with finding meaning in our lives?   Does our prayer life need an injection of ‘oomph?’  Name your issue and the resolution to the problem begins with addressing first principles.

And those are?  Jesus died for you because He loves you.   Jesus rose from death to gain for you life eternal.   Jesus is the only way, truth, and life into that life.   There’s nothing we do, say, think, or anything else that makes us worthy of those things, or earns our way into them, or makes Him love us more.   He has done it all already, and He loves us perfectly despite all the miseries and shortcomings in our fallen lives.  More Jesus, less me, and things will start to work out.

Yet it is the last seven words – And God permitting, we will do so – that are, perhaps, the most imperative ones of all.  As mentioned, it’s just a few days after Christmas and I hope yours was as good as mine.  To take Christmas to the next level, now is a good time to want more of the Christmas spirit, of the things that draw us together as family and friends.   It’s a good thing to want more of the baby in the manger in our lives.   It’s a good thing to begin to understand the agape love that brought Him here and caused both wise men and shepherds to worship Him together.   God permitting, we will do so.   If God ends our time here today, then glory be and all praise to Him.   Yet if He permits us both today and tomorrow, then let’s use these times to brush up on the basics and learn by using those fundamentals.   God-permitting, we will continue to do so.

For further reading:   Luke 2:14, Philippians 3:12-14, Hebrews 5:12, Hebrews 9:14, John 3:25, Acts 6:6, Acts 2:24, Acts 17:24, Acts 18:21.

Lord Jesus, I praise You for the fundamentals, for the basics of my faith in You.   Put them always in front of me, I pray, and help me to cling to them as tools to help live this wonderful gift of a life You have shared with me.

 

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 23 December 2016

But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5, verse 14.
One more set of thoughts about solid food…and Christmas. We gain strength from solid food. Our bodies – our spirits – gain strength and maturity from consuming things that build us up. Today is the day before the day before Christmas. If you’re a “Friends” fan, it’s Christmas Eve Eve. Have you considered that now is the time you should be hungry? Contrary to the popular Christian idea, I actually think that now is the time you SHOULD want more for Christmas. You SHOULD want the whole big Griswold Family Christmas.
Make sense? Probably not; let me explain. It’s because of Hebrews 5, verse 14.
We’re sinful fallen human beings. Like it or not, our ancestors took onto themselves something they’ve passed down to us through our genes: sinful nature. You have one. So do I. Sinful nature is how we can take a beautiful thing like undeserved grace and make it into a consumer-driven mega-holiday we call “Christmas.” Sinful nature is how we can want more and more stuff and still not be satisfied with it. If you don’t believe me, name for me the big gifts you received each of these last 10 years. Chances are, if you’re like me (and I believe you are), you can’t. We think we can gorge on solid food but we don’t realize that if we eat too much steak when we can only tolerate milk, we’re going to end up gripping the spiritual toilet, barfing up what we can’t handle.
Yet we SHOULD want more, we SHOULD want all the love, peace, joy, and happiness that Christmas represents. Why? You know the answer: they’re love, peace, joy and happiness! Don’t make it tougher than it should be! And here’s the kicker: love, peace, joy, and happiness are food for the mature. They’re food for a weary soul. They’re the simplest, most child-like things we can imagine and yet it takes a mature heart to grasp them. More important, it takes a mature spirit to share them, to give them away. Best of all, it takes a mature soul to give them unselfishly, as undeserved grace, to people who don’t deserve it.
Make no mistake: people don’t deserve it. We spend all year treating each other like crap and yet, at Christmas-time, we say we want to make amends and share that love, peace, joy, and happiness. We say we want to do those things because we want them ourselves. Yes, we actually are pretty slow, dull and dim, and yet even the slowest, dullest, dimmest of us want that love, peace, joy and happiness. News flash, friend reader: it’s a good thing to want them. It’s a good thing to look through all the bad things in the world and focus on what’s right and good, especially at the time of the year we set aside to celebrate them.
They’re some of the best of the fruit of God’s Spirit. Love, peace, joy, happiness: apart from God, you can’t find them. Apart from the Savior in the Manger, you only get stuff, you only get a facsimile of love, peace, joy, and happiness. Real love, honest peace, true joy, and lasting happiness can only be found at the feet of Jesus. When you, crushed sinner, bow at His feet and humble yourself in repentance, He takes your hand and you get to look into His eyes. There you see only love, peace, joy, and happiness.
You should want that. It’s the best Christmas gift of all.
In our house, Christmas season starts, oh, probably around May. It’s the consequence of marrying an Elf. My wife is happiest when she’s doing things for others, and I know of nobody better who demonstrates the love, peace, joy and happiness that are knowing Jesus through Christmas than the woman who was crazy enough to marry me. She plans all year long for Christmas, making lists, arranging finances, solidifying plans, and spreading honest cheer. The season kicks into full gear around October; these last two years it has been exacerbated by this thing called “the Hallmark Channel.” She’s been on the floor organizing presents all afternoon, and in a few minutes we’ll go out to give cookies and candies to our neighbors. It’s her thing; it’s a huge part of who she is and I wouldn’t have her any other way. My Hunnie knows a lot about love, peace, joy, and happiness. In a world set against them, she’s chosen to learn about them from following Jesus.
He’s the same Jesus who, God Almighty, decided the best way to meet His greatest creation, humanity, was by coming as a defenseless baby in poverty, then growing up to teach the world about love, peace, joy, and real happiness. Christmas comes this weekend. It’s a herald for the truly beautiful holiday a few months down the road at Easter.
Merry Christmas my friends. Wishing you love, peace, joy, and happiness…and some cookies and Hallmark movies as well. Feast heartily on them because they are the best food for a maturing spirit.
For further reading: Matthew 4:4, Hebrews 6:1, 1 Corinthians 2:6, 1 Corinthians 3:2, 1 Corinthians 14:20, 1 Peter 2:2, Isaiah 7:15, Psalm 46:10
Lord Jesus, thank You for Christmas, for coming here to live with us, for being our Savior in the manger.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 6 January 2016

If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. Mark 13, verse 20.

Jesus wants everyone to be saved.   It doesn’t matter whether you believe or disbelieve, whether you are a Christian or some other religion, or what is the color of your skin:   Jesus wants a one-on-one relationship with you now, on this Earth, so that He will have one with you forever.

So Christmas was only a few days ago; ditto New Year’s Eve. Not long ago I read about how Christmas was ordained to be on December 25th and, contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t an attempt to confiscate an existing pagan holiday.   It was by deliberate action of early church leaders corresponding to a popular notion of the time.   December 25th was determined because it corresponds to 9 full months from the date of Christ’s crucifixion.   This is because of a belief, held in the early church that prophets and priests died on the day they were conceived.   Do the math and, based on the Jewish calendar, that corresponds to December 25th. The more you dive into trying to learn just why people commemorate events on certain days, the more you become aware of a crucial thing.

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter whether Christmas corresponds to Saturnalia or a tradition concerning the birth dates of prophets.   It doesn’t matter whether Easter would be a fixed date on the calendar or whether it floats around based on the first full paschal moon in a lunar cycle.

It doesn’t matter.   Repeat that phrase until it sinks in.

It doesn’t matter because the only thing about the calendar that matters is how Jesus uses it to convince us to be ready today, now, for His return. Indeed, time is given for us, not for Him.   He is eternal, existing both in and out of what we understand as time.   Jesus doesn’t need a calendar.   When God the Father deems that He will return, He will return no matter what the Julian calendar says.   Until then, God will use the calendar to continue to point us toward our undeniable, imminent need for His redemption.   He will allow sin and evil to influence and act upon us so that we might reject them and come to rely fully on Him for all things. Jesus knows the consequences of sin and how it seeks to destroy.   Today’s verse reminds us that, through His use of time, Jesus will display mercy by intervening at just the right time.   Specifically, the verse is talking about the end of all things, but if you extrapolate from that, you see that the verse applies to all times, all days, every moment.   Jesus intervenes in our lives now so that we might know Him better.

That means at Christmas time.   Or New Years, Easter, Saturnalia, the spring solstice or the day before your next daughter’s wedding. Jesus wants us to come to Him right now in praise, love, thanksgiving, and mercy so that He might work through us to reach others.   The date on a calendar is simply just one way He does so.

Lord, thank You for ordaining the days of my life at just the right time, for always being present, for time as a tool to better know and glorify You.

Read Mark 13, verses 1-31.

Practical Proverbial, from Luke 2 in the King James, 24 December 2014.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.   (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.   Luke 2, verses 1-20

The most important words ever spoken, to that time, in any language.   There’s nothing more to say…until Easter.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 23 December 2014

Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. Mark 3, verses 3-4.

Gutless cowardice makes me so stinkin mad. It infuriates me because, to be honest, I’ve been a gutless coward too many times in my life.   I can’t begin to tell you about all the times I stood silent – like the Pharisees – when I should have spoken up.   Or all the times I was bullied in school and did nothing to stop it. I can’t even remember how many times I used to be scared of things that really shouldn’t scare us; things like the dark, or confrontation, rejection, telling the truth, my faults and sins, deadlines, or even getting caught in a traffic jam.   I look back on those times and see myself has having been so much less than I knew I should have been and it makes me feel ashamed.   Ashamed and yet so amazed even more that Jesus wants me just the way I am, gutless cowardice and all.   There’s nothing I could have done, or could do now, to change that, or earn it, or make myself worthy of it.   It’s that agape love He has to which we all aspire but from which we remove ourselves so woefully far.

So it makes me mad to read about this story for the umpteenth time, about how the Pharisees were such damned gutless cowards when they were confronted by the Son of Man. Here they are in person with Jesus Christ, the one whose coming has been foretold since Eden, and they’re looking for a way to trap Him in His words.   Yet when He does something confrontational yet loving (like healing someone with a physical deformity), do they speak up?   Do they walk the walk?   You know the answer.

Gutless cowards.

Tell me:   would we be any different?   I’ve already confessed my sometime-cowardice.   I pray it would never return but, to tell you the truth, I don’t always know.   How about you?   What are you hiding from?   What bad things have you done, or are going on in your life, or are going on around you, that you refuse to stand up and face?   Are you walking the coward’s path in some way?

I bet you are.   Not to insult you; please understand, I respect you for who you are. So it’s in friendship and even admiration for you that I tell you I bet there are things you’re afraid of, things that make you cower in pusillanimous, irrational fear.

The antidote to fear? Let’s return to where Jesus is in verse 3 and stand up for Him.   Let’s be the man with the shriveled hand; the man who couldn’t help Himself but knew Jesus could.   Let’s let Him take our hand and make us understand that ‘He’s got this.’   That, cowering and fear or not, He wants us just as we are, that we don’t need to do a thing – that we really can’t – to make Him love us more for just who we are.   That in Him there is power to stand so that no weapon – or fear – will prosper against us. During Christmas week, that’s such an important thing to remember because that is the reason He came.

Lord, forgive me my fears and doubts and the times I’ve been a coward.

Read ahead in Mark 3, verses 1-6

Daily Proverbial, from James, 26 December 2013

As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.  James 4, verse 16.

Merry Christmas on onward towards New Years.   Dinner was pretty good yesterday, and it was great to spend the day hanging out with my family.  Soon, the tree will come down and the decorations will be put away.   Before that happens, however, what arrogant schemes and evil boasting am I doing?

You see, Christmas should be a gut-check.   Once a year, as we’re making merry and enjoying how we commemorate the birth of the King of Kings, we should give ourselves a gut-check.   The day after (what I hope was) a merry day, here is James, smacking us in the gob with our evil arrogance.

Did you get a diamond ring under the tree?   Good for you, but keep it in perspective.   Was your Christmas meal a feast?   Again, good for you, but how about a little reflection (and a few sit-ups).  Tell me (better yet, tell Jesus):  what are you holding on to that makes you boast, or feel cocky, or even make your chest swell?

Yesterday, we watched the end of “Ben Hur,” after which I went into my office to write these words.   Between the two, I got my gut check.  If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s the story of a man and his family, and how their lives are touched by the polar opposites of Rome and the Son of God.  Near the end, the main character sees Christ crucified:   hardly a Christmas scene (which, btw, is how the movie begins).   I realized what the day was all about while sitting there next to my very-pregnant daughter.   The miracle birth at Christmas is only made complete by the miracle death coming at Easter.  Without that death, Christmas is meaningless.   Congratulations, Dave:   you grasped an obvious cliché.

And yet it’s more.   It’s more because James gob-smacked me with reality and told me how much my fat Christmas self needs that brutal murder on Good Friday.  And how much everything else pales.

Prime rib in the roaster:   tasteless.   New tools, a new puzzle, new clothes:   close, but no cigar.  Beautiful tree, decades-old traditions, priceless decorations:  whatever.   Precious memories with the people I love most in the world:  worthless, in compare.  Ten seconds of heart-to-heart with the Man from Galilee whose birth we did all this to celebrate:   merry Christmas, one and all.   All those wonderful blessings are special, to be sure, but they’re only made special by knowing it’s Jesus who does so, and whom we share, and Who was and is and is to come. Holding on to anything else is simply evil.

Only by letting go of the things that I hold dear, even the deeply buried resentments and arrogance, can I truly understand how beautiful is the death of the Savior made possible by the miracle of His birth.  That’s the best Christmas gift of all.

Thank You, Lord, for your birth…and for how we will soon remember Your saving death.

 

What so-called gifts are you holding onto too close?

What should you let go of?

When did you last consider Christmas without Easter?