ADMIT IT

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:11-13 (NIV)]

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes that he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

snowy egretA.W. Tozer’s words remind me of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed in the Temple. Acting as if God should feel grateful to receive his prayers, the Pharisee didn’t understand that he should be grateful that God listens! Rather than express thanks for God’s righteousness, power and majesty, the proud Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness and then listed his virtues! Although it wasn’t required, he fasted twice weekly and was so fastidious about tithing that he tithed not just what was earned but also anything he acquired. If he were unsure that a farmer had tithed his produce, the Pharisee would tithe it again! Standing before God and proclaiming both his good works and his contempt for others (like the tax collector), the Pharisee is a perfect illustration of a man “who believes that he is worthy of heaven.” How wrong he was! Perhaps the Pharisee’s refusal to recognize his own self-righteousness was his biggest sin of all.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. Standing apart, beating his breast in repentance, and feeling so contemptible that he couldn’t even look up, we find a man who clearly knew he was a sinner. Recognizing exactly who and what he was, the tax collector humbly came before God and, with a repentant heart, admitted his sin and begged for mercy.

When Jesus told this parable, He must have shocked his listeners. The Pharisee was considered the epitome of pious living and the tax collector of sinfulness. Jesus turned that comparison upside down when He said that it was the humble tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home with his sins forgiven.

It’s only when we’re sick that we see the need for a physician and only when we see our sinfulness that we see the need for a Savior. We must approach God as did the tax collector: by understanding our wickedness and the need for His mercy. The Pharisee didn’t understand that nobody deserves salvation and it can’t be secured by fasting, tithing or other good deeds. It is out of God’s love for his children that He generously saves those who repent of their sins. It is only when we know we’re sinners, deserving of hell and undeserving of God’s grace, that we are likely to find our way to heaven.

Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell – He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it. [J. Vernon McGee]

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:14 (NIV)]

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THE FEAST OF EPIPHANY – JANUARY 6

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]

magi

Assuming you don’t worship in the Orthodox Church, today is known as the Feast of Three Kings or Epiphany. Since the church year for Orthodox Christians follows the Julian calendar, tonight is their Christmas Eve and Epiphany won’t be until January 19th. For those of us using the Gregorian calendar, however, today often is the day the Christmas tree is taken down, the nativity sets boxed up, and the holiday decorations are tucked away until next December.

Epiphany, however, isn’t about decorations or eating the last of the Christmas cookies. The word “epiphany” means to show, make known, or reveal. Those “ah-ha” moments when we have a flash of insight or understanding are often called epiphanies. (I frequently prayed for epiphanies when studying algebra and geometry.) When the travelers to Emmaus (in the gospel of John) suddenly recognized the resurrected Jesus, they had an epiphany as did Saul when Jesus revealed Himself on the road to Damascus. Today’s Epiphany celebration is about the coming of the wise men with gifts to visit the Christ child. Their visit revealed Jesus to the world as Lord and King, not just to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

When the long awaited Messiah was born, angels sent the birth announcement to lowly shepherds rather than religious leaders. The king was born, not in a palace, but in a stable. The newspaper didn’t list His birth but a star led the way. The baby gifts were brought not by Jews but by Gentiles: pagans who traveled from Persia, Arabia or India for several months to find this newborn king. They didn’t present the family with typical baby gifts and their offerings certainly weren’t what a poor carpenter’s family would expect to receive. Their offerings, however, were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world. Gold, the metal of royalty, symbolized His kingship and acknowledged His right to rule. Frankincense, used in worship and the anointing of priests, symbolized the role Jesus would take as our High Priest. Myrrh, a spice used for embalming, was an odd gift for a child but the magi were familiar with the prophecies that told of the Messiah’s suffering. This was the perfect offering for the One who would be a sacrifice. Perhaps the greatest gift the magi brought was the one that didn’t come in a box: their worship!

As we put away the last of the holiday decorations, let’s not put away the message of Christmas. May the living Christ remain in our hearts: our King, God, and Savior—the One who lived and died so that we might die and live.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign. …
Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high. …
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
[“We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.]

They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [Matthew 2:11 (NLT)]

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KARMA

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

maccawCutting in and out of traffic, the sports car sped around us and raced through a red light. A few minutes later, we saw it pulled off to the side of the road with a policeman at the driver’s side window. While the driver deserved the ticket, what happened was not karma. Nevertheless, when seeing someone suffer the consequences of their bad behavior, people often say, “It was karma—what goes around comes around!” Granted, what goes around often comes back around but the word “karma” is not a word that should be in our Christian vocabulary.

Although Christianity says we will harvest what we’ve planted, karma is not a Christian concept. Karma tells us that every good or bad action will result in a comparable good or bad consequence. Because the full reward or penalty doesn’t happen in this lifetime, it’s necessary to return to life again to reap the consequences of previous actions. The behavior during this and previous lives determines one’s destiny (and form) in future lives. Not only do people get what they deserve in karma, but they also get whatever their past life deserves! This life’s cancer, poverty, or paralysis is the result of a previous life’s transgressions or offenses (and we don’t even remember what they were)!

Karma requires reincarnation and there is no such thing as reincarnation in the gospel message. We die once and we’re judged once; our eternal reward or punishment is determined in a single lifetime. We’ll be reborn, but that rebirth is in this life, not in some future life. Yes, there will be an afterlife—but it will be as us (not something or someone else) and it only will be in one of two places: heaven or hell.

As Christians, we sow in this world and reap both in this world and the next. Because there are consequences to our actions, we often reap what we sow in this lifetime, but not completely. We live in a fallen world where the wicked can prosper, the righteous can suffer, and not every reckless driver gets a ticket. Nevertheless, a final day of judgment is promised in Revelation. It is God, however, not karma, who ensures that righteousness is rewarded and sin punished. While there will be rewards for good works and judgment for failures, there will be no condemnation to hell for the Christian. Rather than a pronouncement of doom, our judgment will be more like an assessment of value. What did we do with the gifts with which we’d been blessed? While I don’t understand how this judgment will work or what rewards we might receive or forfeit, I do know that it won’t be in some future life as an insect, dog, pauper or prince.

Thankfully, because of God’s mercy, Christians don’t receive what they ought to get; as sinners, what we deserve is death! Thankfully, because of God’s grace, we also get what we don’t deserve: salvation, forgiveness of sins, abundant life, the Holy Spirit, and an eternity in heaven!

We have one and only one opportunity to get it right and live according to God’s plan. Let’s not waste it!

Each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment… [Hebrews 9:27 (NLT)]

For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body. [2 Corinthians 5:10 (NLT)]

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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DEFYING NATURE

ngorongoro crater

At the blast of your breath, the waters piled up! The surging waters stood straight like a wall; in the heart of the sea the deep waters became hard. … The finest of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters gushed over them; they sank to the bottom like a stone. [Exodus 15:8,4-5 (NLT)]

Skeptics love questioning the miracle of the Red Sea. Either they provide a natural explanation or deny it ever happened. Unfortunately, sometimes we even find believers doing the same thing. A miracle is usually defined as something that violates the laws of nature, but God wrote those laws! “Miracles are not contrary to nature,” said Augustine, “but only contrary to what we know about nature.” As Christians, we base our faith on a miracle—the resurrection of Jesus—so a belief in God’s powerful ability to defy nature’s laws is essential to our faith.

How can the waters part for the Israelites and then come surging down on the pursuing Egyptians? For decades, scientists have tried to find a natural explanation using various computer models. In spite of Moses giving a good description of where their crossing occurred, land and water are not static and the topography of the area has shifted over 3,500 years. Not knowing exactly where it happened, many suggest that, instead of it being the Red Sea, the crossing actually took place further north in a shallow lake called the Reed Sea. They explain that a wind temporarily drained this shallow marshy area just enough to allow the Israelites to safely cross. The Hebrew word used to describe the seabed was yahbashah which means dry land, not the muck or mud of a damp marsh. Moreover, while the Egyptians with their heavy chariots might have gotten bogged down in the mire, that can’t explain how an entire army was drowned in a few feet of water.

Other skeptics have argued that a volcano or earthquake north of Egypt produced a tidal wave or tsunami that parted the Red Sea. A tidal wave happens suddenly which hardly supports Moses’ description of the gradual retreat of the waters during the night or the fortuitous return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptians.

Scientists also have estimated that a steady 63 mph wind from the east could have swept the water back to the western shore to create a land bridge. Winds of just 45 mph make driving hazardous and can knock down a person weighing 100 pounds. A wind of 63 mph would make the crossing nearly impossible. Moreover, Moses described two walls of water, one on each side. I’m not a scientist but two opposing walls of water would seem to imply winds blowing in opposite directions and I can’t see how anyone could get anywhere in that kind of crosswind! When considering the width of the path required for about two million Israelites (along with sheep, goats, and cattle) to cross a seabed in just part of one night, it needed to be at least one mile wide. It’s hard to believe that any natural wind could do that.

Even if some of these explanations are partially or totally correct, there is no explanation for what would seem to be the most amazing coincidence in all of history: that the Israelites arrived at some body of water at the exact moment a tsunami or gale force winds occurred that caused the waters to recede, that the land remained dry just long enough for them to cross, and that the waters gushed back at precisely the moment the Egyptians were in the seabed! That so-called coincidence would require the miraculous power of Almighty God!

Scientists admit they can’t explain everything but even a valid scientific or medical explanation doesn’t negate a belief in the hand of God. While her doctors might say that Pearl’s recovery from metastasized cancer is a result of oncology advances, they originally thought she’d not live a year. While John’s doctors could say his ability to walk after having his pelvis crushed is the result of their skills as orthopedic surgeons, they initially thought he wouldn’t live, let alone walk! I know how thoroughly Pearl’s body was attacked by cancer and I’ve seen John’s x-rays; I have no doubt that without our prayers and God’s intervention, modern medicine would have failed them both. In spite of a medical explanation for their recoveries, they are nothing short of miraculous.

Skeptics and atheists have trouble believing in miracles because a belief in miracles necessitates believing in the hand of someone or something that can cause them: God. I’ve seen His wonderful work firsthand; our God is a God of miracles and that’s explanation enough for me!

I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor and your wonderful miracles. [Psalm 145:5 (NLT)]

He does great things too marvelous to understand. He performs countless miracles. [Job 9:10 (NLT)]

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THE CRÈCHE AND THE CROSS

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3 16-17 (NLT)]

creche and crossPew Research reports that while 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, more than half of them celebrate it only as a cultural holiday! While they’ll decorate their house with lights and wreaths, trim a tree, send cards, and exchange gifts, Christmas is just an excuse for good food, parties, family gatherings, and presents. While they’re not indifferent to Santa, gifts, merriment, or decorations, like the people of 1st century Palestine, they are indifferent to the Christ child. The shepherds saw the star and sought the babe in the manger and a caravan from the East brought Him gifts, but we don’t read of any townspeople visiting Joseph and Mary. What of the priests and scribes who told Herod where the Messiah would be born? They knew the prophecies but didn’t join the Magi in their quest to find the One who would fulfill those prophecies. Lowly shepherds and men from a faraway land recognized Jesus as the Messiah but most of God’s chosen people ignored the greatest event in all of history.

Some people react to Christmas with antipathy; like Herod, they hate its message. Rather than join the magi and seek the newborn King of the Jews, the enraged Herod slaughtered all of the male babies around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the king! The “bah humbuggers” are like the atheist who erected a 10-foot 300-pound pentagram just 20-feet from a nativity scene in a Boca Raton park in 2016. Non-believers don’t want a King who might knock them off their pedestals any more than Herod wanted one who could knock him off his throne. They’re uncomfortable with the concepts of sin, salvation, love, sacrifice, obedience and forgiveness that surround Christmas. Then again, maybe they dislike this day simply because Christmas reminds them of the emptiness of their lives.

Some people respond to Christmas as did the angels, shepherds, magi, Simeon, and Anna: with worship. Tonight and tomorrow, people around the world will raise their voices in praise and thanksgiving, light candles, sing carols, kneel in prayer, lift their hands in worship, and share bread and wine at communion. Some will come and adore Him tonight but won’t return to church until next Christmas. But others will ponder the events of this night, as did Mary. They will allow the Christ child to enter into their hearts and lives and affect their every thought, word, and action for the rest of their lives. After extinguishing the Christmas Eve candles, they will continue to let their lights shine all year long. They are the ones who know that God came as a baby and lay in a manger so that He could suffer, die on the cross as a common criminal, and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. They know that the crèche is meaningless without the cross!

Let us behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. [Luke 2:19b-20 (NLT)]

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