TRUE FREEDOM – INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020

Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. [Romans 6:14 (NLT)]

fireworksTomorrow, as we commemorate our nation’s birthday, the celebration will be a little different. Beaches are closed and the brat fests, chicken roasts, band concerts, parades, fireworks, neighborhood picnics, rodeos, and ice cream socials typical of this national holiday have been cancelled. Friends and family won’t be joining us to light sparklers, have a water balloon fight or baseball game, catch fireflies, eat popsicles and watermelon, or enjoy s’mores around a campfire.

Restrictions because of this pandemic have made some people bristle at their loss of personal freedom and these last few weeks have put a spotlight on both the shortcomings of our nation and the imperfections of our national heroes. Nevertheless, regardless of our nation’s faults and problems, we have an incredible amount of personal freedom. Here, we are free to disagree but, in nations like Syria, Turkmenistan, South Sudan, North Korea, and even our close neighbor Cuba, those demonstrations would never have taken place. There we’d have suppression of political opposition, restrictions on internet use, a one-party political system, government controlled media, prohibitions on worship, and harsh authoritarian rule with even more injustice and inequalities. While we’re far from perfect, we’re better than most!

As thankful as I am for the statesmen and patriots (flawed as they were) who made this great nation a reality, I am even more thankful for Jesus and his small band of Apostles who made it possible for us to live in true freedom! True freedom has more to do with belief in Jesus than it does with a Declaration of Independence or a Bill of Rights. Without Christ we will never truly be free because, no matter where we live or what kind of government we have, we will still be in bondage to sin. The Liberty Bell rang out for our nation’s freedom but it was the cross and an empty tomb that gave us our spiritual freedom. Our nation’s freedom began with its Declaration of Independence 244 years ago; our spiritual freedom came when we accepted Jesus and learned to live in dependence on Him.

We lift up our hearts, O God, on this day of celebration in gratitude for the gift of being Americans. We rejoice with all those who share in the great dream of freedom and dignity for all. 

With flags and feasting, with family and friends, we salute those who have sacrificed that we might have the opportunity to bring to fulfillment our many God-given gifts. 

As we deny all prejudice a place in our hearts, may we also clearly declare our intention to work for the time when all people, regardless of race, religion, or sex, will be granted equal dignity and worth. 

Come, O gracious God, who led your children Israel from slavery, keep us free from all that might hold us in bondage. 

Bless our country and join our simple celebration that we may praise you, our Source of freedom, the One in whom we place our trust. [Edward Hays, “A Pilgrim’s Almanac”]

For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. [2 Corinthians 3:17 (NLT)]

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THE RAINBOW

chicago rainbowI will never again curse the ground because of the human race, even though everything they think or imagine is bent toward evil from childhood. I will never again destroy all living things. As long as the earth remains, there will be planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night. [Genesis 8:21-22 (NLT)]

Tears are the material out of which heaven weaves its brightest rainbow. [F.B. Meyer]

With everyone stuck inside because of the rain, the day had been challenging as my son and his wife tried to get in eight hours of Zoom meetings, conference calls, report writing and computer programming while keeping their two youngsters busy (and relatively quiet). The rain finally stopped shortly before dusk and, when my grand ran out onto the rooftop deck to celebrate her freedom, she stopped in amazement. There, above the city, a city plagued not just by COVID-19 but also by gang violence, shootings, racism, rioting, and poverty, was a beautiful ray of hope: a double rainbow.

Rainbows are among my favorite things. The glory of the Lord “looked like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day,” to Ezekiel and John described the Lord’s glory circling Him like a rainbow and glowing like an emerald in Revelation. The rainbow shows us God’s light in the darkness of our troubled world and is probably the closest thing we have to seeing His radiance while we’re on this side of the grass.

Scripture’s first mention of a rainbow is in Genesis 9. Once the floodwaters had receded and the earth was dry enough, God told Noah to leave the ark and release all of the animals. Even though God knew mankind’s heart was still inclined toward evil, He gave us another chance with His promises to never again destroy every living thing by flood and that the normal cycles of nature would continue as long as the earth existed. The rainbow provided Noah and future generations with a sign of God’s covenant.

After a rain storm, with its clouds, thunder, and lightning, we frequently are blessed with a rainbow: a beautiful reminder of God’s love, mercy and faithfulness. It reminds us of both God’s grace and our sinfulness; after all, it was mankind’s sin that caused the flood in the first place! Rather than saving us by putting us on an ark of cypress wood, God saved us by putting Jesus on a cross. The rainbow reminds us of our redemption and salvation; because of Jesus, we have an opportunity for a new beginning. God packed a whole lot of supernatural meaning into a natural phenomenon when He hung the rainbow in the sky!

Before Noah and his family left that ark, they’d been in close quarters with one another and all of those animals for a year. If we think sheltering in place is challenging, imagine doing it with four families and an enormous menagerie but without the internet, Amazon, Netflix or Door Dash. Today’s bad news, like rain, keeps showering down and we’re in a season that seems to have no end. The storm clouds of life can obscure God’s presence but, when we remember that He is in the storm with us, we might just see a rainbow! Like my grand, I love seeing rainbows; they remind me that God is faithful to His promises for “all generations to come.”

And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow. [G.K. Chesterton]

I am giving you a sign of my covenant with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures. Never again will the floodwaters destroy all life. [Genesis 9:12-15 (NLT)]

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LIVING WATER (John 4:1-42 – Part 1)

“Everyone who drinks this water,” Jesus replied, “will get thirsty again. But anyone who drinks the water I’ll give them won’t ever be thirsty again. No: the water I’ll give them will become a spring of water welling up to the life of God’s new age.” … The woman said, “Give me this water! Then I won’t be thirsty any more, and I won’t have to come here to draw from the well.” [John 4:13-15 (NTE)]

Taos NMJesus was never one to follow man-made rules and, when He spoke with the woman at the well, He broke several. Jewish tradition considered it beneath any man’s dignity to publicly speak with a woman. Rabbinical writing taught: “Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no not with his own wife.” That a rabbi like Jesus did such a thing was scandalous. Those same writings considered women incapable of religious instruction with these words: “Rather burn the sayings of the law than teach them to women.” Jesus speaking of God with a Samaritan woman just made it more outrageous! But, we know from His interactions with women like Martha, Mary, and Mary Magdalene that Jesus wasn’t much for rabbinic tradition so His speaking with this Samaritan woman shouldn’t surprise us.

There’s one thing, however, that seems unlike Jesus in his encounter with this woman when, knowing she’s unmarried, He asks her to get her husband. She admits to having no husband but that’s not the whole truth. Jesus exposes her five previous marriages and her living with a man not her husband. The woman had to have been mortified that a stranger knew of her sordid history. While it’s possible she’d been widowed five times and was living with her brother, that seems highly unlikely. A Jewish man could divorce his wife with the slightest provocation but five marriages reflect badly on her character as do her living arrangements. Since she was drawing water at the hottest part of the day rather than the cool evening (when the village women normally would), she appears to be an outcast who’s gone from one man to another. Jesus never shamed the woman caught in adultery so why would He put this nameless woman on the spot when He knew her disgraceful history?

Prior to being asked about her husband, the woman told Jesus she wanted the living water about which He spoke. Her request was for earthly convenience rather than eternal life. It was then that Jesus inquired about her husband. His knowledge of her secrets established His credibility as a prophet and ultimately identified Him as the Messiah. Recognizing Jesus only as a prophet, she asked Him to clarify the dispute between Judah and Samaria as to the right place to worship. Jesus answered that the time had come when the location didn’t matter because true worshipers would worship the Father in spirit and in truth. She then realized that Jesus was the Messiah, the source of the living water she so desperately sought.

Jesus asked the woman about her husband so she would face her sins and own up to her immorality. It is only with a humble heart that we can come to Jesus and His question was the woman’s moment of humility. Salvation comes to those who confess and repent of their sins, but the woman had to acknowledge those sins before she could repent. The living water only comes to those who know they are spiritually thirsty and salvation only comes to those who see the need for a Savior!

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar, and his word is not in us. [1 John 1:8-10 (NTE)]

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HE EXISTS

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. [Genesis 1:31 (NLT)]

The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation. [Psalm 145:9 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronPeople often argue against God’s existence because of evil and suffering. With so much that is wrong in the world, they question how there could there be a god. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was once an atheist who reasoned that such a cruel and unjust world proved the absence of God until he questioned where he got the idea of what was good or evil, just or unjust. He realized that something cannot be wrong or evil unless there is standard for what is right or good. In a universe with no God, there would be no standard for justice or injustice, good or evil, right or wrong: simply personal preferences. That standard, Lewis realized, is rooted in God. As a result, the very argument he used against God’s existence provided Lewis with proof of His presence!

Nevertheless, acceptance of God’s existence in a world with evil leads people to question how this loving God of ours could allow so much of it in the world. Unable to see how a loving, good and powerful God can coexist in world so filled with pain and suffering, people often ascribe any evil that befalls to God but none of the good. Granted, bad things happen but, if they’re used as evidence against a good God, then all of the good things that occur must be considered as evidence for Him!

The preponderance of the evidence tells us that there are more years of rain than drought, more harvests than famine, more fair weather days than hurricanes, more love than hate, and pandemics are not a regular occurrence. On a more personal level, I’ve encountered evil, injury and pain and, if I were asked to make a list of the suffering in my life, I could. But, if asked to record the good things I’ve experienced, I couldn’t—simply because there would be far too many to list! I’ve avoided more accidents than I’ve been in, favorable circumstances have aligned more often than not, more good people than bad have touched my life, my joys outweigh my sorrows, and God has accompanied me through every dark valley I’ve traversed. Moreover, I’d probably have to cross off most (or all) of the items on the list of bad things because God redeemed them by bringing good out of the pain and suffering.

When life feels anything but good, it’s easier to focus on evil and suffering than to remember that God is good. Yes, we live in a fallen world but it’s not the world God intended; our good God did not create evil and suffering. When man chose to disobey in Eden, both moral and natural evil entered into what was a perfect world. God may allow evil but it is our free will that has made it possible. We can’t hold God responsible for our mistakes.

Non-believers and believers alike wrestle with how a good loving God can allow the presence of evil and suffering. Nevertheless, the existence of suffering doesn’t negate God. In fact, it is God’s existence that gives meaning to our pain and suffering! We’ll never fully understand it. Nevertheless, when I think about those two lists and all that God has done for me, I know that God exists and that He is good!

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

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. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. [James 1:17 (NLT)]

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IT’S A PROMISE!

Jenny Lake - Grand TetonsIf we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is. [2 Timothy 2:13 (NLT)]

When I first read the above verse in a daily meditation book, I felt reassured; even if I’m unfaithful to Jesus, He’ll remain faithful to me. Wondering if my interpretation was correct and suspecting the verse might have been taken out of context, I looked at the preceding lines: “If we die with him, we will also live with him. If we endure hardship, we will reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us.” [2:11-12] Probably part of an early Christian hymn emphasizing the believer’s union with Christ, when put in context with, “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is,” we have a different meaning. Paul was echoing Jesus’ own words of warning: “But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” [Matthew 10:33] Jesus cannot deny who He is; if we deny Him, He will remain faithful to His word and deny us.

But what of Peter? He denied Jesus three times and Jesus certainly didn’t deny him! Again I looked to the context: “If we die with him, we will also live with him. If we endure hardship, we will reign with him.” Rather than speaking of Christ followers who may have a temporary failing like that of Peter, Paul is speaking of those who have rejected Jesus and denied Him, as did Judas. When Peter denied knowing Jesus that night so long ago, he hadn’t stopped loving the Lord or having faith in Him. Yes, he failed Jesus but let us remember that God’s grace is greater than our human weaknesses. We all have unwavering faith until it is tested and, like Peter, we may fail when it is sorely tested. God, in His mercy forgave Peter, and He will forgive us.

Rather than words of cheer, Paul’s words are a serious warning for those who reject Jesus as Lord! Jesus can’t be false to himself. For the unbelieving and unfaithful, Christ will remain true to his word; no matter their works or virtue, if people have denied Him, He will deny them. Just as Jesus makes good on all of his promises, He’ll follow through on his threats, as well. Not so comforting a thought after all!

Since no man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is open to all. There is nothing else to hinder us from entering, but our own unbelief. [John Calvin]

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16 (NLT)]

Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven. [Matthew 10:32-33 (NLT)]

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THE BOSS’S SON

Who, though in God’s form, did not regard his equality with God as something he [Jesus] ought to exploit. Instead, he emptied himself, and received the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of humans. And then, having human appearance, he humbled himself, and became obedient even to death, yes, even the death of the cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NTE)]

station of the cross II

My son is the third generation to run the family business. Although he is now its CEO, he didn’t begin that way. As his father had done before him, he started by sweeping floors and emptying trash.

The business expanded when my husband purchased a company in another town. With manufacturing processes that were unfamiliar, our son needed to learn new fabrication procedures and started working in the new facility. When he began, only his supervisor knew his relationship to the business’s new owner. He may have been the boss’s son but, to everyone else, he was just Jim, the new guy on the line. In his work shirt and steel-toed shoes, he looked like everyone else, kept the same hours, followed the same rules, and made the same money. What he didn’t do was pull rank or take advantage of his identity.

Although our son originally thought he could learn everything he needed by reading about it, a few days operating the machinery and getting his hands dirty told him there was nothing like first-hand experience! Now that he’s the boss, his employees recognize that he understands and appreciates the challenges they face in doing their jobs.

I tell this story to help us understand what it was like when Jesus put on human flesh and lived as a man. Clothed in work clothes, my son looked like every other hourly employee on the line. Although Jesus is often depicted with a halo, when He was clothed in human flesh, there was no halo and He looked like any other man. Instead of giving up coat and tie for overalls, Jesus gave up His immortal perfect form and took on the aches, indignities, and illnesses that come with a mortal body.

Just as my boy remained the boss’s son but gave up any status or privileges that came from that, Jesus remained God’s son but gave up the benefits that came with His divinity. Of course, Jesus gave up far more than did my son! He set aside the glory of heaven for life on earth and relinquished the divine life He had in heaven to be an itinerant rabbi in Galilee. Even though equal with His Father, Jesus chose to submit to Him as an earthly son does to his father.

Just as our boy never stopped being the boss’s son, Jesus remained fully God while fully man. Just as his co-workers didn’t know our boy’s real identity, people had trouble recognizing Jesus as God’s Son. While my son did what he did so he could learn the family business, Jesus did what He did to take away the sins of the world. Our son may have humbled himself by starting at the bottom but Jesus humbled himself by deliberately choosing to die a torturous death as a criminal on the cross!

My son knows what it means to be one of his employees and he’s a better boss because of it. Jesus knows what it’s like to be human and we are better because of that! Jesus knows what it is to hurt, be disappointed, suffer, struggle, get tired, thirst, feel hungry, bleed, hope, love and die. Because He lived as one of us, we can come to Him confidently and without fear; instead of condemnation, we will receive God’s grace and mercy!

Well, then, since we have a great high priest who has gone right through the heavens, Jesus, God’s son, let us hold on firmly to our confession of faith. For we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Let us then come boldly to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us at the moment when we need it. [Hebrews 4:14-16 (NTE)]

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