PERFECTION

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! [Deuteronomy 32:4 (NLT)]

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. [Matthew 5:48 (NLT)]

water lilyAlthough humanity started out as a perfect creation, we quickly lost that perfection in the Garden of Eden; Jesus was the only sinless perfect man. If He’s telling us to be perfectly sinless when He calls us to be perfect, we’re in trouble. I suppose we should be able to resist all sin (as did Jesus) but, in reality, no one else (not even the Apostle Paul) has managed to do that. Perfection is God’s alone and we flawed mortals will never be His equals. If Jesus means things like spotless kitchens, beds made with hospital corners, and clean mirrors when He says to be perfect, even without having guests, I’m still in serious trouble. Yet, Jesus’s answer to the rich young man that, to be perfect, he should sell his possessions and give to the poor tells us that possessions and how neatly they’re arranged have no importance to Him. So, what does it mean to be perfect?

Of course, Jesus wants us to be as flawless as humanly possible. Nevertheless, He isn’t expecting us to be completely faultless. By telling us to be perfect, He’s telling us to reflect the moral excellence of God, something God told people to do centuries earlier when He said, “Be holy because I am holy.” [Leviticus 19:2] Jesus is asking us to imitate God, just as children imitate their parents. The original Hebrew word used in this verse was tamim. Rather than perfect (meaning without fault, flaw or defect), it might better be translated as complete in all its parts, full grown or mature. Jesus is the standard by which we set our goal and He wants us become mature in our faith by growing more like Him.

The Pharisees tried to achieve perfection through exacting obedience to the law but, while they looked good on the outside, they were soiled inside (and Jesus took them to task for that). Our perfection will never be found their way. By telling us to be perfect, our words and actions are to match up with our faith. Jesus wants us to be resolute, wholehearted and completely committed to walking with Him and living His way. We’ll become perfect by living through the power of the Holy Spirit: by letting God’s glory shine through our imperfect and flawed lives into the world. Our call is not to have spotless mirrors but to mirror the spotless character of God.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. [Ephesians 5:1-2 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. [1 John 4:17 (NLT)]

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WHAT’S YOUR STATE?

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13 (NLT)]

african iris

If there were a Hall of Fame for favorite Bible verses, John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11, and Philippians 4:13 would be in it; every year, they are the most popular verses on my favorite Bible web site. This year, in a stunning upset, Jeremiah 29:11 edged out perennial favorite John 3:16 for first place with Philippians 4:13 running a close third.

In 2017, John 3:16 easily held first place with Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13 in a hotly contested race for the next two spots. In honor of the Electoral College meeting that year, the website determined which of those two verses carried each of the fifty states and gave them electoral votes. Had it been a presidential election, Jeremiah 29:11 would have won with 302 electoral votes. With the nation split into two camps, rather than dividing us into red or blue states, the site asked: “Do You Live in a ‘God Has a Plan’ State or an ‘I Can Do All Things’ State?” While my residence in is a “God Has a Plan” state, I wondered if that truly is my state of mind.

I’m a voter who splits her ticket. Sometimes, I’m accepting of circumstances, serenely confident in God’s plan, and (usually without complaint) easily can step forward in trust and faith. Other times, I’m sure that God has intentionally given me challenges to overcome—challenges to strengthen and mature my faith. Rather than accept the situation, confident in God’s power, I try to surmount the challenging circumstances. The problem arises when I’m unsure about whether I should trust and accept or trust and overcome.

Most of our decisions are made without consciously thinking about God—red or blue shirt, sneakers or sandals, oatmeal or yogurt, walk in the park or at the beach, and so on. We don’t ask God if we should go through the yellow light, where to park, or whether to buy peas or beans. We don’t consult Him about mowing the lawn, making the bed, balancing the checkbook, going to the grocery, or doing the laundry. Although we’re operating on auto-pilot, many of those little decisions can make a difference in our lives. They may determine if we’re in the right place at the right time or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nevertheless, even if we did stop and pray about even the smallest decision, it’s unlikely that God would provide a definitive answer about all of them. I don’t think it’s because He doesn’t care but rather that He expects us to use our God-given common sense and free will to make our everyday choices godly ones.

Sometimes, even when we’ve asked for His guidance, God seems to be silent. We ask who to marry, which job to take, how much money to give, how much to keep, where to live, what cancer treatment to choose, how to deal with the addicted child, where to attend church, or whether to start a new business and His definitive answer just doesn’t seem to come. There’s no angel, star in the East, burning bush, writing on the wall, or wet fleece. The heavens don’t open, a lamb doesn’t miraculously appear, a donkey doesn’t speak, and a neon sign is unlikely. That God knows the detailed plan doesn’t mean He’s going to tell us what it is!

Perhaps knowing the plan isn’t as important for us as knowing the God who made the plan. He has revealed Himself and everything we need to know about living a godly life in Scripture. The more we know Him, the more we know His answers. We pray and proceed, trusting in the God who loved us enough to sacrifice His son for our salvation, the God whose plans are for good and not disaster, the God who wants to give us a future and hope. We do so, confident that we can do all we need to do through Christ who gives us strength.

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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HE CAME FOR US ALL

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. [Colossians 3:10-11 (NLT)]

nativityMost of us probably speed-read through the long genealogies found in the Old Testament. The New Testament begins with a lengthy genealogy, as well, but it’s worth more than a quick skim through a list of often unpronounceable names. Because it was prophesized that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham and from the line of David, Matthew takes us through Jesus’s family tree to firmly establish His royal lineage. While there are three notable omissions in the line of ancestors—the vile kings Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah, all of whom “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”—there are five remarkable additions. While highly unusual to mention women in a genealogy, Matthew mentions five women of rather questionable reputations.

We start with Tamar. Widow of Judah’s son Er, she was done wrong both by her brother-in-law Onan and father-in-law Judah. Taking matters into her hands and pretending to be a prostitute, she duped Judah into having sex with her and gave birth to Perez and Zerah. Her unconventional behavior is a blemish on the family tree but it’s nothing when compared to the next woman mentioned: Rahab. Although she saved Joshua’s spies in Jericho and married an Israelite, she’d been a Canaanite prostitute. making her another blot on the pedigree of the Prince of Peace. Ruth, the widow who accompanied Naomi back to Bethlehem, is the next woman mentioned. This devoted daughter-in-law and grandmother to King David was a hated Moabite. Because Moab had opposed the Israelites and tried to curse them, her people were cursed and could not enter into the assembly. A hated foreigner is hardly the ancestor you’d expect of the man who came to save the Jews. We then come to Bathsheba; whether the innocent victim of rape or a seductive adulteress, her husband was murdered by King David and her first child conceived in adultery. While we know little more of her, we’ve got the plot line of a soap opera now! The genealogy finishes with Mary, the mother of Jesus: a poor young girl from Nazareth who became pregnant before marriage!

These are hardly the kind of women about whom a good Jew would boast: a woman who used sex to trick a man, a prostitute from Canaan, a cursed Moabite, an adulteress, and an unwed mother! After neglecting to mention three kings, why did Matthew include these women? If women were to be mentioned at all, there must have been a few upstanding ones whose reputations were without blemish. Yet, in Tamar, we have a woman who sought justice on her own terms; in Rahab, a woman with enough faith in the Israelites’ God to commit treason; in Ruth, a woman who abandoned her pagan gods and became a sacrificial servant to Naomi; in Bathsheba, a woman resilient in the face of the loss of both husband and child; and in Mary, a woman who faced scorn and shame because of other peoples’ assumptions. Damaged and vulnerable, these are the kind of people to whom we all can relate.

Matthew’s list tells us that Jesus came for all people: men and women, rich and poor, native and foreigner, accepted and unwelcome, famous and infamous, strong and weak, honored and scorned, Jews and Gentiles: sinners all. He came to save each and every one of us and to make us members of the same family! Thank you, God, for the Christmas gift of salvation for all who believe.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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THE NEXT STEP

Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. … 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: 14b-15,17 (NLT)]

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]

waterfallIn writing about the Sinner’s Prayer yesterday, I wondered if, by saying it, a new believer gets the false impression that his responsibility ends with a prayer when, in fact, it has just begun! Justification takes only a moment but sanctification takes a lifetime. Addressing the guilt of our sins, justification is when, by the grace of God, we are made righteous through God’s grace and our faith. It’s as if we’re guilty criminals, standing in God’s courtroom, and God pardons us. Telling us our debt to society has been paid, He sets us free. While it’s easy to walk out of the courthouse, it’s not so easy to alter the behavior that led to our life of crime. Like any felon, we need to change our ways, which is where sanctification comes in. Rather than the reformation of a criminal, it is the transformation of a sinner.

Powered by our faith and the Holy Spirit, sanctification transforms our sinful character so we grow more and more like Christ. Focusing on the destructive power of sin in our lives, it gradually shapes our hearts, minds, and desires to those of God. Sanctification is the work part of our salvation and requires diligence in study, prayer, fellowship, witness and service. It’s coming to know Jesus, loving and obeying God, and letting both His word and the Holy Spirit convict us when we sin. It’s allowing God to work in and through us, not as a way to earn His blessings and favor, but because we delight in His will.

While holiness is the goal of sanctification, I don’t think any mortal can live a life completely free from sin in this world. Nevertheless, even though we can’t attain sinless perfection, like the Apostle Paul, we will continue to struggle against sin and temptation as long as we’re on this side of the grass. We persevere and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to grow more and more like Christ every day.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12b-13 (NLT)]

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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ANSWERED PRAYERS – St. Nicholas – Part 2

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:39 (NLT)]

Sometime near the end of the 3rd century, the Bishop of Myra died and a conclave was held to elect his replacement. St. NicholasLegend has it that the bishops kept praying and voting but could not come to an agreement. In a stalemate, they prayed all night for God’s guidance and He revealed how they should make their selection. They were told that the first person to walk into the church that morning would be the one God wanted to shepherd His flock. A young man was the first to come in the door and, when asked his name, he replied, “Nicholas, the sinner.” He was brought into the sanctuary and placed on the bishop’s seat. Nicholas, who would eventually become both saint and Santa Claus, was then consecrated the new Bishop of Myra. In spite of the odd manner of his selection, from what we know of Nicholas—his good deeds, wisdom, generosity, and deep faith—God seemed to know what He was doing.

When those bishops first got together to select the new bishop, I suspect each man had his favorite candidate and his prayers probably were that the other bishops would see the light and vote for his man. Busy telling God the outcome they desired rather than asking Him to reveal who He wanted, it’s no surprise the bishops came to an impasse. Once they agreed to ask God for His divine wisdom, their prayers were answered.

There’s no point asking God for His guidance, however, if we’re unwilling to accept His answer. Granted, selecting the first man into church seems rather strange but God knew who that would be. While there are variations in the story’s details, most agree that Nicholas was quite young and, while he was devout and well versed in Scripture and may have been a monk, he was unknown to the bishops and not a priest. Could some of the bishops have had second thoughts at that point? Here was an unknown entity: someone who’d never been deacon or priest, inexperienced in the church and its politics, who would now be in charge of deacons and priests, and on an equal footing with the other bishops. And what of young Nicholas? Many stories mention his hesitation at taking on such an undeserved honor. Nevertheless, both the young man and the bishops were obedient to God’s plan; Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra and history tells us he was the right man for the job.

Do we really think God needs our advice in running the world and our lives? When we pray, do we tell Him what we want Him to do and the outcome we desire or are our prayers open-ended, leaving the end result up to God’s will? God is not a cosmic vending machine and even He can’t please all the people all of the time. If I get every green light, then someone else is getting all the reds! We all can’t get what we want but we all can get what God wants for us! In Gethsemane, Jesus asked for release but He finished His prayer with acquiescence to God’s will. We must do the same in our prayers. When we say, “Thy will be done,” however, we can’t have the unspoken proviso of, “as long as I like Your answer.”

For me, the story of his ordination is the best part of the St. Nicholas legend and yet the saint plays a minor role in it. It’s a story of faith—faith in a loving and wise God, a God who answers the right prayers and a story of submission—submission to God’s will and the willing acceptance of His answer, strange as that answer may seem.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:5-7 (NLT)]

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NINE MONTHS

Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. [Luke 1:46-48 (NLT)]

campionWe know that within a few days of the angel’s visit that Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s home, but what of those first few days after the annunciation? Did Mary tell anyone or did she wait until she’d seen proof of Elizabeth’s pregnancy before she truly believed that she, too, was with child? Did she tell Joseph immediately or wait until she returned to Nazareth three months later?

Have you ever wondered how that conversation went and about Joseph’s initial reaction to her unbelievable news? The couple’s betrothal was far more involved and serious than today’s engagements. In those days, betrothal wasn’t just an agreement between two people; it was an arrangement and commitment connecting two families. Joseph would have presented a ketubah, or marriage contract, to Mary and her father and paid a bride price, called a mohar, to compensate her father for the cost of raising the young woman. He then would have returned home to prepare a place for her and their engagement may have lasted as long as a year. Although the couple didn’t live together and certainly didn’t have sex, they were bound to one another as if married.

Though unconsummated, their betrothal was binding and could only be undone by a divorce with just cause (such as Mary not being a virgin). Knowing he wasn’t the father of her child, Joseph could have had her stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he considered quietly divorcing her until he was visited by an angel who explained how the baby was conceived. But what of Mary’s parents? Worse, what about the reaction of Joseph’s family? How did Mary and Joseph explain this miraculous conception? Who would believe them? For that matter, what about the gossips of Nazareth? Mary had gone to visit her cousin and returned pregnant so it couldn’t be Joseph’s! There probably were whispers of scandal surrounding Mary all of her days.

After the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive without virtue of a husband, he left. We can only hope that when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the Most High overshadowed her that Mary was given more than a baby—that she was given wisdom and strength beyond her years. I suppose any doubts Joseph had about the baby boy eventually were allayed by the unprecedented visits of shepherds and angels at the nativity, their encounters with Simeon and Anna at the temple, and the visit of the Magi with their extravagant gifts. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that the angel who visited him also gave him wisdom and strength for the challenges ahead.

The Christmas story actually begins nine months before that extraordinary night in Bethlehem. In celebration of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, many churches celebrate the feast or festival of the annunciation on March 25 but it’s easily overlooked by many of us. Today, as I set out the figures for the nativity scene, I thought about Mary and Joseph and couldn’t help but wonder what happened in the nine months between Nazareth and Bethlehem.

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,  which means “God is with us.” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

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