Saturday, December 26, 2020

Advent 2020, Sat., 12/26 - Matthew 28

Merry Post-Christmas! Advent is over...or is it?

PRAY for the Holy Spirit to give us a hunger for more of Christ everyday!

READ Matthew 28.

REFLECT
We've spent four weeks anticipating Christmas, and now that it's come and gone, I always feel a slight sense of emptiness. What do I have to look forward to next, cleaning up? I'm thankful for New Year's. It gives me a sense that there is more. The women who went to the tomb went to clean up Jesus' body. They felt they had some unfinished business, but that was going to be the end of it, and they probably had no inkling as to what they were supposed to do after that. The eleven apostles didn't even bother to go and check on things. But the angel gave them more Good News - Jesus was risen! And He was going to meet them in Galilee. And eventually they'd make their way back to Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit would come. And the story would continue. The fake news of the theft of the body was never going to hold up. God was doing more, building His church by telling His disciples to make disciples! And we expect Jesus to return!

RESPOND
Sometimes I think that Christians do not know what to do between celebrating Christmas (Jesus' birth), Easter (Jesus' resurrection), and the promised return (Jesus' Second Coming). Even the disciples, well, some of them had their doubts in Matthew 28:17. Do you doubt that Jesus is coming back? The way the world is, we need Jesus to come back. This confirms that Jesus isn't done yet. So what do we do while we're waiting? We do not have to feel that emptiness, that sudden let-down that December 26 often brings. God the Spirit is working in and through us every day. Do you want to experience more of God? Read and pray and worship God daily - it's not an academic exercise or a review session to get ready for the Final Exam - it's a relationship that we can enjoy daily! And serve others and make disciples - this is what God has told us to do, so if we want to experience God, we need to do the activity that God is doing! That's where we'll meet God! If we're sitting at home while all our friends are at the park, we cannot complain that they didn't include us if we chose not to go. We cannot complain about God not showing up if He told us to go somewhere and do something but we choose to do something else. The disciples had to go to Galilee, then return to Jerusalem. They still had to follow...and when they did, they experienced God in power and fullness of grace. Let's go! God's leading us! Let's keep going! There's more! Merry Christmas and Merry Post-Christmas!

Friday, December 25, 2020

Advent 2020, Fri., 12/25 - Matthew 27

Merry Christmas! We celebrate Christ's birth while also grasping how His life on earth would end. The fullness of Jesus' life is what made Him our atoning sacrifice. Praise God!

PRAY for God to give us love for Christ as we read today.

READ Matthew 27.

REFLECT
Reading through this long chapter, I see that Matthew weaves many testimonies together, and many different responses to Jesus. The chief priests and elders in tandem with Pilate - these represent the two sets of authorities before whom Jesus stood trial, the Jewish leaders and the Roman government. We also have Judas the betrayer, the crowd in Jerusalem, Barabbas (set free) and two robbers (crucified next to Jesus), the mocking soldiers, the testifying centurion (54), Simon the Cyrene (who carried the cross), Joseph of Arimathea, and some women who were followers of Jesus. (Where are the apostles?) The busy scenes make it hard to focus on the crucifixion itself. Jesus suffered. It was a long, drawn-out death. It was very public. It was unjust: there were many motions to free Jesus (even Pilate's wife), but the people shouted for Jesus' crucifixion. Everyone witnessed it. What a tragic day! But Jesus endured it all, gave it all, to save us and to glorify God.

RESPOND
Reading through this long chapter on Christmas Day is surreal. We had Christmas Eve service just a few hours ago, celebrating the beauty of the incarnation - Immanuel, God with us, God came to His people! The beauty of that scene is contrasted with the ugliness of this day-long execution. But think of this: the most beautiful human being ever to walk on the face of the earth ("He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation," Colossians 1:15) faced the ugliest death that mankind could devise. We should celebrate the beauty of Jesus' birth, life, and person. He gave His life as a gift for us. Merry Christmas! We have received the gift of beauty and salvation!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Advent 2020, Thu., 12/24 - Matthew 26

It is surreal to read the events leading up to the crucifixion (tomorrow's reading, on Christmas Day!) while anticipating our celebration of Christmas. This is Advent, celebrating all Christ did for us!

PRAY for God to give us a deep, deep appreciation for Christ.

READ Matthew 26.

REFLECT
This chapter is grievous! The beauty of Jesus dining at a (former) leper's house, having his head anointed by a woman's supply of expensive perfume - these are juxtaposed by the disciples' pettiness and shallow words of devotion. The ones who had spent the most time with Him "will all fall away" (31). But this is precisely why Jesus came to do what He did - no other man could perfectly obey God and earn righteousness. The sequence of events read like a script from a suspenseful, sorrowful movie. You know what's coming, and you cannot stop it. Judas' complaints, face-to-face betrayal, and leading of the mob. Peter's pledge ("even if I must die with you, I will not deny you," 35) and subsequent denial. The disciples failing to keep vigil in prayer and failure to stay by Jesus' side at his arrest. All of this in one night and all of this in one short, quick chapter. It shows us Jesus' determination, and our need for a Savior, our need for Jesus. 

RESPOND
I want to cry. Sometimes we look at the events of the world and think, "How can it be so bad? How can we be so bad?" I look at the history of my life and wonder if I've learned anything from the disciples' bad example. It's so hard to fathom - the disciples walked, talked, lived with Jesus! They saw His power, even saw Jesus resurrect people from death, and they still struggled! No, I am not better than them. I have His Word with me, His Spirit in me, and I still struggle. This magnifies my need, but it also deepens my appreciation for God's grace in sending His Son Jesus to take on humanity. What will I celebrate today/tonight? My God is with me. Though I struggle, Jesus overcomes even me. What a gift!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Advent 2020, Wed., 12/23 - Matthew 25

Advent brings up a question: do we want Jesus? Do we want the meaning of His first coming to define our lives? Do we want Him to come again?

PRAY for God to give us hearts that are right with Him and ears to hear Him today.

READ Matthew 25.

REFLECT
The parable of the virgins highlights an attitude of anticipation and expectation - when we want to honor and celebrate Christ, we will prepare and prioritize accordingly. When we do not do so, our lack of preparedness indicates our real heart attitude toward Christ. That's one big point here. And the parable of the talents highlights another. Each of the three servants had the same master. While the first two saw the master's expectation of productivity as an opportunity for blessing, the third servant saw the master's role in a negative light. Again, our behavior indicates the condition of our hearts. If we fear, avoid, or refuse accountability with our Heavenly Father and Master, then we really do not respect Him, revere Him, or regard Him with love. Instead, we take the good things He's given to us and turn them into bad things - a burden, a chore, or a compulsion. It only feels forced because our hearts are not open to Him. The separation of the sheep and the goats based on behavior is simply a revelation of their/our heart conditions and dispositions toward God.

RESPOND
I'm reading this chapter and I'm praying: Lord, what is the condition of my heart? In what ways does sin dominate me and hinder me from preparing for you and serving you? If I haven't surrendered my sin and my heart, then I haven't appreciated the first coming of Jesus. He came and gave His life to ransom me and many others. He's broken my relationship with sin. If I do not live in estrangement from sin, if I instead cohabitate and indulge my vanity and self-centeredness, then I am not loving Jesus. And if I am not working hard for Christ, then I am not anticipating and appreciating the Second Coming. I am distracted and I've lost connection with Christ and His purposes. So, Lord, let me again check my heart and attitude toward You, my Master. Have Your way in my life!

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Advent 2020, Tue., 12/22 - Matthew 24

Advent is about anticipating Jesus' birth, which initiated His Kingly administration; we also anticipate His return, which will bring His reign to fullness.

PRAY for God to help us long for and look for Christ's return.

READ Matthew 24.

REFLECT
Jesus says a lot of things here. We have to admit some of it is scary. The disciples were marveling at the temple's splendor (the Second Temple, when Herod expanded upon the rebuilt version of Ezra), but Jesus launches into a terrific and, at times, horrifying description of what is to come. False christs, who will "lead many astray," wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, and more. He even mentions vultures! There will be for the followers of Jesus tribulation and even death! "You will be hated by all nations for my name's sake." And we'll lose some who call themselves Christians, and they will even "betray one another and hate one another." That sounds a lot like what's happened in 2020! False prophets, lawlessness, and "the love of many will grow cold." But the gospel will be proclaimed. And the Son of Man will come, though it will be unexpected. We must be ready.

RESPOND
Broad brush strokes - there's a lot here and it sounds like the world is going to rot. Are we alarmed or surprised? We shouldn't be, 'for this must take place, but the end is not yet" (6). So even when some who we thought were Christian seem to lose their faith, and in sad and devastating ways, we can grieve while not being surprised. I'm thankful for these warnings that Jesus gives. He needed to alert His disciples for some difficult things they were going to face in the near future (the Romans defiled the temple in 70AD), and alert us for things that we are experiencing in the distant future (from their perspective). In seeing these things happening, it makes us 1) aware of our need for Jesus to make things right, and 2) long for Jesus' return. And Advent is about looking forward to when the troubles of this world will cease because Jesus has come back. We still need Jesus. We need to tell others to turn to Jesus. And we need to pray as we wait for Jesus to return. God, help us to put our faith in you every day!

Monday, December 21, 2020

Advent 2020, Mon., 12/21 - Matthew 23

What motivates us to look toward Jesus? Our need and His goodness. It is not our goodness.

PRAY for God to help us to see Jesus with humble eyes and greater vision.

READ Matthew 23.

REFLECT
This whole chapter is not only an itemization of false spirituality of the Pharisees and scribes, but it is also a description of false religion and false relationships with God. The details are specific and graphic: hypocritical issuing of prescriptive spirituality, public displays of religiosity for show, focus on titles, judgment and producing judgmental disciples, disregard for the temple and God's presence and character, neglect of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, being filled with greed and indulgence, being unclean and dead on the inside, guiltily disregarding God's prophets and prophecy, unwillingness to go to Jesus. The list is exhausting. They were daily and truly distant from God. But they had an appearance of godliness. How sad and how misleading!

RESPOND
How much of the list do you think applies today? How many people have been hurt or led astray by thoughts or teachings that sound spiritual but are actually distant from God? Any teaching or thought that leads us away from God, His love, and His call to love others is a sign of false spirituality. What temptations are tugging at your own heart? What does true spirituality look like if this chapter provides mostly the negative (false) side of spirituality? Have you fallen for a superficial relationship with God, or does your faith seem stronger?

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Advent 2020, Sun., 12/20 - Matthew 22

What is our posture before our King? How do we honor Jesus as we celebrate Him?

PRAY for God to humble us before Him as we read His Word.

READ Matthew 22.

REFLECT
Jesus, as He visits Jerusalem and interacts with the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and Sadducees, two religious sects within Judaism. Neither group wanted Jesus to disrupt things because acknowledging His authority meant losing their authority over the people. Jesus called them out. In the parable of the wedding feast, the expected guests were the Jewish people who had the position to warrant their invitation but who lacked the relationship to respond to God's invitation. They were focused on their business or personal pursuits over the King's call. The shocking part is where Jesus said they killed the king's servants. The king "destroyed" them. This would have aroused the anger of the Jewish leaders, for they felt entitled but they did not recognize God even as He sat in front of them. They tried to trick Him, but He astounded them with His wisdom and authority. And in the end, "And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare ask him any more questions" (46).

RESPOND
It's funny how often in my relationship with God I try to argue with Him about things. "Lord, please make this person change!" But God wants me to change! "Lord, please change these circumstances to suit me." But God wants me to change more than circumstances. My heart needs to be called out and dealt with. But His call to change...is an invitation...to His table...to dine with Him! It's an invitation to be in His presence and to enjoy His blessings and all that He's prepared. And all that's required is that I let go of the meager things that have been distracting me, prepare myself (moreso my heart than my clothes, though the latter may indicate just how well I took care of the former), and respond to the invitation. That's it! Who turns down an invitation to dinner? Someone who things they either don't belong there or are too good to go. The Gospel calls us out of either of those false notions, but calls us to true joy in the presence of the King, dining at His table. Let's say yes to this invitation. Let's go!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Advent 2020, Sat., 12/19 - Matthew 21

Celebrating Jesus is about celebrating our King!

PRAY for God to give you a heart of worship in acknowledging who Jesus is today as your read.

READ Matthew 21.

REFLECT
This chapter begins with the triumphal entry, a coronation parade for the King coming into the capital city. But the humble king rode in on a donkey, and that had to be borrowed! After cleaning the temple out, Jesus did not even stay in the city but went to nearby Bethany. The cursing of the fig tree and the parables of the two sons and the tenants expose the disobedience of God's people, their refusal to follow God as their king. That "the priests and the elders of the people" question His authority, again, after three years of His ministry and teaching, really demonstrates their stubbornness and distance from God. And for all of that, Jesus would give His life as a sacrifice for His lost sheep.

RESPOND
The fact that Jesus had to borrow a donkey demonstrates His humble status - He didn't own anything. But when you think about it, the fact that He could simply tell His disciples that the donkey would be there and they would have no problems taking it, well, that showed that Jesus really did "own" everything. He is God, everything is in His control. So this entire chapter demonstrates that Jesus, the powerful King, humbled Himself to suffer as a human being and to take on our sin, our lack of worship, our disobedience, and our punishment for all these things. He did it willingly. He came to Jerusalem willingly. His will is to save us. His love and compassion are for us. His gracious choice elects us. His sacrifice redeems us. We should marvel at His plan to save us. We should marvel as His love.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Advent 2020, Fri., 12/18 - Matthew 20

The anticipation of Christmas is anticipation of blessings from Christ!

PRAY for God to humble you as we ask God to bless us.

READ Matthew 20.

REFLECT
The story of the laborers in the vineyard speaks to the heart of man. The laborers who were hired early in the morning were given a blessing from the owner of the vineyard. It makes me think of day laborers I see waiting outside the home improvement store or gas station hoping that someone will give them work for the day. In the story the workers who were hired later were also given a blessing by the vineyard owner. Though their work was different, the same grace that called the last set was the grace that called the earlier ones - the master did not have to choose those particular workers, but he did. The ones hired earlier felt they had earned the blessing by the end of the day, but it was always a gift of grace. Jesus' response to James, John, and their mother resets the relationship: the greatest is the one who serves. And Jesus had just told them again how He was going to serve them by giving His life. Jesus service to us doesn't make us His masters; His service to us demonstrates His grace that reaches down to us.

RESPOND
I am thankful for the relationships God has given to me that help humble me. My leaders at church, my wife and children, my friends, my colleagues - each has a role to help me grasp God's grace in my life, and each is someone I can serve. When I try to love them, I should not do so from a position of pride or thinking that I am superior. That is more self-love than love for others. I need God to help me not take pride in what work I do, or what I have in my life, where I would think I am better than others. I am only saved because God has mercy on me, a sinner. Lord, keep my feet on the ground! 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Advent 2020, Thu., 12/17 - Matthew 19

Advent is hope that God is going to make things right!

PRAY for God to strengthen you with hope today as you read His Word!

READ Matthew 19.

REFLECT
Jesus enters a new territory and is peppered with questions about life while healing people and receiving children. The juxtaposition is thought-provoking: here is Jesus healing people, then a question about divorce because people have hard hearts (and heads). Jesus then receives little children, despite the disciples rebuking the ones who brought them, and Jesus pronounces, "for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." Then a rich young man comes and tries to get Jesus to say he also will get into heaven, only to be shocked and saddened when he finds out his wealth is holding him down. 

RESPOND
I'm so thankful for the children in this collection of encounters. Being around kids can humble me and remind me to keep things simple. What occupies your mind? Career or education? Finances? Social life? Comfort? Discouraging thoughts or feelings? Jesus receives all of it. When we come to Him with open hearts, minds, and hands, He blesses us, heals us, and teaches us. "With God all things are possible" and with Jesus we have promises of His presence, comfort, joy, and blessings. Keep it simple today. Enjoy Jesus and let others things go, placing them in His hands to take care of.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Advent 2020, Wed., 12/16 - Matthew 18

It's amazing how we turned a celebration of Jesus into a commercial season. Let's let Advent be about expecting Jesus!

PRAY for God to give you a heart that delights in celebrating Jesus as you read His Word.

READ Matthew 18.

REFLECT
"Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" the disciples asked Jesus. On one hand, the answer should be pretty obvious. But if we are going to indulge their hubris and curiosity and consider from among human citizens of God's kingdom, we will love Jesus' answer: the humbled one. Indeed, only a humbled person can take sin seriously and pray for self- and Spirit-discipline to follow Christ to sanctification. Only a humbled one would be able to address someone else's sin while having a heart of forgiveness, that the intention and result of dealing with sin in our relationships and in our world would always be grace leading us to holiness. A humbled heart is great because it is filled with great thoughts of God, who is the only one independently great. A humbled heart is great simply because it reflects God's greatness.

RESPOND
We are in a crisis in our world today. Christian leaders have fallen into sinful habits, usually hidden but eventually uncovered. Political leaders have skewed or missing moral compasses. Social justice advocates want justice according to our fleshly satisfaction. God does want justice, and He promises to establish a kingdom that is just. Meanwhile God provides justice not by ignoring sins but by forgiving them, as Jesus Himself paid the price. So why do we still struggle with sin? Pride was the first sin, bringing many more behind it. We need to recognize how much like children we are: playing and getting dirty and not realizing it. Ask God to help us to grow. And God goes after the lost sheep, after us. Praise God and pray for holy humility.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Advent 2020, Tue., 12/15 - Matthew 17

Advent is a time of hope, hoping and believing that God is doing more. Let us read with hope and faith!

PRAY and ask God to help you see Jesus, that we would put our faith in Him as we read His Word.

READ Matthew 17.

REFLECT
There are some events that occur in the life of Jesus with His disciples that must have really been mind-blowing. The Transfiguration event was one of those. Peter, James, and John "fell on their faces and were terrified" (6). Jesus gets them up and builds them up, telling them they need not be afraid. Afterward they witness more miracles, hear prophecy and teaching, and see how Jesus navigates earthly life. It must have been hard to fit the pieces together - Jesus was fully God and yet submitted to human governmental authority?! - but they had a front-row seat to see it all.

RESPOND
The events that revealed Jesus' deity were meant to stir the disciples to greater faith. They would need it, for when Jesus went to the cross, it really wrecked them. But God had demonstrated His power, and their experiences with Jesus would later all fit together with His sacrificing Himself for mankind - He was truly fully God and fully man and able to be the atoning sacrifice. How much faith do we need to be saved? Just a mustard seed-sized faith. It's not about how much faith we have, but about how great the One in whom we put that faith. So, how well do you grasp the greatness of Jesus? Are you in awe, fearful of Him? Take another look. Jesus is greater! And when we see it, His greatness transforms our lives, because He really is our Savior! Hallelujah! Praise God today for His ability to save us! And His willingness and desire to do so! Tell someone about how great Jesus is!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Advent 2020, Mon., 12/14 - Matthew 16

Happy Monday! Sometimes God's Word is soothing. Sometimes it's shocking! Sometimes it's both! 

PRAY and ask God to give you life, strength, energy, joy, and excitement for His presence in your life today, as you read His Word and listen to His Spirit.

READ Matthew 16.

REFLECT
Jesus speaks words that soothe to groups that need His healing touch. He speaks words of challenge to those whose minds are far from God and His plans. The Pharisees and Sadducees were supposed to have their minds on godly ideas, but they were looking for the wrong things. And though Peter was able to cut through all the popular notions of who Jesus was to identify Him as Christ and God the Son, he still rejected Jesus' explanation that sacrifice was necessary. Jesus told them to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, and to follow Jesus. Peter still wanted to "gain the world" but Jesus was thinking of something far greater. The shocking words that Jesus spoke, even calling Peter "Satan," were needed. But He also spoke words of promise, promises of life, a life eternal, with Him.

RESPOND
What words do we want Jesus to speak to us today? Are we open to having Jesus challenge us? If we are not letting Jesus dictate how our lives are going to go, and how He is going to lead us when we follow Him, then we are not following Him the right way! If we're not seeking our lives according to how He sets the rules and marks the path, then we are offline and out-of-bounds. We are, in effect, taking the role or under the influence of Satan! But most of us would never consider describing our attitudes or approach in those terms! What would Jesus say? We tone it down a lot to save our egos. Maybe we need to humble ourselves more. Maybe we need to allow Jesus to define humble more than we do. Amazingly, Peter wouldn't have let Jesus do the very thing He needed to do to save us. If we do not let God lead us, we will truly be lost. But if we follow Him, we will find life. Let's humble ourselves and let God teach us.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advent 2020, Sun., 12/13 - Matthew 15

Clean and unclean - how clean do you think you are? How long do you have to wash your heart to get it clean? 

PRAY and ask God to open your heart to let God search deeply and to bring His gracious, loving presence deep within.

READ Matthew 15.

REFLECT
The issue of handwashing was just one sign of the deeper issue of corrupt hearts that were distant from God. I cannot imagine how hard it was to keep all the rituals that the Jewish people were supposed to keep. I see Orthodox Jews sometimes walking around our community on Saturdays as they go to and from worship services, and that is only a mere fraction of what they have to keep in mind. The Pharisees and Jewish leaders spent most of their time focused on the codes of law...and policing others! Jesus came and He saw people who needed healing, who were hungry, and who were distant. He saw hearts. It's not that he didn't see the hands, but the hearts were (and are) more important. What do I see?

RESPOND
This year many have said that all our fault lines have been exposed. Without the cover of superficial interactions in hallways, breakrooms, or in casual get-togethers, we are left with our opinions on politics and social issues, and when the deeper thoughts are exposed, people say they are shocked. Imagine if we were able to actually know the real status of everyone's heart before our holy God - if all our sin issues and inclinations, if all our enmity and bitterness, if all our selfishness and immaturity were completely exposed. None of us would be able to avoid the shame. God sees it all already. Jesus was simply breaking through facades. We are now called to deal more honestly. But because God knows it all already, and because He's already sent Jesus to die for our sins, we can trust that He really does forgive us. His grace washes us clean. No, we didn't deserve it. It's just His overwhelming and unconditional love. You can be real. And be really loved.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Advent 2020, Sat., 12/12 - Matthew 14

This year has been a mixture of emotions. God knows all of what we're experience, feeling, and thinking.

PRAY and ask God to give you peace deep in your soul based on His presence deep in your life as you read His Word.

READ Matthew 14.

REFLECT
The sadness of John's gruesome death must have shocked and overwhelmed his disciples. How did if affect Jesus? Did His retreating into solitude stem directly from feelings of sadness? Jesus was fully human after all and it's very possible. And should Jesus have stopped it? I mean, didn't John deserve better treatment? Jesus addresses people's needs, because "he had compassion on them" (14). Then He feeds the five thousand from the meager five loaves and two fish, and after that He walks on water and even allows Peter to experience that great power. And the people of Gennesaret experienced great power as well. So what about John? God sets the time and works out His plan. When suffering for sin is involved, He suffers along with us. When overcoming providence comes, Jesus takes glory in providing for us. When doubt comes, He lifts us up above the wind and waves.

RESPOND
John's death, the sickness, the hunger, Peter's fear - all of these remind us that we are not in heaven and that earth has fallen from perfection and into corruption. John will be resurrected into heaven. Jesus can and will complete His work. We are in the midst of it. Take a step out of the comfort zone of the boat, fix your eyes on Jesus, and walk to and with Him. In the roller coaster ride of emotions in 2020, Jesus knows our sufferings and His ministry reveals God's desire to bring us into a fuller life with Him. 


Friday, December 11, 2020

Advent 2020, Fri., 12/11 - Matthew 13

Everyday we are thankful for God's presence with us and God's promises to us!

PRAY and give thanks to God for His faithful presence with us this morning! Ask for Him to speak to you again.

READ Matthew 13.

REFLECT
Lots of parables here, and a lot to digest! The cumulative effect of all these parables is this: I'm challenged in how much I really want to understand and learn about God's Kingdom and about God! What kind of student/disciples are you? Do you study for the grade, learning enough and retaining just long enough to do well on the test, but then letting it all leave your consciousness after you answer the questions correctly? Or do you study to know the subject, letting it sink in deeper, into your consciousness, enough so that you can interact with it, see how it actually impacts your life, and even sharing your knowledge with a friend when a related topic comes up in conversation? What kind of student of Jesus are you? Jesus talked about seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing, lest they "understand with their heart" (15). This describes the approach that many of us have, a very superficial, cursory reading of Jesus' words. That's amazing! The people here didn't just have a great teacher in front of them, one who spoke with authority that was unlike any other they'd heard before. They actually had God the Son in front of them, and still many of them didn't get it. How does that compare with us today?

RESPOND
This is not just a call to study harder! No, because it's not about bad study habits. The problem here is a heart problem, and fixing that isn't about more discipline. Fixing the heart problem is about becoming more humble. How do you change your attitude toward your teacher, your subject, or your Book? How do you grow in appreciation of the lessons that are being taught? It's not about getting better at studying! It's about recognizing, with the help of the Holy Spirit, how utterly helpless we are without Jesus. It's asking God to change our hearts and minds so that we can really grasp the Gospel - we sin(ned) but Jesus loves us! Ask God to help you study the person, not the page. Maybe it's a good day to read the Bible while kneeling.


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Advent 2020, Thu., 12/10 - Matthew 12

God desires to transform our lives, from the inside out. What's going on inside you today?

PRAY and thank God for His presence and His grace, for His gentle leading of us, and for His relentless pursuit of our hearts!

READ Matthew 12.

REFLECT
What marks a true Christian? Is it behavior, strict adherence to a certain set of rules or principles? Is it simply by claiming the name? Jesus rejected the Pharisees and his own family for they were not following Him at this point in the Gospel narrative. You can try to clean up your life but if you're not inviting God to take up residence in your entire life, then it is simply rearranging the sin issues in your life. Shallow religiosity will not save us. Superficial behaviorism will not bring us into a God-honoring life. If Jesus becomes the greatest name in your heart, mind, and life, then you've begun to understand what it means to live a life of worship.

RESPOND
How many days go by in my own life that are void of actual worship of the Lord? I may be coasting, avoiding gross sins, and doing what I need to do to function like a Christian, but when my heart is far from God and is empty of His glory, then I'm just a shell. God forgives me, and invites me to experience the beautiful, tender, and transforming presence of the living God in my life daily. He is a person, a person to be enjoyed and interacted with. He is not merely a book, a two-dimensional page to be studied and left on a table. He is the same God who came in the form of a baby, grew from a boy into a man, who lived, breathed, ate, taught, with love, care, and power. And He is still to be enjoyed and honored. Let His glorious person stir your heart today! Worship all day!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Advent 2020, Wed., 12/9 - Matthew 11

Everyday we are thankful for God's presence with us and God's promises to us!

PRAY and give thanks to God for His faithful presence with us this morning! Ask for Him to speak to you again.

READ Matthew 11.

REFLECT
I'm sure John the Baptist was tired by this point in his life - he was in prison! He also may have wondered about how much faith he could put in Jesus and God's promises. John had lived a life of dedicated ministry, and he'd been challenged by authorities, criticized by the public, and shunned by many. But God had used him, and there was no denying that God had used his words and deeds to transform some people's lives. While much of the world chooses comfort and convenience, Jesus' disciple are called to give up worldly pleasures for the sake of glorifying God and ministering to others, for the sake of loving God and loving others. God gives us strength, just like Jesus gave John the encouragement he needed. We can trust in God's presence and promises! 

RESPOND
How tempted are you to say no to Jesus and to say yes to the comforts of this world? Many people push our dealings with God to an end-of-life concern, and then we get busy with living our "best life now." Jesus said if we seek our lives we will lose them, but if we give up our lives for His sake, we will find true life. Following Jesus requires sacrifice. But when we need rest, encouragement, or strength, God will provide. Ask God for what you need today. Pray for others you know that need God's encouraging rest and strength! 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Advent 2020, Tue., 12/8 - Matthew 10

Christmas is a time for good feelings, but being a Christian is challenging!

PRAY for God to give you a deep appreciation for who Jesus is through today's reading!

READ Matthew 10.

REFLECT
The twelve apostles were called; it's good that they had that personal call from Jesus because what He was calling them to do was very daunting. The instructions for how to go out and minister to people were a gut-check: the work itself was amazing and then to go by faith and trusting in God to provide what you needed daily - it's like the lesson the Israelites learned in Exodus through Deuteronomy (and beyond). And the the words of persecution, family upheaval, "brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death" (21) - these are scary, scary words. We have a much more sanitized version of Christianity in the United States. But there really are Christians all over the world being persecuted, living out these realities first-hand. "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (28) - oh, these words are so challenging. Following Jesus, even at Christmastime, includes these challenges. But God is with us! Immanuel - God is with us! 

RESPOND
What view of Christianity do you have in your mind? How do you envision following God to be? Easy? Blessed all the time? Did you choose Jesus just for His blessings, or did you choose to follow Jesus because it's the right thing to do and He is worthy and deserving of all honor, and of our obedience. It's not easy. It's not supposed to be easy. Don't fall for false Gospels. Jesus isn't here to make things easier, but He is here to make things right! Follow Jesus, die to yourself, but receive real life through His power at work in you. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Advent 2020, Mon., 12/7 - Matthew 9

What would it have been like to witness Jesus' miraculous power? We still have that opportunity today!

PRAY for God to lead you and speak to you today!

READ Matthew 9.

REFLECT
The variety of encounters with Jesus reflect the facets of His person and character. He had authority to forgive sins: this paves the way to experience the rest of His blessings for reconciliation with God reopens our relationship with our Almighty God. And Jesus called sinners to Himself. And He healed, encouraged, and loved, because "he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (36). Interestingly, then, this chapter concludes with an invitation, to pray, but also to be raised up to join Jesus in the harvest of sharing HIs blessings with others.

RESPOND
To what is God calling us? We are being invited to join Him in HIs Kingdom work! That entails leaving our life of sin and selfish pursuits, like Matthew and others, and then we get to experience Him working out His power. God will reveal His power according to His purposes, so when we are joining Him in His harvest work, we will see Him do greater things. Pray for Him to lead you according to His Kingdom purposes for today!

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Advent 2020, Sun., 12/6 - Matthew 8

Every day is a day to wonder and marvel at God!

PRAY and thank God for His powerful presence in our lives!

READ Matthew 8.

REFLECT
Jesus finishes calling out the falsely religious, calling them (and us) into a more authentic relationship with God. Matthew then includes two stories to show the teaching truly came from an authoritative figure. But those two stories include Jesus touching a leper (v. 3) and healing a centurion's servant (a Roman, i.e., an infidel). How radical and scandalous that Matthew would show these two as the outworking of Jesus' authority to save! Then there comes a series of stories showing people struggling to respond to Jesus' authority - the would-be disciples, the actual disciples, and the Gadarenes. This Jesus is not to be taken lightly!

RESPOND
To what extent do you recognize Jesus' authority over your life? If your boss at work or your teacher tried to control your personal life, you'd explain the boundary and limits to their authority in your life. Do you acknowledge God's authority and then let Him act like Lord over your life? The Gadarenes rejected Jesus, "begged him to leave their region" (v. 24). The leper and the centurion put no such limitations on Jesus' authority, though, because they were well-aware of their need...and they knew their need could only be met by Jesus. Jesus' intention in our lives is to have complete authority over our lives. Our coming to God is not about "accepting Jesus into our hearts" so much as it is about surrendering our lives to Him. Have you surrendered every part of your life to God? It is not a question of whether or not He has authority so much as it is a question of us recognizing or fighting Him. Surrender to Him!

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Advent 2020, Sat., 12/5 - Matthew 7

I'm sorry for the delayed devotional entry today!

PRAY and thank God for the hope which we have in Christ.

READ Matthew 7.

REFLECT
Jesus' final portion of The Sermon on the Mount, as reported in Matthew, encourages us with the Father's heart, but warns us of falsities. There is the narrow road leading to a narrow gate, the false prophets (known by their fruit), and even false disciples. We are called to judge ourselves. To whom is Jesus speaking? The immediate audience were the Pharisees and other religious elites, secure in their self-righteousness but actually distant from God. Jesus once again cuts to the heart of the matter - what is our actual disposition toward our Heavenly Father? Are we listening? Are we obeying? Are we following Him? Do we have that intimate relationship where we know we can ask Him whatever we need, and we trust Him to answer. Membership in the Kingdom is reflected in knowing (for real) the King.

RESPOND
I think about the Christmas decorations and the traditions and rituals...and I think about how cluttered our Christmas season has become. Our lives are cluttered as well and we often lose sight of what it really means to know and love someone. Think about our family relationship: do parents love their kids only by giving them Christmas presents, or is that love more evident in the time and attention in investing in those children and really knowing and shepherding their hearts? Do you value your friendship and family relationships and build into those with depth, care, and love, or are they more about form and function? Does your heart delight in Jesus' birth story, and His teachings, even the challenging ones? Is your heart stirred deeply, broken over sin but emboldened by His deep grace to you? Here is a call to a real relationship. Let your heart be stirred by Jesus Christ!

Friday, December 4, 2020

Advent 2020, Fri., 12/4 - Matthew 6

God brings us life through His Word, through knowledge of Him and hearing His voice!

PRAY and thank God for His Kingdom work, which Jesus' birth initiated and which the Spirit's work continues and affirms.

READ Matthew 6.

REFLECT
For the Pharisees to hear Jesus' words, it may have been convicting - He really cut to the heart. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (21). They were the ones showcasing their good acts for all to see, to the applause of men, and to the audience of public opinion, mostly the affirmation of their friends. As long as they looked good to their social network, they must have felt like they were doing well. And in today's era of social networks, where we like Likes, and we want affirmation. It is good to be affirmed. It makes us feel secure, however superficial an internet Like might be. Jesus cut through all of that: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (33). Truly, what are we living for?

RESPOND
I need heart checks every day. So quickly does my life become about something other than seeking the Lord and listening for His voice. Whether I am concerned about matching the social consciousness about an issue, or appeasing my desire not to look like a mindless sheep following the herd, there are many ways in which I get caught up in some goal other than His righteousness. So, am I checking my heart with this: "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!" (Ps. 139:23-24). For if my prayer is to be right with God, then I will be right where I need to be, and I will have the only affirmation that matters. Will you pray that prayer every day? Even just for today, but with depth and honesty?


Thursday, December 3, 2020

Advent 2020, Thu., 12/3 - Matthew 5

 Let's continue reading, reflecting upon, and responding to God's Word.

PRAY and give God honor this morning! Jesus is our King, so speak to Him as such!
READ Matthew 5.
REFLECT
Jesus expounds on the message of repentance and aligning ourselves with God and His Kingdom as the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) lays out Kingdom values and a Kingdom heart for us. And it is an amazing series of snapshots. Ultimately, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20). We have a tendency to think of Jesus and somehow think He actually lowers the bar for us, makes is easy for us to enter heaven, by dying on the cross for our sins. And in thinking of the baby Jesus coming to us, we make ourselves the standard of acceptability before the Lord. Jesus actually never lowered the standards for the Kingdom. His death broke the power of sin over our lives to free us to grow. We receive His merit so that we are considered righteous before the Father. And we receive His Spirit so that we can actually see our lives transformed to grow into Christ-likeness.

RESPOND
Maybe Jesus makes this strong statement solely to express our need for His redemptive work. Maybe Jesus still knows that we cannot ever really be that righteous. I mean, for real, do we really expect to have our lives changed that much? The short answer is: yes! I've seen it! Mature Christians who have a heart for Jesus and a real love for others, who are crucifying sin in their lives through the power and lead of the Holy Spirit, and who are living for the Kingdom as they share the Gospel with others. I've seen men and women whose households or friendships are seasoned with the truth of Scripture, the hope of Jesus, the conviction and boldness of the Spirit! But ultimately, it is not us manufacturing righteousness. It is simply us walking with God in the Truth and in the Spirit's work in us. Besides, when you scratch beneath the surface...the Pharisees did not set the bar that high! They had a false righteousness but were actually far from God! We need only live every day in true Spirit-filled fellowship with our Savior and He transforms our lives from the inside out by His grace and love for us! Aim high! And follow Jesus!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Advent 2020, Wed., 12/2 - Matthew 4

 Let's continue reading, reflecting upon, and responding to God's Word.

PRAY and ask the Holy Spirit to move in you and speak to you! God is a person and the relationship we have with Him is personal, real, and interactive! All throughout Scripture there is a pattern and promise that God will speak to us through His Spirit working in us. Pray for a listening spirit!
READ Matthew 4.
REFLECT
Jesus' temptation was an amazing showdown. The calling of the first disciples was monumental and the ministry of healing was dramatic! When reading this again, the verse that the Spirit draws to my attention the most is 17: "From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" He did not start with the miracles. He did not start with a launch team. He started with a message. And it wasn't a message of promises of prosperity. It wasn't a message to scratch people's itching ears. It was a message that cut to the heart: "Guys, we gotta deal with sin." Everything else hinged on this message of reconciliation with God, of turning, the literal meaning of repentance, and getting right with God. This is the heart of getting our lives on the right track. Everything else falls in line after this.

RESPOND
This Christmas season, as with the rest of our lives, has gotten so cluttered with other goals, ideas, and dreams. Let's cut to the heart of the matter: how important is it for you to have your life right with God? How important is it that your entire life gives honor and glory to God? How does your life convey worship and praise of God, in His very real and powerful presence? What clutters your mind and heart and spirit? Remember, Jesus said the most important commandment, basically the distillation of what life is all about, is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). We find our life has meaning, purpose, joy, and alignment when we repent, turning from false pursuits, and hear God calling us to live as part of His Kingdom people, according to His Kingdom purpose. Worship the King today. Sing a praise song. Bow before Him. And follow His lead!

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Advent 2020, Tuesday, Dec. 1 - Mt. 3

We're going to use a quick format for reading, reflecting upon, and responding to God's Word.

PRAY and thank God for one way aspect of His character (e.g. holiness, grace, love, kindness, patience)!
READ Matthew 3.
REFLECT
John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and challenged those who felt falsely secure in their relationships with God. He knew that Jesus was God, and that any and every sin would render us unholy before God. We need to recognize the authority of Jesus to judge us. Only then can we really understand the grace that He extended to us. Only then does the humility and obedience that He demonstrates by letting John baptize Him make sense.

RESPOND
When you think of Jesus Christ, does His name connote power and authority to judge you and your life? Or do you only think of Jesus like your friend who affirms you and lets you do what you want? God warns us in His Word not to make God/Jesus in our image (Romans 1, Exodus 20, etc.)! We need to ask God to help us have a restored view of Jesus in all His power and authority. We need to confess our sin of acting like Jesus isn't powerful and acting like Jesus doesn't have something to say about how we've been living in this world. And when we have a high view of Jesus, His incarnation becomes more amazing, beautiful, and kind. Take a moment (or all day) and really worship Jesus today! 

Returning to God, Not Just Church

No question, it's been a long, hard fourteen months since COVID hit us with stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and masks. Some of u...