2 Corinthians 5:11-21

Anybody else out there have some control issues? Let’s just be real for a minute–the last 10 months have stretched the limits of even the most go-with-the-flow among us.

  • Overwhelmed by more new information than we’re able to process? Check.
  • Exhausted by a pace of change more rapid than the pace at which we’re able to adjust? Check.
  • Frustrated by those around us who just don’t seem to get it–whatever it is? Check.

The truth is that we know what it is to be beside ourselves because–among other reasons–we know what it is to try to exert control in ways that are simply beyond our grasp. But in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul points us to a better reason to be beside ourselves–for God. He reminds us that what is truly certain in our lives is the love of Christ that controls us. And that love is not changing or wearied or frustrated. It was demonstrated once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it is revealed now in our hearts and lives because in Christ, each of us is a new creation. We have been reconciled to God through the love of Christ and are ambassadors of reconciliation to a world that needs to know that love.

So, yes, there is a lot in this world that feels out of control, much that is beyond our finite grasp, but the Christian life is not out of control. Through the finished work of Christ and the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, the love of Christ controls us, and therefore, we can view every interaction we have today through the lens of God’s love toward us. We can treat every person we encounter today with the type of grace that has been extended to us. We can filter our words through our identity as ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. For the love of Christ controls us.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

There has been a lot of “new” over the past year. We’ve adjusted to new ways of doing almost everything in our lives–some we like better than others. One thing the last year has shown us is that “new” isn’t always better. Not always, but sometimes. Now, online grocery ordering and pickup? There’s something new to me that I like. I can get my food without anyone trying to run me down with their shopping cart? Sign me up. The rapid pace of change hasn’t always been as enjoyable, though. So, new isn’t always better, but sometimes it is.

Jeremiah 31 points us to a case where new is better–a new covenant. Jeremiah prophesied a new covenant that would be written on the hearts of the people, one where every single member of God’s people would know Him personally. It would be a covenant based on God’s grace to forgive and to redeem, and unlike the old covenant that was broken often by God’s people, this one would be unbreakable.

New isn’t always better, but if there was any doubt in this case, the author of Hebrews tells us that this new covenant is also a better covenant. Hebrews 8:6 says, “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus has established a new and better covenant so that whatever the new year might bring, it also comes with better promises for those who believe in Jesus–the Spirit within us, personal knowledge of our God, the forgiveness of our sins, and the certainty of a God who always keeps His word. Let’s hold on to these promises today and throughout this new year!

James 2

Two men walk into a church. It may sound like the start of a bad joke, but the scene James paints is anything but funny. His story is punctuated not with a punch line but with a gut punch.

[4] have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? [5] Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

James 2:4-5

The impulse to show partiality to the wealthier, more powerful person has no place among the people of the God who has given His kingdom to the poor in spirit. We are not heirs of the kingdom because we are rich but because our God is generous, sending His Son so that the poor in spirit might be rich in faith. James’s concern is that the hearts and actions of God’s people don’t reflect the heart and the actions of their God. It is only by grace through faith in Jesus that we are saved from our sin. James does not contradict this fundamental truth, but he does push back against a deficient understanding of faith–one that persists today–where spiritualized sayings seem a sufficient substitute for Spirit-filled generosity. James’s issue is with a faith that nods in agreement with the truths of God on Sundays but lives according to the world’s wisdom the rest of the week. Authentic faith will be accompanied by a transformed life. So, James’s words call us to question– if our actions are better explained by the judgments of the world than the mercy and grace of God, then who are we really trusting?

Lord, help us to see the world and the people around us through the lens of your grace toward us. Help our hearts believe that you are the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, so that through our faith, our lives may reflect your justice and generosity in a world filled with partiality and greed. Amen.

Malachi 2:10-3:5

I can imagine the Israelites as they heard the words of Malachi, their heads nodding to the first two questions. Have we not all one Father? Of course. Has not one God created us? Absolutely. But I would imagine their nodding came to an abrupt halt as the third question was uttered. Then why don’t we keep our word to one another or to the Lord? Malachi records no immediate response to his questions. After all, how could they respond when they had no defense before the Lord?

Malachi then anticipates their response, which probably sounds familiar. What do you do when you find yourself accused of wrongdoing and have no defense? You do what the Israelites did. You point the finger at someone else, preferably the one who is accusing you. Yes, you know you’re in the wrong, but why accept responsibility when you can divert attention to someone else’s failure? In this case, the people want God to answer for the injustices they have perpetrated against Him and one another. It’s a bold strategy. I’ll give them that. But it’s also a really bad one.

The Lord tells them to watch for a messenger who will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord and then asks them, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” The answer to the Lord’s question doesn’t even need to be stated. It’s simply assumed that no one is prepared to stand before the presence of our holy God…unless the Lord disciplines, refines, and purifies. “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” In this single verse, God both requires the purification of sinners and offers to carry it out–a work Jesus has accomplished for those who turn to him (Hebrews 1:3). How has God refined and purified your heart and your life? Give Him praise today for the work He has done and continues to do to make us more faithful to Him and to one another.

Ezra 1

We love to quote Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that those words hang somewhere in your home or, in my case, adorn a coffee mug. They’re words that are well-known because they bring us comfort and hope in a wide range of circumstances, pointing us to the unshakable purpose of our unchanging God. What isn’t as well known is the verse right before it. Jeremiah 29:10 says, “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Jeremiah 29:11 is the foundation upon which God’s promise to bring His people back from exile stood. It wouldn’t be immediate. It wouldn’t be easy. But God would fulfill His promise to bring His people home.

The beginning of the book of Ezra sets the promise of Jeremiah 29:10 into motion, “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing.” In order to fulfill the promise He made through Jeremiah, God began to move in the life of Cyrus so that he proclaimed the return of God’s people to Jerusalem. This opening verse of Ezra contains remarkable truth about the promise-keeping power of our God.

I don’t know what promises of God feel impossible to you this morning, but if we’ve seen anything through the unbroken story of God, it’s that God always keeps His promises, even if it takes longer than we thought it would, even if it looks impossible, even if it requires stirring the heart of a king. Let’s also remember that God didn’t stop at stirring the spirit of Cyrus. He also stirred the hearts of His people to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Today, let’s pray that He would do the same in us, stirring our spirits to believe His promises and to follow His plan.

Daniel 3

What is faith? That’s one of those deeply philosophical questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is true?” And there’s a way of approaching those questions that can seem completely removed from daily life or from understanding what is true or maybe even from staying awake. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for deep and impactful conversations, but you know what I’m talking about–the conversations that require more coffee than can be safely consumed in one sitting. That’s not what we’re after here.

So, what is faith? When we read Daniel 3, that should become a bold question, not a boring one. King Nebuchadnezzar’s declaration was bold–anyone who didn’t fall down and worship the golden image he made would be cast into a burning fiery furnace. There were no exceptions or exemptions. And that means that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego made a bold choice by refusing to bow, setting their appointment with the fiery furnace. That decision was not made in ignorance or confusion. It was made in faith–a faith expressed in their answer to Nebuchadnezzar in verses 16-18. First, they believed that there was a higher authority than the King of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar promised life if they would submit to his decree, but as he would learn, life was not his to give or to take. Second, they believed that God was able to deliver them safely from the burning fiery furnace they faced. And Third, they believed that God’s action in this one moment of their lives–or even their deaths if it came to that–would not change His eternal character as the only God worthy of their worship. They trusted that God would ultimately work for their good and for His glory–which He did.

What is faith? It is complete and total trust in someone, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show us what it looks like. Faith is trusting that God is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. Faith is trusting that even if I don’t see it or feel it right this second, God is still at work. I don’t know what challenges you’re going to face today. I don’t even know the challenges I’m going to face today, let alone how or if they’re going to be resolved in the short-term. But what we do know is that God is the only King who lives forever and that He is able to deliver us no matter what we face. We know that He didn’t leave Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego alone in the fiery furnace. And we know that even with all our challenges, He hasn’t left us. So, here we are today, believing that God can do the very best thing that our finite minds can imagine and trusting that if He doesn’t, His way will be better.

2 Kings 20

At first, it might seem as if nothing has changed between 2 Kings 19 and 2 Kings 20. Hezekiah is praying, and God is answering. However, 2 Kings 20 stands not only as an encouragement to us to persist in prayer but also as a warning to us to guard our hearts against pride. In 2 Kings 19, Hezekiah prayed on the basis of God’s character. In 2 Kings 20, he prayed on the basis of his own character. In 2 Kings 19, Hezekiah prayed toward the end that the kingdoms of the earth would know that the Lord is God alone. In 2 Kings 20, he was eager to show the envoy sent by the king of Babylon his own wealth and possessions. In 2 Kings 19, Hezekiah prayed for God to save “us,” His people. In 2 Kings 20, he was content with the fall of Judah and the exile of his own sons, just as long as it didn’t happen in his day.

God did not change, but Hezekiah did, at first in ways that would have been undetectable to others. He was still praying, still speaking the language of faith, but his heart was centered on his own glory and not the Lord’s. He was concerned only with what happened to himself, no matter how bad it would get for others. Hezekiah’s story can hold up a mirror to our lives today. We’re reading our devotional, we’re praying, but is pride seeping in? Let’s ask the Lord to search our hearts, that we would pray according to His character, for His glory, and for the good of those around us.

2 Kings 19

What’s your response when things seem to be falling apart around you? Sometimes it’s tempting to lash out at others ,who may or may not be contributors to our trouble, as if seeing their pain will somehow soothe ours. Other times it’s tempting to run and hide from our problems, hoping they’ll go away by the time we emerge. To be sure, there are times to flee from danger and times to stand our ground, but in reading 2 Kings 19, we see a crucial step that we often leave out in the heat of our emotions and our rush to respond. Confronted by the menacing threat of Sennacherib and the Assyrian army, Hezekiah’s first instinct is toward prayer.

Hezekiah wasn’t like a computer or a robot, programmed to respond in prayer to every situation. He was profoundly emotional, tearing his clothes and putting on sackcloth in response to Sennacherib’s threats. He grasped the seriousness of the threat and the weight of his own responsibility, calling it a “day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace.” But instead of driving him to despair, it drove him to prayer. First, he went to the house of the Lord and called upon Isaiah to pray, receiving reassurance that the Assyrians would be defeated. However, that reassurance alone did not eliminate the threat. In fact, Sennacherib’s defiance of the Lord and threats against Hezekiah grew louder. So, once again, Hezekiah went to the house of the Lord, spreading out the letter defying the Lord before God and praying to the Lord. In his prayer, Hezekiah acknowledges the holiness of God, His sovereignty over all the kingdoms of the earth, and His hand in creation. Hezekiah understood what Sennacherib did not. The Lord was not, is not, and will not be like the gods of the nations he had previously defeated. Hezekiah trusted that his God was able to save when others could not, and he was right.

What’s your response when things seem to be falling apart around you? Let’s cultivate a thriving prayer life, so that when distress, rebuke, and disgrace come, we know where to turn…to the living God who sees and hears and saves His people.

Jonah 1:4-17

The irony of Jonah’s story is compelling. Here’s a prophet from among the people of God who had been called to deliver a message for God to another nation. If anyone should know that the Lord is sovereign over all the earth, that there is no place away from His presence, we would expect that person’s bio to read something like Jonah’s. And yet, Jonah is on the run from God. And if anyone was going to cry out to the Lord when a great wind came upon the sea and threatened the ship Jonah had boarded, we would expect it to be Jonah. But as the sailors on board the ship cried out to their own gods, Jonah was asleep. The irony only intensifies as Jonah claims to fear the Lord, who made the sea and the dry land. Yes, the same Lord from which he was fleeing. By the time the sailors cast Jonah into the sea, it seems he was the only one on board who hadn’t called out to the Lord in prayer. And while Jonah claimed to fear the Lord, we’re told these sailors’ fear of the Lord was followed up with acts of worship instead of rebellion.

Nothing in this story is as we would expect it to be, and we haven’t even gotten to the great fish the Lord sent to swallow up Jonah. Maybe we’re tempted to look at Jonah and take the lesson, “Don’t run from God, or you might wind up in the belly of a fish,” as if the fish was a bad thing, but let’s not forget that Jonah–cast into the sea after rebelliously running from the Lord–didn’t deserve the fish. And neither do we. When the men hurled Jonah into the sea, they did not expect him to survive, but the fish reminds us how grace works–unexpectedly. At unexpected moments in unexpected places in unexpected ways with unexpected people, when everything says all hope is gone, when we’ve rebelliously run from the Lord, God saves us by His grace! Actually, “Don’t run from God” is a good lesson, but as unexpected as it might be, “You might wind up in the belly of a fish” is good news. Thank God for His grace! May we never take it for granted, and may we never cease to be amazed by it!

1 Kings 19

1 Kings 18 concludes with what reads as a declaration of victory. The Lord answered Elijah’s call for fire and then sent much needed rain upon the land. God’s hand was on Elijah, who ran ahead of Ahab to Jezreel, and it seems at this point that Elijah has nothing to fear. Why should he? After what he’d seen the Lord do in and through his own life, Elijah had to know that there was no threat against him that would succeed while the Lord’s hand was upon him. Right?

And yet, what we find in 1 Kings 19 is not a prophet filled with hope and confidence in the Lord but one running in fear and living with defeat. We see a man who had experienced victory as he trusted and obeyed the word of the Lord now driven only by Jezebel’s threatening words. How does this happen? How does someone see the power of the Lord and then live in fear of anyone else? We don’t really have to wonder. We know that sometimes it is an external threat that takes our focus off of God and leads us to despair, but other times, despair comes not as we look around but as we look at the sin and limitations within us. Either way, trouble begins when we take our eyes and ears off of the Lord, and in those times, we need to be reminded of the victory God has promised and His faithfulness to provide. When Elijah ran and hid, the Lord found him. When Elijah felt all alone, the Lord was with him. When Elijah persisted in despair in spite of God’s instruction to anoint new kings and a new prophet to continue the work, the Lord pointed to the faithful men and women throughout Israel who hadn’t bowed before Baal.

Today, maybe you’re where Elijah was–scared, anxious, and feeling all alone–and like Elijah, what you need is to be reminded that the Lord’s hand is on your life. Arise and eat. Don’t give up. Stay the course. Or maybe you know someone who is there, and what you need to do today is be the reminder in their life that they are not alone. Call, text, or send a note. Let’s help each other remember the power and peace of our ever-present God.