DAY ONE

DawnThe faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:22-24 (NLT)

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. [2 Corinthians 4:6 (NLT)]

I’m an early riser anyway but the three hour time difference between the east and west coasts had me up well before dawn. While sipping my morning latte, I looked out the window and watched the morning appear. As the sun began to rise, God got out his paints to color the sky and the horizon took shape. I slipped on my shoes and went out to greet the new day. While a rooster in the distance crowed his welcome to the sun, I silently shouted my good morning to God and thought of Matthew West’s song Day One of the Rest of My Life. “It’s day one and here comes the sun!” I sang to myself. Indeed, each morning brings day one of the rest of our lives—day one of the best of our lives! Thank you, God.

Seeing the sunrise shouldn’t just be saved for Easter morning services and I feel sorry for those who sleep through the day’s awakening. They miss experiencing that perfect moment when dawn breaks through: when today becomes yesterday and tomorrow becomes today. Although saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is a cliché, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Telling us that yesterday does not have to repeat itself today, each dawn brings a new beginning.

Of course, we don’t have to arise while it’s still dark to enjoy a dawn in our lives. Our faith in Jesus takes us from the darkness of unbelief into a new beginning. Moreover, because of God’s grace, we’re assured that even when we mess up (and we surely will), there is another new beginning and plenty more after that. Nevertheless, seeing a sunrise reminds us both of God’s forgiveness and the new life in Christ we’ve been given. It tells us that this is the day we should live life to the fullest, honor and serve God the most, and be the best we can be. This is the day we can get back on the right path, realize our dreams, fulfill His will, and be wiser, better, and more forgiving. But, just as we don’t have the power to make the sun rise, we don’t have the power to become the person God wants us to be by ourselves. That power comes from the Holy Spirit within us. It is He who fills us with the peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to meet each day.

The Psalmist said, “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” [118:24] Indeed, each new day brings reason to rejoice. Yet, since every dawn inevitably ends in a sunset, the sunrise also serves as a subtle reminder of the brevity of life. Not a moment should be wasted in regret, anger, resentment, worry or fear. Lord, whether today is the first or the last day of the rest of our lives, fill us with your Spirit so that it is the best day of our lives!

Well, I wish I had a short term memory,
Wish the only thing my eyes could see
Was the future burning bright right in front of me;
But I can’t stop looking back.
Yeah, I wish I was a perfect picture of
Somebody who’s never not good enough.
I try to measure up but I mess it up
And I wish I wasn’t like that. …
Well, every single day Your grace reminds me
That my best days are not behind me.
Wherever my yesterday may find me
Well, I don’t have to stay there.
It’s day one of the rest of my life!
It’s day one of the best of my life! [Matthew West, Peter Kipley]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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SERMON ILLUSTRATIONS

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. …  These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. [1 Corinthians 10:1a,6-7a (NLT)]

One of my pastors says that everyone has two kinds of experiences. They’re either good or learning and, if we actually learn from the learning experiences, they can move into the good category! Being a pastor, he admits to categorizing his experiences a slightly different way; they’re either good ones or sermon illustrations (and he readily admits to having many sermon illustrations from which to choose!)

When we learn from the learning experiences of others, we can avoid having to learn those painful things first-hand. When advising the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offered some “sermon illustrations” as words of warning. Making reference to several of Israel’s failings, he reminded the Corinthians that, as blessed as the Israelites were, because they displeased God, most of their bodies were scattered through the wilderness.

Although the church at Corinth had some Jews, the majority of its members were Gentile converts. I wonder how familiar they were with the stories in Exodus and Numbers to which Paul refers. Did they know that, after the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, 3,000 of them died at the hands of the Levites? Were they familiar with the story of the 24,000 men who were executed for worshipping Baal and defiling themselves with Moabite prostitutes? Did they know that poisonous snakes bit the Israelites after they blasphemed God and rejected Moses? Were they aware that the Israelites’ complaint and rebellion against God, Moses and Aaron led to 14,700 dying in a plague? Did they even know that, of all the adults who came out of Egypt, only two (Joshua and Caleb) ever entered the Promised Land?

Actually, Paul’s congregation in Corinth probably knew those stories better than many Christians today. They had access the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and, while new to the church, I imagine they faithfully studied it and knew the history of Jesus’s people. While many in today’s church occasionally refer to their Bibles, it seems that few of us actually read them. Some of us may read Scripture haphazardly but, by just reading a passage here or there, we never see how it all fits together into a unified whole. If we attend a liturgical church, we may hear snippets of the Old and New Testaments each week, but that’s just bits and pieces. Many Christians who didn’t grow up in the church don’t even know Sunday school stories like Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jacob and Esau, or Moses and the burning bush. How, I wonder, can we learn from Israel’s mistakes when we don’t even know what they were?

Paul hoped the outcome for the Corinthians would be different from that of the Israelites but knew that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t learn from their ancestors’ errors. The Bible is one beautiful sermon illustration and there is much we can learn from others’ faults and failings. As for me, I would rather have my experiences be good ones rather than lessons or sermon illustrations. One way to do that is to learn from other people’s painful learning experiences so to avoid their pitfalls. To learn from them, however, we have to know what they were.

The only ignorance worse than not knowing the book that made us who we are as a civilization is believing we can go on being civilized without that book. The marks of the Bible upon the West and its people are deep. … But they are not indelible. We were barbarians before the God of the Bible found us. And we can become barbarians again. [G. Shane Morris]

Who allowed Israel to be robbed and hurt? It was the Lord, against whom we sinned, for the people would not walk in his path, nor would they obey his law. Therefore, he poured out his fury on them and destroyed them in battle. They were enveloped in flames, but they still refused to understand. They were consumed by fire, but they did not learn their lesson. [Isaiah 42:24-25 (NLT)]

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TRAPPED

Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” [Luke 12:15 (NLT)]

You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. [Revelation 3:17 (NLT)]

grey squirrel in bird feederI looked at the greedy squirrel caught in the bird feeder. He’d managed to get himself in but couldn’t get out and wasn’t even able to enjoy the seeds that enticed him there in the first place. Other squirrels, however, were gathered beneath the feeder feasting on the seeds he knocked out of the feeder with his frantic movements. That silly squirrel lives in a bird sanctuary where there is more than enough food in the way of fungi, nuts, seeds, fruit, caterpillars and insects (along with the bird seed that frequently spills from the bird feeders) to keep him plump and happy all year long. Nevertheless, unsatisfied with enough, he hungered for more. We’re not much different.

I thought about King Solomon; while best known for his wisdom, like the squirrel, he was greedy. Although God had warned against a king amassing great amounts of gold, Solomon collected 25 tons of it every year and, unlike those bird seeds, his wealth didn’t even scatter down to his people. After Solomon’s death, they begged King Rehoboam for relief from their labors and heavy taxes. Perhaps hungry for an even more extravagant lifestyle than his father’s, Rehoboam refused and lost it all to the king of Egypt within five years.

Some say wealth brings happiness but, if anyone should know about wealth and happiness, it would be wise King Solomon. His words in Ecclesiastes, however, are not those of a happy man: “Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!” [5:10] Amassing money and possessions is like running on a treadmill: a never ending journey. We think that bigger, better or more will bring contentment but what once seemed a luxury soon becomes commonplace and a mere necessity. So, wanting something even more extravagant, we get back on the treadmill of acquisition. So rich that he considered silver worthless, Solomon got rid of his silver goblets and utensils and replaced them with gold. Had platinum been discovered in his time, I imagine he would have replaced the gold with it.

Wealth is not evil; in fact, it can do wonderful things. Wealth, however, is dangerous because loving it and all that comes with it can lead us into temptation and trap us in spots far worse than a bird feeder.

Don’t feel sorry for the squirrel; a naturalist freed him that afternoon. But, chances are, many of us are still on a treadmill of acquisition, foolishly striving for that elusive place over the rainbow where dreams come true, “troubles melt like lemon drops,” and that pot of gold is hidden. The squirrel’s desire for more held him hostage; we mustn’t let our craving for more do the same to us!

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.  But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. [1 Timothy 6:7-10 (NLT)]

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BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS

UtahThis is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” [Joshua 1:6a,9 (NLT)]

Joshua 1:9 was my Bible verse for the day but I decided to make it my verse for the week. To make sure I kept it in mind, I wrote it on a post-a-note and stuck it where I’d be sure to see it: on my phone!

Wanting to put this inspirational verse in context, I reread the first chapter of Joshua. The book of Joshua is about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham made four hundred years earlier. Its first chapter is one of my favorite chapters of the Old Testament narratives. To set the stage: Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River with the Promised Land in sight. Forty years have passed since the parting of the Red Sea. Moses is dead and only Caleb and Joshua remain of the adults who’d once been slaves in Egypt. The Israelites are standing on the edge of the unknown and the Jordan River is at flood stage. With no bridges or ferry boats, they must have wondered how they’d manage to get safely to the other side. Joshua is the new leader of the Israelites and God tells him to be strong and courageous.

Granted, God’s words were spoken to Joshua around 1400 BC in an entirely different setting but, because I’m standing on the edge of the unknown as well, God’s words to Joshua are both comforting and encouraging. Then again, we’re all standing on the edge of the unknown. None of us know what tomorrow (or even the rest of today) will bring: be it good news or bad, tornadoes or sunny skies, an accident or a near miss, the making of a new friend or the loss of an old one.

When Joshua is told to be strong, God wasn’t talking about working out at the gym. This strength had nothing to do with muscles unless, of course, we’re talking about spiritual muscles. It had to do with having the strength to prevail, withstand, and sustain. Being of good courage, is more than not being a fearful coward; it’s being alert both physically and mentally, steadfast, and determined. It wasn’t powerful foes or a lack of weapons, battle strategy, or seasoned warriors that threatened Israel; it was fear, discouragement, and weakness of faith.

Being strong and courageous is easier said than done. Nevertheless, God tells Joshua exactly how to do that: meditate on and obey the instructions in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible and the only scripture at the time). Authored by God through Moses, those books contained the people’s history and God’s law, promises and plan. If the Israelites had only done that, the Old Testament would be an entirely different (and far less violent) story! 3,400 years later, we’re no longer limited to a mere five books; we have both Old and New Testaments to make us strong and courageous. Just the same, knowing and obeying those words can be as much of a problem for us as it was for the Israelites.

At least for me, the best part of Joshua 1:9 is God’s promise that He is with us wherever we go. Whether we’re crossing a deep river or just going across the street, confronting an enemy army or a CT scan, or facing a walled city or the loss of a spouse, we know that, no matter what befalls us, God is with us. When we’re standing at an abyss, facing the great unknown, there is no need to be afraid or discouraged. We can be strong and courageous because we have his promise in writing; He is always with us, “even to the end of the age.”

If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable. [John Newton]

Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

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YOUR GIFT IS NEEDED

There are different kinds of gifts, but they are all from the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve but the same Lord to serve. And there are different ways that God works through people but the same God. God works in all of us in everything we do. Something from the Spirit can be seen in each person, for the common good. [1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (NCV)]

turkey vultureYesterday, when I compared vultures to mankind, I did vultures a disservice. Although unattractive, smelly, and with rather disgusting eating habits, vultures play a valuable role in keeping our ecosystem healthy and clean by disposing of rotting carcasses and preventing the spread of disease.

When in Tanzania, we came upon a committee of Rüppell’s vultures gathered by an impala carcass. The animal had collided with a vehicle and lay by the roadside—perfectly intact but clearly dead. The birds, however, weren’t eating and seemed to be waiting patiently while dinner lay right in front of them. When we asked our guide why they weren’t dining, he explained they were just waiting for the arrival of more vultures (but not out of politeness). The waiting vultures, while well-equipped to stick their heads into an animal’s carcass, didn’t have strong enough beaks to tear into its unbroken hide. They were awaiting the Lappet-faced Vultures who, with their strong beaks, could tear open the impala’s tough hide and through tendons and other coarse tissue to expose its insides. Being the larger dominant birds, the Lappets eat first. Once done, plenty of food remains deeper in the carcass for the medium-sized vultures like the Rüppell’s who, with their bald heads and necks are perfectly designed for getting down and dirty into the remains. Once they’re done, the Hooded Vultures get to eat. With their smaller heads and beaks, they are perfectly designed to extract the last bits of meat found deep in the animal’s remains. Last to dine is the Bearded Vulture. Unlike its cousins, this vulture has a feathered head making it ill-suited for eating flesh; fortunately, it likes the bones. When each vulture has done its part, their job of cleaning up the carcass is complete. When we wondered how all the different vultures managed to find this one dead animal, we were told that the White-backed Vulture has excellent eye sight and will “wheel” in the sky as a sort of dinner bell to alert all the others. Unable to tear open a carcass, it eats with the Rüppell’s.

There are twenty-three different species of vultures and God has equipped each one of them in a slightly different way. They all have the same assignment—to be nature’s garbage men—but each is equipped to do that in different ways. The White-backed Vulture signals, the Lappet-faced Vultures get the job started, the Rüppell’s do the dirty work, the Hooded-Vultures pick the bones, and the Bearded Vultures finish the job. Each vulture needs to do its part if their joint mission is to be accomplished.

God gave the vultures their assignment and, in Matthew 28:19-20, He gives us ours: “So go and make followers of all people in the world. Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything that I have taught you.” Within that greater assignment of expanding God’s Kingdom, however, we each have a distinct position to fill and a gift that will enable us to fulfill it. Like the vultures, the church cannot survive unless everyone uses his or her gift but, unlike the vultures, our gifts are rarely as obvious as a strong beak or a bald head.

While the Holy Spirit has gifted us, it is our obligation to determine the nature of His gift. In all of his discussion of spiritual gifts, however, the Apostle Paul gave no directions for recognizing those gifts. Perhaps he felt no need for guidance because recognizing our gift really isn’t so terribly difficult. All we really need to do is ask ourselves where we can best serve. Are we the guys with the big strong beaks or the ones who pick the bones clean? When we find the place where we can best serve effectively, we will have discovered our spiritual gift and we can get to work using it to further God’s kingdom.

Each of you has received a gift to use to serve others. Be good servants of God’s various gifts of grace. [1 Peter 4:10 (NCV)]

The most important thing is that I complete my mission, the work that the Lord Jesus gave me—to tell people the Good News about God’s grace. [Acts 20:24 (NCV)]

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WHICH ARE YOU? 

I will appoint over them four kinds of destroyers, says the Lord: the sword to kill, the dogs to tear, and the vultures and wild animals to finish up what’s left. [Jeremiah 15:3 (TLB)]

hummingbird - vulturesWe were enjoying hundreds of exotic butterflies amid tropical plants in the conservatory of a nearby botanic garden when I turned around to see a hummingbird hovering nearby. In spite of the building’s double-door containment procedures, this beautiful little bird managed to find his way into what, for him, must be paradise and no one seemed to mind. Seeing him reminded me of a question asked several years ago: “Which would you rather be—a hummingbird or a vulture?”  I thought, “That’s a no-brainer!” as I watched the iridescent bird hover over the flowers; then I remembered the question wasn’t what we wanted to be but rather what we actually were.

Most of us want to think we’re hummingbirds—those beautiful delicate birds with the fluttering wings—but I’m not sure we always are. Hummingbirds may be small but they’re fearless; they’ll even pursue hawks in defense of their nest. Are we that fearless? Hummingbirds are optimists who always look for the bright and sweet in the garden of life. Do we? These avian helicopters, often thought of as harbingers of good luck, are welcome everywhere. Does seeing us bring joy the way seeing a hummingbird does or is the reaction to us more like that of seeing vultures at the side of the road—something like “Yuk!”

When we search for something or someone to pick apart, we’re like the vultures soaring in the sky and sniffing for the stink of rotting carcasses. Rather than road kill, we’re sniffing around for rumor and scandal so we can dine on other people’s misery or disgrace. When we discourage rather than build up or disparage rather than praise, we’re not much different than the hungry vultures who gather as the swamp dries and anxiously wait for the fish to die so they can pick at the remains. When we remorselessly spew hate, bigotry, or anger, we’re like vultures that, with a well-aimed shot of acidic vomit, can slime someone or something they don’t like. When we choose to live with resentment, bitterness, and the rotten leftovers of yesterday, we’re not much different than vultures who defecate on their feet.

If we want to be hummingbirds, there can be no more concentrating on the unpleasant garbage of our lives or the lives of others. There can be no more feasting on sour guilt, fetid anger, foul-smelling regrets, or the rotten remains of past relationships and issues that died long ago. Hummingbirds don’t just seek out the sweeter things in life; they are one of those sweet things. As hummingbirds, we can’t just enjoy the happiness we find, we must bring joy to those we meet. After all, people plant brightly-colored flowers and hang special feeders for hummingbirds, but I’ve never heard of anyone trying to entice vultures into a garden.

The hummingbird and vulture have no choice—they are what they were born to be. We, however, can decide if we’re going to be hummingbirds and welcome spreaders of joy, or vultures, those unwelcome omens of misery. The choice is ours!

Lord, guide us in our thoughts and actions so we can be like hummingbirds from this day forth!

Always be full of joy in the Lord; I say it again, rejoice! … Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about. [Philippians 4:4,8b (TLB)]

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