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It’s a Covenant

“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” -Hebrews 8:10b (NIV)

For more than 200 years many Christians have begun a new year with a worship time called a “Watch Night Service.” Influenced by a Moravian practice, in 1740 John Wesley held the first Watch Night Service. It was a time of reflection, testimonies, singing, and prayer. Later Wesley would call them “Covenant Renewal Services.”

In the book of Hebrews, the writer places this statement in the context of God’s dealing with His people in the Old Testament: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Hebrews 8:10)

Few concepts or terms are more basic to the Bible story than that of covenant.  It is not a concept unfamiliar to us either, though the term may not be as common as some others—contract, agreement, deal.  God’s relation to His people (from the Biblical perspective) is a covenant relationship.  It is about a relationship governed by promises, obligations.  God is the initiator and prime determiner but His people have a part to play.

The blessings of the covenant are more than part of a ceremony. They become reality in the life of His people.

The Bible makes clear that at the heart of the covenant is God’s love. You are important to God, more important than the whole world.  And that applies not just to the saints.  Whoever you are, whatever your past or present state, even your future, God loves you.

The Old Testament story shows a people who are hard-headed, unfaithful, ungrateful, unloving, and untrustworthy who repeatedly break their promises to God and break His heart.  The book of Hosea compared them to an unfaithful wife, an adulteress.  His book is 14 chapters of sins and shameful behavior.  In dramatic fashion, God compares his love to that of a husband to an unfaithful wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” (Hosea 3:1 NIV)

What does God say about all that?  I love you.  I have chosen you. God’s love (graciousness) is prior to everything else—our sins, our faith, our righteousness and it lasts beyond all else, in spite of all else. Even if we have been a total disaster as a person, a church; no matter how long the list of charges against us might be; how far we have left God, He is pursuing us like the “hound of heaven.”  Should we ultimately make our bed in hell, it will be over the broken pieces of God’s heart for He will still love us.

In 2017, can we assume our part of the covenant and love God back with all our heart, soul, and mind? It is my prayer for you and for myself.

 

All In

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. -Romans 10:9-10 (NIV)

Recently in my daily reading these two verses caught my attention. Specifically the phrase “it is with your heart that you believe” set me on one of those “I wonder…” paths which has lasted for a couple of weeks.  I keep coming back to these questions: “Why did the apostle not just say “believe”? Why “believe in your heart” and “with your heart…you believe”? Don’t we generally connect believing with the mind, with the head? I think I do.

However, there is a problem with that. Have you ever done something and said “my heart was just not in it”? Have you ever made a statement which you accepted as true but which didn’t make a lot of difference to you? I think there are many people who accept the story of Jesus as being factual, true but which has little effect on them. As Pastor Steve put it, they’re not “invested” in it. It’s a little like someone throwing you a rope and saying “catch this or it will hit the ground” vs “catch this so I can pull you out of the river to prevent your drowning.” Both statements are true but there’s a world of difference between what they mean to me.

When the Bible uses the word heart, it is usually referring to the whole person, with all that may infer. Yes, it involves my mind but also everything else about me. To believe with my heart is to say, “I’m all in.”

As a follower of Jesus, am I all in? Are you all in?

 

 

 

It’s Not Enough

Although he had performed so many signs (miracles) in their presence, they did not believe in him. -John 12:37

“Seeing is believing” is a statement so universally accepted that it seems to be self- authenticating. Yet in this remarkable statement, we find a situation directly contradictory to that idea. And it is not unique in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ ministry. In John’s gospel it is a very common reaction.

If we were not so used to it, it would astound us.  They saw the lame healed, the deaf given speech, the blind sight and the dead given life AND THEY DID NOT BELIEVE! Many signs equaled few disciples.

On closer study it becomes clear that John and the New Testament distinguish between simply believing facts about Jesus and as it is put here, “believing in him.”  It is the difference in believing something to be true and acting on that belief. It is not just agreeing with him, but trusting him enough to follow him.

And make no mistake about it; that is the difference between salvation and lostness, life and death, heaven and hell. Jesus really wants followers, not just admirers. click here to begin.

 

Strangers In Town

To God’s chosen strangers in the world. -I Peter 1:1 (CEB)

There is an episode in the old Andy Griffith show where a stranger shows up in town. He calls everybody by name, knows all about them. And it makes people nervous, even afraid. So they try to run him out of town, not knowing he had learned about them by reading the paper and decided he wanted to live there. His mistake? He tried to be one of them. He didn’t want to be a stranger but ended up being “strange.”

Your community has “strangers in town.” They speak a different language, have strange values, owe allegiance to another ruler. Who are they? They’re followers of Jesus, Christians.

Strangers and aliens

Strangers and aliens

Peter writes a letter to “strangers in the world.” The Greek term, paroikia, (translated “sojourner”, “stranger”, “alien”) became a regular term for congregation. It is the word from which we get “parish.” (Cranfield)

The Christian understanding of life has always been shaped by the notion of strangers in the world, of alienation, not belonging. They are “looking for a city.” Not because they are transients to life or because they can’t find total satisfaction for their souls but because they are different.

When that attitude is diminished, we loose power, effectiveness, and any right to call ourselves Christian (those who belong to Christ). In a conformist, politically correct culture it is important to keep the lines drawn, to resist the temptation to settle down, conform, become like them. The Bible urges “keep yourselves unpolluted by the world” (James 1:17).

Like the citizens of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, the world will pressure you. They will think it strange that you do not plunge in with them. Jesus even warned, “they will hate you.”

For those who call ourselves followers of Jesus, the question is “do we live up to the name Christian? Are we really “strangers in town”? Or have we settled in and become like them?

It Makes a Difference

It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders
that the Most High God has performed for me.
How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
his dominion endures from generation to generation.

“For he is the living God
and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.

Here are two wonderful testimonies to the wonder and greatness of the God of the Bible. Surely, they come from two of the great believers. However, nothing could be further from the truth. They were made by two pagan kings, Nebuchadnezzar and Darius. Why? How did this come to be? In both cases these affirmations of God’s greatness were triggered by the faith of his followers. Nebuchadnezzar had thrown Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the roaring furnace and Darius had thrown Daniel into the Lion’s Den because they would not deny God. After God delivered them, both kings were moved to praise. (Read the stories in Daniel 3 and 6)

What a great reminder that, when we trust God, even non-believers recognize God and can come to praise Him.

 

Trust God, No Matter What

Even if he does not.-Daniel 3:18

Maybe you know the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Three young Hebrews were threatened with being thrown into a blazing furnace because they had not bowed to the king’s idol. Their answer was that God could save them. But they added, “even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Job put it this way “though He slay me yet will I trust Him.”

Yes, God can protect us when we stand for right, but even if he does not, are we willing to make the hard choices? Their story has a happy ending, but not all do. The king puts it in perspective. “Then Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the King’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve of worship any God except their own God.”

Hang in there.

Stand firm, and you will win life.-Luke 21:19

One day Jesus is talking with some people who are admiring the beauty and permanence of the temple. Jesus shocks them by declaring that even the temple won’t last. Then he uses this opening to warn about threats to life: fear, being led astray, self-indulgence. He urges his followers to “stand firm,” “Hold on” (Phillips). The Bible is clear. Endurance is crucial to reaching God’s destination for us. The text in The Message puts it this way “Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.”

The Meanest Man

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  –II Corinthians 5:17

“The meanest man in Montgomery County,”  is how my uncle, Don Ledbetter (known as “Doodle” by relatives and hometown people), was described to his son, D.K., by a man who knew him from his hometown.  Doodle’s funeral was Sunday in a rural church in North Carolina.  Where he had pastored for 20 years (fresh out of seminary), in a church built during his time there, a packed congregation listened to the story of an amazing life.  For more than 50 years, as pastor, teacher, District Superintendent and a hospital chaplain he served the Jesus he loved.  He completed a doctoral program in his seventies.

He was more like a brother to me.  My mother, his oldest sister, was more like a mother to him because their mother had died when he was five.  We played baseball together, hunted, etc. and attended college together.  I lived with his family for a while during my college days.  Though I moved away and didn’t get to see him much in later years, he was always special to me.  He often would have me preach in his church when I would visit.

The impact of his life on so many was obvious from the stories shared and the conversations with former classmates and friends of his and mine.

If you wondered how he got from the “meanest man” to that, you probably have guessed by now.  He knew Jesus.  As Paul Harvey used to say here’s the rest of the story.  The man who called him “the meanest man…” continued.  “I’m not a Christian but if I were, I want what Doodle has.”  What better evidence of a changed life.

I hope people who know me would say the same: “I want what he has.”

A New Song

Psalm 40:3- “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”

 How much, how often do you praise God?  For most of us (myself included) it’s not nearly enough.  Part of reason for that I suspect is that we see praise as motivated by good things happening to us, things going well for us, etc.  Certainly it is important that we are grateful and express that.  But praise for God goes beyond that.  It is an important part of our discipleship.

It is clear from Scripture that praise pleases God.  Here are just a few examples:

“For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” (I Chron.16:25)
Psalm 33:1- “it is fitting for the upright to praise him.”
100:4- “Enter  his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.”
The last 5 psalms begin and end with “Praise the Lord.”
150:6- “let everything that has breath praise the LORD.”
I Peter 4:11- “so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ”

Praise has a profound effect on us.  It makes God real and triggers joy in my heart.  Few things so rejuvenates us as to praise God.  When the New Testament describes the church it is this way: “We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other.”( Phil 1:26 msg)  Does that sound like the church you know?  What about you personally?

Besides that, it does something to those around us.  It makes Jesus attractive.  I’m not talking about some of the mindless examples—slogans, or trite phrases that seem artificial and forced.  From  Charles Wesley’s first hymnbook (1737) this song was sung:

Let every Land their Tongues employ,
And hymns of Triumph sing.

Release his Praise with awe profound,
Let Knowledge guide the Song.
Nor mock him with a solemn Sound
Upon a thoughtless Tongue.

Phillipians 1:10-11 reads:

You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God. (msg)

It has been said, “God is preparing the whole universe to be an orchestra of praise and adoration to his Son.” (FB Meyer)

I read about the conductor of an orchestra of 500 who missed the piccolo and waited for it.

God is waiting for your voice to join in! Praise the Lord.  Let all that have breath praise God.

A Life Worthy of the Gospel

Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.-Philippians 1:27

Dallas Willard died last week.  Though I did not know him personally and never met him, I consider him to have been my mentor.  His writings never failed to stir my heart and challenge my life.  Two of his books, The Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart were especially significant to me.  Just last year I led a Sunday School class study of The Divine Conspiracy.

In that book, he used the image of a bar code to illustrate a major problem among the Christian community.  He said that a lot of people had the bar code that said “Christian” but whose life really was something different.

It is sad but the lifestyles of many people deny their labeled identity as Christian.  Lifestyle is the result of character.  It is the form or expression given to a character when lived out in a world.  The dictionary defines “style” as a manner, a method, a way, a practice, a habit, as a characteristic behavior.  It has to do with a pattern of life, not just isolated incidents, not just a particular choice or action but a pattern of choices and actions.  Our jobs are involved, our leisure, how we spend our money, the food we eat, the goods we consume, the house we live in, how we raise our children.  Everything about our lives suggests a certain style of life.

A classic example is found in the movie “Chariots of Fire.”  the story of young men preparing for the 1924 Olympics.  One is a Scottish missionary to China.  His name is Eric Liddle.  Liddle qualifies for the Olympics, but on the ship with the British Olympic team in route to Paris, he discovers that one of the races he is to run will take place on Sunday.  He refuses to run.  He is pressured from ever quarter to change his mind even to the point of bringing in the Prince of England to persuade him to run “for the honor of the country.”

Eric Liddle’s refusal to run was not just an isolated incident or sudden whim.  It was a logical development from his pattern of life.  It was in fact predictable.

Now the manner, the style of life has always been a major concern for Christians and it is clearly reflected in numerous New Testament passages.  These are just a few samples:

-To the Corinthian Christians- “you are still of the flesh.  For while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving like ordinary men?”
– In Ephesians Paul raises the question in terms of conduct, talk, and labor.
-The book of Phillipians says, “I hope…Christ can be honored in my body. (1:20).
“As Christians we are to be “Lights in the world” (2:15).
-We read about some who by their conduct are “enemies of the cross of Christ.”
-Those at Colosse are asked, “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? (Col.2:20)
-“Give up living like pagans” (Eph.)
-There are those who profess to know God “but deny him by their deeds(Eph. 1:16)
-In Titus we read that we ought to live so that in “everything you may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

          From the beginning, there was never any doubt that those Christians were different.  Their style of living set them apart from the rest of the world.  But we are called not only to lives that are different, also life worthy of the gospel of Christ..